On the Israeli Police Beating of a Palestinian, and Other Crimes

Countries are judged on how they police their police

Tariq Khdeir with his mother in Jerusalem, on July 6 (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

The torture and murder by fire in Jerusalem of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, allegedly by a gang of Israeli hooligans, initially prompted in me a desire to say, "But," but then this short piece, by Rabbi David Wolpe, of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, came over the wire:

Please, please don’t say ‘but.’ The words after ‘but’ invalidate everything that comes before—“He’s a nice person, but he does steal from the company.”  You see? “But” is a meaning duster, sweeping all that precedes it.

So everyone who has written condemning the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, and then goes on to say “but of course” Palestinian society does not condemn their own murders, or Israel is raising up in anguish, or anything else, is missing the point. The point is to be ashamed and to grieve, not to use this murder to prove we are nonetheless better, or they are nonetheless guiltier. 

When we beat our chests on Yom Kippur, we do not say before God, “But the man in the seat next to me is far worse.” That is not contrition; it is self-justification disguised as repentance. At a time of national self soul-searching it is too facile and false to use a Jewish crime as a stick to beat our enemies. Jews did this. Blind hatred did this. We should look inside, and be ashamed.


And so, no "but."  Except for this semi-unrelated one:

But I think that while the murder of 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir is a terrible crime, the non-fatal beating of his cousin, the Palestinian-American teenager Tariq Khdeir, by Israel's Border Police, is, in one way, more consequential. Obviously, murder is the ultimate crime, but this murder was committed, we believe, by thugs operating independent of state authority. The beating of Tariq Khdeir was conducted by agents of the state. We judge countries not on the behavior of their criminal elements, but on 1) how they police their criminal elements; and 2) how they police their police. Those of you who have seen images of the beating of Tariq Khdeir know that this assault represents a state failure.

Unfortunately, this is not a one-off failure. On too many occasions, Israeli police officers and soldiers have meted out excessive punishment to Palestinians in custody. I've witnessed some of these incidents myself, both as a reporter and as a soldier. More than two decades ago, I served in the Israeli military police at the Ketziot prison camp, by Israel's border with Egypt. This was during the first Palestinian uprising (which is remembered now, of course, as the "good" uprising, of stone-throwing and Molotov cocktails, rather than suicide bombers) and the prison held roughly 6,000 Palestinians, many of them street fighters, but many from the leadership of the uprising as well. It was at the prison that I witnessed—and broke up—one of the more vicious beatings I have ever seen. I wrote about this incident, and others, in my book about my time in Ketziot, Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. Rather than summarize my account of this beating, I'm going to post the account straight from the book. It starts when I come across a friend of mine, a fellow soldier, named Yoram, trying to beat senseless a Palestinian man called Abu Firas:

Abu Firas was a disagreeable and smug man, but his sourness was not a mortal sin. Yoram, whom I knew to be gentle but at that moment had blood in his face, was beating Abu Firas on the head with the handset of an army radio. The handset weighed five or six pounds, and it was sharp-edged. Abu Firas was hurt. Most men taking a beating like this would scream blue murder, but Abu Firas didn’t. I was impressed. Yoram didn’t stop when I came upon him. I took hold of his arm, knocking the radio to the ground.

Yoram was a religious Jew, and his kippah, knit and multicolored in the style of the modern Orthodox, stayed pinned to his head through his exertions. It was quite a sight—a yeshiva Jew, a God-fearer, delivering a bloody beating.

You don’t understand,’ Yoram said, gasping for breath. “You don’t understand.”

Abu Firas was on his knees, grabbing at his head. His hair shone with blood. He was barely coherent. He pleaded for water. Yoram tried to jack Abu Firas up onto his feet, but he couldn’t move. Yoram, still panting, didn’t tell me what it was I didn’t understand.


“What the fuck are you doing?” I asked Yoram.

We stared at each other. Yoram looked as if he were ready to take a swing.

Abu Firas sat on the ground, watching now, his pain salved by the spectacle of two Jews at daggers drawn.

“Don’t be a manyak,’ Yoram said. A manyak is an asshole.

How am I a manyak?

“Get this dog out of here,” he said, pointing to Abu Firas.

Abu Firas, who evidently understood Hebrew, spit out, ‘Cus amak,’ at Hebrew. Yoram lunged for him. Cus amak means ‘your mother’s cunt’ in Arabic.

I held Yoram back. I told Abu Firas to move. Then I went in search of someone to take Abu Firas to the infirmary. I found another military policeman, and handed off the wobbling prisoner, who was by now bleeding on me, “He fell,” I lied.

Yoram was not, in my experience, a sadist. He was an appealing person, usually. His parents were refugees from North Africa, a typical Sephardic family, as he described it. They kept kosher, and went to soccer matches on Shabbat. Yoram was kind, not coarse, and patient. Native-born Israelis are blessed with many qualities, but politesse and patience are not among them. That is why the beating surprised me; Yoram did not have a tripwire Middle Eastern temper.

The beating, I deduced, was prompted by something Abu Firas said. The prison had been especially tense in the first months of 1991. Yoram  lived in Tel Aviv, which was, for a time, the target of Iraqi Scud missiles (Saddam Hussein was desperately trying to draw Israel into the Gulf War as a way of splitting the coalition arrayed against him). Abu Firas, in the course of a petty argument about some minor procedural matter, told Yoram that he would ask Allah to help Saddam burn Yoram’s family to death. The Palestinian prisoners did not keep their opinions of Saddam’s efforts to themselves. At night, when the air raid sirens warned of an incoming Scud, the prisoners in their tents would let out a roar of approval. “Ya ya, Saddam,” they would sing, and sometimes ,when their sap was high, “Falastin baladna, wa Yahud kalabna," "Palestine is our land and the Jews are our dogs.” They wouldn’t stop until we threatened to fill their tents with tear gas.

Okay, so Abu Firas is an asshole, I told Yoram. What’s the big deal?

“Don’t you understand, Yoram asked. “You can’t let them talk to you that way."

So what if he curses you? It’s the game. His role is to  provoke you, yours is to ignore him. I kept going: Beating a man won't solve anything. It just drives the hatred deeper inside him.

I was embarrassed for Yoram. I thought we were the same, but I realized at that moment that were different, crucially: Unlike Yoram, I never hit a Palestinian who wasn’t already hitting me.

But if I was embarrassed for Yoram. for his brutality, for his darkness of mind, he was embarrassed for me, for my stupidity and my softness. I read his face: it said, manyak American, with your stupid American ideas. I had only been in the prison for a month but I had already made for myself a reputation as a yafei nefesh, literally a “beautiful soul”—a bleeding heart.

They want to kill us all, Yoram said.

Beating them will make it worse, I said.

“You can’t beat them enough,” he said.


I left Yoram to check on Abu Firas. A medic had cut away some of his hair and his skull was yellow with antiseptic. I stood there watching the stitches go in. Abu Firas said nothing. I was expecting him to say thank you. He didn’t. Instead, he dead-eyed me, until I  left.

A few days later, I fell into conversation with one of the leaders of the prisoners. I had become quite relaxed with a number of them. This one prisoner—Capucci … was a particular favorite. At the time, he was the shaweesh, the prisoner representative of his sub-block, but he was also said to be high in the ranks of Fatah. We talked through barbed wire. He already knew what had happened. “Are you a Communist?” Capucci asked. He wasn’t smiling. He was seigneurial, and grave. He had a quiet in him that was most unusual. He was only thirty-five, but the other prisoners spoke to him as an imam speaks to God.

Capucci had heard that I had done something humane for a prisoner. Therefore he suspected I was a Communist. ...

I saw a handful of other beatings, and broke them up as well. (I also saw kindness, by the way, but that is not the subject of this post.) I would not cover-up again for a soldier who was committing a crime. I was too angry about this behavior to acquiesce in any form. There were occasions, obviously, in which justifiable force was used—in my own case (referred to elliptically above), I had to defend myself from a Hamasnik who was trying to break my skull with a metal pipe. We flailed at each other and then wrestled on the ground for a bit, until one of my comrades came to the rescue (very deftly, and with a minimum of force, by the way). The prison was a nasty place, and it was not the role of the Palestinians prisoners to make it easy, and it was not the role of the soldiers to run it as a summer camp.

On the other hand, I could not believe, at my tender age, that Jews would resort to the use of punitive violence.

It is often said that Israel is judged by a double-standard. This is not true. Often, Israel is judged by a quadruple standard. There is one standard for developing-world countries; a second for Europe; a third, more stringent standard, for the U.S., and a fourth, impossible, standard for Israel. Often, this quadruple standard bothers me, especially when it is deployed by Judeophobes. But the truth is that I judge Israel by a higher standard than I judge other countries, precisely because it is a Jewish country. Jews gave the world the gift of ethical monotheism, and the idea that all people—not just kings—are created in the image of God. Judaism holds that Muhammad Abu Khdeir, and Tariq Khdeir, are created in the image of God, and therefore, to abuse them, to destroy them, is to desecrate God's name. Each time a Palestinian is abused in custody by Israeli authorities, those who commit the beating are violating the spirit and promise of their country.

Is this a tough standard? Yes. Is it impossible to reach during times of strife, when Israel's enemies are trying to murder as many Jews as possible? Maybe. But moments like these are tests. And they represent tests worth passing.