(Jerusalem) – Israel should investigate and hold accountable members of the security forces who used excessive force against demonstrators on July 15, 2013 in two Israeli cities. Five witnesses told Human Rights Watch that police used excessive force against demonstrators protesting a draft law that would facilitate the forced displacement of thousands of Bedouin residents of Israel’s southern Negev region.
Mounted police, border police, and riot police violently dispersed nonviolent demonstrations in Sakhnin, in northern Israel, and riot and border police beat demonstrators in Beer Sheva, in the Negev, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. At least three protesters from Sakhnin and two from Beer Sheva were hospitalized. In Sakhnin, demonstrators said, security forces attacked the protest using mounted police and teargas. Video footage viewed by Human Rights Watch corroborates their statements. Israeli news media reported that eight security officers were “lightly injured” during the protests.
“Security officials literally trampled on Israeli citizens who were demonstrating peacefully on July 15,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If those responsible for unjustifiably injuring protesters go unpunished, it would send a dangerous signal that Israeli authorities will not tolerate peaceful protests.”
Protest organizers called on Israel to withdraw government-proposed legislation to resolve the status of tens of thousands of Bedouin citizens of Israel who live in villages that Israeli authorities do not recognize as lawful. Israel’s parliament approved a first draft of the legislation, known as the “Prawer Law” after the official who drafted an earlier version, on June 24. Israeli officials have estimated that carrying out the law would forcibly displace 30,000 Bedouin from “unrecognized” communities, moving most of them to government-planned townships. Rights groups estimate that up to 40,000 Bedouin could be displaced.
Four participants in a demonstration in Sakhnin told Human Rights Watch that security forces allowed the demonstration to proceed for about an hour, until around 6 p.m., when they warned the demonstrators to disperse within five minutes. One of the participants did not hear the warning, she said, and the other three participants said that some of the more than 500 protesters present also did not hear the police warning to disperse. Mounted police and riot police subsequently attacked demonstrators without provocation or further warning, witnesses said. One protester, N., told Human Rights Watch: “I saw one of the [riot police] officers walk in front of us, he signaled and all of a sudden horses started running and trampling people. Some people hadn’t even heard the five-minute warning. There was no proper communication between the forces and the protesters.” According to a second protester, B., “after about an hour the police officers started asking people to spread out and gave a five-minute warning, and all of a sudden they just attacked. You don’t realize that the time is up, it just happened so quickly.”
A large crowd’s failure to disperse immediately upon being warned by police is not a justification for attacking members of the crowd, Human Rights Watch said.
One protester, N., said he saw a mounted police officer use his horse to trample a man “trying to protect a little girl from the police.” Another demonstrator, A., told Human Rights Watch:
I saw them hit a man, and a woman came to defend him and I saw them trample her with their horse, then the men [in the protest] started screaming in defense of the woman and everything got worse. We started to run, we went to the [trees and underbrush by the road-side] which was our only way out, the only way we could get away from the horses, and they started hitting us with tear gas and [stun grenades] all around us and in between our legs. Some of the guys that were with us tried to fight back and started throwing rocks at the horses and they attacked us again. We ran and hid until we realized it was over.
Other security forces in Sakhnin pushed demonstrators to the ground and beat them, and fired tear gas and threw stun grenades at protesters, who fled into thick vegetation at the side of the road, the four participants said. A protester, S., said: “There were horses from one side, and Yasams [riot police] from the other side, we had nowhere to go. We were trapped. The only place we could go is off the road and into the forests. It was raining teargas and [stun grenades], and people were being hit by the canisters.”
Israeli media reported that teargas fired by security forces at the Sakhnin demonstration set nearby fields on fire. Ten demonstrators were injured, three seriously, according to Adalah, a nongovernmental legal center that advocates for Arab minority rights in Israel and is representing the protesters.
Security forces arrested 14 people, including Fathiyya Hussein, Adalah’s office manager. An Adalah spokesperson told Human Rights Watch that Hussein and her sons, ages 24 and 17, were peacefully protesting when security forces beat and then arrested them. Adalah reported that police were investigating the 14, all of them Palestinian citizens of Israel, on preliminary charges of assaulting police officers, obstructing the work of the police, participating in an illegal demonstration, and endangering public safety. On July 16, a court in Akko ordered the release of Hussein, her younger son, two other women and two men who had been arrested at Sakhnin, the following day. The court ordered the release of another six arrested demonstrators on July 18, but extended the detention of two men until July 21.
In Beer Sheva, a protester told Human Rights Watch, police had approved the route of a march from Ben Gurion University to the office of the municipality’s Bedouin Authority. But border police and riot police began to scuffle with youth in the demonstration at a main intersection along the route. Dr. Thabet Abu Ras, the Negev office director for Adalah, said that a 19-year-old woman hit her head on concrete when security forces pushed her to the ground and was hospitalized. Security forces also injured Mofeed Swelim, 26, who was hospitalized for one night, Adalah’s Negev office told Human Rights Watch.
Security forces arrested 14 demonstrators in Beer Sheva, including two women and two minors. All 14 were Palestinian citizens of Israel. On July 16, Abu Ras said, “People went to the court at 8:30 a.m. in solidarity to attend the hearings, and we found that more than half the chairs in the court were filled with riot police, who prevented people from attending.”
A Beer Sheva court ordered the release of six detained protesters on bail and under condition of one week’s house arrest on July 16, while the rest were released on July 18.