The government has retracted its claim that two news photographers “led a riot” in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh more than four years ago, and that their beating by soldiers was therefore justified.
This is the gist of a compromise reached between the Jerusalem district attorney and the two photographers, Abbas Mumani and Haim Schwarczenberg, who had sued the Israel Defense Forces over the assault.
The lawsuit demanded 100,000 shekels ($27,660 according to current exchange rates) in damages and the settlement amount was only 9,300 shekels ($2,500). The significance of the compromise lies in the state’s admission that its version of events, throughout the proceedings, was incorrect.
The compromise agreement, which has the validity of a court ruling and went into effect on Tuesday, “was made without admission of any of the plaintiff’s claims and without the defendant insisting on the claim that the plaintiffs led the riot in the incident that is the object of the lawsuit.”
Two officers who were among those who attacked the photographers faced disciplinary hearings and were punished a few days after the confrontation, which took place in April 2015. The suit against the IDF was filed by Eitay Mack on behalf of Mumani and Schwarczenberg in February 2016. It argued that the assault was one of a series of violent assaults by soldiers against journalists and human-rights activists with the aim of preventing the legitimate documentation of demonstrations and their dispersal in the West Bank. The suit alleged physical harm as well as slander.
In documents submitted to the court at the time, Yorai Mazlawi, a lawyer with the Jerusalem District Attorney’s office, wrote that “This was a particularly violent and extreme riot in the Ma’ayan Meir area,” referring to Ma’ayan Ein Qus, on land of Nabi Saleh and the village of Deir Nidham that was seized by settlers from Halamish, “during which the plaintiffs acted in concert with the Palestinian rioters with the goal of harming IDF forces, Israeli civilians nearby and vehicles traveling on the nearby road.” He said the photographers were “an inseparable part of the serious rioting ... and absolutely were not solely engaged in documenting the event.”
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The statements of the officers who were tried in disciplinary hearings and of the battalion commander, H. Rekah, were appended to the defense brief and supported it. Only one officer, Matan Altman, testified for the defense; he spoke about the soldiers who were injured in the incident and about feeling that his life was in danger. The other officer was abroad; the battalion commander did not appear in court despite a summons.
Schwarzcenberg, an independent photographer who covers social protests, and Mumani, a photographer for French news agency AFP, regularly came to Nabi Saleh, like other journalists, to film protests against the settlers’ seizure of land and a village spring.
At the demonstration on April 24, 2015, after soldiers fired live bullets at teens throwing rocks, two soldiers approached the two photographers and told them to leave. The two, who had flattened themselves on the ground at the sound of the gunfire, tried to get up but the soldiers prevented them, while saying things like, “Get out of here, you son of a bitch, I’ll shoot you, your mother sucks,” and also attacked them: One soldier kicked Mumani several times and when he tried to get up, violently pushed his head down. Another soldier threw a rock at Schwarzcenberg, and ran at him and knocked him down. When he tried to get up, he was beaten again, and Mumani was pushed by a soldier when he tried to take a picture of his colleague on the ground. The assault on the two photographers was captured by photographer Miki Kratsman.
A statement from the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit that was included in a report on the Siha Mekomit website that same day said the soldiers used reasonable force against the photographers because they did not comply with their request to move away, and it also said that the violent and illegal riot was held by 70 Palestinians and the media. The Siha Mekomit report also said the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit declined to view footage from the demonstration.
But the army’s response to Gili Cohen from Haaretz a few hours later, and after the IDF Spokesperson Unit viewed the video, said: “The conduct depicted in the video is very serious and is not in keeping with the commanders’ instructions.” The statement did not accuse the photographers of taking part in the disturbance. As Cohen reported a few days later, a deputy company commander in the Kfir Brigade who was the officer in charge in the field was sentenced in a disciplinary hearing to 14 days in military prison. The platoon commander was confined to base for 30 days.
There were three hearings on the case, one in July 2018 and one each in January and February 2019. Judge Abbas A’asi urged the parties to reach a compromise, and reminded the state’s representative that the officers had already been convicted in a disciplinary hearing.