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Trophy photos betray Israeli Police Abuse

By Lee Hockstader
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 19, 2000; Page A16

-- After they had finished pummeling their three Palestinian detainees, finished smashing them with their fists, elbows and boots, slamming their heads against a stone wall, forcing them to swallow their own blood and cursing their mothers and sisters, the young Israeli policemen did an unusual thing: Using a disposable camera, they took photographs of themselves with their victims, holding their heads by the hair like hunting trophies.

"I have your photo now," the burliest of the three policemen warned, according to one of the Palestinians, Faisal Darabiya, who is as short and slight as a jockey. "I can find you anywhere in Israel; I can catch you and kill you."

With that, the Israelis released their captives.

The Sept. 6 incident, detailed in a criminal indictment filed last week against the policemen and in interviews, generated a flutter of media attention and a modicum of outrage. As far as can be ascertained, the three Palestinians, delivery men for an Israeli supermarket, did nothing to provoke the attack--nothing beyond presenting identity cards at an Israeli Border Police checkpoint on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem.

Officials of the Israeli Border Police, the force most frequently accused of brutalizing Palestinians, expressed anger over the incident. They said it would besmirch an agency that has invested heavily in trying to repair its reputation.

"In the past, there were many such incidents," acknowledged Brig. Gen. Moshe Karadi, training director for the Border Police, which mans checkpoints separating Israeli- and Palestinian-controlled territory that are occasionally the focus of unrest. "But in the last two years, we've done better screening and been better about who we're [hiring]. In the last years, the number of incidents like this has declined drastically."

But Israeli human rights workers say the case of the three Palestinians was not exceptional. On average, they say, they get complaints of Israeli police beating Palestinians about once a month and there has been no appreciable change. Israeli government investigators also say the level of police abuse remains more or less unchanged; Israel keeps no statistics that track brutality specifically against Arabs.

"We are interested in the really severe cases, when someone ends up in the hospital," said Yael Stein, a researcher for the Israeli human rights group Btselem. "But the usual cases, when [a Palestinian] gets slapped in the face or treated with humiliation, those happen every day. If we had to check on all those, we'd have no time to do anything else."

In fact, this month's incident, which took place within sight of Jerusalem's Old City walls, may never have come to light but for two things, human rights groups say. One is that the policemen photographed themselves with their victims and failed to destroy the negatives. The other is that the Palestinians' boss, an Israeli rabbi, was so furious that after his employees were released from the hospital he took them to the authorities to complain.

Now the policemen involved are under arrest. The lawyer for one of them, seeking their release pending trial, argues that since they have been suspended from the force the officers pose no danger to anyone. The lawyer, Michael Horowitz, contends that it is only when they are in uniform that the Israelis present a threat to Palestinians.

"The defense is not going to be that we have not done anything," said Horowitz, who has frequently represented police officers in brutality cases. "This is, unfortunately, something regular. . . . There is a problem of certain norms that are embodied in the Border Police, the army and even the regular police. There's a certain amount of tolerance toward police being--how should I put it--very assertive in their behavior."

Despite what human rights workers, defense lawyers and others describe as a pattern of abuse and beatings by police, the cases that come to light in the media tend not to generate much discussion or indignation in Israel. Such cases were practically daily events during the Palestinian uprising known as the intifada, from 1987 to 1993. Since then, the routine strains of Israel's remaining occupation of parts of the West Bank have faded from the Israeli media and psyche.

Although Israel began a staged withdrawal from most Palestinian towns and cities in 1994, troops and Border Police remain on patrol or at fixed checkpoints on about 80 percent of West Bank territory. Often, it is at the checkpoints that Palestinians say they are abused or beaten.

Many Israelis say the ceaseless friction between Arabs and Jews in the West Bank generates brutality and abuse and is one argument in favor of an extensive Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory. As part of the peace negotiations with the Palestinians, Israel has proposed a withdrawal from nearly 90 percent of the West Bank.

More hawkish Israelis tend to oppose such a large territorial handover, insisting the Jewish state has legitimate historical claims to the West Bank and that the territory still serves as an important security buffer against Arab attacks from the east. As the debates continue, so do instances of Israeli police brutality.

Eran Schendar, a former prosecutor who heads the Israeli agency that investigates police misconduct, said the Border Police force has tried to discourage abuse and violence, inviting him and human rights activists to lecture officers, for instance. But, he added, Border Police conscripts--often teenagers manning tense checkpoints--are sometimes impulsive and influenced by "sentiments of hatred."

But human rights groups say most allegations are scarcely examined. In this month's incident, the Palestinians were assisted in their complaint by their boss, Rabbi David Zikerman, who runs a grocery distribution program principally serving poor Jews.

Zikerman said the three Palestinians had worked until 2:30 a.m. delivering groceries before he told them by walkie-talkie to go home to the apartment they shared in Abu Dis, just beyond Jerusalem's city limits. A short while later, Zikerman said, Darabiya contacted him, sobbing and screaming. But the connection was cut almost immediately. When he tried to call the men back, there was no answer.

Darabiya, 23, said police stopped him and his two friends, Ahmed Darwish and Issa Amer, and ordered them out of their car at a checkpoint near the entrance to Abu Dis. According to the indictment, the policemen--Aharon Salman, 19, Yosef Heli, 20, and Roni Even, 22--ordered the men to stand against a wall just off the side of the road, then started beating them. The beating reportedly lasted about 40 minutes, counting short breaks when the policemen were afraid a passing driver might glimpse what was happening.

"I said, 'What did I do? We've been working since morning; we just want to go home and go to sleep,' " said Darabiya. "He said, 'One more word and I'll kill you.' "

Asked what may have prompted the police attack, Darabiya was at a loss.

"I couldn't understand it," he said. "That's why I kept asking the soldiers, what did I do? I had a permit to be in Israel, I work there, I'm legal.

Now, said Darabiya, he is scared to return to work in Israel, although he is engaged to be married and urgently needs the $3 an hour he earns. He would prefer to find work in a Palestinian area, but jobs there are scarce.

"I don't like to generalize; I know there are some good Israelis and some bad Israelis," he said. "But to be honest I'm afraid. When I see a police jeep I'm afraid."

(c) 2000 The Washington Post Company

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