WATCH: Israeli police arrest, rough up Activestills photojournalist

Journalists were standing off to the side of a mass prayer action that devolved into light clashes when police charged at them, singling out Faiz Abu Rmeleh, later beating and harassing him, he says.

By Oren Ziv and Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man

Israeli police roughed up and detained Activestills photojournalist Faiz Abu Rmeleh Tuesday night while he was covering a mass prayer at the Lions’ Gate of the Old City in Jerusalem. The incident is one of many in recent days in which Israeli, Palestinian and foreign press have accused police of restricting their access and in some cases assaulting them.

Police accused Abu Rmeleh of attacking them and held him until 4 a.m., eventually releasing him with a 15-day restraining order from Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Lions’ Gate, and the Old City of Jerusalem, despite the fact that he lives in the Old City. Multiple witnesses and Abu Rmeleh himself reject the accusation that he acted in any way violently toward officers. He has not been charged.

More than 1,000 worshipers gathered at the Lions’ Gate, one of the entrances to Jerusalem’s Old City, and held prayers there as an act of civil disobedience Tuesday night, as they have every night over the past week or so. At the end of prayers, once the majority of worshipers had dispersed, things deteriorated, with some Palestinian youth throwing stones and police using stun grenades against the members of the crowd that remained.

“It was clear the police were ready for trouble. For about the last five minutes of prayers they had stun grenades already in their hands,” The Guardian’s Jerusalem correspondent, Peter Beaumont, told +972 Magazine.

A group of journalists was standing on some steps off to the side of the action when police came at them and began pushing them away, several members of the press recounted.

“We didn’t have anywhere to go,” Abu Rmeleh told +972 Magazine after he was released Wednesday morning. “They jumped on me and said, you’re under arrest. I asked why, and they said for assaulting a police officer.”

“Faiz was photographing,” Beaumont, the Guardian correspondent, recalled. “Several [officers] made a bee line for Faiz and grabbed him. The only reason appeared to be that he continued taking photographs.”

Despite other journalists telling police that Abu Rmeleh is a press photographer, officers took him to two separate police stations in East Jerusalem, where he was questioned and held until the early hours of the morning. He says officers beat him in the police car on the way to the station.

“They were asking me political questions, personal questions, what religion I am, other humiliating things,” Abu Rmeleh said of his interrogation. “They told me that I could stay in jail overnight and go to court in the morning or accept a restraining order,” he continued, adding that police wouldn’t allow him to consult with his lawyer or anybody else about whether to accept the restrictions on his movement, to which he ultimately acceded. He says he was not given a copy of the restraining order.

Abu Rmeleh, who lives in Jerusalem’s Old City, has been covering the protests and events around the Aqsa Mosque for Activestills and +972 Magazine over the past 10 days. Lately, he says, even before the restraining order and despite the fact that he is a resident of the Old City, police have restricted his movement due to the fact that he carries a large camera.

Many journalists have complained in recent days that Israeli police are seriously restricting their ability to cover the protests and events in the Old City of Jerusalem. One reporter for Israeli news site Ynet was attacked by police and required medical attention. In another incident, police forcefully removed a Haaretz reporter and others from the Old City.

The Foreign Press Association, which represents members of the international media in Israel and Palestine, issued a scathing statement over the weekend against what they called, “the deplorable situation created by Israeli security authorities.”

“Not only have journalists been banned access, they have been pushed and shoved into areas where their safety is at risk, and where they bear the brunt of the Israeli security response to rioting crowds including teargas, stun grenades and beatings resulting in several serious injuries,” the statement continued. “This appears to be a kind of innovative censorship that is surprising in a country that prides itself on press freedom.”

We have asked an Israeli police spokesperson for comment, and will publish it here if and when it is received.

[Updated with police statement]:

Asked for comment, a police spokesperson reiterated the accusations against Abu Rmeleh and described video footage of his arrest as distorted. The spokesperson declined to comment on the numerous complaints of restrictions on and assaults against journalists in recent days. “We take very seriously any attempt to assault or harm police officers and to disturb the peace, whether by journalists, photographers or any other citizen,” the police spokesperson said.