Jeep Ride to the End of the Road

When a 17-year-old Palestinian was found beaten to death in the Hebron industrial zone, Border Police denied involvement. But now, a Justice Ministry probe of the case may lead to murder charges.

Last December, Amran Abu Hamadiya, 17, was pushed into a Border Police jeep at the entrance to his home in Hebron. Twenty minutes later, his body was found in the city's industrial zone. The Border Police said the jeep had been parked at headquarters all day. Three months later, the Justice Ministry has a different version: its investigation has turned up a series of cases of severe abuse of Palestinians and a conspiracy of silence. Arrests are expected to be made in the affair, which could turn out to be a case of manslaughter or even murder.

"That jeep does exist and its number even corresponds to the number of the jeep of the Border Police commander in Hebron. But the jeep was parked at headquarters all that day. What's easier than faking a number? After all, they know the jeep and they could easily make false accusations." That was the reaction of the Border Police a few days after the battered body of Amran Abu Hamadiya was found.

According to the testimonies of his friends, last December 30, at about 7 P.M., Abu Hamadiya was trundled into a Border Police jeep at the entrance to his house on Tarq Bin Ziyad Street, a few hundred meters from the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Twenty minutes later, his body was found next to a facility for filling cooking gas canisters in the Hebron industrial area. What began as a routine investigation of Abu Hamadiya and two of his friends ended with a battered body that was thrown onto the road.

Spokesmen for the Border Police were quick to issue denials. "At the time of the reported incident, there was no Border Police forces in the area, and in any event no Border Police force picked up Abu Hamadiya or caused his death," they said at the time. Now, though, about three months after the incident, a significant development has occurred in the course of the investigation being conducted by the Internal Affairs Department of the Justice Ministry, which deals with alleged police wrongdoing.

According to senior officials in the department, "There are clear indications that a patrol of the 25th Company - the company that was serving in the area of the incident and was transferred from there to the Tarkumiya checkpoint, west of Hebron, at the end of the day on which the incident occurred - was involved in the incident, the details of which are still not clear." The source said that arrests can be expected in the case, which could turn out to be one of manslaughter or even murder.

It is not clear whether the senior command of the Border Police knew about the incident, but it was definitely known to the field levels from the time it happened. At first, a conspiracy of silence kept the story from the public. In the past few weeks, police and Border Police officers have admitted that the incident was common knowledge. In briefings of Border Police units in Hebron and Bethlehem after the incident, officers drew the men's attention "to the incident in Hebron, in which a Palestinian was killed" - referring to the Abu Hamadiya case. The officers admitted that no one was in a hurry to press the investigation, which could prove highly embarrassing not only to the Border Police, but also to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which is in charge of the Border Police in Judea and Samaria.

This is only the tip of the iceberg of Internal Affairs investigations involving Border Police personnel in Hebron, following complaints by Palestinians of physical abuse, beatings, humiliations and looting. There are no fewer than 30 such investigations pending, though only four investigators are doing the work. In addition, investigations by the Military Police are under way against soldiers who served in the city.

The staff of the Internal Affairs Department is based in the Har Hotzvim industrial zone of Jerusalem in conditions that make it impossible for them to complete investigations of this kind. They travel to Hebron in armored vehicles and have no way to locate Palestinians who file complaints. In the case of Abu Hamadiya, no physical evidence has yet been collected at the place where the body was found - this, three months after the incident. It is impossible to put together a case without this. The only evidence will apparently be testimonies that were gleaned with great difficulty from eyewitnesses, statements by the Border Policemen who were involved, and the results of the autopsy that was performed on the body, which might not have been carried out had it not been for pressure exerted by B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, and media pressure on Internal Affairs.

Left in the lurch

Raed al-Rajbi and Naim Abu Hamadiya say they were with Amran Abu Hamadiya when the Border Police jeep arrived at his home on December 30, a few hundred meters from the site of the attack on the Jewish Sabbath eve worshipers a few weeks earlier. In that attack, 12 soldiers were killed, along with members of the security squad of Kiryat Arba, the urban settlement adjacent to Hebron. The state of affairs in Hebron at the time of the incident was grim: a protracted curfew and daily clashes between activists and Israeli forces.

The top officer of the Border Police contingent in Hebron at the time, Commander Azi Siah, was wounded in the terrorist attack at Kiryat Arba. According to Border Police officers in Hebron, Siah was frequently absent, and his deputy was then effectively in charge of the Border Police units in the city. One of the officers said this week, "A substitute can do the routine work, but when it comes to the important task of imposing obedience and discipline, which is critical in Hebron, the city was left in the lurch for a long time."

Rajbi and Naim Abu Hamadiya wanted to file a complaint about the fate of their friend. On the night of the incident, they were referred to the Kiryat Arba police station for that purpose. However, that is not the proper procedure in cases like this. In Hebron and elsewhere, the police and the Border Police work together, and an investigation of an event in which they are involved is supposed to be placed immediately in the hands of Internal Affairs.

This week, too, Internal Affairs took testimony at the Hebron police station from seven Palestinians who filed complaints against Border Policemen in Hebron. The compound containing the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where the police station is located, is guarded by a Border Police company. Everyone who came to complain against a Border Policeman was checked at the entrance by one of the buddies of those they were complaining against. In other cases, Internal Affairs investigators request the residents to come to the headquarters of the district liaison office in the city, or they may ask them to come to the offices of Internal Affairs in Jerusalem, in which case an entry permit is arranged.

The result is that simple investigative tasks such as taking testimony became extremely complicated. It's hardly surprising, then, that more complex operations are not carried out. The investigations being conducted against the Border Policemen in Hebron depend on the good will of the police. The Internal Affairs staff don't know the area, and the natural hostility that police and Border Police ordinarily have toward them becomes far more intense in these circumstances.

Abuse and insults

Among the cases now under investigation is one involving suspicion of physical abuse against Badia Abu Hamadiya (no connection to Amran Abu Hamadiya) in the same industrial zone, last December 18. According to the complaint, he was subjected to severe physical abuse, and NIS 500 that he had in his ID card was stolen. In another case, Alaa Snukrut was placed on a Border Police jeep in the industrial zone and beaten all over his body. He says that the unit that mauled him also filmed the incident and hurled insults at him.

Another local resident, Hamzeh Rajbi, says that he too was beaten severely with clubs and fists, and then left at the place; NIS 150 disappeared from the cover of his ID card. About a month before the case of Amran Abu Hamadiya, soldiers are suspected of abusing staff and clients in a Hebron barbershop. The soldiers shaved the head of one of the clients, and others were beaten. The IDF Spokesperson's Office says that the Military Police investigation of the case has been completed and that the file has been transferred to the Judge Advocate General's Office.

The testimony of Rajbi and Naim Abu Hamadiya were eventually taken about a week after the incident, in the district liaison office. They related that the three of them had been checked by Border Policemen, after which Amran Abu Hamadiya was put in the jeep. About half an hour later, they found him dead. The two told the investigators that because they had heard about other cases in which people who were forced into jeeps were beaten and thrown out in the industrial zone, they went to look for Amran there. They were given a polygraph (lie detector) test in Be'er Sheva and found to be telling the truth.

Three weeks later, the body of Abu Hamadiya was exhumed and, with the family's consent, an autopsy was performed at the Forensic Institute at Abu Kabir, in Jaffa, under the supervision of Dr. Chen Kogel from the institute and a Danish pathologist, Jurgen Tomassen, whose services were paid for by B'Tselem. The autopsy found fractures and hemorrhaging in Abu Hamadiya's skull. Tomassen wrote in his report that he and Kogel had cooperated in a "friendly and positive" manner, and had agreed on certain findings and their interpretation. There is proof of injury as a result of harsh violence, the Danish coroner wrote. Findings to this effect were visible on the right side of the head, the back of the head, the lower part of the back and behind the right knee. The essence of the violence was not clear from the autopsy. There were fractures and additional fracture lines in the head and at the base of the skull. It is impossible to determine whether they were caused by a fall on the back part of the head or as a result of being struck with a sharp instrument, Tomassen noted. The character of the fractures makes it more probable that the blow was caused by a fall and not by a direct blow. The cause of death was apparently a contusion caused in the brain as a result of a sharp blow.

The office of the Border Police spokeswoman said in response, "In every suspicion of a criminal offense, an examination is carried out to verify preliminary details, and the complaint is transferred to Internal Affairs as required. The same procedure was followed in this case, and in the light of the fact that the investigation is still ongoing, we have no details about its course or its outcome. The Border Police command takes a very grave view of any deviation from procedures and is working to educated its fighters in values and the preservation of human dignity and human rights, with the emphasis on an intelligent use of their powers. Policemen found to have acted illegally are subjected to disciplinary measures as required."

The spokeswoman declined to comment on other issues raised in this article.

A spokesman for the Justice Ministry stated, "Because the subject is under investigation, we cannot comment on it. Internal Affairs is aware of the objective difficulties that stem from the security situation and the department does all it can to receive complaints, including through mediation and the assistance of various human rights organizations. If needed, despite the difficulty, the department's investigators visit the scene to take testimony and examine the cases."