Israel’s Message to Troops Placing Explosives at Village: Don’t Worry, It’s Combat

The goal of the Palestinian demonstrators at Kafr Qaddum is modest: Open the road to Nablus and stop treating us as inferior. The principle behind it is just as basic: Treat us as human beings

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Waseem Shtaiwi showing a box of explosives concealed by Israeli soldiers in the village of Qaddum, in the West Bank, August 25, 2020.
Waseem Shtaiwi showing a box of explosives concealed by Israeli soldiers in the village of Qaddum, in the West Bank, August 25, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The soldiers sent to Kafr Qaddum to put down the demonstrations there are on a combat operation. That’s the state’s position, as expressed by statements in its defense in recent years by Tel Aviv prosecutors, to four lawsuits by Palestinians wounded by Israeli army and Border Police gunfire at these protests.

The complainants: a boy of 11, a demonstrator of 64 carrying a flag – both of them residents of the West Bank village – and two press photographers who don’t live in the village.

And since this is a combat operation, the state is immune to these suits. The affidavits in its defense were drawn up by lawyers at the Tel Aviv prosecutors’ office, headed by attorney Ariel Ararat. Abbas Assi and Mika Banki of the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court are the judges who ruled with the state.

This is the atmosphere in which the soldiers who planted explosives in the village about two weeks ago were operating, even if they hadn’t received orders from their superiors: They’re on combat duty, and the boundaries for what soldiers may do in combat are flexible and wide-ranging.

A box of explosives hidden by Israeli soldiers in the village of Qaddum, West Bank, August 25, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Through the end of 2014 the few damage claims by Palestinians wounded or injured by the army were handled by Jerusalem district prosecutors. “Combat operations” wasn’t a permanent part of their defense. The photographer Jafar Shtayeh, for example, whose arm was broken by soldiers using a club in August 2012 (while beating up other photographers as well as part of a policy to obstruct coverage of demonstrations at Kafr Qaddum), reached a compromise with prosecutors without the state claiming immunity.

But since 2015 the cases have been transferred to the Tel Aviv district prosecution where “combat operations” has become an absolute line of defense.

In 2004, the army blocked Kfar Qaddum’s eastern exit that leads directly to an access road to Nablus, claiming that the road passes through a new part of the settlement of Kedumim. The drive to Nablus ballooned to 40 from 15 minutes.

The path where Israeli soldier hid explosives that were later found by a child, in the West Bank village of Qaddum, August 25, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

It would be superfluous to quantify the cost of the blocked road to the village: the gas needed, the wear and tear on the tires, the time wasted on the road. But the feeling of injustice can’t be quantified. While the authorities do their utmost to reduce the time it takes settlers to drive to Israel and back, they make the Palestinians’ trips longer.

This is another expression of how bureaucratic and planning ploys rank the Palestinians as inferior human beings. In 2011 the residents began to demonstrate to get the obstacle lifted, and the protests have gone on almost weekly.

The residents aren’t protesting the expropriation of around 2,500 dunams (618 acres) of their land for the benefit of nearby settlements. They are not demanding – in those weekly protests – a return to normal access to their land every day – instead of, as the army decided, only twice a year (a few days for olive picking and a few days for plowing and spraying against weeds).

The demonstrations’ aim is very modest and specific, but there’s a message of principle: Quit treating us as fourth-class people.

Mamoun Shteiwi with a crate of explosives and the boy, left, who found it at Kafr Qaddum, August 25, 2020. Credit: Moti Milrod

Six children shot

About 100 residents (including a few photographers) have been shot and wounded by Israeli soldiers since the demonstrations began. Six of these people are minors. On February 15, soldiers shot 14-year-old Mohammed Shteiwi in the head with a plastic-coated metal bullet at close range. He and his friends had been at a grove outside the built-up part of the village. They saw the soldiers and hid.

Mohammed was shot as he took a peek to see what was happening. The army spokespeople said at the time there had been a disturbance in the village, but they didn’t claim that Mohammed took part. It was a Thursday and there was no demonstration at all, the villagers emphasized. Mohammed is now in a vegetative state.

In July 2019, soldiers shot 10-year-old Abdel Rahman Shteiwi in the head as he stood next to a friend’s home about 200 meters from where a demonstration took place, also the site of a confrontation with soldiers. Abdel Rahman now gets around on a wheelchair.

Murad Shteiwi, a demonstrator at Kafr Qaddum, August 2020. Israeli soldiers fired tear gas canisters into his home.Credit: Moti Milrod

In routine times the soldiers’ deterrent and intimidation tactics are more moderate. Soldiers have detained children ages 4 to 9 and handcuffed them, hung up pictures of minors in the village and threatened to arrest them, sicced dogs on demonstrators, rolled large stones at protesters, ambushed a 7-year-old boy, shot holes through water tanks on top of houses during the coronavirus lockdown, damaged car tires and fired gas and tear gas canisters at night into Murad Shteiwi’s home, one of the demonstrations’ organizers. Already in April a small explosive made with a stun grenade was hidden among some small stones.

Since the demonstrations began, during various periods, the army has arrested 170 village residents who have been forced to pay 250,000 shekels ($74,200) in fines as part of the military legal process, Murad Shteiwi says.

‘Disturbances, terrorism’

Attorney Ararat and his subordinates in the Tel Aviv district operate just as any enthusiastic attorney would in defense of a client. Thus, they define the demonstrations as “disturbances, terrorism and a continuation of knifing terrorism” (even though these demonstrations began long before and have lasted long past the lone-wolf attacks of 2015 and 2016). The attorneys don’t care that the suppression of a demonstration via tear gas and stun grenades or real bullets begins inside the village’s built-up area, between the houses. They depict the demonstrators as people who seek to harm the settlers of Kedumim, and in this way ignore that Kafr Qaddum’s residents chose popular protest as a means to challenge and demonstrate against the Israeli policy to harm them – and have consciously not chosen other means.

The attorneys, in their role as advocates of the state, attribute intent to the demonstrators that they don’t have (“to break into the Kedumim settlement and wreak havoc there”), and smear the people who file complaints. They say 11-year-old Khaled Shteiwi (wounded in the leg by the member of the Border Police in March 2016, while an adult who came to help him was shot and wounded by another cop) “has a rich record of involvement in disturbances against IDF forces.” They say this even though, when the demonstrators were shot they weren’t aware police were present because they were hiding behind a mound of sand.

Soldiers arresting a child during a demonstration at Kfar Qaddum in the West Bank, 2016.Credit: Nedal Eshtayah / Anadolu Agency

The photographer Ahmed Tala’at was shot in the buttocks by soldiers in October 2015 while carrying three cameras and a gas mask, and while standing in the shoulder of the road with a group of journalists. In Ararat’s words, Tala’at was an “angry bull” and not an “innocent journalist as he presents himself,” even though the state didn’t present any evidence and no soldier ever complained about him.

Muayyed Shteiwi, a nurse, would carry a large Palestinian flag at the head of the march. When the confrontations began, he made sure to keep his distance.

On the day he was wounded in October 2015, the prayers before the demonstration hadn’t yet been held. He was in the yard of the mosque, heard the sounds of a confrontation and went with his flag to see what was happening. Soldiers shot him twice from a distance. He was wounded near the groin and in the back. Doctors haven’t been able to pull all the fragments out of his body. The Tel Aviv prosecutors wrote that he was involved in organizing and inciting violent protests.

One Friday in December 2014, Bashar Saleh was standing with a large TV camera on a tripod, with all the other reporters and photographers. That day, witnesses said that a few children, some of them very young, occasionally threw stones that didn’t hit any of the soldiers.

The soldiers appeared very calm. One of them shot a single bullet at Saleh’s left leg. Saleh felt a large blast in the bottom of his left calf. The state’s advocate wrote: “In accordance with regulations, a shot was fired at the main masked instigator, who had a slingshot and endangered the force …. It was not proved whether the complainant was hurt by the security forces’ gunfire.”

Palestinians and soldiers clashing in Kfar Qaddum in the West Bank, June 2020.Credit: Mohamad Torokman / Reuters

The lawsuits and minutes of the sessions show a similar pattern: contradictions between the soldiers’ initial statements and their later testimonies, real-time military documentation and photographs that miraculously went missing or incidentally were erased, a burned computer, the army’s dawdling in investigating the incidents, soldiers saying in court they can’t remember the incident they’re supposed to testify about and for which they filed a detailed affidavit.

But when the line is that suppressing the demonstration is an act of combat, these flaws don’t seem to bother the judges.

As few as they are, the damage claims against the state for harm to unarmed civilians by soldiers are also a kind of demonstration: one of hope that someone outside the military will move outside the box and listen – listen to the legitimacy and fairness of the demand to open that road and see that the Palestinians are human beings. But the hope ends in disappointment.

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