Showing them who’s boss: How Palestinian villages become IDF training grounds

The IDF could easily build a mock village on some godforsaken dune in the Negev for training purposes. But training in a Palestinian village has another (hidden) goal: to show them who’s boss.

By Yesh Din (written by Yossi Gurvitz)

The villagers of Imatin were surprised at the end of May 2013, when a large IDF force – evidence shows it seemed to be the size of a as company – invaded their village in the evening, with troops spreading amongst the houses, conducting what apparently was combat practice in a populated terrain.

The soldiers, armed to the teeth of course, moved from yard to yard throughout the village pretending it were a battlefield. The entire incident was very stressful for the women, the elderly and the children of the village. The next day, the show repeated itself: a convoy of IDF vehicles gathered in the center of the village at sundown, and out of them climbed around 100 heavily armed soldiers, and began roleplaying a battle.

Yesh Din’s files document several similar cases. In 2007, a Palestinian from Tel Rumeida in Hebron complained that his house was chosen as a training site. When the soldiers were told that the training would likely scare the man’s little brother, they responded by saying “it’s none of your business.” And why would it be? It’s only his house.

That same year, the IDF trained in the village of Beit Lid, where soldiers took over houses at night while shooting and shouting. In 2012, in the village of Deir Astia, soldiers allegedly trained in the village, and threw (whether by malice or accident) stun and teargas grenades into a populated house. At the time, the army claimed, in reply to Yesh Din’s complaint, that it hadn’t conducted a training per se, but rather an incident of “waving the flag.” In 2009, Yesh Din were informed that the Military Advocate General (MAG) was reviewing the phenomenon; the organization hasn’t received a response since, and the practice clearly continues.

Among the injustices Yesh Din document on a daily basis, the invasion of Amatin invasion for training purposes is admittedly one of the lesser ones. No one was hurt; the soldiers did not use violence against the villagers nor did they loot the houses, and they even refrained from entering the houses and instead settled for intimidating the residents by wandering among their courtyards. Minor as the incident may be among the others Yesh Din documents – Jewish terrorism against farmers, arson, land theft, pillage, abusing the wrongfully detained, intimidation and more – it is as important as the rest to understanding of the essence of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank.

That essence: Palestinians do not have basic human rights. They become unwilling participants in the war movie the military commander is producing. At his whim, their courtyards are impounded without notice so that his soldiers can come out and play. When he so wishes, people will have to shut themselves in their homes and shudder at the shouts called out in a foreign language by armed men trained to see them as enemies.

Much of what Israel does in the West Bank is explained away by “security needs.” These needs can be remarkably flexible: it is neccessary to pull Palestinian children of their beds at night, since their stone throwing is life-threatening. No such necessity exists, however, towards Jewish stone throwers; their stones are notoriously pacifistic.

But what happened in Imatin cannot be explained away by “security necessities,” since none exist. The IDF controls the vast majority of the Negev, as well as a good part of the country’s treasury. If it wants to practice somewhere that resembles a Palestinian village. It ought to build a replica of one in part of the huge training grounds it already has. And this is the point – were the plan to land at Junia, the high scale suburb of Beirut, the IDF would not imagine Caesarea or Savion as a location for one night of practice. But Palestinians villages? After all, they’re not really human. As the song goes (Hebrew), “They’re not a man, not a woman; but an item, a shadow.”

In the 18th century, then-British Prime Minister Pitt the Elder would roar in Parliament that ” the poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail — its roof may shake — the wind may blow through it — the storm may enter — the rain may enter — but the King of England cannot enter — all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!” The British peasant of the 18th century had more rights than the Palestinian farmer of the 21st century – assuming, of course, he wasn’t Irish, where the laws which would become our Emergency Edicts were born.

The Imatin training ended without any casualties. That’s not always the case. The training held by the Duvdevan (meaning “Cherry”) unit, whose soldiers dress as undercover  Palestinians, in the village of Ramoun in April 2012 was a catastrophic failure (Hebrew). The villagers suspected that the disguised soldiers skulking about the village were thieves and attacked them. One Palestinian was killed and another, who was later abused by the soldiers, was wounded. Public attention, such as it was, was directed towards the abuse of the prisoner, not to the fact that an IDF training session had ended with a dead Palestinian. Because when all is said and done, what troubles the IDF – when it is caught, that is – is concern for its “values” more than for the unexpected results of its actions, as long as they can be justified as “military necessity.”

What happened in Ramoun could easily have happened in Imatin. Had some of the young men of the village tried to expel the invaders who entered their courtyard at night, and had the latter responded with live fire in a heavily populated area, it would have ended in a multiple-victim incident. Apparently the IDF didn’t consider the possibility that Palestinians might react to their courtyards being invaded at night – they’re not really human, after all.

There’s another reason for training in Palestinian territory, which the army will not admit. It could easily build a mock village on some godforsaken dune in the Negev. But training in a real village has another (hidden) goal: to show the Palestinian who’s boss. Who can disrupt their lives just because they feel like it, and who can make them shut themselves in their homes just by their very presence. Although this reason is not voiced out loud, at the end of the day, it is the deciding reason for the training. And so, even though Yesh Din filed a complaint with the MAG and demanded an investigation of the Imatin incident, given the fact that the MAG has been leisurely reviewing the issue since 2009, things are not looking up. Intimidating the residents of the West Bank is far too important for the IDF to simply give it up.

Written by Yossi Gurvitz in his capacity as a blogger for Yesh Din, Volunteers for Human Rights. A version of this post was first published on Yesh Din’s blog.