Thursday, January 28, 2021

Israeli army uses Birzeit to conduct military exercise

By Bettina Theil - April 17, 2015
Section: [Main News] [Life under Occupation]
Tags: [birzeit] [IDF] [Israeli army] [Human rights]

As an integral part of the Israeli occupation policy, house searches are not uncommon in the occupied Palestinian territories. However, the incidents that occurred the night of Wednesday 25 March were out of the ordinary. They were part of a training campaign conducted by the Israeli army throughout the month of March in the tense pre and post-election climate. Through tactical excercises for arrest raids and operations that include armored, artillery and air forces, as reported by various Israeli news sources, the Israeli army used real Palestinian villages to train reservists and soldiers for possible violent events, such as mass demonstrations, shooting attacks and use of live fire.

Israeli military forces entered the village of Birzeit – an area nominally included in Area A, under full civil and security control of the Palestinian Authority – in order to conduct a “preparation for a possible escalation on the ground,” according to the Israeli news daily Haaretz.  

The main target, it seems, was an old house standing isolated on its lot, surrounded by several almond and fruit trees, and next to a small, unofficial refugee camp in Birzeit. The three inhabitants of the lone building, all of them students at Birzeit University, were startled at 1:30 am, when approximately 30 Israeli soldiers surrounded their house. 

“When I opened the door in my underwear and barefooted, they wouldn't allow me to put on any clothes and instructed me to gather in one room with my flatmates,” explained Muataz, a student from Hebron. While a group of the armed soldiers kept them in a corner of the room, four to five small groups, each consisting of about five “trainees”, searched the entire apartment in turns, leaving every room in disarray and damaging one of the beds and a closet.

Only after having inspected the apartment for more than an hour, an Arabic-speaking soldier came to question the three of them separately, asking whether they supported Fatah or Hamas. When the students answered that they didn’t support either party, the soldier insisted on the question, reminding them that he was not a member of the Palestinian Authority. “Then he asked us if we were members of the PFLP,” Muataz recounted, because the soldiers  “had found posters of George Habash and Uday and Ghassan Abu Jamal in my flatmate’s room.” The latter were responsible for an attack on a synagogue in Jerusalem last November, in which four Israelis died and the two cousins were subsequently shot dead. “He kept asking us about our financial situation, who paid for our rent, etc.” added Walid, Muataz’s roommate from Jenin.

When the soldiers caught sight of the door to the basement, they threatened to open the door by force if they weren’t given the key. “We didn’t have the key! So they started to work on it with some tools, but they didn’t try very hard. It seemed as if they were not interested at all in what they would find in our rooms or what the basement could conceal,” said Muataz. 

There was no apparent reason -- and the soldiers did not provide any reason -- for searching this solitary house so meticulously (for one and a half hours), no items were taken and nobody was arrested--facts that indicate the probability that the nocturnal perturbation was indeed part of a military training.

When asked about possible reasons for the search, Muataz supposed, “the house is old and stands alone next to the refugee camp; it looks suspicious from the outside.”

Another building that received a visit by the Israeli military that night lies a bit further down the road, at the edge of the old city of Birzeit. Similarly, it is also inhabited by students of Birzeit University, but in contrast to the above-mentioned incident, the apartments there were only superficially examined.

“I was watching a movie when I heard them in the street. They were not talking, but I recognised that they were soldiers by the sound of their equipment - arms and heavy boots,” 21-year-old Naji said. After hammering at the door, the soldiers demanded the students' names, phone numbers and identity cards. Naji's flatmate, Ahmad, said the soldiers’ English was quite poor and that it was hard for the students to communicate with them. “It was a weird encounter; they were very young - some of them, I think, were even younger than myself,” he said. 

In fact, none of the interviewees had been warned or informed by any means about the execution of the drill, a practice of the Israeli army that was prohibited by the Israeli Legal Adviser for the West Bank in 2014 after a complaint by Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din. However, these military exercises in populated areas have not ceased to be an integral part of Israeli operations in the West Bank. 

Whether the training session in Birzeit has led to greater security for the state of Israel in the area,  or whether it was just another move to exert power and state control over Palestinians, remains debatable. Nonetheless, the Israeli army has conducted hundreds of house searches and other training activities over the past month across the West Bank, in reported preparation, as Israeli analysts have put it, for a vaguely described possible eruption of violence.”



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