Settlers and Soldiers Abused Palestinians
A week after being assaulted in Wadi as-Seeq, Palestinians and Israeli activists struggle to recover – and accuse an army unit of ‘hilltop youth’ and settlers. The army has removed the commanding officer of the unit and opened an investigationFrom left: Majd, Mohammad Khaled and Abu Hassan, cuffed and blindfolded, Wadi as-Seeq, October 2023. The image was disseminated on social media. Credit: Courtesy
The abuse lasted almost a whole day. Soldiers and settlers detained and handcuffed three Palestinians from the West Bank village Wadi as-Seeq, and for hours, according to the Palestinians, they were severely beaten, stripped to their underwear, and photographed handcuffed, in their underwear. Their captors urinated on two of them and extinguished burning cigarettes on them. There was even an attempt to penetrate one of them with an object.
At the same time, soldiers and settlers arrested leftist Israeli activists who were present, including a minor, cuffed them, threatened to kill them, and detained them for hours. Some of the activists were beaten. The activists say that in addition to the presence of people in uniform, at some point a young settler in civilian clothes was put in charge of guarding them.
The Israelis were released after three hours. The Palestinians were only released in the evening by Civil Administration officers, and were taken to a hospital in Ramallah. Both groups were extensively robbed, including cash and a car.
The events occurred on Thursday over a week ago, October 12. The soldiers were from the Desert Frontier unit (“Sfar Hamidbar”), which was established a few years ago and recruits “hilltop youth,” radical, often violent settler youth from illegal outposts in military service, particularly choosing youth from the farming outposts that have become prevalent in the West Bank.
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An IDF spokesman told Haaretz in response that given the serious suspicions, the Military Police investigative division has opened an investigation, and the Jordan Valley brigade commander dismissed the force commander.
Cars with settlers approaching as-Seeq before the event. Credit: Omri Eran-Vardi
The Palestinians who spoke with Haaretz said that the settlers and soldiers detaining them said that the Shin Bet security service was expected to arrive. Then more men arrived in a civilian car, and questioned them while abusing them severely. In response to inquiry by Haaretz, the Shin Bet denied that their men were present at the site or were involved in the incident.
Haaretz spoke with six witnesses to the incident, three Palestinians and three Israeli activists. Two of the Palestinians who experienced the worst abuses sent numerous photographs of the bruises, signs of blows, and burns – not all of which are published here out of regard for the privacy of the interviewees.
“You heard about the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq? It’s exactly like what happened there,” Mohammad Matar, known as Abu Hassan, told Haaretz. His whole body was still badly bruised almost a week after the incident: “Abu Ghraib with the [Israeli] army.”
Masked settlers in army uniform
The incidents described in this article did not occur in a vacuum. They happened against the backdrop of factors influencing the current situation in the West Bank. The first is that, because of the war, and because most of the standing army forces were moved to southern Israel, most of the military force positioned in the West Bank now are reserves, which includes a large number of settlers who were called up.
Another factor is that the already heavily armed settlers are getting more arms. Under IDF directives, many settlers are eligible to bear arms, and there is an extensive and documented history of settlers committing violence or other illegal acts while armed with Israeli army rifles.
The third factor is the culture of threats and violence against the Palestinian shepherding communities in the West Bank – a trend that has intensified in the last year, since the current government came to power – but with the outbreak of the war in Gaza, it has become a tsunami.
Against this backdrop, the already blurred line between settlers and soldiers has become even more blurry. Throughout interviews with them, witnesses say that they find it very difficult to distinguish between a settler and a soldier. As it turns out – there isn’t necessarily a difference.
The attack occurred on Thursday a week ago, when the last residents of Wadi as-Seeq were leaving their village due to repeated attacks by settlers. Israeli activists and Palestinians who had come to help the villagers were already getting organized to go home.
Residents of the village packing up and leaving. Credit: Omri Eran-Vardi
Mohammad Khaled, 27, and Abu Hassan, 46, are Palestinian Authority employees who work on the “Wall and Settlement Resistance Commission” in Ramallah. They stayed in the village in recent weeks, helping its residents. They had gotten into their car and said their goodbyes before heading home. “We drove toward the entrance,” says Abu Hassan. “Suddenly we saw two pickup trucks with settlers in army uniforms. All were armed and some were masked. Twenty to 25 men jumped out of the vehicles and aimed their rifles at us.”
According to Abu Hassan, he immediately turned back toward the village and called the Palestinian Coordination and Liaison Administration to report that settlers were chasing him. He couldn’t call the IDF: Palestinians who want to notify the army about anything need to contact the Palestinian Coordination and Liaison Administration, which in turn notifies the Israeli Civil Administration.
The pickups overtook the two Palestinians near the village homes. They say that the uniformed settlers held them down on the floor and began beating them with their weapons, held their heads to the floor and stomped them. Afterwards, the two men said, their hands were bound with ropes.
At some point, a Civil Administration soldier came over and told the still-bound Palestinians that the ones who detained them were soldiers. “I said to him, ‘Are you sure? Because I know that these were settlers who live nearby. But he repeated that they were soldiers,’” said Abu Hassan. He says that he identified two of the men present at the scenes throughout the day as settlers that he knew, even though one was in uniform. One was a settler from an outpost close to the Palestinian village Deir Dibwan. He identified the other as Neria Ben Pazi from the outpost near Wadi as-Seeq, a known “hilltop” figure.
According to Abu Hassan, at this point, the soldier from the Civil Administration told the soldiers and settlers that he had checked the two Palestinians and found that Abu Hassan had been arrested in the past for stone-throwing and murder. The soldiers-settlers took Abu Hassan’s bag from the car and presented large knives that they claimed they found in it. Abu Hassan, for his part, insists that the knives had been planted. “They said they found knives on us and that we were planning a terror attack,” he says. “I told the Civil Administration soldier, ‘What terror attack? After all, I am the one who called the Palestinian Liaison, which called you. Who would commit a terrorist attack and call the Liaison?’”
An iron pipe and questions in Arabic
According to Khaled, the soldiers-settlers told that they were detained by the Shin Bet, forces of which would be coming soon. So, he said, when a white GMC arrived with an antenna and black star of David on the back from with six to eight uniformed men got out, they thought they were Shin Bet.
At this stage, the two men say, the abuse intensified. They say that the men who had emerged from the pickup took them to an empty building with no tiling on the floor, covered their eyes with cloth, and replaced the rope that tied their hands with metal wire. The two men thought that the building may have served as an animal pen, because the ground was covered in dung.
“They lay us face-down and one of them tore our clothes with a knife,” says Abu Hassan. “We were left in just our underwear.” He cannot say for certain how many men were there. “I estimate eight to ten,” he says.
“They continued beating us,” adds Khaled. “They had an iron pipe and knives, which they also used to hit us. They beat us everywhere, hands, chest, and head too. Everywhere. They stubbed out cigarettes on us. They tried to pull out my fingernails.”
Abu Hasan. Credit: Courtesy
Abu Hasan’s bruises on the back and arms. Credit: Courtesy
The abuse continued. “They stomped our heads and pushed our faces into the dirt and dung,” says Abu Hassan. At some point, he says that one man removed his blindfolds. “He neared my face and asked, ‘Do you remember me?’ I told him, no. He told me, ‘I am a cow-herder from Biddya.’ He then beat me all over my body, stomped my head with both feet and jumped on my back, in an attempt to break my spine.” Abu Hassan understood from the person’s admission that he was a settler from one of the farming outposts near Biddya.
At some point, the two men say that as the abuse continued, a man arrived to question them. Abu Hassan remembers being repeatedly asked where they planned to carry out the stabbing attack. Khaled says that he was mainly questioned about personal matters. ‘What is your mother’s name? What is your sister’s name? Who is your girlfriend?’ The questions were in Arabic,” he says.
“The violence was relentless,” says Abu Hassan. “They poured water on us, urinated on us, and then someone holding a stick tried to shove it up my rear. I fought with all my strength until he simply gave up.”
The bruises on Mohammed Khaled’s back. Credit: Courtesy of the person appearing in the photograph
According to the two men, after about six hours, they were taken out of the building and thrown onto the ground, bound and in their underwear.
At this point, someone photographed them and distributed the picture, which reached the Facebook page of a company called Metzuda – the Security World of Israel. The picture, which has since been deleted, shows another Palestinian, the presence of whom Khaled and Abu Hassan were unaware until they were later released. A man in IDF uniform is seen at an angle in the picture. The picture in the Facebook is captioned, “A terrorist penetration incident at the Ben Pazi farm near Kochav Hashachar. Our forces captured the terrorists.”
The post on Metzuda’s Facebook page, since deleted (it was posted in Hebrew, and translated to Arabic). Credit: From the Facebook page
The third Palestinian seen in the photograph (on the left) is Majd (his full name is confidential), a resident of Wadi as-Seeq, 30, who says that settlers and soldiers entered the village at around 10 A.M.
“I was at home when it started. They fired into air, took people out of their houses, and told us to sit on the ground. Most fled, but they caught me and beat me with rifles and batons. They tied me up with rope. They took my mobile phone, my I.D., and everything that was in the car. It was hot, my head was bleeding. I came to and lost consciousness again and again,” he says.
As said, the three Palestinians were only released from handcuffs in the early evening by a soldier with the Civil Administration, who arrived in the company of other people. They say that the soldier allowed them to talk with their families and to summon a Palestinian ambulance, which took them to hospital. None of them were taken for further questioning, not even Abu Hassan, who was accused by the soldiers at first of planning to carry out a terror attack.
Abu Hassan was hospitalized overnight, Khaled for two and a half days, and Majd for two days. “I could barely stand. I was bleeding all over. Everything hurt,” Abu Hassan says. According to the three, their phones, a car, other things in the car, and NIS 2,200 in cash were taken.
Abu Hasan is taken to hospital. Credit: Courtesy
A mix of soldiers and settlers
At the same time as these incidents, in another part of the village, five Israeli leftist activists, including a minor, were detained for hours. Three of them, who spoke with Haaretz on the condition of anonymity, had gone to the village that morning to help the residents who were being forced to leave.
According to the activists, when they heard that settlers had attacked Palestinians at the entrance to the village, they drove there. “When they saw us, they began chasing us,” says T., one of the activists. “Some of them were in uniform or half uniform-half civvies, but their vehicles were civilian.”
The Israeli activists managed to videotape this stage of events, and send it in real time to other activists who were at home at the time. The video reached Haaretz as well but is not being published in order to protect the activists, who request to stay anonymous. Along with the photograph published on Facebook, the video is among the very little documentation left of the incident.
The Israeli activists also say they saw Neria Ben Pazi at the site.
“We hid for several hours in a semi-derelict compound of one of the families,” says D. “Most of the people had already left, but one family hid there with us.”
While they were hiding, he says, they noticed that settlers were chasing after the few Palestinians still remaining in the village.
“People ran to the wadi with the sheep and everything, women and children in a panic. Not everyone was able to run away,” says T. “They caught two Palestinians and we saw them kick them, throw them down on a rock, and settlers stood over them with M-16s.”
A settler by the entrance to the village before the incident began. Credit: Omri Eran-Vardi
Were they soldiers? Settlers?
“They were a mix. Some were in full uniform, some had an army bullet-proof vest and half had Class B uniforms. Some were masked. Some cars had flashing lights, others didn’t.”
The activists said that while hiding, they repeatedly called the police. Activists who were not at the site but received the distress calls also called the police, in an effort to get them help. Not one police officer showed up. At around 2 P.M., the activists and the Palestinian families emerged from hiding, hoping to reach the cars and escape. But then, they relate, they encountered a white vehicle from which about ten soldiers with helmets and bullet-proof vests emerged. They confiscated the camera of one of the activists and the mobile phones of the others. The activists’ attempts to explain that they were trying to leave the place did not help.
“They pushed me and my friend to the ground, cuffed us, and shouted all kinds of things – ‘You’re here with the enemy’, ‘You’re aiding the enemy’. They were amok,” says T. “There were also blows. They beat us with their rifles. My friend was kicked in the face.”
D. says that the settlers were in charge of the situation. “One of the settlers said that I’m a terrorism supporter, so a soldier, who appeared to be a typical reservist, not a settler, ran to me from about two meters away and punched me. The Palestinians were handcuffed, with the faces in the sand, and settlers and soldiers simply stepped on their backs,” he says. “I saw one of them was bleeding from the face. At some point, one of the settlers took one of the Palestinian’s wallets and scattered its contents in the air. You see a soldier holding a Palestinian and settler punching him. It was obvious who was working for whom.”
Afterwards, the activists relate, they were taken by car to one of the village buildings. Later yet more activists were brought there. The soldiers searched through the camera and telephone, deleting pictures, then told them that they “were under arrest on suspicion of aiding the enemy in a time of war.”
At this point, they say that the handcuffs were removed, but the soldiers began making threats. “I’ll never forget this,” says Z. “They said things like, ‘These leftists are the same as Hamasniks’. One soldier told me, ‘You know the story about David and Amalek? It wasn’t just Amalek. There were also informers. It’s like the leftists back then, and David killed them too, just like Amalek. I want to shoot all the leftists in the head.’ They didn’t let us go for three hours. They periodically asked us which of us were Jews.”
According to Z and other activists, it was still not completely clear whether they were being held by settlers or soldiers. At some point, a young men with blond sidelocks and a shirt of Hashomer Judea and Samaria T-shirt [an organization setting up guards for illegal outposts], who they said looked about 16, was placed on guard over them.
Towards 5 pm, the Israeli activists were released. “First came a settler with the classic look: black sidelocks, in civvies,” says Z. “He said, ‘We’d love to tear you apart.’ A big guy entered after him, all muscles, who looked like a commando – weapons, dagger, a full arsenal, and set. Very well kept and professional. He didn’t look like a settler. He said, ‘You won’t return here, otherwise you understand that we will tear you apart. Get out of here and don’t come back.’”
According to the activists, they were ordered to enter the car and were warned that they would be followed and that their mobile phones were in the trunk. They were forbidden to open them before reaching Jerusalem. When they passed the checkpoint to the Israeli side, they say that they discovered that the mobile phones were missing along with the camera, worth NIS 12,000, which were taken from them at the start of the incident.
Villagers packing up and leaving as-Seeq, even before the abuses described in this article. Credit: Omri Eran-Vardi
A week later, the incident victims were struggling to recover. Majd is currently in a temporary residence, after all the residents of his village fled. Abu Hassan talked with Haaretz, his voice sounding very weak, and was clearly in terrible pain. Khaled was also very upset during the conversation. The Israeli activists described what happened as extraordinarily violent and frightening to them.
Abu Hassan believes that the reason he was abused especially badly, including the attempt at sexual assault, is because he is known among the settlers as an activist who helps the shepherds. “They wanted to send two messages: one, that the Jews went crazy after the [Hamas attack on the Gaza communities]; and two, that we Arabs must not dare to mess with them,” he says. “I told them that I oppose Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but they didn’t care. They said that all Arabs are shit and should be sent to Jordan. What happened has nothing to do with law or order or the conduct of a normal country. It is simply a gang, all filed up.”
IDF: The commander has been ousted
The IDF spokesman said in response: “An IDF force arrived at a farm in the area of Wadi Zik in the sector of the Benyamin Regional Brigade, following a report regarding a number of Palestinian suspects. The force caught the suspects, and after searches, found a knife and axe on them. The detention and conduct of the force in the field contravened what is expected of soldiers and commanders in the IDF. The incident is under investigation by the commanders, from which multiple discrepancies have arisen. Following the preliminary investigation, the decision was made to oust the commander of the unit which made the arrest. Under the circumstances and in view of the seriousness of the suspicions, it was decided to open an Investigative Military Police investigation. In every confrontation, IDF forces are expected to act to separate the parties in order to maintain security and order in the district.”
The Shin Bet stated, “The Shin Bet has nothing to do with the incident described. No parties on behalf of the Shin Bet were present, and it is not being handled by the Shin Bet.”
No responses have arrived from Neria Ben Pazi or the police.