In the weeks since the fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, which also featured grave violence in Israel’s mixed cities home to both Jews and Arabs, the Israeli police have conducted a major arrest operation throughout the country.
According to the police, more than 2,100 people have been arrested, and at least 280 have been indicted. Of these, 91 percent are Arab citizens of Israel, a group that makes up about 20 percent of the population.
This ratio has drawn strong criticism from civil rights groups and Arab Israeli lawmakers, who accuse the police of discriminating against Arab citizens, even though both Jews and Arabs rioted during the fighting with Gaza.
Haaretz spoke to three Arab Israeli teenagers and one community activist who were all arrested at or near protests. They described harsh treatment by the police and said they were arrested despite not doing anything illegal or violent. The police told Haaretz that these arrests were made at places where violent rioting occurred.
One of the teenagers is Mohammed Haj-Yehia, a 14-year-old from Taibeh, an Arab city in central Israel. He was detained on May 17, the third day of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, and is under house arrest until June 10 . Haj-Yehia says he was arrested while standing with two friends near a demonstration that night in Taibeh.
“He was going to eat with his friends. Suddenly a car carrying Israeli forces came toward my son and the kids, attacking them with rubber bullets so that they wouldn’t run away,” recalls his mother, Sana Haj-Yehia. “They beat and punched my son, dragged him and bound his hands, and took him to an abandoned area where the brutality continued.”
Haj-Yehia himself adds: “I felt like I was dying as he was sitting on my neck, choking and beating me hard. I couldn’t move; it hurt. I actually thought that it was my end and I was going to die.” Haj-Yehia says he still has bruises all over his body from the encounter.
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Haj-Yehia was held in prison for four days. His mother says: “The day of the arrest, we went to the police station at 4 A.M. to report my son missing because we hadn’t seen him since 9 P.M. that night. We arrived at the station and suddenly I saw Mohammed at the detention center.”
Haj-Yehia says the police also maltreated him verbally. “They were threatening me to make me confess. I didn’t do anything to confess to.”
Haj-Yehia was accused of offenses that didn’t make sense, says his mother, who adds that her son’s lawyer convinced the police to let Haj-Yehia leave house arrest to attend school from 8 A.M. to 2 P.M. “My son is traumatized, he is overwhelmed and devastated,” she says. “I want the world to know how this country treats kids.”
Nadem and Nour Saadi, siblings from Haifa age 16 and 18, were arrested on the same night two weeks ago after leaving a protest in downtown Haifa.
“I was at the protest, but when the clashes started and Israeli police started attacking with tear gas, I immediately left,” Nour Saadi says. “I was standing with two friends when a group of policemen came toward me and grabbed me by my hair.”
Nadem adds: “I saw six Israeli police officers attacking my sister. I had to stop them. I asked what the reason was for their brutal and aggressive action toward my sister. They let go of my sister and started attacking me. They took us to be interrogated for 18 hours, then held me for two nights.”
Nour says: “During the interrogation, they didn’t bring us water, they told us that they would make us suffer, threatened us with pepper spray and also cursed and insulted us the whole time we were detained.” She says she was held for 15 hours.
A few days ago, Nadem was detained for a second time, while he was walking in the street. He says the police stopped and questioned him for no reason.
“I was afraid they would arrest and beat me again so I ran away. They went after me and handcuffed me, beat me and took me to the detention center,” he says. Eventually, he was released and has not heard from the police since.
Arrested ‘only because of my name’
Rafat Abu Aish, a 27-year-old from the Bedouin town of Lakiya in the south, is a writer and activist and has a bachelor’s degree in law. Last month he was arrested in front of the dorms at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev by the Shin Bet security service.
He says he was arrested while university students were protesting near the campus. The police arrested eight people, and he was one of them.
“The arrest wasn’t related to the protest but only because of my name. They looked for me to accuse me of setting a car on fire, an accident that occurred in Lakiya that night,” he says.
“They kept me under investigation for three days on charges of torching a car, even though I obviously didn’t do it. Throughout the investigation, the Israeli police refused to watch the camera footage that clearly shows I’m innocent. Only after three days did they agree to check security-camera footage from the dorms that showed that on the night of the fire, I was in the dorms sleeping.”
The Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel called the arrest campaign “a militarized war against Palestinian citizens of Israel.”
“This is a war against Palestinian demonstrators, political activists and minors, employing massive Israeli police forces to raid the homes of Palestinian citizens,” says Hassan Jabareen, Adalah’s general director. “These raids are intended to intimidate and exact revenge on Palestinian citizens of Israel – ‘to settle the score’ with Palestinians, in the Israeli police’s own words – for their political positions and activities.”
The police told Haaretz in response: “During the events [the fighting between Israel and Hamas] the police worked around the clock all over the country to stop violence and disorderly conduct, in order to protect the safety of all Israelis. These suspects were involved in cases of rioting and were investigated legally without any relation to their identity.
“The Israeli police uphold the rights of suspects while conducting a professional investigation. We view with severity any involvement by citizens in terror activities and disorderly conduct, and we will continue to act to preserve the rule of law and protect the public. In cases where detainees have complaints regarding their detention, they should approach the relevant authorities.”