‘We’re here to pressure the village’: Israeli troops admit collective punishment policy

The Israeli army has subjected Dir Nizam to near-total closures and violent incursions since December. And soldiers are frank about why they're doing it.

Israeli soldiers operate a checkpoint at the entrance to the Palestinian village of Dir Nizam, occupied West Bank, January 11, 2021. (Rachel Shor)
Israeli soldiers operate a checkpoint at the entrance to the Palestinian village of Dir Nizam, occupied West Bank, January 11, 2021. (Rachel Shor)

This article was published in partnership with Local Call.

For nearly two months, Israeli soldiers have been imposing collective punishment on the 1,000 residents of the Palestinian village of Dir Nizam, claiming it to be a response to children throwing stones at passing vehicles. On Dec. 1, 2021, the army closed all three entrances to the village, which lies to the north of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, and set up a spike-strip checkpoint at the only entrance left open to traffic.

Since then, Israeli soldiers have been stationed at the entrance 24 hours a day, checking every passing car at length, questioning passengers, opening bags, and photographing ID cards. Sometimes, they stop all movement in and out of the village entirely for hours at a time.

The soldiers don’t just remain outside the village; they have entered Dir Nizam on at least 14 occasions since the closure began in order to make arrests, conduct investigations, or carry out “deterrent actions” against the villagers. They have even entered the village’s school on three separate occasions.

The collective punishment of Dir Nizam was ostensibly imposed to stop the children from throwing stones, but incidents of stone throwing have actually increased since the army closed the village — and there doesn’t seem to be a plan to leave any time soon. I visited the area last week, and asked the soldiers what exactly they were doing there:

Can I ask what the purpose of this checkpoint is?

“Sure. We’re here now because on Route 465, near the village of Dir Nizam, groups of children aged 8 to 16 or so are throwing bricks, small rocks, at passing vehicles… The [checkpoint] we’ve set up here is to create pressure on the village itself. We’re causing adults to be late for work in the morning, we’re really making their daily lives difficult. The adults are aware of what’s happening with the young children, and they are against it. They don’t want them throwing stones.”

So this is actually a form of collective punishment imposed on the village?

“Completely. It’s collective punishment over the whole village. The pressure on the adults, the ‘elders of the tribe’ as they’re called here, will make them put pressure on the little children, and therefore they will stop throwing stones.”

Okay. And is that something that makes sense to you? To punish a thousand people, because of a few children?

“It’s either that, or the other solutions which are not always the most pleasant. To say the least.”

What do you mean by other solutions?

“Today, we have very advanced means for identifying children, the faces of the stone throwers. If we activate these means, we can make arrests on them. And these children will be put where they need to be put.”

The new ‘normal’

Two hundred meters from the checkpoint, next to the school, eight children gathered around me — the oldest in eleventh grade, the youngest in second grade, most of them in elementary school. When I asked how the military presence affected them, they started laughing. Every time one spoke, others interrupted him.

“They arrested me,” said a fifth-grader with a torn backpack. “They beat me,” shouted another boy. “I’m throwing stones,” screamed another, in fourth grade, who then ran clumsily down the road.

A group of children who live in Dir Nizam, January 11, 2021. (Rachel Shor)
A group of children who live in Dir Nizam, January 11, 2021. (Rachel Shor)

The atmosphere changed thanks to one boy, Ahmad Nimer, who did not laugh. The gaze of his brown eyes seemed older than his 13 years of age and, seeing my attempts to have a serious conversation, he said, “I can tell you how the army affects me.” Everyone fell silent.

“My father always drives the car, my mother sitting next to him, and me sitting in the back,” he said as the group gathered around him. “Since they set up the checkpoint, the soldiers are stopping them. They say to my parents, in Hebrew, ‘where are you going?’ and photograph their IDs. Sometimes they make us get out of the car, sometimes they say to them or to me: ‘why are children throwing stones?’”

And what do you say?

“Nothing. I’m in the back seat, looking at my father.”

And what are you thinking?

“Nothing. I don’t think anything. For me this is normal.”

The rest of the children nodded. “It’s normal,” said Tamer, a 12-year-old with shortly trimmed hair. “The day they entered our school, I fainted from tear gas, and woke up a few minutes later at home.”

Tamer refers to what happened on Dec. 9: according to testimonies and videos, on that day Israeli soldiers arrived at the school in the village after classes had finished in the afternoon hours, interrogated students in the yard, and searched for children who threw stones. “They went through the classrooms, saying that they were looking for someone who threw stones,” says Adham, who is 16. “A lot of tear gas and stun grenades were thrown in the yard.”

Since they began imposing collective punishment on the village, the soldiers have entered the school three times; the most recent incursion was last week, on Jan. 18, as classes were beginning at 8.45am.

The soldiers’ violent entry was well-documented in videos taken by students and teachers witnessing the aggressions first-hand. In one of them, soldiers are seen beating and pulling a student in eleventh grade from his class while his teacher tries to protect him with her body and shouts: “This is a school, get out of here!”

In a different video, soldiers blindfold the same boy, near the yard, while in the background elementary school-aged children are seen entering the gates and running to their classrooms. Another video shows a group of soldiers walking across the school’s basketball court, pushing two staff members. Two students were arrested: the first, Ahmad al-Ghani, was released the following day; the second, Ramez Muhammad, remains in custody at the time of writing.

“They usually take children for a few hours, ride with them in the jeep, give them a few slaps on the face, ask them why they threw stones, and then take them back to the village,” said Adham. On the morning of Jan. 5, for example, the army entered Dir Nizam and detained nine children, but brought them all back to the village a few hours later. They were not taken to the police station for questioning and were not put on trial.

‘They’re making the children hate them even more’

Arin, a 43-year-old resident of Dir Nizam, said that of all the consequences of the collective punishment policy, her children are most affected by the army’s night raids. “The soldiers are interrogating boys right here, and several times they threw stun grenades and tear gas onto the streets — in order to wake everyone up,” she said.

For example, on Dec. 2 at 10.30pm, a security camera on one of the houses in the village documented soldiers throwing nine stun grenades onto the main residential street. From the camera angle it’s impossible to understand the full context, but the soldiers’ body language is relaxed, and no stone throwing is seen preceding the throwing of the stun grenades.

“Everyone in the house woke up right away,” recalled an elderly woman called Fatima, whose house is on that street. “Recently I haven’t been able to sleep at night, neither I nor the children,” said another woman, aged 30, who asked not to be named.

“Every night, for a month now, my grandson asks me, ‘Grandma, did you lock the door tightly?’ Three times per night he asks,” said Arin. “Whoever didn’t already throw stones is saying to himself, ‘Now I will start throwing stones, because what does it matter? Regardless of whether I throw stones, everyone is punished.’ They’re making the children hate them even more.”

Arin, a resident of Dir Nizam, January 11, 2021. (Rachel Shor)
Arin, a resident of Dir Nizam, January 11, 2021. (Rachel Shor)

The new checkpoint is located near the village on an internal road that connects it with Route 465; concrete blocks were recently laid down there, too. “The only day we can relax without collective punishment is their holiday, Shabbat. On Saturdays, there’s no checkpoint in the morning, but it returns in the evening,” said Fatima.

Elham, a 32-year-old with her young son swinging in her arms, spoke to me about an encounter after entering the village in her car. “My son was with me in the back seat. The soldier said to him: ‘Why are you throwing stones,’ and my son said, ‘I don’t throw stones,’ and the soldier said: ‘Liar, I saw you.’

“My son was with me at work today, from seven in the morning,” Elham continued. “So I tried to tell the soldier that he did not throw stones because I’ve seen him all day since the morning. But the soldier just said, ‘Speak Hebrew, I don’t understand Arabic.’”

‘You control the air we breathe’

Like most villages in the West Bank, most of Dir Nizam’s lands are located in Area C (with 4.7 percent located in Area B), where Israel effectively prohibits Palestinians from building in almost all cases, even on their own private land. “I live near the settlement of Halamish, and all day long a drone hovers above our heads, taking pictures to make sure we haven’t built anything on our land. If something is built, the army will come to destroy it,” Fatima said.

Halamish, also known as Neve Tzuf, is an Israeli settlement with around 1,500 residents. It was established in November 1977 on a site that served as a Jordanian military base before the Six Day War, and an Israeli military order enabled the expropriation of some 600 dunams of land privately owned by residents of Dir Nizam and Nabi Saleh. “Stunning panoramic views, 25 minutes from Modi’in,” reads the expanding settlement’s website which is marketing new apartments.

Palestinian residents say that the military recently prevented them from cultivating their land in areas near the settlement with heavy equipment such as tractors. Jaber Musab, a farmer whose home overlooks Halamish, says that he worked all his life for Jewish-Israelis in nearby Herzliya and also Halamish. Unlike his Israeli neighbors, he cannot leave the West Bank without a permit from the army. I asked him why children in the village throw stones, and he replied in Hebrew: “Because you control the air we breathe.” And then he was silent.

A view of the Israeli settlement of Halamish, taken from inside the Palestinian village of Dir Nizam, on whose lands it was built, January 11, 2021. (Rachel Shor)
A view of the Israeli settlement of Halamish, taken from inside the Palestinian village of Dir Nizam, on whose lands it was built, January 11, 2021. (Rachel Shor)

In December, Nasser Mazhar, an elderly farmer and a good friend of Musab, was elected head of the Dir Nizam village council — the only election to take place as planned after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cancelled the presidential and parliamentary elections last May. The previous head of the council, Bilal Tamimi, left the village; “I could not live there anymore due to problems with the army,” he explained to me on the phone from Ramallah. Musab noted that his brother also left the village recently, a phenomenon which he said has increased due to the collective punishment.

“You leave the village for a quarter of an hour and you’re searched twice, going out and coming back in,” Mazhar said in his living room, his shy, 12-year-old grandson listening on the sofa opposite. “Every time I pass through, they tell me: ‘Give us the names of the children who are throwing stones,’ even though they have cameras anyway. The soldiers control us because we’re in Areas B and C. They are responsible for our security; we’re not responsible for their security.”

Blocking doctors and nurses

Since the collective punishment started, Israeli soldiers have closed the village completely four times for periods ranging from one to seven hours. Three weeks ago, during one of these closures, soldiers denied entry to a group of doctors and nurses from Ramallah who were coming to the local clinic to check on the residents.

In the past month, high school teachers who come from other Palestinian cities have twice been prevented from leaving or entering the village, thus cancelling the school day. “All the kids were happy to be home,” laughed Shadi, the shy grandson. He showed me a video on the phone from Dec. 7th, showing a long line of teachers held up at the checkpoint. “That’s Mr. Jumah’s car, the teacher,” he said. The soldiers let the teachers in after about three hours.

Shadi and his friend, both in ninth grade, took me for a tour of the village, as the sun began to set. I asked them if they hang out in Ramallah. “To Tel Aviv!” Shadi said, perhaps jokingly. “It’s close, look,” he pointed over the horizon, where we could see the city’s buildings and the sea.

The view from Dir Nizam over nearby hills inside the occupied West Bank, January 11, 2021. (Rachel Shor)
The view from Dir Nizam over nearby hills inside the occupied West Bank, January 11, 2021. (Rachel Shor)

Tel Aviv is 30 kilometers away as the crow flies from the besieged village. In the sky, large planes hovered low. Ben Gurion Airport is only 20 kilometers from here; Shadi, like the other Palestinian residents of the West Bank, is not allowed to fly out of it. They’re controlled by us and work for us, but they don’t have an airport.

On the way out, near the checkpoint, I met a Palestinian resident my age returning from work in Herzliya. He travels there every day to renovate houses, subject to an entry permit from the army. “I leave at 3 a.m.,” he said. “The soldiers are at the checkpoint even then.” We talked at length, and he asked me not to publish his name, for fear of being denied an entry permit.

“The whole journey back from work, I’m worrying about what will happen at the checkpoint,” he said. “When I passed through just now, I was with my mother. She had been out shopping. The soldiers asked me to get out of the car, and to lay the contents of the bags in front of them. I told them that the meat would get dirty, and in the end they let me lift it up instead of placing it down. One of them asked me: ‘Why are the kids throwing stones?’ I told him: ‘They are children.’ And he said: ‘So long as they continue, we will continue to punish you.”

From an analysis and cross-referencing of data between the Telegram group of Hashomer Judea and Samaria — a settler organization which exhaustively documents Palestinian stone-throwing in the West Bank — and the Facebook page of Dir Nizam, which reports on the army’s actions in the village, it seems that the soldiers usually impose a full closure after the setter group reports of stones being thrown on Route 465.

Early last year, Rivka Teitel, a 30-year-old Israeli, was seriously wounded when a stone thrown at her car near Dir Nizam struck her in the head. Around two weeks ago, a Palestinian citizen of Israel was also lightly injured by a stone thrown in the area. These were the only stone-throwing incidents in Dir Nizam that caused injuries over the past year.

Since the army closure was imposed on Dec. 1, there has been a sharp increase in stone-throwing incidents in the area. On average, 10 times more incidents of stone throwing were documented than during the period before collective punishment was introduced, and there have been six times more military entries into the village to carry out arrests, investigations, or deterrence activities.

We asked the IDF Spokesperson if soldiers had been ordered to punish the village residents, and if collective punishment is a declared policy of the army in the occupied territories. The response stated: “Recently, there has been a significant increase in grassroots terrorist incidents, including throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at vehicles traveling on Route 465. As part of dealing with this phenomenon, IDF forces are operating in the area in accordance with operational assessment, through both overt and covert activity.”

A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.