Israeli soldiers systematically abuse Palestinian drivers in the West Bank, often subjecting them to serious beatings and humiliating treatment and causing extensive damage to their vehicles.

Human Rights Watch said that hundreds of Palestinian drivers had been subjected to serious abuse since the beginning of the recent unrest in the West Bank at the end of September, and said that it has received credible reports of similar abuses in Gaza.

Human Rights Watch called on the Israeli authorities to order publicly an immediate end to these abuses, undertake a thorough investigation to bring the perpetrators to account, and compensate the victims.

Since early October 2000, Israel has sealed off nearly all Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank by placing large concrete blocks or high earthen blockades on all exit roads as well as preventing Palestinian drivers from passing through dozens of permanent and ad-hoc military checkpoints. The only roads that are regularly open to traffic are "bypass" roads that connect Israeli settlements in the West Bank to Israel proper and to each other. Palestinian drivers, officially prohibited from using these roads, have attempted to circumvent the closures and blockades by using alternative minor roads or by risking travel on bypass roads.

"Israeli soldiers are routinely beating Palestinian drivers, slashing their tires, or shooting at their vehicles simply because they are traveling on roads declared 'closed' by Israeli authorities," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "Given the pattern of attacks and frequency of these incidents, we are concerned that the Israeli military leadership is condoning this behavior, and even actively complicit in it."

Human Rights Watch said that Israel's policy of sharply restricting Palestinian movement has been in place, with varying degrees of severity, since March 1993, but that the restrictions now in place have been far more extensive. The Israeli-imposed closure has brought the local economy to a virtual standstill, with dire consequences for many ordinary Palestinians, and has seriously impeded access to education, medical assistance, and virtually all other aspects of civilian Palestinian life.

"The extent and the duration of the closures imposed on the Occupied Territories exceed the requirements of military necessity, as stipulated under international humanitarian law, and very clearly amount to collective punishment," Megally said.

Human Rights Watch researchers working in the Hebron area have documented more than a dozen cases of serious abuses by Israeli security forces against taxi drivers in that district, and continue to receive numerous other reports of similar serious incidents throughout the West Bank. The majority of taxi drivers in the West Bank contacted by Human Rights Watch recounted incidents where they had suffered abuse at the hands of the Israel Defense Force (IDF), in many cases on more than one occasion.

"The pattern of IDF attacks and harassment against taxi drivers and private Palestinian drivers indicates an effort to stop all Palestinian civilian traffic in the West Bank," Megally said.

Israeli settlers in the West Bank have also created serious problems for Palestinian drivers, setting up their own roadblocks, as well as frequently stoning and shooting at Palestinian cars. In many cases, settlers abuse Palestinians in front of Israeli soldiers or police with little interference from the authorities.

"Settlers in the West Bank are allowed to attack Palestinian drivers with impunity, and often take the law into their own hands," said Megally. "Israel has an obligation to safeguard the safety of all residents in the Occupied areas of the West Bank, and it is imperative that Israeli authorities stop standing by while settlers abuse Palestinian civilians."

Testimonies from Victims of IDF Attacks

The following Hebron area cases are typical of those recently documented by Human Rights Watch. Family names and other identifying information have been withheld in order to protect the witnesses from possible retaliation by Israeli security forces or settlers.

On February 19, 2001, Khaldoun S., aged twenty, was traveling in a communal taxi with nine other Palestinians, on their way from Yatta to the city of Bethlehem. IDF soldiers and Israeli border police stopped the taxi outside the village of Beit Umar shortly after 8 p.m. The border police ordered all of the passengers out of the van, and began slapping the driver in his face and kicking him. The border police ordered the driver to apologize in person to each of the soldiers and border police before one told him, "Now get in your van and go home. I don't want to see you here again. If I see you here again, I will kill you." After the driver left with the other passengers, the border police officers ordered Khaldoun S. to get in their jeep and drove him to a nearby forest. When the jeep stopped, they ordered Khaldoun S. to get out. He recounted to Human Rights Watch what happened next:

I stepped out of the jeep and [the border police officer] was holding my arm. He pulled his fist back and hit me hard on the mouth. He hit me again, now my head hit the police jeep and I became dizzy. He grabbed a hold of me and banged me several times against the jeep. Then he kneed me hard, in my private parts. Finally I fell to the ground. The policeman kept hitting me with the machinegun, while the other was kicking me in the head. I lost consciousness, when they would hit me I would wake up momentarily.

The police officers left Khaldoun S. in the forest, and he made his way to safety. Khaldoun S. showed Human Rights Watch injuries consistent with his account, including a split lip, loose teeth and bruises on his back.

On February 15 in a small village near Yatta, Te'er Abu U., aged twenty, and his cousin were approached by a man whose car was stuck in the mud. The two cousins took their tractor to the car to pull it out, and met a group of IDF soldiers on a tank at the site. The men were told to take off their jackets and lay down in the mud. Their magnetic ID cards that gave them access rights to Israel proper were confiscated, and they were beaten:

They made us sit in the mud for about one hour, on our knees with our foreheads to the ground, as if we were praying. The soldiers were beating us on our backs with their guns; I was hit hard five or six times.

The cousins were unable to start the tractor when their ordeal was over, and went home to get another tractor to jumpstart it. When they arrived, they found their tractor heavily damaged:

When we returned back with the tractor, we found that the soldiers had cut all of the tires. They also opened the radiator and took the covers of the oil and fuel tanks. The lights were broken, the body was smashed, the windows were broken. The soldiers were still there, about 100 meters away.

Te'er Abu U. estimated the damage to the tractor at 10,000 Shekels (U.S. $2,500).

Mohammed H., a thirty year-old taxi driver, recounted to Human Rights Watch three incidents when IDF soldiers attacked him. During the first incident, several months ago, he was traveling from Hebron to Bethlehem and stopped to drop some passengers near the village of El Khader, near Bethlehem. Two soldiers walked towards him and started cursing him, telling him he was not allowed to go there. One of the soldiers pulled out a knife and cut all four of the car's tires before walking away. Mohammed H said it took 1500 shekels (U.S. $375) to replace the tires, nearly a month's income.

On January 18, Mohammed H. was driving near the entrance to Yatta when he was stopped by an IDF jeep on the Israeli bypass road and told to turn around and return to Yatta. As he was turning, the IDF jeep reversed and smashed into his car. Mohammed H. got out of the car to ask why the soldiers had hit his car when he was complying with their orders, and a soldier came to his car and broke his mirror with his gun. At that time, an Israeli settler stopped on the bypass road, began cursing Mohammed H., and threw a rock at the car. The IDF soldiers politely escorted the settler to his car and asked him to leave the scene before allowing Mohammed H. to leave. Mohammed H. showed Human Rights Watch photos of his damaged car, which were consistent with his story.

On February 15, Mohammed H. was again victimized by IDF soldiers. As he was traveling from Hebron to Yatta on the main bypass at 5 a.m. to pick up a passenger, IDF soldiers stopped him near the Zief junction and demanded his ID and keys, explaining that it was a closure and that he was not allowed to drive on the road because there had been heavy shooting near the settlement of Ma'on. The soldiers slashed two of Mohammed H.'s tires before telling him "If [the Palestinians] stop shooting at us [in Ma'on], you can travel on this road." Mohammed H. stayed with his car until 6 p.m., 13 hours after he had been stopped, before his keys and ID were returned to him.

Ali M., a thirty-one year old official in the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism, was driving on the road between Beit Umar and the Al Arrub refugee camp at about 10 a.m. on February 8, on his way to visit his parents. An IDF jeep suddenly passed him and cut him off, forcing him to stop. After complying with orders to get out of the car and hand over his keys, a soldier pushed Ali M. hard against his car with his machinegun. The soldiers told Ali M. the road was closed, and then one soldier shot out his rear tire while another pulled out a knife and cut through a front tire before leaving the car.

On December 18, Ali M. was about to cross the main bypass road (Route 60) to get from Hebron to his home village when IDF soldiers in two military jeeps stopped him and other drivers. The soldiers immediately started beating the crowd of Palestinian travelers:

They were swearing, calling us names, sons of bitches, dirty Arabs, bad stuff. I was standing outside the car with many other people. They just started hitting and pushing us, swearing at us. They were just walking around hitting people because we were not supposed to be there and were trying to get around them, and now we were caught.

A little boy threw a rock at them and hit a soldier in his leg. The soldier was so mad and started beating the boy bloody, he was swearing to God and cursing Mohammed, saying he would f*ck our prophet. The kid had a bloody nose and lips.

Then he went to the first taxi driver and blew out his four tires, [the taxi driver] was from our village. Then he shot out one of my tires in the Landrover [The soldiers] took two men with them. When I reached home, I found out that my front lights had been broken. I didn't see this happen, I was too focused on saving myself and [my young brother-in-law] Arafat.