A family of shepherds living in miserable tents, a father and son brutalized at the hands of Israeli soldiers: The painful and ongoing saga of the Shalada family of Kobar
Houlod Shalada with her siblings Anjoud and Yassin at the family’s tent this week.
Gideon Levy and Alex Levac report in Haaretz,
No one talked about the victims. For a moment it seemed as though the three soldiers from Netzah Yehuda, the ultra-Orthodox battalion of the Israel Defense Forces, who were convicted this month of abusing two Palestinians – and given ridiculously low sentences, after an outrageous plea bargain – were the victims. For a moment it seemed as though their beating of a bound father and his son in an army jeep was limited to what was seen in the video clip released for public viewing: a few blows to the head, some verbal humiliation. For a moment it seemed as though the father, Ziad Shalada, 44, and his son, Mahmoud, 22, who have been charged with abetting terrorism, are members of a dangerous, sophisticated terrorist squad. For a moment it was possible to think all that – until we visited the family’s tent this week in the village of Kobar, near Ramallah.
The Shaladas’ tents are pitched on the edge of the village, past the last of its houses. We’ve never seen anything more pitiful. There’s a large tent containing an old, rickety television in the center, and next to it two small tents, even more wretched. Together, these house the sheep and the family – parents and their 11 children. Originally from the town of Sa’ir, near Hebron, the family moved here in the mid-1980s with their flock. Ziad works as a garbage collector in Kobar with his old tractor, and the 40 sheep supplement their income.
This past Monday, a large sheep was dying at the entrance to the sleeping tent. Its head lurched backward, its body heaved, its breathing grew heavier; the sight was altogether unbearable. Another sheep huddled around the tractor, licking it, apparently having despaired of looking for food. The shepherd and father of the family and his eldest son are still in jail – victims of the abuse meted out by soldiers from the Netzah Yehuda battalion of the Kfir infantry brigade, which is deployed solely in the West Bank. The two Shalada men are suspected of having aided the terrorist Assam Barghouti, who was convicted of murdering two soldiers and a newborn, who was removed from his mother’s womb after she was wounded, in shooting attacks last December in the West Bank settlement of Ofra and in the Givat Assaf settler outpost. Father and son have been in custody since then, leaving the family without a source of income.
Seventeen-year-old Anjoud Shalada, barefoot and dressed in rags, rolls about on the ground. She suffers from cerebral palsy, spends her days on the tent floor, moving about with the aid of her hands. Her clothes and her body are covered in filth. She, her sisters and her little brothers were eyewitnesses to the beating her father took at the hands of the soldiers on the night of January 8. No one has recovered from the trauma of the event. They haven’t returned to the tent where the soldiers detained them, because it still scares them.
Their uncle, Iyad Shalada, 46, who lives in another tent, located on the slopes of the nearby town of Bir Zeit, brought us here, together with Iyad Hadad, a field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. Only the eldest daughter, Houlod, 19, her 5-year-old brother Yassin, and the paralyzed Anjoud, hidden behind a tarpaulin, were in the family’s tent when we arrived. The other siblings were at school or somewhere else.
The mother of the family, Hadija, 39, and her son Mohammed, 18, were in court at the Ofer base, in the hope of seeing their loved ones during the proceedings that day. But they arrived too late, or perhaps the hearing took place earlier than scheduled; either way, they didn’t succeed in seeing them for even a fraction of a second. The next hearing in their case is set for June 15. The family will not see the two men until then, nor are they likely to hear anything about their condition. Sheep and cats wandered in and out of the tent. The television was broadcasting “Palestine Today” with a raspy sound.
At 3 A.M. on January 8, the Shaladas woke up in a panic to the sight of a ferocious dog and then dozens of masked men invading their tent. Later, it turned out that the men were members of the Border Police’s special anti-terror force (Yamam, in Hebrew). The family thought thieves were raiding them. They had been sleeping, as usual, on mattresses that were laid out every evening on the floor of the big tent. The dog pounced on 6-year-old Hussein, putting its paws on the chest of the petrified little boy, who was barely awake; the combatants didn’t restrain it. The boy’s parents, brothers and sisters shrank in horror.
The policemen, accompanied by a civilian and an officer who were not in masks, spread out in the tent. Houlod recounts the chaos and fear. An articulate young woman who attended school until the ninth grade, she describes in great detail the unforgettable horrors of that night, when the children screamed and cried with dread and their parents tried to protect them.
The policemen first seized Ziad, and wouldn’t permit him to dress, Houlod says; he remained in his undergarments and galabiya. They pushed him into a corner and ordered everyone else into an adjacent tent. It was bone-chillingly cold – there’s no coal stove in the smaller tent – and the floor was muddy from the rain. Anjoud had to be carried out; the Border Policemen refused to allow her to remain in bed. Ziad’s hands were bound behind him and his interrogation began. Houlod heard shouts. She says she saw troops punching and kicking his face and his body. She wasn’t able to hear what he was being asked.
“We pleaded for our father,” Houlod says. “We were shaking with cold and fear.” The invaders went on beating and questioning Ziad. Houlod tried to go to him, but a policeman punched her in the face; another struck her from behind on the shoulder and she fell to the ground. She was in pain for three days, she tell us now. She recalls hearing the Israelis calling her father “Sheikh Hamas.” He had never before been arrested, with the exception of 11 days when he was a boy.
Houlod will never forget the moment when the policemen distributed food among themselves and started to eat. “It was very hard. The children are shouting, Father is yelling, everyone is cold, and they’re eating in our tent as though it’s their home. That made us really furious.”
After more than half an hour of questions and blows, the Border Police took Ziad to an empty dwelling nearby. He later told his lawyer that they beat him at length there. They made him lie on the floor, jumped on him, kicked him and hit him with a belt. According to Houlod, that went on for an hour. Finally, Ziad was taken to a jeep and the soldiers drove off. By now, morning had come.
A short time later, about 20 soldiers returned to the tent where the stunned family was huddled. The soldiers asked where Mahmoud was, claiming that his father had asked that he join him. Mahmoud was handcuffed and blindfolded and taken outside.
Then the jeep journey to the Beit El base began, during which father and son were brutalized, only a small segment of which was made public in the video clip.
The commander of the Netzah Yehuda battalion, Lt. Col. Nitai Okashi, would later say: “There was no doubt in my mind that the auxiliary company had to execute the activity in order to settle accounts with the terrorist who killed two of the unit’s fighters, in order to generate a feeling of success among the fighters.” No one considered removing this battalion commander from his post for his remarks: The soldiers were maliciously sicced on the helpless victims in order “to generate a feeling of success.”
Sacks of flour and mattresses are heaped in a corner of the tent. The sheep outside is taking its last gasps. During the 20 days that followed, the family didn’t hear a word about the fate of their loved ones. Only then did a lawyer from the Palestinian Prisoners Club meet with Mahmoud – Ziad was still being denied access to a lawyer – and he called the family to say that the young man was in a very bad way: He was incapable of answering questions from the lawyer, his face was swollen from beatings, bruises were visible on his body and he was unable to stand on his feet.
A few days later, Mahmoud told the lawyer that in the jeep the soldiers removed his blindfold and said: Watch what we are doing to your father. They beat Ziad relentlessly on the head, in the presence of his handcuffed son. Details of the abuse appear in the more than 300 pages of the indictment against the soldiers who administered it.
Houlod’s phone rings. It’s her mother, Hadija, from the court. She didn’t get to see her husband and her son. Now she is trying to pay for their canteen purchases. The lawyer, Mamoun al Hashim, had told her that Ziad has internal bleeding in his stomach as a result of the blows he took. He already was suffering from kidney disease, and he also suffers from backaches.
Houlod herself saw her father and her brother for the first time in a court hearing on February 15. She was not allowed to exchange a word with them, nor even to gesture in their direction, for fear of being expelled.
“I don’t know how to put it,” she says of the hearing. “It was so sad. My father suddenly had become so old, and so worn out, and my brother, too.” A week earlier, her mother saw them for the first time in the courtroom; she had warned her daughter that their condition was very bad. Ziad’s face was still swollen and streaked with bruises from the pummeling, and Mahmoud looked very thin. Ziad could not even stand up in the courtroom. The next time Hadija saw him was two weeks later, and his condition had improved. Their interrogation by the Shin Bet security service in the police station in the Russian Compound in the center of Jerusalem had concluded, and they were transferred to Ofer Prison for the duration of their trial.
The Israel Police provided Haaretz with the following statement: The individuals suspected of providing assistance to the terrorist who carried out the attack at Givat Assaf were arrested by a force from the Police Anti-Terror Unit [Yamam], without resistance and without the need for force.
The claims that the suspects were beaten [by police] before being turned over to the IDF are not substantiated, and a check undertaken by the appropriate authorities determined that the conduct of the fighters of the anti-terror unit was impeccable.
According to Houlod, her brother is accused of having encountering Assam Barghouti, who was on the run in the wake of the murders, in the pasture, and who asked to be taken to the tent, where Ziad hid him. She maintains that they hadn’t known Barghouti before and that she didn’t see him in their tent compound. She had heard about the trial of the soldiers who abused her father and her brother, and about the verdict, but she wasn’t interested. She asks only why the commanding officers weren’t tried.
Houlod believes that the fact that the soldiers turned her father and her brother into cripples, physically and mentally, is more than enough punishment for anything they did, and the army should release them immediately. She and the other children have seen the clip of the beating.
“It was awful,” she says. “I wish I hadn’t seen it. To see your father being beaten cruelly while he is helpless; to see soldiers with heavy rifles beating my father and my brother on the head, while they can’t defend themselves. It was awful.”