A Young Palestinian's Torturous Ordeal in Israeli Detention

Being hurt in a clash with Israeli troops was just the start of Bara Kana'an's nightmare

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Bara Kana’an.
Bara Kana’an.Credit: Alex Levac

Bara Kana’an is hairless now. His head had been shaved earlier on the day we visited him last week, immediately after his discharge from the hospital. A black baseball cap now covers his bare pate, one arm dangles in a sling and he’s pale. He’s sitting in the living room of his parents’ home, surrounded by family members who have come to welcome him home. Israeli soldiers had cut off patches of his hair, apparently in order to humiliate him. The barber in Kana’an’s village Beit Rima, northwest of Ramallah, tried to repair the situation by shaving his head completely.

Kana’an, who usually works at a carpentry shop in nearby Bir Zeit, looks a lot younger than his 20 years – maybe because he’s bald. For the past few years he’s been taking part in the weekly Friday demonstrations in the village of Nabi Saleh against the separation barrier and the occupation. The village, which is known for the persistence and nonviolence of its resistance, is situated about five kilometers from his home. Kana’an was there two weeks ago, too, when the demonstration was dedicated to a show of solidarity with the hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners who are incarcerated in Israel. Until then, Kana’an had never been wounded or arrested at a protest.

The demonstrators set out as usual at 1 P.M. from outside the mosque in the center of the village, and walked to the road that exits Nabi Saleh, which is dominated by a fortified-concrete Israel Defense Forces watchtower, opposite the settlement of Halamish. As usual, soldiers and a Border Police contingent greeted them with the regular doses of tear gas, stun grenades and rubber-coated metal bullets. A few of the demonstrators threw stones. Everything was routine. Until the routine was brutally shattered, and a demonstrator was killed: Saba Nadal Abid, 20, from Nabi Saleh, died in a hospital after being hit in the chest by a bullet from a soldier’s Ruger rifle.

After about half an hour of stones and tear gas, as Kana’an took refuge behind a garbage bin on the street, he saw that his 19-year-old cousin, Nadim Kana’an, had been wounded; he had been hit in the back of the neck by a rubber-coated bullet. Bara rushed to Nadim to help him get to the Palestinian ambulance at the scene, as it always is during the Friday demonstrations, for every contingency – which always materializes: People are wounded or suffer from tear gas almost every week.

The two cousins got into the ambulance, which set out northward in the direction of the hospital in Salfit, so Nadim could be treated. (Nadim was hospitalized for two days, and released.) But when they reached the intersection beneath the IDF watchtower, a group of soldiers darted out and blocked the road. Bara estimates that there were about 10 of them.

Some of them entered the ambulance and photographed the wounded Nadim. They then ordered Bara to get out of the vehicle. When searching him they found a slingshot, whereupon Bara was ordered to stand outside behind the jeep. He was blindfolded and his hands were bound behind his back with plastic handcuffs.

That was the start of 10 hours of abuse, Ka’anan recalls now – the hardest hours of his life. At times, he says, he was certain he would not survive.

He was thrust back into the jeep, which he estimates drove about 10 minutes before stopping. Taken somewhere where he could feel a metal wall around him, he thought he might be in a shipping container. No one said a thing, he had no idea what his abductors were planning to do with him, or why; they would not answer his questions.

Ka’anan was forced to sit on a stool for a few hours, still bound and blindfolded. Soldiers entered and started to kick him. One struck him in the face. He became dizzy, he says, and fell off the stool. As he lay on the floor, someone stepped on his chest. He was then dragged back to the stool and every few minutes soldiers entered and hit or kicked him. Someone smashed him with a helmet, others cursed him. Whenever he let his head droop forward, so he could rest, he was pushed back and told to sit erect. After about two hours of this, the soldiers and offered him something to eat. Unable to see what it was, he took only two bites. He got no more food that night. A bottle of water was later held to his mouth, but he gagged, and most of the water spilled onto his clothes.

A few hours later, he was moved to a new location. Again he was made to sit, again his head drooped forward from exhaustion and again the soldiers made him sit up. When he said he had to relieve himself, he was taken outside and his fly was opened, but then he was kicked and he wet himself, he says. He remained handcuffed, and no one closed his zipper for him.

His abductors continued to curse him and also, Ka’anan remembers, they forced him to repeat after them denunciations of the Prophet Mohammed – “Mohammed is a pig” and “Mohammed is a donkey” – time and again. One soldier told him, in Arabic, “You are my donkey.” He does not want to repeat the obscenities. Every so often the soldiers lifted the blindfold for a second and said, “You see, the soldiers are your friends.” He saw three of them at that point. From time to time they knocked him to the ground and then picked him up.

At one point he felt that he was being taken to a new, isolated site, and he began to fear for his life. His fears grew when one of his captors held a revolver to his head. “I want to kill you,” the soldier said, and Ka’anan had the feeling he meant it. He prayed aloud – the prayer that Muslims recite before their death. A soldier gave him another kick and he fell over again. The soldier told him to get to his feet, and counted to 10. But Ka’anan did not get up by 10.

By now it was late evening. The young Palestinian was then taken to a military base, he has no idea where. Someone brought scissors, and cut off his handcuffs. With the same scissors the soldiers cut off patches of his hair, after which they released him and ordered him to walk in the dark of night in the direction of Nabi Saleh, where everything had begun.

Finally he got a lift home in a Palestinian car. It was 2 A.M., he says, 10 hours since his ordeal had started. His parents took him to the hospital in Salfit, where he underwent two days of tests and was discharged. He still has a few scars, but they don’t look serious. He shows us a photograph of his patchwork scalp.

The IDF Spokespersons Unit told Haaretz that on Friday, May 12, “a violent and illegal disturbance took place in the village of Nabi Saleh, in which dozens of Palestinians threw stones and rolled burning tires at the security forces. Kana’an was arrested on suspicion of taking part in the disturbance and was found to be carrying a slingshot. The suspect was brought to an IDF outpost, where he was detained for about five hours, during which, according to a check that was carried out, no violence was found to have been used against the detainee. His personal needs were looked after and he was also examined medically.”

If he “took part in the disturbances,” why was he released? And if he didn’t participate, why was he detained?

Will he go to demonstrate again on Friday? No, Bara Kana’an says, trying to hold back an embarrassed smile.