Some Israeli Soldiers Trained to Violate Palestinians–not as an exception but as standard procedure
This Op-Ed appeared in Haaretz, 12-Nov, 2013 both in Print and on Haaretz.co.il. It was not posted on the English Haaretz.com edition, as of 12-November, 2013, 23:30 Israel Standard Time.
The Army’s Training Ground
Somewhere in the Negev, in an army training base, stands an “Arabic City” that was built by the IDF a number of years ago stands, with 472 buildings, seven kilometers of paved streets and a variety of urban facilities – schools, garages, refugee camps, and mosques. In order to create an authentic ambience, shacks of metal sheeting and tires were introduced and laundry hung from the balconies. Each year IDF units train in the facility and the facility is even leased by foreign armies so they can train in the IDF-created war zone. However, despite the large size of the facility, equivalent to about three neighborhoods in the city of Modiin (as advertised in the IDF web site) and although about 100 million dollars has been invested in the site, the IDF seems to prefer “the real thing”.
The IDF regularly trains inside Palestinian villages. From time to time, in the dead of night, a village is aroused with the sounds of explosions and gunfire. Scores of soldiers creep up on the village houses and simulate conquest of the village. At times the height of the training exercise is home invasions; a number of homes are singled out and the soldiers take them over. Sometimes the unit situates itself in the courtyard, but sometime they herd the residents into an anteroom while the force hunkers down for a few hours in the living room. A reserve soldier who gave testimony to “Breaking Silence” described this as follows: “You enter the village in the middle of the night, using blanks, stun grenades and explosions. A village, whose people previously had posed no threat, maybe after a day like this, will…and you essentially disrupt their night. Children wet their beds, mothers scream, things that happen when you get into this [activity]”.
The Palestinians’ personal possessions also may serve the training. Dog trainers [female gender] of the “Oketz” unit testified that they would train the dogs on Palestinian vehicles that move through the checkpoints. The dogs would soil the vehicles with mud, rip up the upholstery and sometimes evacuate inside the vehicle. Even the Palestinian persons are used for training. Soldiers who trained in Hebron, for example, described the process of “dummy” arrests: an army unit assaults a house, surrounds it and orders its occupants to vacate the premises. Sometimes the ID card of the frightened homeowner (who is suspected of nothing) is cursorily examined by the commanding officer, who then ends the exercise, but sometimes he [the Palestinian] is escorted to a military vehicle, handcuffed and blindfolded.
This training routine is not exceptional. In response to complaints by the “Yesh Din” NGO, the IDF judge advocate general’s office stated that there is no legal obstacle to training within the Palestinian villages, but the “soldiers must avoid endangering the population, property damage or unreasonable disruption of their daily routine”. This is how the military attorney general, for all practical purposes, authorizes this training methodology, but excuses itself from taking responsibility, while describing the methodology as a trivial, but essential disruption, no more than a common Civil Defense exercise in Holon.
Yet, the soldiers’ testimony reveals that even by the conditions defined by the IDF judge advocate general’s office itself, the training methodology does not meet standards. It is hard to consider conquering a village or a simulated arrest in the middle of the night a reasonable disruption to the daily routine, and it is impossible to discuss avoiding property damage when a dog is unleashed to search for an object planted in a vehicle that has stopped at a checkpoint. About a year ago it was reported that during a military exercise in the village of Raamon near Ramallah, a Palestinian was shot and killed when he attacked the army unit because he thought they were thieves. The Palestinians are not forewarned of military exercises in their village, and the potential danger posed by these military exercises to the Palestinian population does not justify, as expressed by the judge advocate general, “prevention in principle” of the exercise.
But behind the insistence of the military of continuing this training methodology on the Palestinians is another goal of “demonstrating the IDF presence”, as expressed by the judge advocate general’s office. That is, one of the aims of these exercises is that the Palestinian population see and feel the soldiers. When Nahal unit soldiers practice making an arrest in the Hebron Casbah, the neighborhood Palestinians learn that the IDF operates at all times, in all places and that they or their families are subject at any time to be arrested in the dead of night. When briefing the soldiers, their mission is at times described by the term “the creation of a feeling of persecution [harassment?] among the Palestinian population”.
The training is integrated in a wide range of actions that are not aimed at thwarting immediate threats, but to establish a presence whose aim is to instill fear that will tighten the military control over the population. In the Breaking Silence publication “Conquest of the Territories”, there are scores of testimonies as to this training routine. When the judge advocate general’s office was asked about the breaking of the regulations or injury to Palestinians during these exercises, it had no alternative but to repeat the mantra, as it did during the week: it was an unusual incident and we clarified this to the field commanders.
The testimonies of hundreds of soldiers paint a different picture: not unusual incidents of violating procedures, but a defined mission whose aim is to establish a presence. In this situation, even if the judge advocate general wanted to limit this activity, they would find that there is no moral way to carry out a mission whose aim is to cast terror.
The author served as a combat soldier in the Lavie unit and today he heads the Department of Gathering Testimony in the “Breaking Silence” NGO