Why This Palestinian Activist Was Subjected to an Israeli Army Raid and 14 Hours in Detention

A large army force raided the village of Palestinian human rights activist Nasser Nawajah. He was taken handcuffed and blindfolded into detention for 14 hours – all for a 15-minute talk with a Shin Bet agent who advised him to moderate his behavior

Nawajah demonstrates how he was arrested. The Shin Bet “captain” warned him not to annoy the army or “cross red lines,” but could not demand that the activist stop documenting events.Credit: Alex Levac

Gideon Levy and Alex Levac report in Haaretz
Are there really no politically based arrests in Israel? Do they occur only in Syria and Russia? Is it possible that a West Bank human rights activist was taken into custody solely to prevent him from documenting the invasion of a Palestinian village by a group of settlers? What happened last Saturday night to Nasser Nawajah, a human rights activist and a field researcher for both B’Tselem and Haqel – both of them Israeli human rights organizations – can only be described as a political arrest.

No other description fits what the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Defense Forces, the service’s contractor for arrests and abductions, did to this impressive and determined young man from the South Hebron Hills village of Sussia. The dispatch of dozens of soldiers to his home late at night, his totally unwarranted detention for 14 hours, handcuffed and blindfolded, the soldier who photographed him so he have a picture of “a terrorist,” the abusive and humiliating treatment he suffered – all this was for the sake of a very short talk with “Captain Yassin,” the regional Shin Bet agent.

“Why didn’t they summon me by phone?” Nawajah asks, the day after his unconditional release. Why? Because Nawajah is a nonviolent resister of the occupation who will show up anywhere and anytime in the South Hebron Hills and elsewhere in the West Bank where there are episodes of settler violence or the Civil Administration is demolishing homes. He’s always there, filming and documenting the goings-on for B’Tselem and Haqel.

That is precisely what the Shin Bet wants to stop. To that end, a Palestinian activist can be abducted from his home, without a warrant, pushed around over the course of a night and a day, left in army custody for hours – and then released as though nothing happened.

Last Monday when we visited, the day after Nawajah’s release, people had flocked to his home. No one, he said, not even he himself, knew at the time of his arrest how long he would be detained and what he would be falsely accused of this time around, on Saturday, August 6. The first time he was detained, following the libelous accusation cooked up by Israeli journalist Ilana Dayan and filmmaker Omri Assenheim, as part of a shameful collaboration between the right-wing Ad Kan organization and Dayan’s investigative television program “Fact,” was in January 2016. He was kept in custody for nearly two weeks before being released – with no charges being brought against him. The detention earlier this month was shorter, and no less without grounds.

Nawajah is 40, a father of four, a native of the old Sussia, whose Palestinian residents were expelled in 1986 so that their village could be turned over to settlers. The villagers were forced then to move to privately owned land, about a kilometer away, where they created a new community that’s also called Sussia.

Nawajah has only eight years of schooling, having quit after being injured by an unexploded piece of ammunition left in the field while making his way to school in the town of Yatta. It was a walk of five kilometers, and he had had to make it every day, in rain and in sun. Today he regrets dropping out. “If I had a diploma, I would have gotten much further in life,” he says.

Nasser Nawajah.
Nasser Nawajah.Credit: Alex Levac

At 14 he began working at odd jobs in Israel. The worst job of all, he says, was force-feeding geese on two moshavim, Azaria and Ben Zakai. After he grasped the scale of the suffering he was inflicting on the geese, he dreamed of becoming a veterinarian to atone for his crimes against the creatures. That didn’t happen: His fondness and compassion for animals remain, but at some point he decided to convert the idea of protecting animals into a mission to advocate for human rights.

That occurred after the murder of Yair Har Sinai, from the Israeli settlement of Sussia, in 2001. The settlers apprehended Nawajah and another young man from his village and turned them over to the Shin Bet and the army. He was 17 at the time, and endured a night of interrogations and beatings before being released at dawn.

Returning to his village, he discovered to his astonishment that it no longer existed. “I go up the hill and I don’t see a village. Where is the village? I thought I had lost my mind from the interrogations. I was in a bad way, I was in a state of shock from them – and there’s no village. I moved closer and I saw piles of metal rods and torn plastic, and demolished walls. My village had turned into a heap of ruins. The army had arrived at 6 A.M. and demolished the whole place.”

He continues, “I was absolutely furious. My anger could have blown up the world then. I’m interrogated for something I didn’t do and I’m beaten, and then I go home and I don’t find a home. That’s more than the human mind can absorb. I was a teenager, at an age when you decide to do things hastily, you don’t think much – and I was enraged. That anger could have taken me to a violent path. And them something unexpected happened. The next morning, Jewish-Israeli activists showed up and began to help us rebuild our homes.

“Who were they? I didn’t understand what they wanted,” he goes on. “A Jew destroys our homes and a Jew arrives the next morning to rebuild them? Until then I’d thought that all the Jews were the same. I had worked in Israel, so I thought there were good Jews in Israel, but not here. I had work relations with Israelis – but for someone to come and help us? That raised a lot of questions for me. It also gave me a few new ways of looking at things: Who and what are these people? How is that they come to help us in solidarity and their brothers destroy our things and attack us?

“I started to look at the broad picture. I discovered a new one. That situation drew me in and calmed all my anger. It took me on a new path. And then I decided not to become a veterinarian, but a human rights activist. I would discover that being a human rights activist demands a steep price. But I chose a path.”

Nawajah joined B’Tselem in 2006, at first as a volunteer; a year later he became a field researcher for the organization. In 2007 its “Armed with Cameras” project was launched – a campaign to document events in the territories by means of video cameras that B’Tselem distributed to its Palestinian field researchers and volunteers (today vast numbers of ordinary West Bank residents have smartphone cameras with which they film various incidents).

“It’s a tough situation for the army,” Nawajah says. “If you take a weapon and shoot [at someone], that’s easy for the army. They know what to do. But if you take a camera and document events, that’s something the army doesn’t want, nor do the settlers. That’s how I documented things I never believed I would be able to get to. The police can say that the Palestinians are liars and not investigate anything, but when we bring them filmed evidence – they can’t ignore us anymore. We obligated the police to open a few investigations against settlers. But this has a price: The Shin Bet now has a blacklist of nonviolent activists – which I think of as a white list.”

The South Hebron Hills village of Sussia.Credit: Alex Levac

He was arrested after the “Fact” program in early 2016, along with the human rights activists Ezra Nawi (who has since passed away) and Guy Butavia, on suspicion of having murdered a Palestinian land broker and on other baseless grounds. Najaw’ah was released after almost two weeks of harsh interrogations and intimidation, together with the other two. It took another three years before his case was closed.

The settlement of Sussia looms next to them and the outpost of Mitzpeh Yair is perched on an adjacent hill. The “new” Palestinian village of Sussia is painstakingly maintained, despite having no running water or electricity. The 350 people dwelling here face inhuman conditions and a constant threat of demolition. A new playground was inaugurated a year ago at the entrance to the village, thanks to the donation of an international children’s NGO, and the sight of it is enchanting. Nawajah serves visitors pita from a taboun oven, olive oil and za’atar seasoning from the village together with marvelous cherry tomatoes from the Gaza Strip.

Last weekend, settlers from the entire area announced that they intended to hold prayers, escorted by the army, in the yard of one of the homes in the village of A-Tawani, in the nearby Palestinian enclave of Masafer Yatta, on the Tisha B’Av fast day, which began Saturday night. They claim it is a holy place for them. Nawajah decided to spend the night in A-Tawani, knowing that the army would not let him approach the next morning. He intended to stay with his in-laws, who are residents of the village. At 11 P.M. Saturday, while he was in their home, he got a phone call from his neighbors in Sussia, who said: “The army is in the village and the soldiers are looking for you.” He replied, “I don’t run away from anyone,” and decided immediately to return home.

When he got there, he saw his father, who’s 78, sitting on a step in front of the house. A soldier asked Nawajah his name and when he told him, the soldier grabbed him by his arm and the scruff of his neck and led him to a large van that was parked nearby. He asked the soldier why he was being detained and was told that he was wanted by the Shin Bet for questioning. About 30 armed soldiers were surrounding him, he recalls.

In the van his hands were handcuffed from behind and his eyes were covered with flannelette. He tried to follow in his mind’s eye the vehicle’s route and calculated that they had arrived at a base near the settlement of Otniel. There he was taken to a dark room and offered a mattress. He asked to have his hands bound in front instead of behind, and his request was granted. The soldiers treated him properly, he says, until a new shift of “worse soldiers,” as he describes them, came on duty. One started to clap his hands loudly next to Nawajah’s blindfolded eyes whenever he thought the Palestinian had fallen asleep. Nawajah heard one of the soldiers photographing him with his cellphone and sending his picture it to his family. “Look – a terrorist,” the soldier said to his kinfolk. And his buddy snapped: “What, you’ve never seen a terrorist before?”

Later four more detainees were brought in, one of whom was wounded and eventually taken to a hospital. Nawajah, fearing that he was facing a lengthy incarceration, did not allow himself to harbor any hope. The next morning he was taken to the Etzion interrogation facility. The sun was strong, and when a Shin Bet man removed the blindfold, he felt a momentary blindness. He was examined and then taken to “Captain Yassin.”

He waited around 40 minutes before the so-called captain arrived and offered him water. Nawajah told him he didn’t want water because it was Tisha B’Av. “I am acting in solidarity with my Jewish friends who are fasting today,” he said. His hands were no longer bound.

“I want to ask you why I am here and why I am in custody,” Nawajah demanded, adding, “You could have just summoned me and I would have come.”

Nasser Nawajah at home in Sussia.
Nasser Nawajah at home in Sussia.Credit: Alex Levac

The agent promised that in half an hour he would be released and on his way home. “I am Captain Yassin,” the man declared. “I am in charge of the Yatta area and I am responsible for security and I want there to be quiet.” Nawajah: “We all want quiet.” The agent continued, speaking good Arabic, “Let’s be perfectly clear. You are like a spring. You bounce around everywhere and you irritate the army. You are a leader and all the young people around you are learning how to bother the army.”

“That’s my job,” Nawajah replied. The agent showed him a photograph from the previous Friday, showing Nawajah snatching a cellphone from a soldier. Nawajah explained that the soldier had taken his phone to prevent him from filming and that he was taking the device back. This was during a demonstration, after he overheard one of the masked soldiers telling his comrades-in-arms: “We have to break their bones.”

The “captain” warned Nawajah not to give the army trouble, and “not to cross red lines,” but he could not demand that the activist stop documenting events. Their talk ended within 15 minutes.

Nawajah is certain now that the whole experience was an exercise in intimidation. “He wanted to show me how strong the sovereign is and that I shouldn’t mess with the army.” He also suspects that the talk was intended to prevent him from filming the settlers’ prayers in the yard of a privately owned Palestinian home in A-Tawani that same morning. Now he knows the Shin Bet is on his case.

At the conclusion of their conversation, Yassin asked Nawajah whether he would be able to get home by himself, and he quickly replied that he would. He didn’t want a lift from the Shin Bet and also suspected that Yassin was trying to deepen their relationship. When he emerged from the interrogation facility, however, he realized that it was very dangerous for him to be walking around in the vicinity the Gush Etzion junction, because the hand of the soldiers and settlers there is very quick on the trigger when it comes to Palestinians.

It was 1 P.M. Sunday, 14 hours after Nawajah was abducted from his home. He decided to walk to a nearby community of shepherds and from there called his brother to come and pick him up.

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit this week disclaimed all responsibility for the arrest, though it was made by soldiers, and referred Haaretz to the Shin Bet. This was effectively an admission that, as suggested, the army is merely the Shin Bet’s abductions contractor.

When asked for a comment, the Shin Bet did not even deign to respond to Haaretz. And certainly not for the first time.

This article is published in its entirety

Click the alert icon to follow topics:


© Copyright JFJFP 2022