Hundreds of Palestinians have been arrested over the past month and a half in occupied East Jerusalem, in what lawyers said was a direct response to the Israeli police force losing its standing.
The escalation, which began after Israeli security forces banned Palestinians from accessing the Damascus Gate area, has spread to include violent Israeli repression of sit-ins in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, a “Death to Arabs” march by Israeli settlers, several mass incursions into Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a deadly 11-day Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip, mob attacks on Palestinian citizens of Israel, and a widespread arrest campaign that has targeted at least 2,000 Palestinians within Jerusalem and the occupied territories.
Many of the arrests carried out in occupied East Jerusalem are based on what Palestinians published on their social media, particularly videos where they ridicule Israeli forces. According to lawyer Nasser Odeh, pursuing Palestinians because of what they post on their social media accounts is not new.
“We’ve seen it in 2015-2016 during the Abu Khdeir flare-up,” Odeh told Al Jazeera, referring to the outbreak of protests and escalations the city witnessed following the 2015 murder and burning alive of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir by Israeli settlers.
“After the Israeli government expanded its anti-terrorism law in 2016, that gave Israeli forces more power to arrest Palestinians on the back of their social media posts, alleging ‘incitement’ or even ‘association with a terrorist group’.”
Currently, this practice has intensified – and based on his experience with such cases in 2015-2016, some of which had stretched out for years after – Odeh is wary that the arrests will only increase.
“I guarantee you that in the next six to eight months, the number of arrests will double if not triple,” he said.
Number of arrests
While some 550 arrests have been reported in general – an estimated 25 percent of them minors – Odeh argues the numbers are much higher.
“Based on the sheer numbers of arrests I’ve seen in the courts day in and day out – at one point there was between 70 to120 arrests per day – I would estimate that since the beginning of Ramadan [mid-April] until now the number of arrests have reached 1,000,” he said.
According to Grassroots Jerusalem, an organisation and platform for community mobilisation, advocacy, and Palestinian rights, many of the detainees are either released on the same night of their arrest or within 24 hours without being brought before the court.
Their release is conditioned on paying fines that range from 500 to 5,000 shekels ($154-$1,540), house arrest, and being banned for a few weeks or months from certain places such as Damascus Gate, the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, the Old City in general, and Sheikh Jarrah.
“The high number of arrests has led to the overcrowding of the Russian Compound detention Center and the transfer of some Jerusalemite detainees to remote detention centers like Majiddo in northern Palestine,” a recent report from Grassroots Jerusalem said. “This makes family and lawyer visits even more difficult.”
There have also been at least four cases of administrative detention, where Palestinians are detained indefinitely despite there being neither charges brought against them nor a trial.
“Israeli intelligence believes these particular detainees are the instigators for confrontations with Israel forces, but there is no tangible evidence to convict them,” Mohammed Mahmoud, another lawyer in Jerusalem, said.
“So far, 10 administrative detention orders have been issued for Palestinian Jerusalemites for a period of four months each,” he added.
Mahmoud said the arrests have been marked by how violent they are.
“Israeli forces badly beat up the arrested Palestinians specifically on their heads and faces,” he told Al Jazeera. “The beatings are among the worst I’ve come across, and have resulted in broken bones.”
Yasin Sbeih, a Palestinian who was arrested on May 18 and spent a week in detention before being released, said he suffered injuries to his ribs, a burst eardrum, and two black eyes.
“It was a crazy beating,” he said. “They kicked and punched me on the face, ears, and head mostly. I was put in such a tight chokehold I thought I was going to suffocate to death.”
Sbeih was arrested after he and his friend tried to protect a 15-year-old Palestinian girl who was being physically assaulted by Israeli police at Damascus Gate.
“The girl was sitting on the steps not doing anything before they started attacking her,” he said. “All three of us were arrested, and the commanding officer told his unit that they shouldn’t beat us in front of security cameras.
“It’s clear they were given orders to act this way, as a means to reimpose their power and take back some measure of control,” he added.
Sbeih was not charged and was released a week later.
“They tried to say we instigated the fight but security cameras clearly showed the Israeli forces attacking us,” he said.
Grassroots Jerusalem said imprisonment for other detainees is often without any legal justification, but that does not stop Israeli prosecutors from filing indictments.
“Charges vary and include rioting, contempt of cops, and even affiliation to a ‘terrorist’ organisation,” the group said.
On the morning the Hamas-Israeli ceasefire was announced, a Palestinian man in Jerusalem’s Old City took a video of himself making an obscene gesture towards Israeli police amid a cheering crowd.
The video was widely shared and the young man was promptly arrested. He was beaten badly, then released after two days.
“Lately, they’ve been arresting Palestinians based on their TikTok videos, where for example a Palestinian says something to a group of Israeli soldiers and then his friends start laughing, to another kid cursing at a female soldier,” Odeh said.
These arrests are seen as deterrence against what Israel considers the weakening of the stature of its forces, he explained, adding that is has resulted in the forces looking pathetic to Palestinians.
“This behaviour and response of Israel to such videos is telling,” Odeh said. “They’ve expanded their resources and included more forces to carry out the arrests in a disproportionate manner that in no way corresponds to these alleged violations.”
“They can’t stand the idea of a 16-year-old Palestinian gesturing to Israeli forces, and want to make an example out of him and others to restore the barrier of fear.”
Mohammed Mahmoud said Palestinians are no longer afraid of Israeli forces and the repercussions that come with “acting out” against them.
“The fear barrier has been broken,” Mahmoud told Al Jazeera. “Israeli forces are up against a people who no longer have anything to lose.
“The young men in Jerusalem don’t see they have a future to look forward to, due to socioeconomic factors that is either the result of or exacerbated by the occupation policies towards them. These people are defending their right to exist, their homes and their homeland, and had it not been for their resistance, Jewish settlers would have taken control of many places in Jerusalem.”