masks - Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement - March 7 2011
Policemen donning ski masks at Friday’s protest. Photo by Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement
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Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem are very familiar with the phenomenon: masked policemen who carry out arrests and take part in crowd-dispersal activity.

But Friday at the weekly Sheikh Jarrah demonstration, there was a twist: For the first time, policeman wearing masks dispersed a crowd comprised mostly of left-wing Israeli citizens.

Videos of the demonstration show the policemen donning ski masks a short time before they began to deal aggressively with the protesters, members of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement. The activists claim the men wore masks to prevent identification in the event of complaints about police brutality.

Jerusalem Magistrate's Court Judge Rivka Gertel spoke of the phenomenon at a hearing on the expulsion from Sheikh Jarrah of three demonstrators detained on Friday. In a remark not included in the court transcript, Gertel apparently said, when seeing photos of the hooded policemen: "That looks just like Iran."

Representing the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, attorney Lea Tsemel sent a letter yesterday to the attorney general, demanding an investigation of police behavior during Friday's demonstration and an explanation concerning the use of the masks.

"In view of the gravity of the situation, you should intervene immediately, and put an end to the policy of suppressing the Sheikh Jarrah protests, and to police violations of the law," Tsemel wrote.

The policemen in Sheikh Jarrah are known for their activities in Silwan and elsewhere. They belong to an elite Border Police unit that specializes in crowd dispersal, which sent some of its members to join IDF naval commandos in the controversial operation against the Gaza-bound Turkish flotilla last year.

The use of ski masks among soldiers and policemen has also been noted in recent years in the West Bank. At first, they were worn by members of undercover units deployed there. But in recent months, soldiers from regular infantry units who take part in arrest operations in the West Bank have started to cover their faces too; in some instances, both there and in East Jerusalem, soldiers and policemen have apparently worn masks to heighten fear among Palestinians.

Friday's demonstration by the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement was marred by violent scuffles between policemen and demonstrators, three of whom were detained. Demonstrators claim that after one unarmed Palestinian confronted a policeman, groups of policemen went on the attack, without any justification.

This viewpoint was accepted by Gertel, who stated: "It appears the policemen escalated the situation, and the suspects were dragged into the unrest. During the tumult some demonstrators incurred blows and violence unleashed by police." The judge rejected the police's request to expel the detainees from Sheikh Jarrah.

"It is to be hoped that the violent policemen wore masks not only to avoid punishment for illegal activity, but also because of the understanding that this is activity that one should be embarrassed about," the Sheikh Jarrah movement said in a statement.