‘For Israeli soldiers, some Palestinians are little more than props’

How can an entire army battalion pass through a village without disrupting its inhabitants? How can soldiers train with live bullets while ensuring that no one will be injured? A former IDF soldier describes the ways in which soldiers are taught to make their presence known, always at the expense of the local Palestinian population.

By Shay Davidovich

With Israelis from Tel Rumeida settlement looking from above, Israeli soldiers arrest Ahmad Al-Atrash of B’tselem for filming confrontations between settlers, the Al Azzeh family who had just harvested their olives, and the military. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)
With Israelis from Tel Rumeida settlement looking from above, Israeli soldiers arrest Ahmad Al-Atrash of B’tselem for filming confrontations between settlers, the Al Azzeh family who had just harvested their olives, and the military. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

Just like every other year since I completed my IDF service, in the summer of 2011 I was called up for reserve duty. For a few weeks every year, no matter whether my soldiers and I are needed for training or to perform military operations, we answer the call of duty. No questions asked.

In my compulsory service I served as a combat soldier in the Field Intelligence Corps. I was trained to observe and direct combat forces as well as to carry out the same security operations as all other combat soldiers. In August of 2011, I was summoned for a division-wide exercise in the Jordan Valley. This time around, our mission was to simulate the occupation of a southern Lebanese village.

There is no better way to train for taking control of a village than to practice on the real thing. Therefore, we carried out our exercise in an area of the valley with Palestinian villages. Not abandoned villages nor areas specifically developed for training – simply normal towns where people live.

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At the time, I didn’t really recognize the area in which we were training. I don’t even know the names of the villages in which we conducted our exercise. None of it particularly interested me. In the reserves, exactly like in compulsory service, I would do my best not to ask too many questions. In fact, soldiers oftentimes do not comprehend the purpose of the mission. Only in retrospect do they find out that what they just participated in was only a drill. Everything seems pretty logical at the time, and more significantly, we tended to believe in our commanders and the orders they gave us.

Perhaps this is the time to explain what simulating the occupation of a village looks like. Imagine a massive amount of infantry troops all around, with explosions shaking the earth under your feet. Tanks and attack helicopters open fire as soldiers run through the village setting off stun grenades. There’s a lot of noise. It is important to note that at no point did I stop for a second to think about the fact that we were training around villages where regular people live their daily lives. They are Palestinians; from my perspective it was completely natural to train there as we did.

Earlier this week, Haaretz published the IDF prosecutor’s response to complaints that these training operations have been held inside Palestinian villages. According to the prosecutor, there is “there [is] no legal obstacle to holding training in inhabited areas.” As a soldier, that’s something I’m well aware of. Indeed, we would do so time and time again.

What we were not told during the training, however, was the second part of the prosecutor’s statement, which states: “It will also be made clear that as part of the training exercises, the soldiers must avoid putting the population at risk, damaging their property or causing unreasonable disturbance to their daily routine.”

How can an entire army battalion pass through a village without disrupting its inhabitants’ daily routine? How can we train for days near a civilian population without causing damage to their property? How can we train with live bullets while ensuring that no one will be injured?

When I read the military prosecutor’s statement I couldn’t help but feel duped. What I saw and participated in during my recent training exercise in the Jordan Valley is just the tip of the iceberg compared to what takes place on a daily basis in the occupied territories.

About half a year ago, I joined Breaking the Silence, where I was exposed to testimonies by soldiers like me who also used Palestinian civilians during their training. I heard testimonies about soldiers who trained by breaking into homes on which there was no suspicious intelligence information. They would force the entire family in one room, search the house, and leave. I learned about how the army’s canine unit would train by searching random cars that simply want to pass through a checkpoint (soldiers would hide explosives in the car and let the dogs turn rummage through the whole car until they find them).

I learned about detaining innocent people – what we called a “mock arrest” – who have no idea where we came from or what we wanted from them, and then suddenly releasing them.

Suffice it to say that there are complications when training in the heart of a civilian population in occupied territory. For example, we know of at least one case last year where training ended up in a civilian’s death.

The justification for such actions is always twofold. First, they are used to train the troops. Second, and no less important, these actions are undertaken in order to “make our presence known” in the area of operation – which is word for word what the military prosecutor wrote in his letter just days ago. As soldiers, when we would receive orders to “make our presence known,” we understood it to mean that we must ensure the Palestinians feel our presence, that they are scared.

I cannot fathom how we are meant to strike fear into someone’s heart without disrupting his daily routine. Disrupting routine is exactly what they sent us to do.

In the middle of a training exercise, and it doesn’t matter what type of training, Palestinians are nothing more than cardboard targets. At the same time, however, the soldiers are “making their presence known.” We are teaching Palestinians an important lesson: the army is always there. They soon come to understand that we can shoot artillery rounds, enter homes, drive our vehicles over their fields, arrest anyone we please. This is the nature of the occupation.

Shay Davidovich served in the Field Intelligence Corps of the IDF from 2005 until 2008. He joined Breaking the Silence a half year ago and now serves as the organization’s National Field Coordinator.

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