A petition to the High Court of Justice by 33 left-wing activists has forced the military to reiterate and clarify regulations that forbid blindfolding detained Palestinians and to admit that soldiers had exceeded their authority by doing so.
The petition was filed at the end of May, after the activists had collected two and a half years’ worth of evidence from Palestinian shepherds in the Jordan Valley who were routinely detained by Israel Defense Forces soldiers during this time. The shepherds were handcuffed and often blindfolded for several hours while in detention.
The state prosecution submitted its response to the petition on Sunday in the name of the Central Command chief, Maj. Gen. Nadav Padan; Jordan Valley Brigade commander Col. Udi Tzur; and the Judea and Samaria legal adviser, Col. Eyal Toledano. The prosecution sought to dismiss the petition because “Military orders and regulations forbid the blindfolding of detainees, and action to clarify the rules to the troops acting in the region has been taken and will continue to be taken on a continuous basis.” Eitay Mack, the attorney for the petitioners, agreed to withdraw the petition since the activists had achieved their goal.
Although the petition focused on the blindfolding, it also argued that the Palestinian shepherds were generally detained only for punitive purposes. This contravenes a document all soldiers serving in the West Bank receive, titled Information Page for the Soldier - The Authority to Detain, which specifies the purpose of and procedures for detaining Palestinians.
The petition detailed 25 times the shepherds were detained between February 19, 2017 and March 31, 2019, which were reported by the activists to the authorities in real time. It stated that the shepherds must find places for their flocks to graze, and end up entering forbidden areas without knowing it: “Most of the closed territory is not fenced off or indicated by any other physical sign, certainly not when the closure orders are temporary.” The petition noted that the difficulty in finding grazing areas stems from more and more tracts being taken over by settlers and being closed to Palestinians.
According to Mack, the petitioners had contacted military officials several times, asking them to examine the practice and the reason behind specific detentions, and never got a serious answer.
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A consulting officer from the Judea and Samaria legal adviser’s operations division wrote in March 2018 that Information Page for the Soldier is a classified document and that it wanted to know how the activists had obtained it. In October 2018, when the activists sought to determine what had happened to several Palestinian shepherds who had been detained, a soldier in the Jericho District Coordinating Office told them that they were detained as punishment and as a deterrent, in accordance with the policy of the brigade commander, “who is the judge in Area C.” The soldier said the detention was meant to teach them not to return to use the area for grazing.
In the prosecution’s response, it was written that the comments by “the junior soldier, who isn’t even a soldier in the Jordan Valley Brigade,” were mistaken and do not reflect “the instructions or the policy of the district brigade. The respondents regret what was said in that conversation, and ask to clarify that this is totally unacceptable to them.”
The prosecution also said that the document detailing the military command procedure, which is updated periodically, is indeed classified, but it states explicitly that a soldier is not authorized to “detain a person as a ‘punishment’ or ‘educational’ measure.” Instead, a soldier is authorized to obtain the details of a person suspected of committing a violation or of planning to commit one, or of having information in connection to a violation, within a reasonable amount of time. Afterward he is to be either released or transferred to a lockup by those authorized to do so.
In a medical opinion attached to the petition, a neurologist and a family doctor wrote that “blindfolding and similar measures that cause sensory deprivation are typically likely to cause fear, anxiety and high levels of stress … Beyond being a restrictive measure similar to binding, blindfolding creates a significant feeling of helplessness … and undermines the ability of the individual to give accurate and reliable testimony regarding what he has been through.”
The petition argued that the large number of cases of detention and blindfolding points to “an obscene habit of the Jordan Valley Brigade, aimed at punishing the Palestinian shepherds and/or simply abusing them.” It also stated that in some of the cases, Israeli activists accompanying the shepherds were also detained, but unlike the Palestinians, they were not blindfolded, indicating clear discrimination.
However, during the week the petition was filed in May, soldiers at a Jordan Valley army base detained and blindfolded activists from anti-occupation organizations Ta’ayush and Combatants for Peace on two different occasions. They were arrested after they sought to ascertain what had happened to shepherds who had been detained for several hours. These were the exceptions that proved the rule, but the prosecution said in response: “Following the filing of the petition and following media inquiries about the incident in which Israelis who were detained in the brigade’s jurisdiction were blindfolded, the orders and regulations were reiterated in this context as well, both to the Jordan Valley Brigade and to all the forces operating in Judea and Samaria. This was in addition to a conversation on the matter in May between the Judea and Samaria legal adviser and the commander of the Jordan Valley Brigade.”