Israeli soldiers serving in the Old City of Hebron in the West Bank were dispatched the day before Lag Ba’omer, a week and a half ago, on a security mission. They were tasked with guarding a pile of plywood boards.
The mission was carried out in three stages: assisting Jewish settlers in transporting the plywood, which was later to be set alight at a traditional Lag Ba’omer bonfire; guarding the boards for about 20 hours – after they were dumped by settlers onto land owned by the Amro family, against the family’s wishes; and representing the settlers in contacts with the family and conveying the settlers’ demand that they be able to use the land for the bonfire.
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The Amros refused, and when the army and the Israel Police ignored their objections, the family got two lawyers involved. Ultimately an order came to clear the pile away: The settlers removed some of it and a group of soldiers then finished the job.
The saga of the plywood and its military guards may seem removed and marginal compared to the Lag Ba’omer disaster at Mount Meron, in which 45 people were killed, and to the police violence at the peak of Ramadan in Jerusalem. But it shares some elements with those two major dramas of the past 10 days: capitulation and laxness in the face of criminal “autonomous” activity that the government made possible from the get-go, and an inherent disregard for Palestinian emotions and consequently for their personal security and the integrity of their property.
This is how it started: On April 25, Palestinian residents noticed a pile of broken furniture and boards on the roof of Hebron’s Gold Market. The wood had been stolen from shops in the market that had been broken into, right under the noses of soldiers manning the army post there, Palestinians claim. An address scratched in Arabic on one of the pieces of broken furniture and an old receipt book in Arabic found in the pile were an indication of where the stuff had come from.
There are 22 shops in Hebron’s Gold Market. Along with dozens of shops in the Old City, they were shut down about two decades ago on orders of the IDF and have not reopened since. The market square stands empty. This previously bustling site in the heart of Hebron has also been almost emptied of its indigenous Palestinian inhabitants.
On Wednesday, April 28 at around 5 P.M., a group of young Jews pushed a cart laden with plywood up the hill toward the Tel Rumeida neighborhood. At least one armed soldier helped them push the cart up the incline into the Amro family’s olive grove. As is seen in a video clip filmed by political activist Issa Amro, from there, they threw the plywood onto a vacant part of the land owned by the family.
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Amro, who lives in his distant family’s home above the plot of land in question, went to the site along with other members of the family and demanded that the soldiers clear their land of what had been illegally dumped there. Other soldiers, including officers, arrived and claimed that the land didn’t even belong to the family. Later they said that the owner of the land had given permission for the Lag Ba’omer bonfire to be lit there. But nothing of the sort was true.
Issa Amro alerted the son of the registered owner of the property who is also a lawyer. At around 9 P.M. that evening, a police officer from the nearby Kiryat Arba police station and an army captain from the Shaked battalion of the Givati brigade, who introduced himself as the Tel Rumeida company commander, arrived at the scene. Both were armed, of course.
The company commander was in his dress uniform, an indication that he was either on his way home or had come from home. He spent considerable time trying to convince attorney Amro to give his consent on behalf of the family for the bonfire to be lit on their land. “Why does it bother you?” the police representative interjected, also claiming that the consent would constitute a gesture of “fraternity between Jews and Palestinians.”
Amro, armed with ownership documents and with the knowledge of how Palestinians have been expelled out of the Old City by means of military bans and orders and settler violence – replied that "today it is a bonfire (that we allow), tomorrow it'll be a settlers' house (that will be built there).”
Despite the lawyer’s objections, the company commander and the police officer refused to order the pile of plywood removed. They declared the site a closed military zone. Two soldiers were deployed to guard the site throughout the night and until midday the following day, Thursday, April 29.
That Thursday morning, an intelligence officer named Erez from the Kiryat Arba police station called Osama Amro. Erez appealed to him, citing the sanctity of human life, equality (!) and the avoidance of friction between Jews and Arabs in an effort to convince the lawyer to obtain the family’s consent for the bonfire.
Amro was unmoved.
At the same time, attorney Hagai Benziman, from the office of human rights lawyer Michael Sfard, called the Kiryat Arba police. Benziman told Haaretz that the police claimed that nothing could be done to prevent the bonfire from proceeding and that he was free to file a complaint. Benziman then called the legal adviser offices of both the West Bank district of the Israel Police, and of the Civil Administration to complain. Benziman explained to the lawyers, serving in these offices, that it was a threefold violation that could and should be foiled: trespassing, endangering olive trees and acting against fire regulations, because the intended bonfire was located at a distance of less than 50 meters (164 feet) from private residences.
In a response provided for this article, the police said that a professional examination was conducted in the case “including a dialogue with the parties with one aim – to put a halt to the offense to the extent that one was committed, to prevent an escalation [of tensions] and to enforce the law. Once it became clear that it did in fact involve privately owned land, the pile of boards was removed from the site.” No complaint was filed regarding the theft of the plywood, the statement added.
For its part, the IDF Spokesman’s Unit said that the plywood had been brought to the site in question in coordination with the Israeli District Coordination and Liaison Office (a branch of the Civil Administration), and that after the army had looked into the matter, its representatives issued an order barring a bonfire from being lit there. “In order to clear the site as soon as possible and to prevent friction, an Israel army force assisted the [settlers] in clearing the boards,” the statement said.