By Gideon Levy HAARETZ
Every Saturday night, they leave their village and make their way to the construction site at the Har Homa settlement beyond the separation fence. They live on the site during the week, huddling in the cold among the unfinished buildings they are helping to erect in this giant settlement next to Jerusalem, living in fear lest they be caught, since they are illegal workers.
By night they hide, by day they build – the three Sheladallah brothers. Nasim, 23, is a graduate of the university in Bethlehem. He majored in biology and dreamed of becoming a lab technician or a teacher, but was unable to find work. Then there is Sanad, 21, who was studying accounting and Mohammed, 19, who was studying business administration. Both had to give up their studies in order to support their family.
The route to work is dangerous. Sometimes they crawl under the separation fence; sometimes they slither down a rope they toss over the fence – which is six meters high. Almost always, the Border Police are waiting for them, although they are usually able to escape. This is what many young people from their village, Sa’ir, near Hebron, do in order to earn NIS 120 a day doing construction work.
That’s NIS 15 an hour, less than the minimum wage, less than what you pay your babysitter.
Sometimes it ends in arrest, sometimes they are sent back to their village. But on the night of March 7, it ended in blood. That was a night the three muscular brothers will not soon forget, a night they ended up in the hospital in Beit Jala. This was after being subjected to hours of violent abuse by Border Police officers who ambushed them and beat them with clubs, rifle butts and chairs.
Reeducation by the Border Police – in a bathroom stall and in a Jeep. A long, hard night for three young men who only wanted to work. A few days after they recovered, after turning for assistance to the B’tselem organization – which filed a complaint on their behalf with the Police Investigation Department (PID) – the brothers returned to the scene of the crime, to the construction site.
Beatings and fences aren’t about to stop them; they are determined to keep on working. What other choice do they have? This week, over a cup of excellent goat’s milk yogurt prepared by their mother, we sat with them in the yard of their house in Sa’ir, accompanied by B’tselem field researcher Musa Abu-Hashhash. They recounted the events of that night, minute by minute, covering every detail.
At six in the evening the brothers left their home and at around 7:15 arrived at the Al-Zaytoun checkpoint east of Jerusalem. They somehow crawled under the separation fence. They were a group of 10 – the three brothers and seven other laborers. The sun went down and they continued quickly toward Har Homa under cover of darkness.
When they had made it about 200 meters, they spotted a Border Police Jeep. They tried to hide in Bedouin tents near the side of the road, but the occupants threw them out. The Jeep disappeared, and they continued their trek toward work. Suddenly, a Border Police officer appeared from among the trees. He grabbed Mohammed, the youngest brother. A Druze, the officer began cursing in Arabic and ordered Mohammed to sit on the ground. Then he asked for Mohammed’s identity card and kicked him in the side. Mohammed says it was a hard kick, and he cried out in pain. His two brothers, Nasim and Sanad, heard the cries and left their hiding place to come to their brother’s aid.
“Why are you kicking him?” they asked. Meanwhile, the Jeep returned and several more Border Police officers got out, setting off in pursuit of the laborers who had fled.
A few minutes later, a worker named Ashraf was hauled in, bleeding from his face and nose. The officer ordered Nasim to get into the Jeep. Mohammed asked where he was taking him and the officer ordered him to get into the vehicle, too. The rest went on foot, toward the Al-Zaytoun checkpoint.
There, the officer made Nasim get out of the Jeep and took him into the bathroom. Nasim says the officer ordered him to take off his shirt. Then the officer placed his rifle and vest on the sink, and made Nasim enter one of the stalls.
He ordered him to sit on the toilet and began beating him. Nasim says this went on for many minutes. Nasim told him that he had had surgery on his appendix and the beating was endangering his health; the officer asked to see the scar.
Then he stopped beating him, led him out of the bathroom and brought in his brother Sanad, who says he was beaten, too – more than his brother.
At some point, another officer arrived at the checkpoint and asked what was going on. Nasim told him that Mohammed had been kicked and that he and his brother had been beaten, pointing out the officer who had done it. The new officer also asked why Ashraf was bleeding and they told him.
He gave Ashraf something to drink and helped him wipe the blood from his face. Eventually, they were released, but not before the officer who had beaten them asked Mohammed to sign a paper saying he had not been beaten. Mohammed refused. “I have 10 witnesses that [saw] you beat us,” he told him.
The officer threatened to arrest him, but let him go in the end.
Battered and exhausted, they decided nevertheless to try to sneak back to work. They had already paid for the ride to that point and didn’t want to give up. They walked toward another checkpoint, the Al-Za’im checkpoint.
Two Border Police officers were patrolling there, too, so they waited. After a while they gave up and decided to try somewhere else. They headed toward the Isawiyah bridge. There was a Jeep on the bridge. Dozens of workers – they say the number was close to 100 – were hiding below the bridge. Finally, the Jeep left and they tossed a rope up over the wall. Nasim and another worker, Jabrin, climbed up first. They saw a Jeep on the other side of the fence and leaped back. A few minutes later, they clambered up again and this time saw no Jeep. They slid down the other side of the wall while Sanad began climbing up.
When Sanad was about to come down on the other side, the Jeep returned. He was suspended on the rope and the Border Police officers aimed their rifles at him and ordered him to come down. He came down and put his hands behind his head and the officers said to him:
“Since this morning, we’ve been waiting to catch someone.” They started beating him with their clubs. They dragged him toward the Jeep as they continued hitting him. Sanad says he almost lost consciousness. Then they tossed him on the side of the road.
Sanad called Nasim, who was hiding nearby, and told him in weak voice that the Border Police had “left him a wreck.” Nasim hurried to his brother and called a Palestinian ambulance.
They decided to take Sanad to the Al-Za’im checkpoint, to show what had happened to him and to complain about the beating. An officer came and they told him what had happened. The officer said he had seen on the security cameras that Sanad was hurt when he fell from the wall – that no one had beaten him.
They replied that the fact that he was injured all over his body showed that he had been beaten. Then the officer started to beat Nasim. Another Jeep arrived, and now there were eight Border Police officers there. Nasim says that as he was trying to ward off the blows, the badge of one of the officers came off. The Border Police officers put Nasim and Mohammed in a detention cell at the checkpoint, and one of the officers told Nasim that now he would get revenge for ripping off his badge.
Nasim says he was beaten yet again. Mohammed says that he, too, was beaten until he bled. They were beaten with a chair and with rifle butts before they were finally released. In the meantime, the Palestinian ambulance arrived. The three brothers, along with the other worker, Ashraf, boarded the ambulance, which took them to the hospital in Beit Jala, where their wounds were bandaged. “And that’s the whole story,” says Nasim.
A Border Police spokesperson said that the Border Police command was unaware of the incident and that the information would be passed on to the PID for investigation. They also asked for more information.
At 2:30 A.M., the brothers were released from the hospital. They took a taxi back to their home in Sa’ir, arriving after 3 A.M. Since then, they have managed to sneak back twice for two more weeks of work. Last week they did not go to work – due to the closure imposed because of Israel’s Independence Day.