Basel al-Badawi is 16 years old, a student in the 10th grade, the offspring of refugees and also a bereaved brother: His older brother was killed before his eyes a year ago. Omar was 22 when Israel Defense Forces soldiers shot him to death at short range and then claimed that they thought the towel he was holding – with which he was trying to put out a fire at his house – was a Molotov cocktail.
We visited the home a few days after Omar was killed, in the heart of the Al-Arroub refugee camp, between Hebron and Bethlehem, to document the circumstances of his death. Two weeks ago – four days after the first anniversary of his killing – IDF troops returned to the building on whose steps they killed Omar. This time they came in the dead of night to arrest his younger brother, Basel. They abducted him from his home while he was barefoot, wearing only bedclothes, and took him away for almost a full day of detention and interrogation. It was only at dawn that his interrogators brought him a pair of shoes.
This house hasn’t yet recovered from its mourning for Omar. A sister, Maram, opens the door for us and immediately turns around and walks away, scowling. The small, colorful living room is adorned with photographs of Omar and with year-old posters commemorating him. Al-Arroub stands on the slope of a hill – a small, crowded, impoverished refugee camp that reminds one of the Gaza Strip.
The family is still counting the days of mourning here. How long since Omar was killed? “A year and 20 days,” replies his older brother, Ahmad, 26, who is unemployed by dint of the circumstances. They also visit the grave, a few hundred meters from the house, almost daily. When we arrived at the camp this week, we found that IDF soldiers had locked the main entry gate, cramming in the 15,000 inhabitants even more tightly. Why? Why not?
A day earlier three soldiers had walked into the camp through its center, an act clearly intended to provoke the young people there. Afterward two army jeeps entered and the youngsters threw stones at them. Why did the jeeps enter? Why not? In response, the soldiers arrested everyone they encountered; they managed to grab nine youths, four of whom they freed shortly afterward, while taking the other five into detention. Routine in a refugee camp where there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do.
According to data of the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, 157 Palestinian children and youths were still incarcerated in Israel at the end of September – 18 of them under the age of 16. A report published jointly this week by the organizations Yesh Din-Volunteers for Human Rights, Physicians for Human Rights and Breaking the Silence, about the night raids on Palestinian homes and the psychological damage they wreak, states that 64 percent of the families who gave testimony said soldiers invaded their home more than once, and that in 88 percent of the cases the raids took place at night. According to United Nations data for 2017-2018, soldiers broke into Palestinian homes throughout the West Bank, 6,402 times, an average of 267 incursions a month, about 10 a night.
On the night between Sunday and Monday, November 15 and 16, Basel and Ahmad were in their room on the second floor of the house. Ahmad was sleeping, Basel was playing games on his phone. Local schools are open only intermittently these days, because of the coronavirus pandemic, and on the days when there are no classes Basel goes to sleep late. When he visited, too, he was still asleep at midday. He’s a hefty, solidly built youth, with the first inklings of a beard; the signs of mourning for his brother, whose death he witnessed in first-hand, are still apparent in his demeanor and his tone of speech. B’Tselem field researcher Musa Abu Hashhash asks Basel why he’s sad, but he remains silent.
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At 2:15 that morning Basel heard noise from the direction of the front door. Someone was trying to force it open. Quickly he woke Ahmad. At the same time, their teenage sister, Maram, rushed into their room to rouse them. Basel shrugs off our question about whether he was afraid, but this was the first time soldiers had returned to the house since the killing of Omar.
Going downstairs, says Basel, he saw seven or eight soldiers, armed and wearing protective gear and masks. Dozens more troops milled outside. A video clip, filmed by a B’Tselem volunteer who lives in the camp, shows the start of the event: The occupants of the house are standing with their arms raised, the soldiers are aiming their rifles at them, the narrow quarters are filled almost to bursting and the tension is at the breaking point. As it happened, in addition to the parents and three of their children, Basel’s other two sisters and their small children were also staying over. There were about 15 people in the house.
“Kullu tamam,” one of the soldiers says in the video – “everything is all right.” From that point on, however, nothing was all right. The women and children were all locked into a single room, the soldiers pushing them in while they were all still dazed from sleep. Basel, seeing one of the soldiers push his mother, Hajar, flew into a rage and pushed a soldier on the arm. The soldier pressed Basel against the wall, bound his hands behind him and took him to the kitchen, where he blindfolded him, amid a stream of curses. He then took Basel outside into the cold street.
The youth’s father, Haitham, tried to hand him his shoes, but the soldiers shouted at him and pushed him back inside; their voices can be heard on another video. The soldiers’ language is coarse and filthy: “Shtok, ya ben sharmuta” (“Shut up, you son of a whore”) – they are heard saying a few times, with the shouts of the women in the background. The troops’ boots were caked with mud and one of the occupants asked them not to dirty the carpets. In response one soldier stepped on an armchair in the living room, staining it, too. “Is that better for you now?” he asked.
A blindfolded Basel, dressed only in his pajamas, was led barefoot along a road that was still wet from the rain that fell the previous night. A neighbor also tried to hand him a pair of shoes, only to be shoved aside by the soldiers. As Basel was led to the military vehicle, his cousin, who lives down in the lane, called out to him: “Don’t be afraid, Basel!” The bound and blindfolded teenager replied, “Don’t worry.” That cost him: a soldier struck him in the head with his rifle butt, shouting “Shut up!”
Next to their armored vehicle, recalls Basel, two soldiers pulled him in opposite directions, probably competing over which of them would herd him into the vehicle. They then pushed him inside and kicked him, until he fell to the floor. On the way the soldiers cursed him. When he asked, “Why are you cursing me?” they kicked him as he lay on the floor.
Basel was taken to an IDF base a few minutes’ drive away, apparently in the settlement of Karmei Tzur, north of Hebron; he was forced to sit on the ground, outside in the cold, before being dragged to a chair. The plastic handcuffs ate into his hands, bound behind his back. He asked for them to be loosened, and they were, but he still has a small scar on his hand as a souvenir.
Cursing, the soldiers circled around him, until only one remained, who stepped painfully on Basel’s bare feet. Basel says he was outside for about an hour, and then a soldier arrived and pulled him by his bound hands into a room, sitting him on the floor. Two more detainees from Al-Arroub were brought in. He heard the soldiers speak their names: Walid Swailam, 41, and Qusay Badawi, 17, who is a member of Basel’s extended family. An army doctor arrived to check them and, as a precaution against coronavirus infection, asked them if they had been coughing lately. Basel was able to see a bit of what was happening through the blindfold.
At about 6 A.M., he and Qusay were taken in a military jeep to the Etzion base, where they were left, handcuffed, until 8 A.M. when Basel was taken into an interrogation room. The interrogator gave him a pair of shoes. He still has them and shows them to us, with disgust; tattered brown shoes that another detainee probably left in the interrogation room.
The interrogator questioned him about a Molotov cocktail that was thrown at a military vehicle that week; Basel denied that he was the perpetrator. The man showed him a photograph and claimed that he was in it, but Basel denied that it was him. The questioning went on for a few hours, with an interrogator who said his name was Moshe, another named Yossi and a third with no name, one good and one bad, the usual procedure. In the background, Hebrew songs were being played the whole time on a computer.
Basel says he doesn’t know if they were police officers or Shin Bet agents. The “bad cop” pelted him with accusations, demanding names, pounding on the table, calling him a liar. One interrogator suggested that he admit to at least having thrown a stone at a fence, but he refused. Another one eventually pushed him outside angrily. They gave him water, the only sustenance he had during all those hours. They wouldn’t, however, allow him to use a toilet the entire time, he says.
Basel knows Yossi from a previous interrogation. On December 11, 2019, a month after Omar was killed, he was summoned, by means of his father, to the Etzion facility and questioned about throwing stones. That didn’t require a daring night raid of dozens of soldiers and all the rest: A phone call to his father was enough to get him to the interrogation room. He would have gone this time, too, he adds, if he’d been summoned.
Evening had already fallen when Basel’s brother Ahmad got a call ordering him to come and pick up his brother. The interrogators took the cuffs off and kicked him out, leaving him next to the gate of the base. It was 7:30 P.M., 17 hours after he had been detained. Back home, he devoured the meal his mother had prepared for him: an omelette, salad, hummus. He did not succeed in getting to sleep until 3 A.M.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit issued the following response this week to a query from Haaretz: “On the night between November 15 and 16, 2020, the suspect was arrested by the security forces on suspicion of being involved in throwing Molotov cocktails and stones at Israeli vehicles. During the arrest, the military force encountered violent resistance and rioting by the suspect’s family, who live in the house. As a result, and in order to reduce the risk to the fighters and to the operational activity, the military force separated the suspect from his family and left the house with the suspect within a short time.
“Contrary to what is alleged, at no stage of the arrest activity did the force notice that anyone from the family approached [the suspect] to give him personal equipment. In addition, and contrary to what is alleged, when the suspect arrived at the military base, he was given proper treatment and a warm drink, and access to the toilet. After a few hours, the suspect was transferred to the Israel Police for continued handling.”