340 Arrests and Only Five Indictments: Summer-long Police Sweep Strikes Fear in Isawiyah

Most of those arrested in East Jerusalem neighborhood were released shortly after, and police declines to provide data challenging figures

Masked Palestinian protesters take cover while throwing stones at Israeli security forces amidst clashes following Friday prayers in the East Jerusalem Arab neighborhood of Isawiyah, June 28, 2019.
HAZEM BADER / AFP

More than two months have passed since the Israel Police stepped up their presence in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiyah. So far, they have made 340 arrests, but Haaretz has found that criminal charges were only filed against five suspects, with charges also expected to be filed against three more. Most of those arrested have been released shortly after their arrest. The police declined to provide data challenging these figures.

Police have also carried out searches of Isawiyah homes almost every night over the past two months. No weapons have been found in any of the searches, although the search of one car yielded a bottle of flammable liquid. Neither have police reported any injuries to police personnel or Israeli civilians in the neighborhood or its vicinity over the two-month period, other than an incident in which two police officers were injured by a stun grenade thrown by a colleague.

>> Read more: Israel's collective punishing exacts price from this East Jerusalem neighborhood | Analysis ■ Let the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiyah be | Editorial

The figures, though, do not mean that all is calm in Isawiyah, a Palestinian village east of Mount Scopus. Overnight between Monday and Tuesday, a pipe bomb was thrown at Border Police in the neighborhood, but it failed to explode. Two young men were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the case.

Young people from the village have been throwing stones at passing police cars there almost every night, and then escape into the village’s dark alleyways; police have had difficulty compiling evidence against those they do detain.

The operation to enhance police enforcement in the neighborhood began in early June. It has included the use of roadblocks at roads leading out of the village and close inspections of cars. Every evening, police and Border Police patrol Isawiyah, setting up checkpoints inside the village, detaining passersby and issuing tickets for infractions. Later at night, police reappear to search homes and make arrests.

The operation has severely disrupted daily life in the village. Businesses have reported a sharp drop in revenues, and parents have expressed concern about allowing their children out on the streets alone, and many children have been confined to their homes.

The village’s parents committee recently decided to delay the start of the school year, keeping schools closed until the operation ends. “I can’t take responsibility if a child loses an eye or leg because of school,” committee chairman Omar Atiya said.

The Israel Police said in response that they constantly carry out law enforcement activity throughout Jerusalem to prevent crime and disturbances of the peace, including in Isawiyah. “By the nature of things, the police focus their activity at locations where there is high incidence of crime and disturbances of the peace. Thanks to the police activity in the area, in recent months there has been a sharp drop in stone throwing, Molotov cocktails and other violations directed at innocent civilians and motorists. Unfortunately there are frequently lawbreakers in the area who try to harm police and to restrict their activity.”

The statement continued, “The Israel Police will continue to act to protect the welfare and safety of the public, to maintain public order and to enforce the law, in Isawiyah and everywhere else.”

Isawiyah is considered a very politically active village, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has a major presence there. Many of the residents have served time in Israeli prisons on security-related offenses. In recent years, village residents have thrown stones at vehicles on the highway between Jerusalem and the nearby West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, and thrown Molotov cocktails at vehicles on the road adjacent to the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus.

Among East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhoods, Isawiyah was also considered a flashpoint for the most intense clashes between Palestinian and police during times of increased tension. This includes the aftermath of the 2014 murder by Jews of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir, and tensions on the Temple Mount in 2015 and 2017. But village residents said the months preceding the current police operation were actually rather calm.

Research by Aviv Tatarsky of Ir Amim, an organization whose stated mission is to make Jerusalem “a more equitable and sustainable city for the Israelis and Palestinians,” confirmed that in the months prior to the police operation, there had not been any unusual incidents in the area or reports of injuries to Israeli police officers or civilians, neither in the village nor its vicinity. The right-wing website Hakol Hayehudi, which monitors such incidents on a daily basis, has not reported any stones or firebombs thrown at the roads near Ma’aleh Adumim or the university over the past year. A WhatsApp group where settlers report stonings also showed no incidents there.

The driving factor for violence over the past two months, residents maintain, is that the police entered the village. Youth in Isawiyah have taken it upon themselves, it seems, that no police car will pass without them throwing at least one stone at it. On Monday, in the center of the village, this reporter witnessed two young men attacking a police jeep with large concrete blocks. The police responded with stun grenades, but the assailants managed to flee.

The young people know there is a slim chance of their actually inflicting harm on police officers, as the police and their vehicles are both well protected. In fact, since the beginning of the operation, the police have reported no injures to their forces other than the case of the stun grenade thrown by another policeman.

“They know that it doesn’t do anything, but the stones are to say that it’s not acceptable to me that you’re here,” one resident said. “You are occupiers and that’s how occupiers are received. Every young man who throws [stones] is considered a fighter. Even the adults say if they had the chance, they would throw [stones], but if police weren’t here, nothing would happen.”

Dozens of Isawiyah’s residents have been injured in clashes with police, mainly by rubber bullets. In one incident in late June, a policeman shot and killed a man, Mohammed Abid, who was holding a fireworks launcher. His death and funeral were followed by an upsurge in violence in the village, but no injuries to Israeli police or civilians were reported in these incidents, either.

It should be noted that Jewish members of the left-wing group Free Jerusalem have been coming to Isawiyah every night in recent weeks to film the police. The activists have been welcomed by village residents.

Most of the arrests in Isawiyah are carried out in the middle of the night at residents’ homes. Mufid Haj, a lawyer who has represented many of them, said he believed that of the 340 arrests, at least half were of residents under the age of 18. A clear majority of those arrested have been released within 24 to 48 hours, most without even being brought before a judge.

Some are released to house arrest or ordered to leave Isawiyah for several days. They also may be required to post a bond of several thousand shekels that they can get back six months later, if they comply with the terms.

When police have solid evidence against suspects, for example in video footage, they usually do not hesitate to file criminal charges and ask for a court order keeping the suspects in custody until the end of legal proceedings. In the case of Isawiyah, however, despite a police drone with a camera that hovers over the village every evening, police have generally been unable to come up with evidence justifying indictments.

Lawyers representing village residents said that since June, only five indictments have been filed, and that charges are expected against three others currently in detention. All of the indictments have been filed against adult suspects, while the juveniles have been released without charges being brought.

“They want to prove that they are enforcing the law, but that’s not a reason for wholesale arrests. If a policeman gets hit by a stone in Tel Aviv, they don’t arrest half of Tel Aviv. This is collective punishment and the residents understand that,” said the attorney Haj. The arrests are punitive and designed to demonstrate a police presence in Isawiyah, said another lawyer, Mohammad Mahmoud.

Haaretz asked the Israel Police for data on indictments in addition to arrests of Isawiyah residents, but the police chose not to provide them.

On Sunday, a leading activist in the village, Mohammed Abu Hummus, was arrested. The police claim that he had incited a female motorist to run over a policeman. A video clip of the incident was presented to the court in which Abu Hummus can be seen asking the woman, who was hesitating to proceed due to the presence of police, to continue forward. Mahmoud, who represents Abu Hummus, contended in court that his client had not told the women to run over the police, but was only telling her to continue on ahead.

Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court Judge Oren Silverman accepted the lawyer’s interpretation and rejected a police request to extend Abu Hummus’ detention. Police appealed the decision to the district court, which agreed to extend the detention by one day. At the district court hearing, the police representative said Abu Hummus has been inciting violence. The representative sought to buttress his case by citing the presence of left-wing Israeli protesters outside the courthouse while the hearing was underway.

Abu Hummus was released on Tuesday on condition that he keep his distance from Isawiyah until September 15.

“Abu Hummus’ arrest is especially outrageous because anyone who knows the neighborhood knows him to be a responsible and moderate figure. Harming him, as a local leader, only increases the anarchy and the unrest that the police were already cultivating,” said Laura Wharton, a member of the Jerusalem city council. “Apparently they were looking for an excuse to increase the strangulation that already existed,” she said.

Wharton suggested that police might be retaliating for the embarrassing news that police planted weapons in the home of an Isawiyah resident for the reality show “Jerusalem District.” No evidence was presented in court linking Abu Hummus to subversive or violent activity, Wharton said, and the same thing occurred in the cases of dozens of juvenile suspects who were arrested and then released. The councilwoman claimed that the video clip used in court implicated Abu Hummus due to the misinterpretation of a single word in Arabic.

“The situation is getting worse. They shut down everything. People see only darkness and the police don’t understand that,” said parents committee chairman Atiya. “You’ve ruined the kids’ summer vacation. You’ve ruined the [Eid al-Adha] holiday. You’ve ruined school. What’s left?”

In a statement referring to Haaretz reporter Nir Hasson, the police said they "regret the continued biased, distorted reporting regarding the police in this regard in a manner that betrays the truth and repeatedly misleads the public of Haaretz readers."

With regard to the planned school strike, the police added: "Any intelligent person understands the right of a person to voluntarily strike, but no one should be able to threaten others with harm in violation of the law if they don't strike. Contrary to what has been claimed, a police investigation was launched following a report on threats that the suspects made toward school principals in the village of Isawiyah if they begin the school year.

"The police arrested the two suspects and their detention was extended [on Thursday] in court for an additional four days on suspicion of extortion by threats, harming state sovereignty, conspiracy to commit a crime and threats," the police said.