Salah al-Natshe, a 20-year-old resident of East Jerusalem, was on the steps of the Old City’s Damascus Gate on Saturday afternoon. Police orders are that every time concerns are raised about Palestinians gathering at the site, they are to start clearing people from the stairs and the plaza at the gate.
Over the past few weeks, policemen have started to use an old-new weapon: The baton. Police push back those standing in the area and deliver blows to the legs with their batons to those who they don’t think are moving fast enough. “Move back, move back,” shouted one of the police, as he hit Al-Natshe on his legs with the club again and again.
Al-Natshe, who has difficulty walking and suffers from epilepsy, cursed the policeman who was hitting him. In response, police officers attacked him and dragged him into the police post at the top of the stairs, hitting him all the while. Inside the post, they continued to beat him. From the videos taken at the scene, it appears that Al-Natshe was arguing with the policemen and trying to resist being restrained with plastic handcuffs. As the officers tried to restrain him, he said, they used a stun gun on his chest and back, while one sprayed his face with pepper spray.
Al-Natshe then appeared to panic and tried to run. The police officers grabbed him, sprayed him again and one of them even used the barrel of his gun to hit him. “One of them shocked me and I started to scream, and then the other put gas on my face and it burned my whole face. Another one hit me in the eye with a glove, and then again with the gas. I tried to run away and then they jumped on me and hit me on the head with a weapon,” Al-Natshe told Haaretz. He was later taken to the Shalem police station on Salah al-Din Street.
“I told them I need a hospital. They told me, ‘You will never get out of here, you will go to prison and you won’t see the light of day,’” Al-Natshe said. Nevertheless, he was released after a few hours, apparently because his questioners realized they had no evidence against him. On Sunday, he was hospitalized for tests and was found to have a hand fracture and bruises all over his body.
Al-Natshe is the latest in a very long list of Palestinians who have been dragged into and beaten at the police posts at Damascus Gate. Among the residents of East Jerusalem, these posts have become widely synonymous with police brutality. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel demanded that police install cameras inside the posts.
The Damascus Gate police posts – one near the gate and two on top of the stairs on either side of the plaza – were set up a few years ago during a period of tension in the area. The posts are built with windows on top that are usually open, while the lower level has opaque walls. Numerous videos taken at the scene show that police officers force detainees into the posts and either bend them or force them to the floor beneath the window level, so that anyone looking from outside can’t see them being beaten by the cops. The positions report to the Shalem station, whose commander, Ronen Hazut, has been the target of numerous complaints about the unnecessary use of force.
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A letter sent by attorney Tal Hassin two weeks ago to Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai details eight instances that had been documented in the six weeks that had preceded the letter. Al-Natshe’s case is the ninth. “In all the cases described above the police violence took place after the detention, when the person against whom violence was used was not resisting or posing any kind of threat to the police or the public, and always in the presence of other police officers, to whom it never occurred to stop the beating and sometimes even joined in. This invalid pattern of behavior is extremely unreasonable.” She demanded that the commissioner order the installation of cameras in the post so that policemen would be deterred from using them as shielded places where they could beat detainees without fear of being seen.
At the start of the month of Ramadan, when clashes at the site heated up after barricades were installed on the steps, two police officers were filmed forcefully holding a Palestinian young man and beating him at the entrance to the post, even though he did not appear to pose a danger or be resisting.
A week later, a policeman was filmed using his fists to beat Nasim Sakafi, who was arrested on suspicion of throwing a water bottle at the police. In this incident, Sakafi was pushed down below the level of the windows. In the video, one can see the policeman repeatedly raising his fist and hitting Sakafi. The police requested that Sakafi’s remand be extended but Magistrate’s Court Judge Sharon Bavli rejected the request, and wrote: “While there is a certain suspicion that the respondent hurled a water bottle at police, the more likely suspicion is that the respondent was assaulted very violently by the police, as may be clearly seen in the video.”
The judge also ordered the police internal investigations division (known by the Hebrew acronym Mahash) to investigate the incident. In his complaint to Mahash, Sakafi said: “We got to the police room, [the policeman] took me inside, and made me sit on the floor on my behind. He beat me on my head and shoulders for no reason. I received a kick in the head… The second policeman only kicked me in the legs. Other police officers who were in the room saw that I was being assaulted and none of them helped me or tried to prevent the attack.”
A week later, the police again arrested a suspect in the Damascus Gate plaza and dragged him into the post. On the steps, one policeman can be seen choking him and beating him on the head with another policeman. Inside the post, the arrested man was made to lie on the floor and a number of police officers are seen beating and kicking him. The post is filled with police officers, but none of them intervenes to stop the violence. On that same day, police officers were also captured choking another young man, who was arrested and led to the post.
In another incident, at around the same period, a policeman is seen arguing with a young Palestinian man and then slapping him, and dragging him to the post with the aid of other police officers. On May 11, a video was filmed showing a young Palestinian man who was arrested opening a window in the police post and then being given a severe beating with fists and kicks by four policemen. Two days later, the police detained another young man and conducted a search on him inside the post. When the search, which was done without violence, was completed and just as they are about to release him, one of them suddenly hits him on the head, in a humiliating farewell gesture.
The final video is from the lower police post next to the gate in the Old City walls. In this footage, policemen are seen forcibly making a young man enter the post and lie down on the floor. One of them says, “Head down.”
The police violence within the police guard booths at the Damascus Gate are an extreme example of police behavior in East Jerusalem in recent months – the use of unexplained aggression, collective punishment and the vigorous use of crowd-dispersal measures even when not necessary. The violence generally takes place when police decide to disperse groups of Palestinians whom they fear could start demonstrating or get violent.
It’s important to stress that the overwhelming majority of clashes between policemen and Palestinians in Jerusalem in recent months began when a police officer decided to forcibly disperse a Palestinian crowd without having been provoked by any Palestinian violence. This generally happens because the crowd is getting too big from the police’s perspective, the shouting of nationalist slogans, flying the Palestinian flag and on rare occasions, the throwing of a water bottle. Those gathered are dispersed with heavy force, using stun grenades, the firing of sponge-tipped bullets, the use of mounted police and the indiscriminate spraying of the foul-smelling “skunk” water.
On Saturday, for example, the skunk water hose was well documented spraying the Damascus Gate plaza, the Old City walls, and later, homes in Silwan, without there being any demonstrators in sight. The consequences for the thousands of people in these areas are very serious; it means an unbearable stench that almost makes one gag. This police aggression had the full support of former Public Security Minister Amir Ohana. The new minister, Omer Bar-Lev, who many are hoping will be able to calm things down, has yet to comment on the matter.
The Israel Police provided the following response: “Thousands of police officers and Border Police troops operated with resolve throughout the past weeks to maintain public order in light of a multitude of violent disturbances directed at civilians and at the police forces. In these incidents, the police responded with determination and carried out arrests of suspects involved in violent rioting, disturbances of the peace and assaults on police, and hundreds of charges were filed against many of the suspects in these offenses. Any claims of improper use of force should be examined by the bodies that are authorized to do so. Regarding the letter, a reply will be sent to the writer, as is standard practice.”
Regarding the incident involving Al-Natshe, the police say: “Upon the dispersal of a demonstration at Damascus Gate where there were about 150 demonstrators, a number of protesters refused to leave and began rioting there. Border Police officers approached one of them and asked him to vacate the area, the suspect refused and was arrested. During the arrest, the suspect began acting wild and trying to escape. The police officers gained control of the suspect and brought him in for questioning by the police. Any complaints about the performance of the police should properly be examined by the authorized bodies.”