Israeli soldiers beat Palestinian journalists with batons and arrested them, on their commanders’ orders, with the declared intention of disrupting their coverage of a weekly demonstration in Kafr Qaddum in August 2012. This was due to a policy change in handling what the army termed “serial” demonstrations, according to the case file of a Military Police investigation obtained recently by Haaretz.
During this assault, one soldier broke the hand of an Agence France-Presse photographer, Jaafar Shtayyeh, as he tried to protect his face from the soldier’s baton. At least one other photographer was wounded in the arms and legs and several cameras were broken. While Shtayyeh was curled up in pain on the sidewalk, a soldier kicked him.
All the journalists except Shtayyeh were handcuffed. All five were held under arrest for two hours in the West Bank settlement of Kedumim. When they were released, they said, a soldier videotaped them and told them, “You aren’t allowed to come to Qaddum anymore.” To Shtayyeh, he said, “If I see you in Qaddum again, I’ll arrest you.”
Part of the assault was filmed by a volunteer photographer for the B’Tselem organization, who was separated from the other journalists. The Foreign Press Association demanded an investigation of the incident.
Only in November 2016 did the military prosecution inform Shtayyeh’s attorney, Eitay Mack, that two of the soldiers involved had been put on disciplinary trial. Aner, the company commander who broke Shtayyeh’s hand, faced disciplinary charges for exceeding his authority to the point of endangering life and health. Then-Lt. Col. Roman Gofman, the battalion commander, faced disciplinary charges for violating the procedure for arresting photographers and giving batons to soldiers who weren’t trained to use them. Both were convicted and reprimanded.
The Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Unit informed Haaretz that the military prosecution also terminated Aner’s service. But Gofman still serves in the IDF and has been promoted to colonel and is the commander of the 7th Battalion.
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Mack, who filed a civil suit against the state on Shtayyeh’s behalf, only received the case file recently.
The file reveals contradictions between the statements of the brigade commander, battalion commander and police representative.
Prior to the demonstration, all the security forces operating in the area set up a joint intelligence task force. The Samaria Brigade commander at the time, Col. Yoav Yarom, the brigade commander, told the Military Police investigator that the task force was part of “the preparations for a special situation, to provide a solution to a recurring problem in the area.” He then listed the participating agencies and individuals, including the Shin Bet security service, the police, the Border Police and various army officers, including himself, and referred to “anarchists” who are dealt with especially. He said he was responsible for the task force.
“We wanted the demonstration to have a low media profile, because it promotes the delegitimization of the IDF and the state,” Yarom said. But he denied ordering Gofman, the brigade commander, to arrest journalists and said he didn’t know Gofman planned to give his soldiers batons.
Gofman described holding a planning meeting before the demonstration with the police representative, Chief Superintendent Rafi, on the brigade commander’s orders. He said Rafi ordered the arrest of journalists, leftists, foreign and Israeli anarchists and stone-throwers.
During this meeting, Gofman asked why leftists and journalists should be arrested. He said Rafi responded that the intelligence task force had decided to enforce an order declaring the area a closed military zone against these groups, because “they heat up the demonstration.”
“I accepted his words as reality,” Gofman told the Military Police. “To me, he was the task force’s representative.”
The soldiers who beat and arrested the journalists said they did so on the battalion commander’s orders.
Chief Superintendent Rafi told the Military Police that he said foreigners should be stopped to see if they are journalists, but did not say Palestinian journalists should be arrested. According to him, “A decision was made by the operations department, as per orders from the public security minister, to conduct operations in which left-wing activists and foreign anarchists, who inflame tempers, would be arrested.” This decision was made by the commander of the West Bank Division, he added.
Yarom said, “I don’t close an area to prevent coverage. Only if their presence endangers the forces do I ask them to photograph and cover somewhere else. The regular decision is that they’re allowed to photograph, and the task force didn’t change this decision.”
After being shown the B’Tselem footage, he said, “What I see is not permissible use of batons. ... In retrospect, I can say that based on what was filmed, the soldiers didn’t act according to regulations, but within the framework their commander defined.”
Yarom said that if Roman, the battalion commander, had asked him, he would naturally have permitted him to equip his soldiers with batons. But he added, “In any case, the very fact that batons were present” at the demonstration “is problematic, because it ultimately leads to a decision to use them.”
Aner, the company commander, repeatedly told Military Police investigators that Gofman, the battalion commander, had ordered him before the demonstration to arrest reporters. Once he said this was “my commanders’ orders,” adding, “One lesson of previous demonstrations was an attempt to prevent the involvement of journalists.” Asked if the journalists interfered with the soldiers’ work, he answered, “No. They were merely present in a closed military zone.”
The journalists were walking together down a street in Kafr Qaddum, nowhere near the weekly demonstration against the closure of the road to Nablus due to the expansion of the settlement of Kedumim. Kafr Qaddum residents and their supporters had begun demonstrating a year earlier, and the weekly demonstrations continue to this day.
Judging by the B’Tselem footage, there were no clashes with the army at the place and time the journalists were walking. The journalists wore flak jackets with the world “Press” on them. Yet two armored military jeeps that were driving down the road in the opposition direction from the journalists stopped, and three soldiers, including the company commander, got out and began attacking them with batons.
Omri, one of the three soldiers, admitted under questioning that the journalists didn’t throw stones, weren’t armed, didn’t run, didn’t interfere with the soldiers and didn’t photograph classified IDF operations. They simply “walked down the street toward the demonstration.”
He confirmed that journalists weren’t arrested during previous demonstrations. This time, he said, the battalion commander’s orders were to arrest anyone who violated the military closure order, including journalists, and to beat with the batons anyone who resisted arrest.
Yossi, the second soldier, initially said he ran toward a journalist who was throwing stones “and told him to sit down.” Later, he said that the journalist was only holding a stone, then changed it to, “I think I saw him with a stone.”
On August 30, 2012, a few days after the battalion commander was questioned, Captain Amichai of the Military Police concluded that the soldiers committed no crime and “their behavior was unexceptionable, since they were ordered to arrest journalists and, if necessary, if they resisted, to beat them with batons on the outer thighs.”
This sounded strange to him at first, he wrote to his superiors, “since IDF policy is not to beat/arrest journalists and/or left-wing activists who come to demonstrations that are prima facie legitimate.”
“When we got to the battalion commander, we discovered several interesting things,” he continued. “First, the battalion commander, through a situation assessment conducted by the brigade commander, was instructed to meet with an Israel Police representative before the aforesaid demonstration and coordinate expectations with him. Incidentally, the battalion commander said, the latter told him there had been a change in IDF policy on dealing with these serial demonstrations.”
The battalion commander also said the police representative told him “to instruct his soldiers to arrest any journalist/left-wing activist/anarchist who is [unclear word] of the instructions and is in a closed military zone.”
Aside from saying that Aner’s military service had been terminated, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit added, “The batons were given to some soldiers in order to reduce the use of potentially lethal materiel, while imposing restrictions on their use. Nevertheless, ultimately, more force than necessary was used while making the arrests, which violated the procedure for arresting photographers.
“The claim that the intelligence task force ordered the journalists’ arrest wasn’t supported by the investigation,” it continued. “The IDF respects freedom of the press in the West Bank. The claim that IDF soldiers try to deter journalists from doing their jobs is baseless.”
MADA, an independent Palestinian organization which promotes freedom of the press, issues monthly reports on violations of this freedom by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In its annual report, published in early February, it listed 139 physical attacks by soldiers on Palestinian journalists in the West Bank and Jerusalem. These attacks included shooting sponge-tipped bullets, tear gas and stun grenades at journalists and beating them with batons.
The report also listed 38 incidents in which Israeli forces prevented journalistic coverage, 31 cases in which they confiscated equipment, 16 cases in which they damaged equipment or vehicles, and 39 cases in which they briefly arrested journalists. Altogether, it counted 376 incidents in 2017 in which the Israeli authorities infringed on Palestinian journalists’ freedom, including lengthy detentions, banning them from Jerusalem and various other tactics for disrupting their journalistic work.