IDF soldiers assault Reuters journalists after mistaking them for human rights workers

Soldiers beat cameramen in Hebron after suspecting that they work for B’Tselem. Recent years have seen an organized campaign by mainstream Israeli journalists and politicians against human rights organizations in Israel and the West Bank.

Reuters reported that two of its cameramen were abused by IDF soldiers in Hebron on Wednesday night. The men were stripped, beaten, and made to breathe tear gas at a very close range. The soldiers also took one of their cameras, which was later found unharmed nearby. The incident took place shortly after a local teenager was shot to death by a Border Police soldier at a Hebron checkpoint:

Here is an excerpt from the report Reuters published on the incident (my emphasis):

Yousri Al Jamal and Ma’amoun Wazwaz said a foot patrol stopped them as they were driving to a nearby checkpoint where a Palestinian teenager had just been shot dead by an Israeli border guard.

Their car was clearly marked ‘TV’ and they were both wearing blue flak jackets with ‘Press’ emblazoned on the front.

The soldiers forced them to leave the vehicle and punched them, striking them with the butts of their guns. They accused them of working for an Israeli NGO, B’Tselem, which documents human rights violations in the occupied West Bank, the Reuters cameramen said.

The soldiers did not let the men produce their official ID papers and forced them to strip down to their underwear, making them kneel on the road with their hands behind their heads, the cameramen said.

One of the soldiers then dropped a tear gas canister between the men and the IDF patrol ran away. The four journalists scrambled clear and Jamal and Wazwaz got to their car, which had rapidly filled up with tear gas, they said.

They tried to drive away, but said they only got around 200 metres before they had to stop and exit the vehicle because of the choking gas. The soldiers then fired more tear gas in their direction.

Wazwaz was overcome by the fumes and was taken to hospital by ambulance. He was released later the same night.

It is worth thinking about the reason the soldiers gave for the abuse – they thought the two Palestinians were working for B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization. One of B’Tselem’s most revolutionary projects has been equipping and training dozens of Palestinians in the West Bank with video cameras. Since the beginning of the project, amateur cameramen have been documenting numerous incidents of abuse, night raids, “price tag” attacks by settlers and more. A well known fact in the West Bank is that the presence of cameras often has a “restraining effect” on soldiers and settlers alike.

The IDF is the legal authority in the West Bank, and the Palestinians are subject to the good or ill will of 18-year-old soldiers who stand at checkpoints or raid their villages and towns. The cameras provide some of the protection that no other force can, especially in Area B and C of the West Bank.

Jessica Montell, executive director of B’Tselem, told me the following:

B’Tselem video cameras have proven effective in obtaining justice for wrongdoings and also deterring violence. Military officials have also stated that this fulfils an important role in promoting the rule of law. They have also confirmed that civilians have the right to film in the West Bank. However we have witnessed a number of worrying incidents over the past week in Hebron that indicate that this message has not been conveyed clearly to the soldiers on the ground.

But this is not a problem of miscommunication. Recently, Israeli politicians have made statements calling for a tougher hand against protesters in the West Bank. Furthermore, it has been some years now that Israeli politicians and non-governmental organizations have been inciting the public against human rights organizations, spreading claims which range all the way to treason.

The writing of mainstream journalists like Ben Caspit (author of the initial article which blamed the human rights community for the Goldstone report), Ben Dror-Yemini or Israel Hayom’s Dror Aeydar; statements by right-wing politicians like the people behind anti-NGO bill; the work of groups such as Im Tirzu and NGO Monitor  – all of these are directly linked to the behavior of the soldiers in Hebron on Wednesday. The soldiers might pay a price for the abuse – they were unlucky enough to target workers of the world’s largest news agency – but the journalists and politicians are not likely to be harmed. They will continue to tell the Israeli public that the international anger and frustration directed at Israel is not the result of the occupation, but of the actions of those documenting and fighting it.

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