Nine years after their establishment, the Military Police's two crossing battalions in the Judea and Samaria Division are at the center of a serious wide-scale complaint submitted to the soldiers' ombudsman, involving humiliations of Palestinians, receiving benefits, faulty training and soldiers who find it difficult to check vehicles due to lack of sleep.
Conversations with the soldiers and additional testimonies collected by Ynet point to an alarming state of affairs as well.
According to the soldiers' testimonies, the checkpoint routine included cases of cursing Palestinians, physical violence against them, confiscating their phones and smashing them. In addition, the soldiers were heavily burdened in their activities, and their qualifications were often faked during the training stage.
A senior Military Police source admitted in a conversation with Ynet, "The complaint included 70 pages. The people there were real, and we immediately appointed an inquiry team including a colonel, two lieutenant colonels from the battalions, an organizational consultant, and a supervising external source. We held examinations and conversations on the ground. Each of the incidents did happen and was taken care of."
The Military Police dealt with the complaint for several months and has begun working to fix the failures and improve the soldiers' service conditions under the supervision of Military Police chief Brigadier-General Golan Maimon and Major-General Hagai Topolansky, head of the IDF's Personnel Directorate.
According to the testimonies, the past 18 months have recorded many violent incidents against Palestinians at the crossings. "A Palestinian who had been waiting for a relatively long time at a checkpoint became irritated and began cursing an officer's mother. He was immediately beaten up by the troops," one soldier testified. Another soldier offered details on the security check of Palestinian suspects: "We twist their hand and they immediately go down, and that's how we check them."
Sometimes, the violence against the Palestinians is carried out in dark places: "In one of the roadblocks there is a sealed building called a court, which is supposed to be used to try wanted Arabs or those causing problems. That's where they are beaten up."
According to one of the testimonies, "There was a case in which a military policeman pushed an Arab on the floor and simply started kicking him. In another case, two Arabs began fighting and instead of separating between them, the soldiers stood by, laughed and applauded."
Male and female soldiers serve together in the two crossing battalions, Keter and Taoz, across the West Bank, from the Hebron and Bethlehem area to Samaria and the Jenin area, through the seam lines and the Jerusalem vicinity. There are also fighters in these crossings who secure their activities, but they are usually replaced after an operational activity of several months.
According to a soldier in the Taoz Battalion, some troops treat the Palestinians arriving at the crossings disrespectfully. "They shout at them, 'Get out of here,' 'you stink,' 'SOBs.' They have even started arranging them in groups of threes and moving them into rows like in recruit service, or playing with them, making one of them sit and the other stand up alternately," she said.
The soldier added that there was a tendency to delay Palestinians at the checkpoint for more than three hours and make them stand in the sun the entire time.
"There was another incident in which two soldiers beat up a Palestinian because they saw him holding a sign reading, 'Death to the Jews,'" she added. "They punched him in the head and kicked him."
Another soldier said that "the illegal workers are sent aside and their eyes and sealed, and every time they talk they are beaten up."
'Commanders completed recruits' exams'
Soldiers also testified that in some cases Palestinians' cell phones were confiscated for no apparent reason, and the laborers were then sent off on their workday. While the phones were at the checkpoint, the soldiers smashed them on the floor. One soldier event documented one of these incidents.
The soldiers who complained also testified that troops had received benefits at a checkpoint near Baqa al-Gharbiyye, including cigarettes and falafel from a Palestinian whose friends were allowed to cross against orders.
According to other complaints, soldiers stationed in crossings in the Jerusalem vicinity and Bethlehem area were required to sleep only three or four hours a day. "We had shifts of eight hours at the checkpoint and an eight-hour break, and they expected us to maintain a high alert level," one of the troops testified. "Clearly, soldiers did a sloppy job in such situations, and we couldn't check the passing vehicles properly, even if we wanted to."
Another soldier testified that "it all began during recruit service, when we saw the disregard towards this job, which is neither a fighter nor a non-combat soldier."
The soldiers' testimonies also revealed incidents in which Palestinians arrived at the checkpoint in masses and, as a result, were let into Israel without being checked because of the burden.
"Sometimes it was 1,200-1,400 Palestinians who were let in at once, although the crossing's capacity was much lower," one of the soldiers recounted.
The complaint also uncovered serious cases in which commanders at the Military Police's training base completed and fixed recruits' answers in exams and wrote false results in their shooting range reports after the recruits failed the tests. Nonetheless, these soldiers were officially empowered as security evaluators in the level of riflemen.
According to soldiers in the battalions and from Ynet's conversations with these units' commanders, the troops not only engage in the exhausting operation activity in the same area and at the same checkpoints throughout their entire military service, but they also don't know how to identify the smuggling of weapons, goods or infiltrators.
In the training itself, some of the soldiers are trained as riflemen, but they get there quite easily: "In the physical fitness tests, commanders told us to lie about the results so that we would pass," some of the soldiers testified. They added that the commanders' treatment, the exhaustion and the faulty training caused dozens of soldiers to drop out from the battalions in the past two years, and some of the soldiers even tried to commit suicide.
'Standing in the heat or in the cold for hours'
Ynet's conversations with commanders and troops at the crossing in the past few weeks reveal that alongside the soldiers who beat up Palestinians, there were soldiers who tried to treat them respectfully as much as possible.
According to a junior commander who served at a crossing near the settlement of Beitar until recently, "Where there are female soldiers, for example, soldiers who are known are problematic are ashamed to humiliate a Palestinian. It's true that some of us were given a fighter's certificate, but it's a drop in the ocean compared to the many tasks and the constant friction with the Palestinian population."
The commander added, "Our living conditions and food are basically good, and there are many soldiers who understand the importance of their activity for the state's security. There is a reason why the Judea and Samaria Division has succeeded in thwarting hundreds of attempt to smuggle goods, illegal workers and weapons into Israel in the past few years."
During a random examination for the Jerusalem vicinity crossings, the soldiers seem relatively alert, but they say that during the busy hours it's a very difficult task. "There is never a 100% hermetical sealing," says a veteran soldier. "We know that it's possible that one smuggling or two took place during a shift, but that's because it's so difficult to stand outside, in the heat or in the cold, for many hours, with a bullet-proof vest and a weapon."
'Soldiers must not accept anything at the crossing'
A senior Military Police officer explained in response that any humiliation or abuse case reaches the battalion commander or Military Police chief, and in some cases even the Criminal Investigations Division.
"All the incidents in the report happened and have been taken care of," the officer clarified in a conversation with Ynet. "We emphasize the ethical aspect to the soldiers, and we are not necessarily immune to mistakes and mishaps in such an intensive system which operates 24 hours a day and seven days a week. We check and punish whoever we have to and send to jail whoever we have to.
"In addition," the officer says, "we have emphasized the prohibition that the soldiers must not accept anything, not even a doughnut or a glass of water, from both Jews and Palestinians at the crossing."
As for the claim that large amounts of Palestinians have been let in without a security check, the officer says: "There are clear orders regarding the extent of the security check according to different scenarios, an evaluation of the situation and discretion in the tension between upholding security and maintaining the Palestinians' life fabric."
As for the claims of suicidal attempts among the soldiers, the officer noted that the last incident happened in 2011, and that the rest were being monitored and treated by the relevant professionals at the units.
The training process, the officer said, lasts 14 weeks and strengthens the soldiers and their motivation. "We increased the number of soldiers empowered as riflemen, and all the exams have been concentrated in one control system which allows us to personally supervise each soldier. If there are additional failures, we will be able to detect them quickly and punish if needed."
As for the soldiers' fatigue at the crossings, the officer said that the squadrons' working method was changed this year through a different mixture of training, vacation, recreation and employment episodes.
The dropout rates, according to the officer, have been reduced from 35% in 2012 to 9% last year. In the first half of this year, he says, the dropout rate is only 2%.