Israeli soldiers detained three left-wing activists last Monday in the Jordan Valley without cause and without authority to do so. Two of the three activists, who came to a West Bank army base near the settlement of Shadmot Mehola looking for a Palestinian shepherd who had been arrested, were put in restraints and blindfolded and were held on the base for several hours before being released. A third activist was detained near the base.
The three were released without being questioned and without being informed whether they were suspected of anything. Israeli soldiers are not authorized to arrest Israeli civilians in the West Bank, but are entitled to detain them until the police arrive. The three said they never came in contact with the police.
The activists were members of the left-wing organizations Combatants for Peace and the Jordan Valley Coalition. The arrived at the base seeking the whereabouts of the shepherd after being informed that he had been detained by Israeli soldiers in the area. It later transpired that the shepherd had been released before they arrived at the base.
A military source said that in accordance with regulations, the police were called when the activists were detained, but the activists never saw police before they were released. The source confirmed that in the course of detaining them, “the force cuffed them and covered the civilians’ eyes.” The source acknowledged that in a debriefing of the incident, it was concluded that there were no grounds for doing so, and said the soldiers would receive additional instruction on proper procedures.
According to the activists, when they approached the security gate at the entrance to the base, soldiers asked them to move away. They said they sat in the shade beyond the base's perimeter in an area where the families of soldiers serving there gather when they visit, but an army officer demanded that they move from there as well.
They then went to an access road that leads to the base, they said, at which point they claim several soldiers shackled and blindfolded them without cause. They reportedly took the cellphone of one activist who was attempting to film the incident and escorted the other two into the base.
Army sources confirmed that this is what occurred and said the arrests were made because the activists had tried to film the soldiers and had blocked the access road with their car. One of those detained, Yair Bontzel, confirmed to Haaretz that they had filmed the scene but said it was “with the landscape in the background and not the base.”
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Bontzel claimed that an officer came out of the base and, as he recounted it: “She tried to throw us out of the site while yelling at us. We told her that we had consulted with a lawyer and that we are allowed to be there … I told the soldiers, ‘I understand that this puts you under pressure. I will move back a little, to the parking lot, but I am asking for an answer. Is the [shepherd] here or not? Tell us and we will leave.’ They said: ‘We aren’t telling you anything. Go away.’”
The officer threatened the activists with arrest, Bontzel claimed. “We continued to argue,” he said. “About eight soldiers arrived, cuffed me and blindfolded me. In the background, I heard a girl who was with me screaming. The third activist was in the car. She just got out to take pictures and didn’t confront the soldiers. The one with the phone remained outside. At the gate, under a sunshade, they brought us in, bound and blindfolded, and we were there for three hours inside a kind of hut.”
The army spokesman issued a statement saying that the civilians had approached the entrance to the base and were filming soldiers at the post and had blocked the access road to the base that was disrupting operations and the soldiers’ ability to respond to an incident if necessary. “The civilians were asked to leave by the soldiers at the post and when they refused, they were detained and later released,” the statement read.
Combatants for Peace said in a statement that “the contemptable and humiliating practice of blindfolding detainees is something that should disappear from the world,” and added that there was no justification for the treatment of the activists, “certainly when their being at a certain site is legal and permissible.”
The group called the army’s actions arbitrary and illegal. “But it is routine when Palestinians who are arrested are involved,” it said. The organization said it has filed a petition with the High Court of Justice over the incident.