Carjackers in Israeli Army Uniform

Of the private cars the IDF confiscated in the West Bank during the search for the three kidnapped yeshiva students this summer, only some have been returned - after payment of hefty sums.

Gideon Levy
Alex Levac
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Zahi Shubaro.Credit: Alex Levac
Gideon Levy
Alex Levac

In those days almost everything was allowed in that lawless land: During Operation Brother’s Keeper in June, the prelude to (and in large measure the cause of) Operation Protective Edge, the Israel Defense Forces ran amok in the West Bank.

Soldiers raided thousands of homes in the middle of the night and arrested nearly 500 Hamas activists, most of them political figures who had no connection to the kidnap and murder of the three Israeli yeshiva students. The soldiers also confiscated property. Often they took computers, sometimes cash, and now it emerges that they also took private cars as part of their war against terrorism. The IDF has never cared about Palestinian property, and private cars were being confiscated again – as they had been frequently during the intifada.

The Nablus Circus School is located in a building that once housed the Rivoli movie theater, at the entrance to the town’s Old City, the casbah. Opposite the Rivoli is Capri, a candy factory owned by Zahi Shubaro, whom Israel suspects is active in Hamas.

This week, with the advent of autumn, Shubaro resumed the manufacture of krembos, a chocolate-marshmallow treat, in his small factory. The krembo, which is available only in the cooler months of the year because the delicate chocolate covering melts in the heat, used to be known as kushi (a derogatory term for black people) in Israel; in the West Bank it’s dubbed “ras al-abd” – the slave’s head.

Be that as it may, Shubaro’s factory once again this week turned out krembos, with their chocolate-covered, white cream-like foam, on a base of brown biscuits. A boy wrapped each one in gold foil. The heady aroma hung in the air, and the noise of the machines, idle during the hot summer months, was again heard in the land.

The krembo manufacturer from Nablus is 57, and his clothes are stained with chocolate. Shubaro has been arrested numerous times by Israel over the years, and also by the Palestinian Authority, usually for short periods. His son Ma’an has also been arrested often, the last time during Operation Brother’s Keeper; he has since been released from custody.

At 2 A.M. on June 14, dozens of IDF soldiers raided the house of the extended family in Nablus, and ransacked it over a period of two hours. At one point they found the keys of Shubaro’s commercial vehicle, a 2012 Peugeot Partner. “We’ll take the van,” one of the soldiers said, after consulting with someone on the phone. Naturally, the troops didn’t forget to take Shubaro’s Galaxy S3 cellular phone, either.

The next day, Shubaro went to the Hawara branch of the District Coordination and Liaison office, outside Nablus, to reclaim his van. No one wanted to hear about it. He tried three or four more times, with similar results. Finally he hired an Israeli lawyer to negotiate the vehicle’s return with the authorities. The negotiations were “successful”: Shubaro paid 15,000 shekels (about $4,000) to get the vehicle released. Thirty-four days after the vehicle was confiscated, it was returned in good shape to him in Jericho, where it had been taken. Ma’an is now busy driving the van around and distributing krembos to local grocery stores.

Salma a-Deb’i, the Nablus area field researcher of the human rights organization B’Tselem, knows of four cases in which vehicles were confiscated during the military operation in her region. In the case of Ibrahim Sabah, from the village of Urif, it was a minibus he uses to drive children to school. For no obvious reason, he too had to pay NIS 15,000 to get the vehicle back.

The field researcher in the Tul Karm area, Abd al-Karim Sa’adi, knows of another case, involving the Ashkar family from the village of Saida, whose vehicle hasn’t been returned to this day.

Saida lies north of Tul Karm, on the slopes of hills across from the Israeli city of Hadera. Most of the villagers supported Islamic Jihad, until the majority of the organization’s activists were killed or arrested.

The members of the Ashkar family are also considered to be Islamic Jihad supporters. Mohammed Ashkar, was shot to death at short range by guards at Ketziot in 2007, just days before he was due to be released from that Negev prison. Israel had to pay the family high compensation. A few months before that, we visited his brother, Lo’ai. He was wheelchair-ridden, his lower body paralyzed, as a result of being tortured by the Shin Bet security service.

“We have to organize some sports activities for you,” one interrogator said, at the outset of four days of brutal abuse, including being shackled, that damaged Lo’ai’s spinal cord.

This week we visited the same house in Saida, because of an incident involving a car that belongs to Noor Ashkar, brother of the dead Mohammed and the paralyzed Lo’ai. Lo’ai’s condition has improved over the years; he is now able to walk with the aid of a crutch. He is still an impressively articulate young man who speaks excellent Hebrew, which he picked up during his long years of incarceration. His latest stint of administrative detention (being under arrest without trial) ended a month ago; he was in jail when Noor’s car was confiscated.

Unlike his brothers, Noor, who is 27 and runs a car-wash and tire-repair business, has never been arrested. At 1:30 A.M. on June 22, soldiers arrived at the Ashkars’ home, looking for him. They turned the house upside down and found 3,220 shekels (about $920), which they seized, counting the notes in front of their camera. The soldiers told Noor that because they hadn’t found more money in the house they had to confiscate his car. According to Noor, the soldiers didn’t show him any order or other document allowing them to do this.

Noor was ordered to drive his car – a 1998 Peugeot 106 – to the police station in the Israeli part of Barta’a, a village on the edge of Wadi Ara that straddles the Green Line. He would have to take a taxi home, the soldiers said. Noor reminded them that they had taken all his cash; they told him to get money from his father.

Some military vehicles and a police car escorted him on his bizarre, forced drive into Israel, after they crossed the Zeita checkpoint. At the police station in Barta’a, the car underwent a security check. Noor was taken to the checkpoint and left to fend for himself in the middle of the night.

The next day he went to the District Coordination and Liaison office in Sha’ar Ephraim to recoup the car, but was unceremoniously chased off. After a few more failed efforts, he too hired an Israeli lawyer to try to get his car back. The authorities informed the lawyer that Noor had to show a confiscation order to prove that the car had in fact been taken. He says that the soldiers did not give him any such document. Almost three months later, the car still hasn’t been returned.

The Coordinator for Government Activities referred all questions from Haaretz on the subject to the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, which issued the following statement this week:

"As part of the IDF’s never-ending struggle against terror organizations which are unrecognized entities – including Hamas – the army, along with other security forces, is battling the apparatus by which money is transferred to said organizations. These groups are constantly attempting to find new ways to transfer funds and equipment to their activists. One way to prevent the transfer of money for purposes of terror is to confiscate property that was used for carrying out a crime, as payment for executing the crime, or belongs to an illegal organization.

"Since early 2012, 10 vehicles owned by people connected with illegal groups have been confiscated, eight of them during Operation Brother’s Keeper, after information was received that the owners were given money belonging to terror organizations. It should be noted that each case is checked in a professional manner by a number of different bodies or individuals, including intelligence and Operations Branch officers, a legal adviser and a representative of the Civil Administration. Five of those vehicles were returned to their owners after agreement was reached with their attorneys regarding the return of some of the money received from terror groups. Three vehicles were impounded, in light of the information received. They have been transferred to the proper authorities for further attention."

“Why Noor?” his brother, Lo’ai, asks. “It would make some kind of sense if they confiscated my car, or my brother’s,” he says, referring to a fourth brother. “But Noor? He’s the only one who was never involved in anything.”

After Lo’ai was released from detention a few weeks ago, a Shin Bet agent known as “Seif” came into his shop. Lo’ai asked him about his brother’s Peugeot. “Seif” said he would look into it. Lo’ai has heard nothing since.

“We’re waiting for an answer from the thieves,” he says.

An IDF soldier detains a Palestinian near Hebron June 21, 2014.Credit: Reuters