The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court has rejected a suit for damages filed against the state by four volunteers from Ta’ayush, an Arab-Jewish political activist group. The four demanded 160,000 shekels ($41,000) because they and the Palestinians they were escorting to their land were harassed by soldiers in 2013. One of the plaintiffs is David Shulman, a professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies and this year’s Israel Prize laureate for religious studies and philosophy.
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Judge Dorit Feinstein accepted the factual evidence presented by the plaintiffs, which was supported by video clips and stills. Still, in the ruling published last week she decided to reject the lawsuit and not to award them compensation because she deemed the soldiers did not use physical violence – despite filmed evidence to the contrary – and because the harassment is offset by harsh comments by some of the plaintiffs against the soldiers, including a warning that “they would end up in the court in The Hague.”
The village of Umm al-Amad is located in the southern West Bank, and near the residents’ land is the settlement of Otniel. For several years until 2012, settlers and soldiers prevented the farmers from reaching their land, which is outside the jurisdiction of the settlement. The army did not declare the site a closed military area, so there was no legal reason for preventing access. Alongside the lawful activity of Rabbis for Human Rights, activists from Ta’ayush began escorting the villagers to guarantee their access to the land.
On Saturday, April 27, 2013, a military jeep appeared next to the Palestinian farmers and shepherds and the Ta’ayush activists, who were making their way to the grazing land. According to the lawsuit, which was prepared by attorney Eitay Mack, the jeep driver tried to run over activist Guy Butavia and several sheep. Butavia shouted at the driver, “Are you trying to hit me? Are you normal? You retard.” The driver, an officer with the rank of major, had clashed with the activists during the previous week as well, in an attempt to prevent the Palestinians from reaching their land. This time he ordered the soldiers to prevent the activists from filming the incident, and according to the lawsuit even told one of the female activists, “I’ll mess you up if you continue to film.”
On the day of the incident the officer and eight soldiers prevented the Palestinians from reaching the grazing land for about two hours, until they and their escorts were forced to leave the site. During this time the officer kicked at the herd and pushed a boy, and one of the soldiers pushed another Palestinian. On orders of the commander, the soldiers tried to prevent the activists from filming the incident, approached them threateningly and used their telephones to hit the lenses of the cameras and the lenses of binoculars belonging to Shulman and Butavia, until they were afraid they would break.
One of the soldiers, a paramedic, shouted threateningly at one of the shepherds, and when Butavia protested, he raised his rifle in his direction and shouted, “I’ll put one to your head, I’m not listening to you, Jew hater.” The soldier cursed the activists (“sons of bitches, Jew haters”), and told one of the women, “Shut up, you put out for the Arabs.” Butavia told the soldiers several times that they were war criminals and that they would end up in the international court in The Hague.
Attorney Moshe Willinger of the Jerusalem District Prosecutor’s Office wrote in the statement of defense that although Palestinians from Umm al-Amad are not required to coordinate their visits to their land with the army, that would have prevented the incident, and therefore “the plaintiffs have nobody to blame but themselves.” He said that the troops were only trying to ensure that the “Palestinian settlers” and the left-wing activists would not come near Otniel, because part of their job is to prevent friction and ensure the Palestinians don’t enter the settlement.
Judge Feinstein wrote that “the recorded events are not in dispute” and that she “accepts the version of the plaintiffs regarding the incidents themselves.” She also wrote that as opposed to the soldiers, the activists refrained from physical contact and only filmed. At the same time, she ruled that the soldiers did not try to break the cameras and only tried to prevent the filming. She rejected the claim that the remark “puts out for the Arabs” is sexual harassment, noting that the paramedic who said it underwent disciplinary proceedings (following a report in the press).
The judge noted that one of the plaintiffs, apparently Shulman, told the soldier: “You don’t want it to be recorded, you want to end up in the court in The Hague? Believe me, you have a chance of ending up there.” At that point the soldiers were able to cover the camera lens and only the voices are heard.
“It’s true that the plaintiffs are entitled to freedom of speech and freedom of movement,” wrote Feinstein. “But at a time when they are hurling insults and threats of legal proceedings at young and junior soldiers, if one of them gets angry and curses, there is no reason to require the state to pay compensation to the plaintiffs.”
Regarding the soldier who underwent disciplinary action, Feinstein ruled: “The soldier had an outburst after being filmed for a long time by the plaintiffs from every possible angle with four cameras, when time after time the plaintiffs (Shulman and Butavia) are accusing him and his friends of being war criminals and [telling them] that they would pay for their deeds.”
She added: “It should be noted that the soldiers were sent to the site by the Israeli government, as has been done for decades, are engaged in safeguarding the settlements in the area and the security of the state, and did not resort to physical or verbal violence (until the one soldier’s outburst) against the plaintiffs, but behaved with great restraint.”