The photo shows a bearded man, blindfolded, his hands tied in front of him. An Israeli soldier is standing guard by his side.

Without knowing much about the circumstances surrounding the image, most Israelis would automatically assume that the man was a Palestinian. After all, when Palestinians are detained by Israeli troops in the West Bank, they are routinely blindfolded.

That wasn’t the case, though, which might explain why this particular photo went viral on Israeli social media.

The blindfolded man was a Jewish Israeli. Not just any Jewish Israeli, but a veteran of Sayeret Matkal – the most elite commando unit in the Israel Defense Forces, hailed worldwide for its daring hostage rescue operations.

Avner Wishnitzer, it could be said, is in good company: Israel’s current prime minister, Naftali Bennett, and two former premiers, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, also served in this unit.

But Wishnitzer, 45, was not on military duty when he was detained in the South Hebron Hills nearly a month ago. The former kibbutznik, who now teaches Middle Eastern and African history at Tel Aviv University, was there with a group of anti-occupation activists who had planned to deliver a water tank to a Palestinian community not hooked up to the water system. Most of the activists belonged to Combatants for Peace, an Israeli-Palestinian nonprofit dedicated to ending the occupation.

What sets this particular organization apart is that it was established by individuals who had seen action on both sides of the conflict. Wishnitzer, who was born and raised on Kibbutz Kvutzat Shiller in central Israel and currently resides with his family in Jerusalem, was one of its founding members.

As he recounts, a group of about 50 activists had set off on Friday September 17 to deliver a tank containing four cubic meters of water to an isolated Palestinian community near the unauthorized settler outpost of Avigayil.

“It’s part of our ongoing campaign to help Palestinian communities under Israeli control – especially in the South Hebron Hills and Jordan Valley, which are the driest areas in the West Bank – gain access to water,” he explains.

He notes that while the Israeli army has denied the Palestinians access to water on the grounds that they have engaged in illegal construction in the area, that same reasoning is not applied to the settlers, who enjoy unlimited running water.

As he and his fellow activists were making their way up the road, he recalls, they were ordered to stop by Israeli soldiers patrolling the area. “They didn’t explain to us why we couldn’t proceed,” Wishnitzer says. “We told them we had come to bring water to people who have no water, and that we intended to continue on.”

In response, the soldiers started pushing the activists and threw tear-gas canisters and stun grenades at them. Video footage of the confrontation shows the commander on the scene throwing one of the elderly activists to the ground and, George Floyd-style, putting a knee on his neck.

Wishnitzer didn’t witness that, though, because he was among a small group immediately detained. “They took me and another guy and, for whatever reason, blindfolded us,” he says. “Clearly, their intention was to humiliate us.”

The other blindfolded man, he says, was a 60-year-old former officer in the Paratrooper Brigade who had served in Israel’s first Lebanon war.

“When I told them there was no reason to detain us, that all we wanted to do was bring these people some water, I was called a piece of garbage,” he says. The two blindfolded former combatants were forced into a military vehicle and held for nine hours, part of that time at the nearby police station in Kiryat Arba. They were never told why they had been detained.

Time of reckoning

Wishnitzer says that as a soldier in Sayeret Matkal, he rarely served in the occupied territories and was therefore largely ignorant about what went on there.

In the early 2000s, a few years after he completed his military service, the second intifada broke out. It became a time of reckoning for him.

“I started to feel really uncomfortable with the fact that I hardly knew what was going on in the territories,” he says. Although he never defined himself as right wing, Wishnitzer was “what you would call a ‘good Zionist’ – a loyal son of the kibbutz movement who, like many others at the time, chose to serve in a combat unit.”

He joined an anti-occupation group and started spending a considerable amount of time in the West Bank. It had a deep impact on him – so much so that in 2003, Wishnitzer was one of 13 Sayeret Matkal reservists to announce, in a widely publicized letter to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, their decision to refuse to serve in the occupied territories. “We will not lend our hands to the regime of repression in the territories,” they wrote.

A few months later, Wishnitzer and his comrades were approached by a group of Palestinians, most of them political activists who had spent time in Israeli prisons. They were intrigued by the stand these former Israeli combatants had taken and requested a meeting. It was during this meeting that the idea behind Combatants for Peace took root.

“What we realized is that if people who had been involved in violence on both sides can eventually sit together and talk like human beings, anybody can,” Wishnitzer says, describing Combatants for Peace as a “one-of-a-kind” organization. “There is no other beast like it – no other organization in the world is made up of combatants from both sides who have come together not after the fact but while the bloody conflict is still going on.”

For most Israelis, it is best known for the joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day ceremony it hosts every year in partnership with the Parents Circle Family Forum (made up of Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost loved ones to the conflict).

Wishnitzer says last month was not the first time he and fellow activists have been roughed up by the army. But he believes something has shifted. “There is this sense in recent weeks and months – and I hear it from activists in other organizations as well – that the soldiers have become more violent, that the violence is starker, that there is no accountability,” he says.

“It seems that this is a message coming from above, and the fact is that the commander who was in charge the day we all got roughed up got away with a mere slap on the wrist.”

As traumatic as it was for him and his fellow activists, Wishnitzer doesn’t believe the blows and humiliation they suffered are what the public should be focusing on.

“The real story is what’s happening to the Palestinians in the West Bank: The land appropriations, the checkpoints, the administrative detentions and the systematic violence, not to mention settler violence,” he says. “The Palestinians are the real victims here.”

Asked for comment, the IDF Spokesperson’s Office said an investigation into the events of September 17 had found that the decision to blindfold Wishnitzer was “a mistake.”