'I Waited for the Bullet That Would End This Nightmare': Palestinians Brutalized by Israeli Cop Gang Speak Out

Five Border Police officers have been charged in a shocking case of violence against Palestinian workers, which included beatings, humiliation and also robbery. Testimonies of two of the victims

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Majdi Ikhtat, captured in a video taken by his assailants.
Majdi Ikhtat, captured in a video taken by his assailants.
Gideon Levy
Alex Levac
Gideon Levy
Alex Levac

Following are the names, for everyone’s edification: Amit Edri, 21, from Sderot; Tal Yosef Mizrahi, 20, from Ashdod; Uri Medina, 20, from Netivot; Refael Hazan, 20, from Moshav Neve Michael; and Lidor Zafriri, 19, from Moshav Patish. Five Border Police officers, members of the occupation policing corps, the most brutal of units, who in the Israeli media are usually referred to as “fighters,” for some reason. The first four, the principal suspects, remain in custody. Edri was their commander.

The grim indictment against these men was filed in Be’er Sheva District Court on August 13: They are charged in connection with 14 incidents, on counts that include armed robbery, assault causing bodily harm, conspiring to commit a crime, aggravated assault, abusing a helpless person, theft, breach of trust and destruction of evidence.

The charges should be read by everyone. They make for a very tough read, detailing a shocking series of instances in which the accused are alleged to have humiliated, kicked, beat bloody and robbed Palestinian laborers who were trying to get to their jobs in Israel. Some of the Palestinians had proper work permits, but that was of no interest to the Border Police sadists, who are big heroes when confronting the very weakest members of society.

They went about it day after day, in mid-July, when the Meitar checkpoint in the southern West Bank, near Hebron, was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Hundreds of Palestinians were entering Israel through the many breaches in the security barrier that the Israel Defense Forces has not closed; in fact it turns a blind eye so that the workers will be able sneak through them.

The attack on Majdi Ikhtat.

The fact that such serious charges were filed so speedily is nothing short of miraculous. But the video footage documenting the crimes left even the Justice Ministry unit responsible for probing police misconduct, which is known for burying cases, with no alternative. To their misfortune, it was the accused themselves who documented their own actions – perhaps to show off their heroism to their buddies and girlfriends – and in so doing may have succeeded in lowering the already appalling standards of the Border Police. Clearly, they are not the only members of the force who treat Palestinians with brutality – and, in fact, it’s doubtful that the indictment covers all their misdeeds.

Most of the cases occurred in the middle of night, far from the eyes of others, during the predawn “shift” when Palestinian laborers from the territories set out on their long journey to work in Israel, to build its houses and pave its roads. According to the charge sheet, the accused would order the workers they hunted down and caught to empty their pockets and then confiscate their money. But to enhance the experience they would make the workers lie on the ground and beat them, kicking them all over, including on the head, punching them and threatening them with their weapons. Then the officers are alleged to have split the plundered money between them.

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Palestinians cross the security barrier near the Meitar Crossing, August 2020.
Palestinians cross the security barrier near the Meitar Crossing, August 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

We met the victim cited in clause No. 5 of the indictment this week at home in the small village of Rabud, in the South Hebron Hills. Majdi Ikhtat is still reliving the traumatic events of the night of July 16. He’s a 32-year-old construction worker, a graduate of the Open University of Hebron in Arabic literature, and a father of two daughters and a son. He had a permit to work in Israel for the Rahal N.S.A. company, based in Omer, and was employed in a construction project in nearby Be’er Sheva. The video showing his bloodied face as he begs his assailants for mercy has gotten a lot of play on the web. His physical wounds have healed since then, but the mental scars are still palpable. He is afraid to return to work, and the employment agency through which he was hired has meanwhile revoked his permit.

Every night Ikhtat, a muscular but soft-spoken young man, would leave home at 3:30 A.M. to get to work in Israel. That’s what he did in the early hours of July 16. Four other Palestinian workers were standing next to the gap in the fence, waiting to cross into Israel. Suddenly someone shouted at them to halt. The others scattered, but Ikhtat advanced a few meters before a Border Policeman grabbed him and knocked him to the ground. Three more officers joined in and started to kick him all over – in the stomach, the face, the head – as he lay there. Ikhtat tried to tell them that he had a permit and pleaded for his life, telling them he had small children at home, but they just ordered him to shut up.

Afterward, one officer told him to get to his feet. He tried to explain that he couldn’t stand, but the man threatened him, and Ikhtat was forced to drag himself a few dozen meters toward Israel. A big pickup truck arrived. Four Border Police officers got out; one of them, a woman, perched on the vehicle’s doorstep and watched. They ordered Ikhtat to take off his shirt and again kicked him brutally. He thinks the beating was intended to impress the woman, who may have been the one who filmed the assault. Another officer hit him in the face with brass knuckles and then the group loaded him, bleeding, onto their truck, threw him out next to the breach in the fence, and told him he had a minute to make himself scarce.

Ikhtat was lucky: They didn’t rob him. About an hour passed from the moment he was caught by the Border Police until they released him, he tells us. Two workers carried him to a car that took him home, where his children saw him in his horrific state. He was taken to a clinic in the town of Dahariya, where his wounds were dressed. He lost four teeth.

Majdi Ikhtat, at home with a daughter, this week.
Majdi Ikhtat, at home with a daughter, this week. He says he pleaded with the Border Policemen for his life, but they told him to shut up and kept kicking him.Credit: Alex Levac

Another clip that went viral shows a half-naked Palestinian being flogged on the back with a stick by a Border Police officer who is shouting at him to shut up. The flogging continues for what seems like an eternity. The victim is Muntassar Fahoury, a 21-year-old wedding deejay from Hebron who was left without work because of the coronavirus crisis.

In testimony provided to Haaretz, Fahoury related: “My friend Yazen, who worked in a car-wash place in Rahat [a Bedouin city near Be’er Sheva], offered me a job working with him for 4,000 shekels [$1,195] a month. I accepted, and we decided to cross over the fence to Be’er Sheva. I prepared a bag with clothing and took canned food and cigarettes, and we left after midnight in my car. We went to a clearing near the Meitar checkpoint, where there are holes in the fence.... Yazen reassured me that we would get through easily, because all the workers get to their jobs in Israel through the breaches since the checkpoint was shut down because of the coronavirus.

“At 12:30 A.M., we went through one of the holes in the fence and continued on a few meters into the clearing, and then I sensed the movement of people behind us and heard footsteps, and someone called out to us in Hebrew. I looked behind me and saw two masked people in uniform. They lit up the area with their cellphones. Even before I understood what they wanted, I saw Yazen kneel down, and I did likewise. The two people – whom I later learned were Border Police officers – attacked us and started to hit us and curse us in Hebrew. They kicked us all over our bodies with their army boots. I took a few kicks in the face and the stomach, and screamed with pain each time. I also heard Yazen screaming.

One of the Border Police officers in court, in Be'er Sheva, August 2020.
One of the Border Police officers in court, in Be'er Sheva, August 2020. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“I tried to speak to them, in Arabic, and explain that we were just going to work. They didn’t want to hear it and kept on hitting us hard for more than a quarter-hour. Afterward they demanded that we empty our pockets and throw everything on the ground. Yazen and I did what they demanded. The two officers started to empty my and Yazen’s bags and to throw everything on the ground. In my bag there were four pairs of pants, canned food and a carton of cigarettes; I had hidden 1,000 shekels in my wallet. I saw the two officers checking my ID card and searching my wallet and our bags. After that, the two officers led us a few meters and stopped next to a military jeep. They ordered us to get down on our knees. I saw a female Border Police officer standing next to the jeep.

“One officer went over to the jeep, took out a long bamboo stick and started to hit me with it while counting from one to 10, in Hebrew. His two friends, the male and female officers, laughed loudly. I also noticed that the woman was holding her phone, pointed toward us, and I realized that she was filming the event. The beating on my back with the bamboo stick was very painful, and I screamed in pain at each blow. I also heard Yazen screaming every time he was hit.

“Afterward, the second police officer came over to me. He was wearing brass knuckles on his right hand and he started to punch me on my head, shoulder and back. He did the same to Yazen. My nose was bleeding and I saw that Yazen was bleeding from the head. This had been going on for an hour and a half. I was afraid we wouldn’t come out of it alive. The whole time I was imagining the moment when the two officers would shoot us and finish us off. I didn’t have the strength to speak anymore, and I surrendered completely to what was happening to me.

Palestinians cross the security barrier near the Meitar Crossing.
Palestinians cross the security barrier near the Meitar Crossing.Credit: Meged Gozani

“We were in an isolated place, the surroundings were scary. I felt like all this wasn’t really happening. I didn’t know why the officers were behaving so cruelly. I wanted to shout out loudly into all the quiet around us, but I couldn’t; I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. All I could think of was my death, and I just waited to hear the bullet that would end this nightmare and my life. Suddenly the two officers told us to get up, take our stuff and get lost. I picked up my bag, which was empty – the money and the cigarettes were gone – and I wanted to collect the things, but I didn’t. I felt that it was all pointless. I left my clothes and the canned food on the ground and started to walk with Yazen until we reached the road.

“I called a friend and asked him to come and take us home. I entered the house quietly and didn’t tell anyone what had happened to me. I felt humiliated and I was ashamed; I was also totally exhausted and my whole body ached. I decided not to tell anyone what happened to me. But a few days ago, my friend called and asked whether I was the person who’s seen taking a beating in a video clip posted on the social media. At first I denied it, said it wasn’t me, but my friend insisted that it was. I was shocked when I saw the video. I saw everything again in my mind – like in a movie. Those sights were engraved in my memory and I will never be able to forget them.

“After the story got out, my mother also heard about it. She fainted when she saw the video and was taken to Al-Ahli Hospital [in Hebron]. My sister, who is married and lives in Belgium, advised me to leave the West Bank and ask for political asylum in Belgium. In the past that would never have occurred to me, because I was happy with my work in music and as a deejay. I felt that I was young and my whole life lay ahead of me. But since the incident I’ve been thinking seriously about getting out of this place and living somewhere far away where I can forget what happened to me. In my life I never experienced such feelings of humiliation, fear, despair and helplessness like I did on that night.”

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