Israeli Police Plant Gun in Palestinian's Home for TV Docudrama

On Kan TV's 'Jerusalem District,' police 'uncover' an M-16 rifle in Samer Sleiman's cellar. But Sleiman was never questioned, and original police documents shed more doubt on the episode's account

Right: Samar Sleiman in his basement. Right: Screengrab from the scene in Jerusalem District
Emil Salman

In the course of a TV series on the Jerusalem police force, police planted a weapon in the house of an East Jerusalem Palestinian resident and then documented its discovery.

The police later apologized for the incident, and said they will investigate the matter, while the producers said it would "draw conclusions."

Samer Sleiman’s house in the village of Isawiyah was searched in November 2018, after which he was handed a document stating that nothing was found there. However, a few months later, Sleiman’s neighbors identified the house in an episode of a nine-part docudrama called Jerusalem District, aired on Kan TV. The episode records a search for weapons, in the course of which a cellar is discovered, described by one of the series’ main characters as “a tunnel which would do credit to the ones found in Gaza.”

In this cellar, a M-16 rifle is found. The policemen in the documentary are overjoyed at finding the gun, leaving the village satisfied with their work. However, Sleiman was never arrested or questioned about weapons ostensibly found in his possession. He is now worried that his neighbors will think he’s a criminal or a collaborator with the police or the security services.

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Sleiman’s son Saleh was shot five years ago with a sponge-tipped bullet fired by the police. He was then 11 years old, and the bullet caused him to lose his eyesight. He has recently been recognized as a victim of hostile action, entitling him to some state benefits. Following a query by Haaretz, Kan TV decided to remove that episode from its website and from YouTube. The police did not deny Sleiman’s charges.

The docudrama “Jerusalem District” has been very successful. It documents the operations of the city’s policemen and their officers. The ninth and final episode shows a police operation in Isawiyah. The force, led by two of the series’ main characters, the intelligence officer of the Kedem district, Erez Hazan, and Asaf Ovadia, arrives at the village following intelligence reports about concealed weapons. As in other episodes, the two turn to the camera and explain the incident as it’s being documented.

The police reached Sleiman’s house at 3:30 A.M., accompanied by numerous other officers. Border Policemen encircle the house, and policemen armed with a sledgehammer and accompanied by dogs enter the house. “I was afraid my son would be frightened because of what had happened to him,” says Sleiman. “One of them told me he knew about it and told me to sit the boy on the side.” He says one of the dogs damaged some of the boy’s medications, and that the policemen left a big mess behind.

The search in the small apartment lasted two hours. On camera, Hazan says: “We start searching, and in operations like these I like to stand aside and observe. I start talking to the suspect. He was relatively calm while we were focusing on the search, but when we went outside his body language changed. Under the house we saw a locked iron door. We asked him to unlock it. We opened it and saw something that looked like a warehouse. When we went deeper inside, it looked like a narrow tunnel that would have done justice to the tunnels they found in Gaza.”

Samer Sleiman presenting the police search report in his Isawiyah home, August 5, 2019.
Emil Salman

The camera follows the police in the dark cellar, illuminated by flashlights, and Hazan continues: “We noticed the dog marking a tiny hole in one of the tunnel’s walls.” One of the policemen digs a little with his foot and calls out, “Asaf!” The camera pans to a hole in the wall, in which short-barrel M-16 rifles, apparently new, are found. The policemen are happy, photographing the guns and congratulating each other. The next scene shows Hazan and Ovadia leaving the village, offering congratulations over the radio: “Good work, well done.”

For anyone familiar with East Jerusalem, this scene raises several questions. East Jerusalem is full of weapons, but most of them are pistols or improvised “Carlo” submachine guns. Finding IDF-issue weapons in good condition in East Jerusalem neighborhoods is an unusual event, especially weapons that are not very well hidden. Moreover, unlike in other episodes, none of the family members are arrested following this dramatic discovery. Indeed, documents obtained by Haaretz raise a strong suspicion that in the original search, no weapons were found, and that the guns found in this episode were planted by the police themselves for the docudrama.

A visit to the cellar

On a visit to the family this week, the father showed us the cellar and the hole in which weapons were supposedly discovered. Sleiman turns a light on, showing that there was no need for flashlights.

“We raised pigeons in this cellar. My brother had a snake. One day it escaped and entered this hole. We broke down the wall to get it out without hurting it, but we didn’t succeed. The snake died and the hole was still there,” says Fares, Sleiman’s brother. “If I had weapons worth 100,000 shekels [$28,500], do you think I’d just throw it in that hole, with all the dampness?” asks Sleiman.

He says that he asked the policemen why they were filming the search, but they said it was to prevent later claims of damage caused by the search. “They went in alone and we sat outside. I saw someone going in and out with weapons, but I didn’t attach any importance to it,” he says. After the search, Hazan and Ovadia gave him a report which stated that “nothing was found and no harm was done to anyone or anything.” Another section of the report also says that nothing was found there.

Sleiman says he asked if he should come in for questioning but was told he didn’t have to. He asked for information about the reason for the search and was told to come to the station the next day. When he arrived, he was told he wasn’t needed and that there was no information they could give him.

Only a few months later, when he got comments from his neighbors, he realized he was “starring” in a TV series. His face is blurred but neighbors can easily recognize the house and Sleiman’s voice. A few days ago, human rights lawyer Eitay Mack, representing Sleiman, turned to the police, asking them to open an investigation.

“My clients couldn’t believe what was happening to them. The police didn’t tell them they had found anything in the house, which is supported by their report. No one in the family was summoned for questioning or detained,” wrote Mack. “My clients instantly became criminals in the eyes of their neighbors, trafficking in or using illegal weapons. Since no legal process was initiated against them, and they were never detained, claims started surfacing that they were collaborating with the police.” Mack noted that this episode had been viewed by 640,000 people prior to the writing of his letter.

“My clients fell victim to a racist propaganda show that has no place in a democratic country. It was staged by policemen and officers in the Jerusalem District, apparently with the purpose of promoting themselves and presenting my clients and all Isawiyah residents as security risks, while infringing on their privacy and slandering them,” wrote Mack.

Kan, Koda and the police respond

Kan TV said in response that “the complaint was being investigated with the production company, Koda Communications. All companies working with Kan TV sign a contract that obliges them to adhere to ethical standards. If there is truth to these serious allegations, the incident will be addressed accordingly.”

The company that produced the series, Koda Communications, said in response that it is meticulous in maintaining the reliability of its production content and in rare instances, including the case in question, it includes illustrative segments to protect the work methods of the police or the safety of those appearing in the series. This is made clear in credits at the end of the episode.

The episode in question on the seizure of weapons "included illustrative footage including the discovery of weaponry in a manner similar to what the police have found in a large number of similar cases," it said in a statement, adding: "All of the footage at the relevant home was filmed while totally blurring the house and its occupants to entirely prevent identification."

"In any event, we take responsibility and are thoroughly examining the circumstances of the matter to draw conclusions," the production company said.

Police sources told Haaretz they raided Sleiman's home “following intelligence, which pointed at the presence of weapons,” which hadn’t been found. Then, the sources said, a production staffer proposed staging a catch, which a police commander at the scene approved.

A statement by the police said that “the docudrama allowed viewers to see some of the complex operations undertaken by police in the country’s capital, including the addressing of all types of criminal activity, the handling of violent disruptions of law and order, the foiling of terrorist activity and the campaign against illegal weapons. The production and editing of this series were done by Koda, including the blurring of the identities and details of people involved, as required by law. The police have received the letter and a response will be sent directly to the attorney, not given to the media.”

The police released an apology later on Tuesday saying, "We apologize for all harm caused to citizens by the airing of the segment. The incident is under investigation and the necessary steps will be taken in accordance with the findings."

Ram Landes, the series’ producer, had no comment.