Palestinian artist who exhibited with Ai Weiwei arrested during IDF West Bank search

Eid Suleiman Hthaleen handcuffed and blindfolded for five hours before being taken to Kiryat Arba police station, is later released without charge

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Palestinian artist Eid Suleiman Hthaleen is handcuffed and taken away for questioning by IDF soldiers in the Palestinian village of Umm al-Khair, February 14, 2023. (Courtesy)
Palestinian artist Eid Suleiman Hthaleen is handcuffed and taken away for questioning by IDF soldiers in the Palestinian village of Umm al-Khair, February 14, 2023. (Courtesy)

A Palestinian artist who has in the past exhibited with renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was arrested on Tuesday during a search conducted by an IDF reservist battalion looking for weapons in a West Bank Bedouin village.

Eid Suleiman Hthaleen was handcuffed, blindfolded and taken from Umm al-Khair by soldiers from the unit to a nearby military base. His family was unable to contact or locate him for five hours until he was formally processed at the police station in the Kiryat Arba settlement.

The army confiscated a large sum of money from Hthaleen along with jewelry, cameras, phones and other electronic devices during the search. No weapons were found by the IDF in the raid.

He was released from prison late Tuesday night, on condition that he return for questioning again on Wednesday.

Hthaleen’s money was returned to him but his electronic devices remain with the police. The police decided on Wednesday not to charge Hthaleen, although they are keeping hold of his devices for further checks, he said.

Hthaleen has exhibited his art in Tel Aviv and Berlin, which consists of model jeeps, bulldozers, helicopters and other Israeli military vehicles made from scrap metal, plastic and other materials he finds in his surroundings.

Ai Weiwei visited Israel and the West Bank in 2016, and met with Hthaleen in Umm al-Khair. The Chinese artist subsequently invited Hthaleen to exhibit his work in Berlin later that year.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (right) visits Palestinian artist Eid Suleiman Hthaleen (left) whose family member is displaying one Hthaleen’s pieces in of Um al-Khair in the West Bank in May 2016. (Courtesy Ai Weiwei)

Umm al-Khair is located in the South Hebron Hills within Area C of the West Bank, where Israel has full civil and security control, and is one of numerous Bedouin herding communities in that region. Most of the makeshift buildings in the hamlet were built without authorization since Israel rarely grants building permits to Palestinians living in Area C, and are slated for destruction.

On Tuesday morning, soldiers from the Judea reserve regional defensive battalion entered Umm al-Khair from the adjacent settlement of Carmel and turned numerous homes upside down looking for weapons, according to residents of the village.

The unit did not find any weapons, the IDF said, but arrested Hthaleen on suspicion that the money in his possession was slated for “terrorist purposes.”

After being taken from the village at approximately 11:30 a.m., Hthaleen was brought to a military base close to the Susya settlement but was only transferred to the police station in Kiryat Arba at approximately 4:30 p.m.

He was handcuffed using plastic cuffs, which he said were very painful, and blindfolded the entire time.

Hthaleen was questioned for around two hours by the police but was only released late at night. He returned to the police station on Wednesday morning as instructed but was made to wait for two and a half hours before being admitted to the station, where he was questioned for 30 minutes.

“They terrified the women, children, and babies [during the search], and they searched everything, kitchens, bedrooms, they collapsed everything and pulled it down, and then they came to my house, they confiscated some of my money, my computers and cameras and arrested me and took me to the police,” Hthaleen told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

Eid Suleiman Hthaleen displays his work in Umm al-Khair. (Courtesy Eid Suleiman Hthaleen)

Asked why the IDF conducted the search operation in Umm al-Khair, Hthaleen said, “it’s because of the settlers, they bother the people’s lives day and night to make the people feel not safe and try to kick the people out of the village.

“Everyone in Masafer Yatta feels the same, this is one of the ways they can abuse the communities and make them feel bad.”

Over 1,000 Palestinians, mostly from some 15 herding communities in the South Hebron Hills and the Jordan Valley, have fled their homes since October 7 due to violence and harassment against them by extremist settlers.

IDF units have conducted numerous such raids in the South Hebron Hills region since October 7, in one notable incident ransacking properties in the village of Halat al-Daba during another search for weapons.

The army said on Tuesday night that the battalion entered Umm al-Khair “in a search for weapons,” and that “during the activities the wanted person was arrested after a large sum of money was found in his home which was suspected of being terror funds, alongside additional technological equipment. Because of this he was transferred to the Israel Police.”

The reserve regional defensive battalions currently on operational duty in the West Bank are largely comprised of mobilized civilians called up since October 7 to provide additional security in the territory. Among those serving in the West Bank battalions are large numbers of residents of the settlements.

They have been accused of numerous abuses against Palestinian civilians since October 7.

In November, two masked IDF soldiers from the Judea Regional Defense Battalion entered a Palestinian school in the village of A-Tuwani, also in the southern Hebron Hills, and attempted to remove a Palestinian flag from the premises.

The two soldiers were subsequently discharged for violating IDF orders and procedures.

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