It happens every night, with or without any apparent reason. It’s always brutal: a violent invasion of the home of a sleeping family, before the eyes of the women and the children, everyone abruptly awakening to a nightmare of dozens of soldiers, sometimes with dogs. An alien presence. The arrest missions of the Israel Defense Forces, perhaps the most salient sign of the routine of the occupation, are carried out both in times of unrest and periods of quiet. Hardly a night goes by without them.
The raids take place across the West Bank – including Area A, which is nominally under the Palestinian Authority’s control – and always at night. Every decent Israeli has the obligation to try to imagine the scene: to be woken up in the dead of night by armed, masked soldiers, their rifles aimed at you and at your terrified children. Often the troops resort to violence, tying up members of the household and beating them. Sometimes they use live ammunition.
At some point, they take someone, the wanted individual, into custody, with no explanation, no arrest warrant, no judicial oversight. In some cases, they don’t even let their captive get dressed. Days will pass before the family learns where he is, what his condition is, what the suspicions against him are. Or he might be released after a few days, again with no explanation. If he’s brought to trial, the charges against him will be revealed; some of them are real, others are invented or political in nature, as is usual in the military courts.
In some raids, the IDF soldiers leave as abruptly as they arrived, not detaining anyone – the raid was apparently launched in order to sow fear or for training purposes. Sometimes they simply get the address wrong. There’s barely a Palestinian family that isn’t familiar with this practice. Israelis don’t get abducted from their homes. This is a feature of the apartheid system.
It happened last night and the night before last; it will happen tonight, and tomorrow night, too, while we’re asleep. These are abductions, plain and simple – “arrests” is newspeak. In contrast to what happens in more benighted regimes, here the disappeared will reappear: The families are eventually able to locate their loved ones. Afterward, they can also see them in court. Helpless in the face of the juggernaut, the Palestinians have become accustomed to this reality and accept it with seeming equanimity, as an integral part of their lives.
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But generations of Palestinian children are growing up with fear, trauma and scars from the terror of those nights. The IDF doesn’t provide data about the scale of the phenomenon, but an unofficial estimate is that the number of people arrested during the past year reached some 2,700. The army does publish almost daily communiqués about the “booty”: how many were arrested the preceding night. Every person suspected of throwing a stone can expect a night visit of this kind, every Palestinian family can look forward to the unannounced arrival of these uninvited guests. In some cases no arrest is made; the raid was carried out to collect information, demonstrate control, maintain the troops’ vigilance, keep the local population in a state of constant fear.
No one even thinks of summoning the wanted individuals for questioning – always, they are snatched from their beds, and their families are subjected to brutal treatment.
This week, accompanied by Musa Abu Hashhash, a field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, we visited two homes to which the IDF paid visits recently. In one case the soldiers shot and wounded the head of the household; in the other they raided a home where they’d killed the father three years earlier during a similar mission. In two homes, both in the Hebron area, the testimonies are similar, the questions they raise identical. In Halhul, we were received cordially by the Dawadi family, and in Beit Ummar, by the Abu Marya family. Neither family could understand why the soldiers behaved as they did.
On November 5, a little after 4 A.M., the Dawadi family was awakened by the sounds of a break-in. A staircase surrounded by neglected vines and fig and pomegranate trees leads to the second floor of their two-story house, situated on a hill west of Halhul. Everyone was asleep, apart from two boys, Mahmoud and Lahmed, who were playing Babaji, the addictive computer war game.
Searchlights illuminated the house as the troops tried to force open the front door by dislodging the lintel above it. About 30 soldiers surrounded the building and a dozen of them, all masked, burst into the ground-floor apartment, where Mohammed, 27, his wife, Manal, and their 2-year-old son, Nasser, were sleeping. They handcuffed Mohammed and questioned him about his brother, Muhand, who is 18. He lives on the second floor, Mohammed told them, along with the other unmarried sisters and brothers, and their parents.
Waiting for the soldiers on the second floor were the father of the family, 52-year-old Khaled (known as Nasser at home), and his wife, Nawifa, 50. Khaled opened the door for the troops before they could break it down, and they streamed in without a word. According to Mahmud, 25, the soldiers became violent immediately, binding family members with plastic handcuffs and hitting them. They pushed Nawifa and daughter Kinda, 14, into the kitchen, threw Khaled onto a living-room sofa and shut the brothers in another room. Mahmud recalls the story now calmly, in fluent Hebrew; he had worked in Israel for eight years, only one of them with a permit.
The soldiers took Muhand, whom they had identified from a photo they had, into another room; Mahmud says he heard them beating him. Finally they handcuffed Muhand and were about to leave with him. But he was wearing only underwear, and his mother told the soldiers that she had locked the front door and wouldn’t open it until her son was allowed to get dressed. Mahmud says he asked to speak with their officer. The soldiers hushed him: “You are terrorists and no one is going to talk to you.” Now he asks, “What law in your country allows you to behave this way? What is this, a mafia?”
Finally, Nawifa managed to give Muhand a shirt and jacket, and the soldiers allowed him to put on pants and shoes. They walked down the stairs into the cold street. It’s not clear what happened there, but suddenly Mahmud heard a soldier say, “Pump him,” and then saw his father, Khaled, who had followed the soldiers into the street,slump to the ground next to the building’s entrance. No shot was heard – they must have used a silencer – nor was blood seen at first. Khaled was shot near his knee, at close range. Fortunately, the bullet did not hit the kneecap, only a muscle. He was taken to Aliya Hospital in Hebron and discharged three days later.
During our visit this week, Khaled was in court at Ofer military base, near Ramallah, to attend a hearing for Muhand, who has been in detention since that night on suspicion of throwing stones and Molotov cocktails.
“Put yourself in my place,” Mohammed says, his toddler son sitting on his knees. “My wife wakes me up and says she hears a noise, soldiers break in and aim their rifles at us and at our little boy. Nasser started to cry and a soldier shouted at him to be quiet. How could he yell at a 2-year-old boy?” Since that night, Mohammed relates, his son frequently wakes up at night and shouts, “Yahud! Yahud!” (“Jew! Jew!”)
“Why does the army behave like that?” Mohammed asks. “We worked in Israel and saw that the Israelis can behave differently. What happens to them when they become soldiers? If they’d knocked on the door, we would have opened it. If they had summoned Muhand for questioning, he would have gone.”
A poultry shop in the nearby town of Beit Ummar. Khaider Abu Marya raises chickens in the yard of his house and also buys them in Jericho; he sells them whole for eight shekels ($2.15) a kilo in his store. On July 23, 2015, Khaider lost his father, Falah, 52, when soldiers invading his home to arrest one of his sons fired three live rounds into his upper body. From the poultry shop we drive to the home of the Abu Marya family, where the smells of a chicken coop and dead fowl hang in the air. Inside, the family tells us that Falah was killed after soldiers shot and wounded his son, Mohammed, and Falah had gone out to the balcony to shout for help. The soldiers made no arrests.
This past November 6, the day after the Halhul incident, IDF troops again arrived at the Abu Marya residence. It was 3 A.M. They were looking for another member of the family, Muhi, 21. They entered the house by force and, according to Khaider, hit his brother Yihyeh. Their mother, Faika, screamed, terrified that another disaster was about to strike the family. The dozen soldiers were accompanied by a frightening dog. They demanded the ID cards of the family members, but Faika, utterly distraught, had a hard time finding them. The house was in the midst of preparations for the wedding of another son, Nabil, the following week.
According to Faika, the soldiers attached an electric-shock device to Yihyeh’s chest and back, and beat him on the face until he bled. Hearing the shouting and screams from the floor below, Khaider’s three small children and Mohammed’s 18-month-old infant began to cry with fear.
Eventually the soldiers left, taking Muhi and Yihyeh with them, even though the latter was not on the wanted list. Yihyeh was freed a day later. On the day of our visit to the Abu Marya home, a hearing was held in Muhi’s case, but no one in the family traveled to the Ofer court and he is still in detention.
Asked for comment on the two incidents, the IDF Spokesman’s Unit provided this response: “On November 5, IDF troops entered the village of Halhul in order to arrest a terror suspect. When they arrived at their destination, violent disturbances began inside the suspect’s house. To carry out their mission, the fighters had to restrain three males who were behaving wildly.
“On their departure from the house, a disturbance broke out that threatened the lives of the soldiers, who responded by shooting at the lower part of the body of one of the individuals leading the disturbance.
“On November 6, while special forces of the Border Police were carrying out an action in the village of Beit Ummar, aimed at arresting a terror suspect, a member of the suspect’s family attacked the fighters. The soldiers responded by using a taser to hold him off, and, as he continued to present a danger to the force, he was arrested after attacking a policeman. Despite your claim to the contrary, no violence was used vis-à-vis other family members.”
Nabil’s wedding took place as planned, on November 17, without his incarcerated brother. The family says they have no idea what Muhi is suspected of. A photograph of the late father of the family looks down on us from the wall of the living room in his house.