Behind the Headlines: Israel’s Border Police Face Violent Streak in Its Ranks

When two Israeli border policemen were filmed recently beating Palestinians, Israeli leaders were quick to condemn what they characterized as an aberrant action.

“This is a criminal and immoral act,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Such soldiers cannot serve in the security forces of the State of Israel.”

Yisrael Sadan, commander of the Border Police, vowed that he would “get rid of the two soldiers who have shamed us all.”

But Palestinian human rights activists have long maintained that such incidents are routine — only they usually occur beyond the public eye.

Indeed, while Sadan insisted that there were very few “rotten apples” in his force, he acknowledged after the videotape aired last month on Israel Television that such incidents were not only prevalent, but had been on the rise.

Sadan said he had received more than 200 complaints of police brutality in the past year, and the videotaped incident was not the worst of them.

Among Israel’s security services, the border police carry most of the burden in areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that are still under Israeli control, and along the border between Israel and the self-rule areas.

Patrolling these areas and manning checkpoints, the police are in daily contact with Palestinians. Being on the frontlines undoubtedly builds frustration among the young Israeli recruits.

The border police is comprised mostly of young Israelis doing their compulsory army service, who are assigned by the army.

“We have our differences with the army regarding the quality of the soldiers they refer to us,” said Chief Superintendent Yehoshua Bauer, border police spokesman. “But the army has the final word who will come to us.”

Many who end up in the ranks of the border police come from segments in Israeli society at the bottom of the social ladder.

“Some of them are guys who have not been pampered by life,” said Bauer, who chose his words carefully in order not to openly criticize the quality of the border police recruits.

But the political and social upbringing of young Israelis has little to do with the phenomenon of border police violence, according to Reuven Gal, the former chief army psychologist.

Studies have shown that even soldiers who came from “a politically humanitarian background” tend to adjust themselves to violence once they get involved in a violence-charged situation, Gal said.

Being on the frontlines with Palestinians undoubtedly builds frustration. In one recent incident, border police at a roadblock in southern Jerusalem were attacked by 10 Palestinians.

Police said the Palestinians, who were apparently drunk, became violent when the border police asked to see identification papers.

The atmosphere of tension that surrounds the border police deepened as a result of the violent clashes in late September, when Palestinian police turned their guns on Israeli soldiers with whom they had served in joint patrols.

“There is certainly a breach of trust between our policemen and the Palestinians,” Bauer said.

The high number of complaints recently reported by the border police commander suggests that there is a tendency among some policemen to mitigate their own punishment on Palestinian workers who try to enter Israel illegally, and to do so believing that no retribution will be forthcoming.

But, in the case of Tzahi Shmaya, 19, and David Ben-Abu, 20, a Palestinian who happened to be nearby used his video camera to record their assault on six Palestinians and then gave the tape to Israel Television.

The two border policemen were indicted Nov. 24 at the Jerusalem Magistrates Court on charges of brutally beating six Palestinians at Jerusalem’s northern checkpoint. They allegedly caught the Palestinians trying to enter Israel without work permits, and then ordered them to a nearby parking lot, where they beat them for 25 minutes.

On the same day that charges were pressed against Shmaya and Ben-Abu, four other border policemen were charged with aggravated assault and abuse of power in an incident that occurred last June.

According to the charge sheet, Eran Aldi of Arad, Benny Deri of Kiryat Bialik, Asaf Shahar of Tirat Carmel and Meir Elbaz of Kiryat Ata, were on patrol in the Jerusalem area when they detained a Hebron resident who was in Israel without a permit.

They covered his head and drove him to the Ramot forest on the outskirts of Jerusalem, where they beat him unconscious.

A passerby later found the Palestinian, and helped him receive medical care.

“Beating up and humiliation are common practice among border policemen,” said Bassem Id, a Palestinian human rights activist. “The sights of Palestinians standing hours on end under the scorching sun by the road blocs, being beaten up to the sadistic pleasure of the attackers, are common.”

Past actions against border police who brutalized Palestinians do not give human rights activists much hope that the six who were recently indicted will have to pay a price.

In February, 1988, an Israeli cameraman filmed four Israeli soldiers beating up two Palestinians near Nablus. One of the four was sentenced to six weeks in jail. Col. Yehuda Meir, who was the military commander in Nablus at the time, was convicted of having been involved in the incident. He was demoted to the rank of private and discharged from the army.

That same month, several Israeli soldiers buried alive four Palestinians near Nablus, who were later saved by other Palestinians. The soldiers were sentenced to two months in prison.

The fate of two police who were recently caught on videotape, and remain under house arrest until their trial, remains unclear.

“Even if they are acquitted,” said Bauer, “we no longer have any use for them.”

That posture may not be the kind of lesson needed to thwart future incidents of brutality by border police.

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