Officer indicted in case of soldiers who beat Palestinian suspects

Lieutenant charged with failing to prevent abuse of handcuffed, blindfolded prisoners, who were suspected of aiding a terrorist

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

One (L) of the five Israeli soldiers from the Kfir Brigade who were arrested for allegedly beating two Palestinian suspects in their custody arrives for a court hearing at the Jaffa Military Court on January 10, 2019. (Flash90)
One (L) of the five Israeli soldiers from the Kfir Brigade who were arrested for allegedly beating two Palestinian suspects in their custody arrives for a court hearing at the Jaffa Military Court on January 10, 2019. (Flash90)

The commanding officer of five soldiers suspected of beating two Palestinian detainees last month was charged Sunday with failing to prevent the alleged crime.

The troops, who serve in the religious Netzah Yehuda Battalion of the Kfir Brigade, were indicted on January 31 and were accused of assaulting the two prisoners after they were arrested, blindfolded and handcuffed and put in the back of a military personnel carrier.

The two Palestinian detainees — a father and son — had been arrested in a raid conducted as part of a search for a terrorist who had killed two of the servicemen’s comrades in a shooting attack outside the Givat Assaf outpost in the central West Bank.

The Palestinians were later charged with assisting the terrorist in his escape.

The lieutenant who was indicted on Sunday is not suspected of having beaten the prisoners, but of having failed to stop the soldiers from doing so.

He was charged with failing to prevent a crime, negligent assault and conduct unbecoming an officer, the army said.

According to the military, the lieutenant “saw that his soldiers were acting very violently toward Palestinian prisoners, while they were handcuffed and blindfolded, and nevertheless failed to prevent them from continuing to strike the prisoners.”

He has been suspended from his position, the army added.

The military said the lieutenant failed to “fulfill his duty and command responsibility as an officer and commander of the troops.”

The five soldiers were accused of “striking the Palestinians with slaps, punches and bludgeons while they were handcuffed and blindfolded, causing them serious injuries,” the army said in a statement last month.

According to the indictment against the soldiers, during the assault, the troops removed the blindfold from the son “so that he would see how they were hitting” his father.

One of the soldier filmed the violence with his cellphone while the other soldiers “cheered with joy and pride to one another — all of this in front of the camera lens,” according to the indictment.

The servicemen are accused of striking the father in the head, face, right arm, back, ribs and legs, and of hitting the son in the head, face, chest, stomach, legs and testicles. “One of the suspects even pulled [the son’s] hair,” the indictment read.

The son had a number of wounds to his head and “significant swelling” to his face, according to the charge sheet. The father sustained multiple broken ribs and a “severely” broken nose, as well as subdermal bleeding around his stomach. He was hospitalized for three days after the beating, according to the indictment.

The extent of the father’s injuries were so great that he could not be interrogated for several days.

The five soldiers were charged with aggravated assault and aggravated abuse, the army said.

Israeli soldiers, medical officials and police inspect the scene of a terrorist shooting attack near Givat Assaf, in the central West Bank, on December 13, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In addition, two of the soldiers were indicted for obstruction of justice as they are suspected of trying to coordinate false testimonies about the incident.

With the filing of the charges, military prosecutors also requested to keep the five suspects in custody through the trial.

After the indictment was filed last month, several right-wing politicians criticized the military for seeking to punish the soldiers.

“Am I the only one who’s not shocked that soldiers gave a little beating to terrorists who helped someone who killed their comrades? This is at most a disciplinary matter,” Bezalel Smotrich, the newly elected leader of the far-right National Union party, said in a tweet.

He said his party planned to pass a law that would give immunity to soldiers from criminal proceedings.

Provocateur Likud MK Oren Hazan accused the military of “trumping up charges” against the soldiers.

“This indictment is another mark of disgrace for a military command that doesn’t know how to support its soldiers,” Hazan wrote in a tweet.

If convicted, the five soldiers would face heavy prison sentences.

The soldiers involved all serve in the Kfir Brigade’s religious Netzah Yehuda Battalion.

Soldiers in the battalion, which operates in the West Bank, have been at the center of several controversies connected to right-wing extremists and Palestinians, especially of late.

Bezalel Smotrich after winning the election for chairman of the National Union, at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Jerusalem, January 14, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In December, two members of the battalion were dismissed from duty after they fought with a group of Border Police officers who had arrested civilian friends of theirs for throwing rocks at Palestinian homes in Ramallah.

Also in December, the Military Police launched an investigation into the actions of Netzah Yehuda soldiers who shot dead an East Jerusalem man they said tried to ram them with his car at a West Bank checkpoint. An initial investigation into the incident found that no such ramming attempt had occurred.

In 2016, a soldier from the battalion was sentenced to 21 days in military prison for taking part in what was called the “hate wedding,” in which extremists celebrated the murder of a Palestinian toddler several months earlier.

Soldiers from the battalion have also been convicted in the past of torturing and abusing Palestinian prisoners.

The battalion was created so that ultra-Orthodox and other religious soldiers can serve without feeling they are compromising their beliefs. The soldiers do not interact with female troops to the same extent as other servicemen and are given additional time for prayer and study.

Michael Bachner contributed to this report.

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