Arrest a Palestinian for Two Days and Release Him. This Is How the Israeli Army Does It

Hassan Nafe’a was simply filming the weekly demonstrations against the separation barrier. How is that incitement?

Photographer Hassan Nafe'a at home in the village of Ni’lin in the West Bank, September 2019.
Amira Hass

The two women entered the first waiting area – actually the first in a line of cages making up the Ofer military court, some 800 meters (875 yards) from the Beitunia checkpoint in the West Bank.

Hesitating, they approached a woman who looked Israeli to them and asked if I was Nitza. They were referring to one of the Israeli activists who come to the court as observers, get to know the families and document the cases. I said Nitza was on her way and would enter from the gate for people coming from Israel (via the Givat Ze’ev settlement bloc, which is closed to Palestinians, even though it’s in the heart of the West Bank).

The two passed five more cages of various kinds and sizes that Sunday, September 1, until they entered the seventh cage, a waiting area surrounded by high walls of rigid transparent plastic. Its appearance is less aggressive than the bars that had once surrounded the yard, but it’s doubtful the aesthetics bothered Zina and Ilham, the mother and wife of Hassan Nafe’a of the village of Ni’lin, who had been arrested some 55 hours earlier.

They came hoping to see him, if only briefly, during the extension of his first detention, without knowing why he had been arrested. They waited while the yard gradually emptied of relatives of minors, women, students and even a hipster caught driving a car with an Israeli license plate.

Gone also were two Israeli activists who befriended Nafe’a when they took part in the demonstrations in his village and now came to the court in solidarity. The wife and mother remained almost alone in the yard, their worry growing. But then suddenly attorney Hafez Burnat of the village of Bi’lin appeared and told them: “Go home. Hassan has been released.”

“I got home before them, at 4 P.M., and they only came at 5,” Nafe’a, 30, told me a week later, smiling broadly. He works at a local juice factory and as a photographer at weddings and other events. For years he took photos of the weekly demonstrations against the separation barrier at his village and other villages. He and his wife have a son and a daughter, who asked her father when he returned: “Did they tie you up with a rope?”

It wasn’t a rope, and the soldiers didn’t cuff him immediately, and anyway he didn’t want to make it difficult for the children by sharing too many details with them. They were asleep when he was arrested.

“The first thing I told the soldiers was that there were children there and we mustn’t scare them, and they said ‘all right, we don’t want to wake them,’” he said in the extended family’s third-floor apartment. When they wanted to cuff him he said: “Not now, not at home, I don’t want my mother to see me going down the stairs bound.” The soldiers did as he asked.

Ofer Prison, near Jerusalem, April 13, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Masked faces

The unit came at about 2 A.M. on the night of August 29 into August 30. “Ilham was already asleep and I was reading something using Jawwal [the Palestinian telecom company]. Suddenly there was no reception. I assumed there was a problem with the Palestinian cellular company and was preparing to go to sleep,” he said.

“Five minutes later I heard voices. I opened the window and saw soldiers downstairs, at the entrance to the building. Then they went up to the roof, came down and stopped outside our door. I didn’t want them to break in and break it, so I turned on the light and shouted to them in Hebrew, ‘Don’t break door, I’m opening it.’

“The stairwell was full of soldiers, all masked, really scary. One of them told me: ‘Put your hands up and give me the phone.”

Nafe’a gave him his old phone, which was near him in the living room and isn’t connected to the internet. “They found the smartphone in the bedroom and demanded that I open it. I had already woken Ilham earlier. I told the soldier, ‘I won’t open the phone for you, because it has family photos.’ I said that ‘even if you shoot me, I won’t open the phone.’ He said: ‘I’ll burn your house down.’ I said ‘burn it, I’m not opening my phone.’”

Ilham wanted to leave the children’s bedroom and see what was being done with her husband. “A soldier wanted to cuff me if I went out and I said ‘okay, I’ll stay in the room,’” she said. “I opened the door a little to see, and again they shouted at me and wanted to cuff me. In the end they put four soldiers outside the door and shut it.”

She too refused to open her phone because of family photos, but finally agreed to put in her password so that they could see it was her phone, and they returned it to her immediately.

The officer confiscated from Hassan two cellphones, one of them new. They also confiscated a laptop, a video camera, SIM cards, a journalist’s helmet and his ID card. He protested that they were confiscating his work tools but it did no good. Nor did he receive a receipt for the items they took.

In an answer to the soldiers questions, he said that because of an accident he has a problem with his knee, was taking medication and would soon undergo surgery. Yes, he remembered to say: A bullet soldiers fired at a demonstration in 2010 that he was photographing remained stuck in his stomach.

On Facebook, Hassan and the soldiers can be seen going down the stairs. One of his brothers filmed it on his phone and the soldiers didn’t try to stop him. Most of them by then had exposed their faces, but the officer’s face remained covered. One or two of them raised their voices and hurried Hassan, who was saying goodbye to his worried mother. Finally the soldiers pushed the brother, who was filming them, and closed the door behind him.

A protest against the separation barrier at Bi'lin.
Tess Scheflan

Cuffed and blindfolded

Now, far from the camera, the soldiers were more violent. “During the physical examination they forcibly spread my legs, even though they knew about the problem with my knee,” he said. “They cuffed me from behind, even though I told them it was forbidden. I couldn’t get into the jeep cuffed and blindfolded. They threw me in forcibly and beat me up. The neighbors heard my shouts.”

They also refused to give him water when he asked. “First open your phone and we’ll give you water,” they told him in the jeep.

He got to drink only when he was brought for a quick examination by a uniformed doctor, at a place he couldn’t identify. When he asked her to lower the air conditioning because it was very cold, she refused. “Merely seeing an armed and uniformed doctor makes you sick,” he told me.

He was placed sitting for several hours in that unknown place, among the soldiers.

The handcuffs were removed, a soldier cut them with a large knife, before he was taken in again to the doctor and received new cuffs, this time in front. He was later placed sitting for several hours in that unknown place, among the soldiers, this time his handcuffs in front. Before he had been taken to the doctor, a soldier cut the previous cuffs with a large knife, and later tied him with new ones. He tried to doze off, but the cuffs hurt.

A few hours later they put him in the jeep again. He sat in the back seat, alone, again bound and blindfolded. The soldier beside the driver cocked his gun and told him that “if you move and do anything, I’ll shoot you.” They came to what he identified as the Modi’in police station. “There they took off the blindfold and it took me 15 minutes to adjust to the light,” he said.

At the police station the plastic cuffs were replaced by iron ones, and this time his legs were bound as well. At about 2 P.M. – after about 12 sleepless hours – a police investigator arrived.

As Hassan put it, “‘You are charged with incitement against Israel,’ he told me. I said, ‘What incitement? I’m a photographer.’ He showed me screenshots from my Facebook page. Apparently they entered my account through a fake friend. The investigator had selfies of me and friends.

“He spoke Hebrew and somebody translated. I told him I didn’t see what the incitement was and laughed. He got annoyed and I kept on laughing because there was nothing there. How is photographing a demonstration incitement? A photographer photographs what he sees. When he shouted, I said I’d tell the judge he shouted at me and frightened me, and he asked ‘where did you learn that?’ I told him I knew the law.

“He asked me who I wanted as a lawyer. I said Neri [Ramati, who with Gaby Lasky represented many activists against the separation barrier]. But Neri wasn’t on his list. Toward the end of the investigation he let me talk to attorney Burnat of Bil’in.

“I’ve been taking pictures since 2009, but I believe the oldest photo he showed me was from 2014. The interrogation lasted about two hours. I didn’t give him my phone’s password. There are questions I refused to reply to. I told him it was my right. He demanded that I sign some paper, which was in Hebrew, and I told him I couldn’t sign something I couldn’t understand. He shouted and wrote down something.”

From the police station he was driven in a military jeep to the prison near the military court. In a cell with other prisoners the relatively easy part began.

“At 7:30 in the morning, on Sunday, they took us bound hand and foot to the military court [a few hundred meters away]. They placed us in various waiting rooms, separating smokers from nonsmokers. I was waiting and the detainees with me were going to court, maybe for their detention to be extended, maybe for a hearing, and returning.

“Only I was left sitting and wasn’t called. No lawyer came to talk to me. Suddenly a warden came to the door and asked, ‘Who is Hassan Nafe’a?’ I said I was. He said: ‘discharge.’ I said: ‘Me? Discharge?’ I thought I hadn’t heard right. He said again: discharge.”