The whole story in brief: Dozens of Israel Defense Forces soldiers stage a nighttime raid among the houses of a tranquil Palestinian village, some of whose inhabitants are fast asleep, as part of a training exercise. The troops don’t enter any of the homes, but wander about, armed, in backyards and streets, peeking through windows and terrifying the occupants. The IDF would never dream of behaving like this in any of the nearby Jewish settlements – a nocturnal drill in Maskiot? Combat exercises in Mehola? – certainly not without permission and prior coordination. But in a Palestinian village anything goes, and residents’ nights belong to them as little as the days do. Indeed, that was the case last week, on Tuesday, in the small village of Aqaba.
The IDF had already committed in writing to desist from conducting training exercises in Aqaba, located on the slopes of hills overlooking the northern Jordan Valley, but for some reason its soldiers returned to the village itself last week. Opposite the hamlet, on private land that was expropriated, amid abandoned olive trees, the IDF built a dummy Palestinian village where soldiers train for combat in built-up areas. But sometimes, apparently, it’s necessary to engage in such drills outside the bedrooms of real children and in real people’s yards.
The subject heading of a letter dated July 18, 1999, and signed by Maj. Vered Yitzhaki, from the headquarters of the IDF Central Command’s coordination center, leaves little room for doubt: “Re: Aqaba ruins – guidelines for training.” It’s addressed to the legal adviser of the Judea and Samaria Region, and was drawn up after the Association for Civil Rights in Israel threatened to petition the High Court of Justice to put a stop to the army’s use of the village as a training ground.
Ten clear guidelines are laid down for soldiers. For example, paragraph No. 4 states: “Movement between the houses is forbidden.” But video clips shot by villagers last week, and the testimonies we heard, are unequivocal: Troops entered private yards and comported themselves as if they were at home, explicitly defying the directives.
The guidelines themselves were issued after a lengthy period during which the IDF carried out training exercises between the village’s dwellings and on its lands, leaving behind unexploded ammunition and shells.
Over the years, 16 people were killed, among them children, and about 50 wounded in and around Aqaba, as a result of what the soldiers left behind. On some occasions, the army also entered the village in tanks and other heavy vehicles, also for training purposes. Between 1983 and 2003, an IDF training camp operated next to the village, not far from its school.
Indeed, the Jordan Valley is one big training ground. Concrete cubes carrying warnings about firing zones adorn virtually every entrance to a shepherds’ encampment, installed there mainly to induce local inhabitants to leave.
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Aqaba is located in the southern section of IDF firing zone 900A, west of a training facility that served two companies of the Paratroops Brigade. This week, too, we saw soldiers on maneuvers in the vicinity.
But Aqaba is no shepherds enclave: It’s a unique and picturesque village, dotted with colorful houses that look like they’re made of marzipan, located in Area C (under full Israeli control). It’s led by an equally colorful local council head, Haj Sami Sadeq, who’s been paralyzed since 1971, when he was 16, and soldiers shot him on his family’s land.
Sadeq now makes his way between the village’s homes in his electric wheelchair, a keffiyeh draped over his shoulders. With his fluent Hebrew and extensive international connections, he enjoys a special status. Indeed, the IDF picked the wrong place for its training exercises: The army certainly does the same thing routinely in other Palestinian villages, but veteran council head Sadeq isn’t willing to be silent about the practice.
Five years ago, he built a one-kilometer access road to the village, which he called the “Peace Road”; the IDF ripped it out three times. Now he’s building a large water tower at the center of the well-tended locale, which is festooned with large wall paintings that lend it the aura of an artists community. The tower rises like a control tower over an imaginary airport. Shades of the old Jewish tower-and-stockade settlements, in Aqaba.
Autumn squills line the road that leads to Aqaba, foxes roam its fields. The small population of 400 is augmented daily by 270 children from nearby Tayasir, who attend the attractively built school here. Israel doesn’t officially recognize Aqaba’s existence; its inhabitants are listed as residents of Tayasir in the Interior Ministry’s population registry. Sadeq, the council head, is registered as a resident of Jericho; he dreams of being an official resident of Aqaba.
“The whole world knows Aqaba, only in Tel Aviv it’s not known,” Sadeq says from his chair in the yard of the council office.
The IDF makes a point of calling the village “Khurbat al-Aqaba” or “Khirbet al-Aqaba”: the Aqaba “ruins.” We visited in 2017, after the IDF conducted training exercises here. In December 2016, tanks and other armored vehicles had passed close to the houses and the new mosque with its double minaret, terrifying the residents.
The IDF Spokesman’s Office stated at the time: “The exercise in question was not coordinated properly. As a result, the appropriate conclusions will be drawn.”
So much for “conclusions.” Last Tuesday night, when most of the villagers were already in their beds, Sadeq and several friends made the rounds. At about 9:30 tent dwellers at the edge of the village had called him to report that a large force of soldiers was advancing toward Aqaba. Within minutes Sadeq received more calls. The Marwan and Jamal families, who live in houses near the village’s entrance, reported that soldiers had entered their yards, and were wandering about. Sadeq hurried over.
He tried to explain to the officer at the site that there is an explicit directive not to engage in training among the houses of Aqaba. He offered to get a copy of the instruction from his office, but the officer said, “I believe you.” But the exercise continued uninterrupted. The villagers were especially outraged that soldiers violated their privacy by peeking through their windows to look inside. Video footage taken by one resident shows a line of soldiers invading one backyard. The fact that they didn’t enter any of the homes only proves that it was a training exercise, not an operational mission.
Sadeq immediately called Araf Daraghmeh, a field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, who also serves on a voluntary basis as head of the Northern Jordan Valley Regional Council. He quickly made his way to the village. When he got to Aqaba, Daraghmeh related this week, he heard explosions and saw flares lighting up the sky. What most worries inhabitants of the areas about the IDF training exercises, he says, is what the soldiers leave behind: unexploded ammunition.
Many years ago, Sadeq tells us, the military governor of Jenin said, “Aqaba is our model for southern Lebanon. That’s why we want our soldiers to train in Aqaba.”
On the night of the last incursion, the council head’s little niece said to him, “Tell the soldiers to go back to their mother.” Most of the troops entered on foot, but two military vehicles also drove into the village. Did the soldiers wear face masks for coronavirus prevention when they entered the village? No.
The mission concluded around midnight, and the soldiers pulled out.
The IDF Spokesman’s Office told Haaretz this week: “The subject is under examination and is being investigated at the command level. Regarding the wearing of face masks, exercises of this nature that demand physical exertion are approved according to IDF directives that call for the strict use of capsules [distancing] without the need for masks.”
In 2017, after the previous incursion, we asked the spokesman when soldiers had last trained in the yards of homes of local Jewish settlements. He ignored the question. This week we didn’t bother asking.
After our stop in Aqaba, we drove to the IDF’s “dummy village,” Khalat Jamaa, whose buildings are spread on the slope of the hill opposite Aqaba. It’s a surrealistic sight. Dozens of concrete structures, most of them damaged by shelling or bullets. There are cardboard figures of soldiers between them and also the remains of kosher battle rations, bullet casings and plenty of empty boxes of “20 5.56 mm. rounds for combat training in a red built-up area.” The buildings are half destroyed, their walls gaping with huge holes. The remains of an IDF jeep, or possibly a command car, that smashed into a rock are encircled by barbed wire. “Yasser,” it says on one of the shelled structures.