The military order largely banning nighttime “intelligence mapping” raids on Palestinians in the West Bank on Wednesday came after a High Court justice instructed the military “to be prepared for the possibility it will have to present the wording of the order” allowing the raids to the court by August.
In response to Justice Hanan Melcer’s order, the military amended the order, enabling it to avoid publicly releasing details of the procedures.
Tamir Yadai, chief of the Israel Defense Forces Central Command, issued orders restricting the practice known in the military as “intelligence mapping” to exceptional circumstances on Wednesday. The practice entails Israeli soldiers entering the homes of Palestinians who are not suspected of any offenses, at night in order to register the home’s occupants and describe the building.
The military called the new order largely banning the practice a humanitarian gesture aimed at “mitigating the disruption of citizens’ everyday life,” and said the change was undertaken due to the increased deployment of “sophisticated operational and intelligence tools in the Judea and Samaria sector.”
Melcer’s ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed in March 2020 by the human rights groups Yesh Din and Physicians for Human Rights Israel, together with six Palestinians, asking the High Court to bar the military from entering Palestinian homes except by court order. They also sought an injunction barring the practice until army regulations were amended, except in exceptional or urgent cases.
Melcer added that “the above does not detract from the possibility that the parties will be asked to answer additional questions posed to them by the panel members, as they see fit.”
The military defines the practice of mapping as the “operational action of entering the homes of Palestinian citizens for the purpose of gathering intelligence for various security purposes,” military attorneys told the court in 2015 in response to an earlier lawsuit on the matter. “Operations like this weren’t random but had an operational-intelligence purpose and were approved by command echelons. In addition, soldiers and commanders who conducted these operations were given directives as to the manner they are conducted and the required sensitivity in order to mitigate the harms and disruption to citizens’ fabric of life.” They added that the raids were conducted in accordance with international law.
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In practice, the procedure involves soldiers entering Palestinian homes late at night and early in the morning without a court order or any intelligence pointing to any of its residents’ involvement in militant or criminal activity. During such raids, soldiers sketch a plan of the house, sometimes adding photographs, and gather personal information on its occupants.
Figures from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs that were included in the lawsuit show that in 2017 and 2018, the military conducted an average of 265 such searches a month in the West Bank.
Yesh Din collected testimony involving 128 incidents, including 38 in which Palestinians alleged that they had been threatened by soldiers, verbally or with weapons. In 32 cases, Palestinians reported that troops used force or physical violence. In one case, a Palestinian testified that soldiers forced the family to walk barefoot on glass, and in another a person was reportedly shot in the abdomen. Palestinians reported property damage in 27 cases.
The plaintiffs said in their suit that “from the testimonies we have collected and analyzed, it clearly emerges that in the great majority of cases, the mapping is conducted on homes of people who are not suspected of anything – our understanding from the soldiers participating in these operations is that in the best case, they are conducted for the general and amorphous purposes of gathering intelligence on every Palestinian home in the West Bank and in the worst case, the operation is aimed at demonstrating a presence and for training purposes.”
The suit calls on the court to order the military to reveal to the public “the orders or directives or instructions that govern the mapping of West Bank houses.”
‘Sense of horror’
Samih Dana, a Hebron resident and father of seven who lives close to the settlement of Kiryat Arba, told Haaretz that in recent years soldiers have searched his home every week. “That affects the children a lot, mainly because [the soldiers] come late at night,” he said. “When a sleeping nine-year-old is awakened to see a soldier next to him, it affects his psyche and his ability to have normal relationships.”
Dana recounted one incident in which soldiers awakened one of his children, who suffers a visual impairment, and asked to photograph him. “I tried to explain to them that he has vision problems and said they should let him go, but the soldier answered that he didn’t care,” he recalled.
Dana added that soldiers asked to photograph his family in several cases, and in other cases checked their identity cards and photographed the house. About the order to stop the practice, he said: “This could be a positive step from our perspective. This operation is targeting us endlessly and harms us all.”
Murshid Karaki, another Hebron resident, said nighttime raids on his home have occurred regularly for years. They have taken place “three times since 2019 at intervals of about 5-6 months,” he said. In each instance, soldiers arrive at his home at about 2 A.M. and photograph the house and family. Once they conducted a raid without knocking on the door first, he said.
“You come to photograph my house without a court order, without anything – it’s not normal and it’s disrespectful,” said Karaki. “If I were to discover one day that the pictures of my family have begun circulating in public, I don’t know what I’d do. There’s a law in Israel, no? So, I ask you to behave in accordance with the law.” He also pointed to the effect it has had on his children. “They have a sense of dread. My daughters cling to each other out of fear. They are threatening our privacy for no reason.”
One of the plaintiffs in the court case described a raid on his home on Silwad, near Ramallah, on October 30, 2018. “Around two in the morning, when the whole family was asleep, soldiers knocked on the front door loudly. About 12 soldiers came in with weapons drawn and demanded to see our identity cards,” recounted the plaintiff. “The soldiers behaved aggressively toward my family and when asked by the husband why they were conducting the search, they ordered him to remain silent.”
The affidavit alleges that the soldiers remained in the house for several hours before leaving, “but not before one of them told the family that they would be returning.”
The raids have also been described by soldiers in testimony given to the organization Breaking the Silence over the years.
“Mapping is when you act on a village or group of villages, take maps of them, aerial photographs of a number of houses and divide them among the brigade,” explained one soldier. “You cover the entire village with the goal of, over one night or several consecutive nights, entering each house and mapping them out from the inside. From there, it goes to intelligence in Hebron, Samaria or whatever.”
Another soldier testified that “every team gets a target for whatever village. They used to tell us categorically that the people in these homes weren’t involved in anything, that they weren’t terror suspects – euphemisms for innocents.”
“I remember that once they asked us to map, to photograph the people,” said one soldier. “I photographed them and their ID cards on my cellphone. After the operation, I asked what I should do with them, who should I give the pictures to. The officers told me that they had no idea. I waited a few days. After a week, when no one asked for them, I deleted the pictures.
Added another soldier: “My feeling is that they didn’t give a shit, excuse the expression. I think the idea of mapping is to put pressure on the Palestinians, to go into their homes, to wake them up in the middle of the night and to leave them feeling persecuted. There’s no orderly procedure for mapping buildings – it’s just bullshit.”
Following the army’s decision, Michael Sfard, Yesh Din’s legal adviser, told Haaretz that “it appears that the army realized that there’s no way they can defend this despicable practice, and perhaps there were even some who thought it was also morally wrong to defend it. Be that as it may, a decision to accede to lawsuit and abolish a military practice, without human rights organizations being forced to appeal to the High Court for annulment, is rare.
“It may be that the decision was connected to the fact that the suit by Yesh Din and Physicians for Human Rights challenging the policy of searching Palestinian homes in the West Bank, which is done without a judge’s order and without any external controls, is still pending, and that the army realized that it was better to show it is attentive to demands for reform that reduces the extent of raids on Palestinian family homes.”