Opinion

The ‘Jerusalem District’ Reality Show and Other ‘Illustrations’

Samer Sleiman presenting the police search report in his Isawiyah home, August 5, 2019.
Emil Salman

About two weeks ago, Haaretz reporter Nir Hasson exposed the story of the police who planted a weapon in the home of Samer Sleiman in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiyah during the filming of the television reality series “Jerusalem District.” Since then two other incidents have been discovered of police officers planting weapons and drugs in the homes of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. One of the Palestinians recounted that following the filming, he was been beaten by unknown individuals.

Koda Communications, which produced “Jerusalem District,” explained that the planting of weaponry was done as “illustration,” to simulate the work of the police. For purposes of illustration, armed police entered the homes of Palestinians who were made to appear like drug dealers or collaborators. Granted that Ram Landes, who owns Koda, apologized to his viewers and to “anyone who was harmed.”

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“Anyone” may have included Sleiman and other victims of these attempts at illustration. Either way, they won’t read the apology. It was written in Hebrew.

But uncovering the lie of the television series also laid bare a grain of the truth, as well as the depths of the disconnect of the Israeli public from everything happening in the territories. What happened in Isawiyeh is not exceptional. It’s part of a grim routine. One can only imagine how many other illustrations were planned at the expense of Palestinians for the series “Kfir,” which the Israeli army decided to call a halt to after the farce of “Jerusalem District” was exposed.

Using Palestinians as a tool, as raw material, in the hands of the occupier is a daily event. Any Israeli soldier who has carried out operational activity in the territories knows this. In my unit, for example, we were sent to break into the homes of innocent Palestinians to try out new tools designed for use in break-ins.

In 2013, another unit received new equipment to break down doors. It was tested on Palestinians’ doors. We also used to “map” Palestinian homes as “field” training. I discovered how common this was when I joined the organization Breaking the Silence.

One soldier recounted: “You go in, practice making an arrest, apprehend the person, you know, pretending and everything. You invent something about him, and then apprehend him and let him go.” Another soldier said his team was sent to enter a home so the soldiers could be filmed for Channel 2 eating Hanukkah donuts. The family was told to stay in the basement.

It’s comfortable for us to think that this involves a caprice on the part of a commander in the field, exceptional cases. That’s not the situation. The internal logic in Israel’s strategy in maintaining the occupation provides total justification for any such action as a security necessity. The military term is “demonstrating a presence,” and this is the method that Israel has developed to maintain small numbers of troops in the heart of hostile territory for 52 years.

The aim is to etch this presence into their consciousness – causing the Palestinians to live in constant fear, in acknowledgement of the fact that we could be anywhere; that at any moment a roadblock could appear, that there is no house that we won’t enter, that any one of their neighbors could be a collaborator with Israel.

“Demonstrating a presence” is simply the clinical term for sowing fear, for “creating a sense of being pursued,” “disrupting routine.” It’s the supreme goal of most of the operational activity in the territories.

Just look at the demonstration of a presence in recent weeks in Isawiyeh, which so far has cost the life of one young man and injuries to more than 200 of the neighborhood’s residents. Every day, police from the Yasam special patrol unit raid the neighborhood. If they have intelligence information, it’s not clear why they focus on a central location and wait for a disturbance of the peace.

Every day dozens of armed police are dispatched to disrupt the routine in the heart of a Palestinian neighborhood for the sole purpose of disrupting the routine there – to show who’s in charge and to be seen to be in charge. And Isawiyah is in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed, a test case that shows more than a thousand politicians’ statements what a future annexation of the West Bank would look like.

Therefore, the fact that soldiers are sent to enter the homes of innocent people for training purposes or to get a few minutes of television airtime shouldn’t surprise anyone.If our main strategy in the territories calls for the daily intrusion into the lives of the Palestinians, why not try out a new weapon along the way? And if we’re allowed in any event to enter the home of a family in the middle of the night at rifle point, what does it matter if we’re joined by a film crew?

“Demonstrating a presence” like this cannot exist in a world in which Palestinians are human beings with rights. This is the essence of our control in the territories, its crude beating heart.

Public discourse in Israel is so divorced from this reality that we excuse as a security necessity the practice of sending armed soldiers every night into the homes of people who are not suspected of a thing; witnessing children wetting their pants and men in pajamas trying to maintain a bit of their dignity.

This is justified for security reasons. It’s moral. After all, we have the most moral army in the world.

Achiya Schatz is the director of the communications department of Breaking the Silence. He served as a combat soldier and commander in the Israeli army’s Duvdevan unit.