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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Thieves in uniform

By Gideon Levy

At about midnight, the house was surrounded by soldiers. Mohammed Abu Arkub, a barber, woke up frightened at the sound of loud knocking on the door and the shouts demanding it be opened. Abu Arkub rushed to open the door and the soldiers pulled him outside and ordered him to take all the members of the household outside immediately. His wife Lubna and his two young daughters were sleeping, along with Lubna's two younger sisters, who live with them. He woke them up and ordered them to go outside. His brother, Rami, who lives alone in the adjacent hut, was also called to go outside.

The night of March 19, the village of Wadi al-Shajneh in the South Hebron Hills, south of the town of Dura. The family stood outside for about 10 minutes, half asleep in the cold night air, and then the soldiers ordered them to all go inside Rami's hut. Two soldiers stood at the door, guarding the family so they wouldn't go out. The rest of the soldiers in the force entered the home of the barber and his wife and began to conduct a search. Abu Akrub asked to be present during the search, but the soldiers prevented him from doing so. The routine of the occupation.
The soldiers were followed by female soldiers accompanied by dogs, while the family remained crowded into Rami's room. The search took about an hour and a half. Then the soldiers took everyone out to the yard. Mohammed asked to bring blankets for his young daughters, but the soldiers refused. An Israel Defense Forces commander took Mohammed aside and interrogated him. They were looking for weapons in the house, and the barber told them there were no weapons in the house.

"You're lying," said the officer, but Mohammed said to him: "You searched and you didn't find anything." He says the officer hit him. The family remained outside for about another half an hour, and then they were once again put into Rami's room, and this time the door was closed. Things continued like that until almost 2 A.M.

When Mohammed thought the soldiers had left, he opened the door and went outside. Together with his wife they rushed to their house, which is right next to Rami's, where they had been held. The household items were scattered on the floor. The television and the computer were shattered, as were several kitchen items and vases. Lubna hurried to the box with her gold jewelry, where she keeps the gifts she received from Mohammed for their marriage, four years ago. There is such a box in every Palestinian home. The box was thrown on the floor. Lubna's cheap jewelry was scattered, but the gold jewelry had disappeared. Necklaces and bracelets that had been saved from the wedding - their most important assets - were not found. The family searched and searched and didn't find them.

Mohammed still has the old receipt from the Sharha jewelry shop in Hebron: 200 grams of gold that were purchased at the time at a cost of 23 Jordanian dinars per gram. At the prices then: about NIS 30,000. Rami, a strapping young man who works for a stonecutter, was upset. He wanted to go out and chase the soldiers. Mohammed tried to stop him, but failed. Rami ran down the path toward the four army jeeps that were still parked in the village. "You stole the gold," shouted Rami at the soldiers, and soon a fight developed. Rami sat inside the jeep and said he wouldn't leave until the gold was returned to its owners. He wanted the Civil Administration to be called, but his wish wasn't granted. The soldiers pushed him out and left. They didn't arrest him, as is usual, for the crime of attacking soldiers. Mohammed wrote down the number of one of the jeeps, 252126 that was written on its side, and 4760 on its license plates.

The elder daughter is named Yakut, precious stone in Hebrew. After the soldiers left, Mohammed phoned the Palestinian civil liaison office and asked to file a complaint. There they referred him to the Israeli liaison office. He also turned to the B'Tselem headquarters in Hebron, where he was instructed to submit a complaint to the Kiryat Arba police. After overcoming his fears, he turned to the Kiryat Arba police on March 23. He arrived at police headquarters at 9:30 A.M., but was allowed to enter only after a humiliating five-hour wait.

We were in Hebron that day, and we heard his despairing voice on the phone to B'Tselem investigator Musa Abu Hashhash, repeatedly phoning and asking him to help him get into the police building. "Stand next to the cameras at the entrance, so they'll see you," they advised him. But only at 2:30 P.M. was he allowed to enter.

Police investigator Yaakov Barzani actually apologized for the wait, claimed that he didn't know that Mohammed had been waiting outside, and wrote down the complaint. Mohammed says the investigator was pleasant and told him that the soldiers were ruining the IDF's good name. He also told how he, investigator Barzani, had participated in confiscating millions of shekels from the money-changing offices in Hebron, an operation reported in this column a few weeks ago, and that he didn't touch any of the large amounts of money that passed through his hands.

Finally policeman Barzani gave Mohammed a document: "A confirmation of the filing of a complaint in case 116812/2000." All the sections of the form were filled in block letters, the name of the complainant, the site of the incident, the date, and so on. Only the subject of the complaint remained empty. Not a word on the form about what Mohammed Abu Arkub had complained about. And a remark at the end of the form: "This document should not be considered a confirmation of the truth of the information." What information? Nothing is written. Signed, Hebron District, Investigations.

Spokesman of the Judea and Samaria Police District, Danny Poleg: "In the Judea and Samaria District, we question suspects in their mother tongue. Therefore, in situations when there are many complainants, the waiting time may be slightly longer - due to our intent to provide a quality service to each complainant. In any case, as a result of this complaint, the following day we reviewed the procedures related to waiting time. As for the form given to the complainant, it is computerized and the investigator is unable to add or delete anything. Since the complaint is directed against a soldier, the case was forwarded to the Military Police."

The barber from Wadi al-Shajneh is not alone. In the offices of B'Tselem, about a dozen different accounts have accumulated in recent months, by Palestinians who complained about the theft of gold or cash from their homes in the course of searches conducted by IDF soldiers and in one case, a Shin Bet security service investigator. Ronen Shimoni, data coordination director of B'Tselem, sent several of the accounts to Haaretz: Members of the Zarkat family from Kafr Tapuah; members of the Rehal family from Silat al-Dahr; members of the Antar family from Barqin; Dendis from Halhoul; Demieri from Hawara; Adaili from Beita; Asus from Jenin; and members of the Ziadat family from Bene Naim. They and others complained about the disappearance of jewelry and cash. In some cases a Military Police or police investigation was begun.

Here, for example, is the testimony of Sayel Ziadat, a resident of Bene Naim, which is also in the South Hebron Hills, about what happened in his home on March 5, two weeks before the search in the Abu Arkub home, and the description is strikingly similar:

"I woke up at about 2 A.M. to the sound of stones being thrown at the windows of my house. I understood that these were soldiers. I thought that if I didn't open up maybe they would leave. But 10 minutes later, after several windows had already been shattered, I opened the door and saw five or six soldiers. They ordered me to pick up my shirt and turn around, and then they asked me to take all the members of the household outside. It was cold and I asked to bring blankets for my elderly mother, but the soldiers wouldn't allow it.

"Several soldiers entered the house to conduct a search. I asked to accompany them, but they refused. They handcuffed me behind my back and blindfolded me. For about two hours they searched my house and the nearby home of my brother, and at about 4:30 A.M. the officer came downstairs accompanied by two soldiers, and they were laughing. I was suspicious about their laughter. They were holding my cell phone and an album of family photos. They threw the album and my phone on the floor. They took off the plastic handcuffs. I asked them: 'Why did you handcuff me?' And they replied: 'It's none of your business.' I asked: 'Why did you shatter the windows?' and they replied 'Fix the windows and we'll come to break them for you again.'

"After they left, my wife rushed to gather all the household items that were scattered on the floor and ran straight to the cupboard to look for the jewelry box. The NIS 1,000 in cash and the jewelry of the mohar [wedding contract] that had been there - had disappeared. That's all we had, all our savings. Even when I was in prison and my wife had no source of income, we kept the gold from the wedding." Ziadat also filed a complaint with the police.

We enter the bedroom of the Abu Arkubs in Wadi al-Shajneh. Heavy curtains, a colorful wall-to-wall carpet, glass cases filled with vases and glass objects, a bed and night tables painted in purple lacquer. In the yard the shattered computer and television lie, reduced to junk. Lubna pulls out the treasure box, which has pull-out drawers and mirrors on all sides. The cheap jewelry, which glitters from afar, remained in the box. Only the gold, she says, is gone.


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