Military's law enforcement system as whitewash: Beating of Sharif Abu Hayah
Beating of Sharif Abu Hayah, 66, in the fields of Khirbet Abu Falah, Ramallah District, 28 January 2009
On the morning of 28 January 2009, shepherd Sharif Abu Hayah took his flock to graze some two kilometers from his home in Khirbet Abu Falah. Suddenly, he noticed six uniformed soldiers hiding behind some rocks. The soldiers called out to Abu Hayah in Hebrew but he did not understand them. In the statement he gave to B’Tselem, Abu Hayah related that the soldiers assaulted him and knocked him down, kicked him, tied his hands behind his back, and covered his face so he could not see. When he asked the soldiers to let him go, they punched and kicked him. The soldiers then dragged him some thirty meters – according to his estimate – and he was bruised by stones and pricked by thorns along the way. He related that after that, they mocked him and took turns beating him.
A rumor that soldiers were holding Abu Hayah quickly spread through the village and residents began gathering nearby. Paramedics and a film crew for Palestinian TV also arrived at the scene. The residents called out to the soldiers to let Abu Hayah go. However, it took almost two hours until an officer arrived, removed the blindfold from Abu Hayah’s face, and apparently ordered the soldiers to release him. Abu Hayah was taken to hospital, where he was found to have a hairline fracture in his right arm, bruises, scratches, and swollen hands. He was discharged that evening. In his statement, which he gave to B’Tselem’s field researcher about a week later, he reported that he was still in intense pain.
On 17 February 2009, B’Tselem wrote to the Military Advocacy for Operational Affairs demanding that the incident be investigated. The complaint was transferred to the MPIU the very same day, and an investigation was opened. In May 2013, B’Tselem was informed that the investigation file had been closed on 23 January 2012, almost three years after the incident took place. B’Tselem was recently informed, in response to another request for information, that the file had been closed on grounds of “lack of sufficient evidence meeting the standard of criminal law to prove that any of the IDF soldiers involved committed an offense”.
Abu Hayah’s statement was given to the MPIU on 10 March 2009. In response to questions by the investigator, he said that he did not hear the soldiers before they grabbed him. He said he had, indeed, shouted and thrashed about, but that it was on account of the pain and because the soldiers had handcuffed him although he had done nothing wrong. The MPIU investigators made no attempt to gather statements from any other eyewitnesses, the photographers who filmed the scene or the paramedics who took Abu Hayah to hospital.
The soldiers, for their part, provided almost identical accounts to the MPIU: the shepherd had exposed the ambush they had mounted. Regulations for this type of eventuality require them to detain, handcuff, and blindfold him. Every one of the soldiers claimed that he had not beaten Abu Hayah, and that no one else had beaten him. They all claimed that the force used against Abu Hayah had been reasonable, and was only employed after Abu Hayah shouted and resisted and because they feared that his shouting would attract the attention of people from the village, exposing their ambush. They claimed that Abu Hayah caused all his own injuries himself and that all the signs of violence on his body, such as scratches and bleeding lips, were the result of his thrashing about. The claims that Abu Hayah was not subjected to violence and that he caused his own injuries were made even by soldiers who explicitly stated that they did not see him, as they were standing some distance away from where he was, or that they saw him only some of the time.
One soldier related that, when villagers began approaching, “I started raising his handcuffed arms a bit, just a bit, so he’d keep quiet. At first, he was quiet, and then we sat him up again so he’d be comfortable. He started screaming again, I raised his arms again.” When Abu Hayah continued shouting, the soldiers laid him back down on the ground “because when he was comfortable, he simply wouldn’t stop shouting”.
All the soldiers and officers who were investigated cited fear of exposure as justification for detaining Abu Hayah and for the soldiers’ conduct. The investigators accepted this argument at face value, although the soldiers were exposed shortly after detaining Abu Hayah, making the justification they cited a moot point.
Although Abu Hayah was asked in his investigation if he had medical records and promised to convey them to the investigator, and although he also signed a waiver of medical confidentiality, only in April 2009 did the investigators contact B’Tselem – and not Abu Hayah – to get the records. The investigation was closed two weeks later, before B’Tselem could send the documents to the MPIU.
In his statement to the MPIU, the company commander noted that such incidents are routine, that they happen every other day, but that no complaints had ever been filed before. The investigators did not pursue the issue, as the investigation – like all MPIU investigations – did not address the procedures the soldiers were told to follow or the wisdom of mounting an ambush near a village in broad daylight, in an area that shepherds are known to graze their flocks.
According to the investigation file, the accepted facts of the case are that the incident did in fact take place and that, for more than two hours, soldiers kept 66-year-old Abu Hayah handcuffed, blindfolded and with his mouth covered, although he had done nothing wrong and despite the fact that villagers quickly learned of the soldiers’ whereabouts and arrived on the scene. The dispute was over the degree of physical force used against Abu Hayah – a point that the MPIU investigators did not bother to resolve, making do with the almost identical descriptions provided by the soldiers.
The investigation file was transferred to the MAG Corps, which was was satisfied with the flawed investigation, accepted the soldiers’ claims and their explanations for Abu Hayah’s injuries at face value, and almost three years after the incident took place, decided to close the case on the grounds of lack of evidence.