When ‘security’ means training in a Muslim cemetery

It turns out that the IDF’s legal division has no problem with soldiers holding training drills in a Palestinian graveyard.

By Yesh Din, written by Yossi Gurvitz

Last Thursday, Yesh Din field investigators filmed our brave troops while they were training in a Muslim graveyard in Hebron. Here are the images (extended video at end of post):

One is pressed to imagine greater callousness of heart: turning a graveyard, a place on which every society places many taboos and much sensitivity, into a place where soldiers practice. And it ought to be mentioned they are training mostly for operations against the neighbors of the cemetery, i.e. these drills may, eventually, increase the population of that graveyard. It’s also important to note that the local residents are, at least at first, unaware that this is merely an exercise, and it is likely to cause fear among them, as well as actions which may put them at risk.

Read more about the IDF training inside Palestinian villages

If that doesn’t bother you, think of the scandal we’d see if Palestinian policemen, or other foreign troops, were to use a Jewish cemetery for practice purposes; is it even conceivable for the IDF to use a Jewish graveyard for training purposes? The public wouldn’t stand for it: there would be a justified outcry that there are plenty of other places where soldiers can drill.

It is unclear on what authority the IDF is conducting its drills in Palestinian areas, but we’re familiar with the phenomenon since 2007. That year, IDF troops practiced in at least two locations we know of. We sent a letter at the time to the Military Advocate General (MAG) Corps, and, after taking their sweet time, they informed us they are reviewing the issue, and that until they reache a conclusion, such trainings will be halted. At the beginning of 2013 – a year in which we learned of three more cases of training on Palestinian lands, including the one in the Hebron cemetery– we wrote again to the MAG Corps, demanding a response. In the meantime, the training continued.

We are aware of five cases of training in Palestinian villages and homes, based on complaints we have received. From data we recently received from Breaking the Silence we can infer that there were at least three more such cases; regarding Hebron, one of their witnesses says such exercises take place on a weekly basis. From the testimony of a reserve soldier about an incident near Salfit in 2007 it appears the soldiers felt ill at ease before the exercise – they were mostly afraid of friendly fire and complained about the lack of rules of engagement. When they informed their officers about it, the deputy company commander replied: “guys, I don’t care, go to the media as far as I care, do whatever you want, but what’s important to me is that you do this and that.”

Last weekend we received an answer from the MAG Corps, whose audacity was impressive. It said, inter alia, that “the military commander is obliged to maintain security and public order in the Judea and Samaria Region. In order to maintain the capability of the IDF forces to carry out this mission, the IDF is forced to hold exercises, sometimes in populated areas.” Did you get that? The IDF has to protect the Palestinians, therefore it has no choice but to train on their lands.

Let’s put it this way: the Palestinians don’t want the IDF to protect them. They willingly renounce its security services. Hit the road, Jack, and don’t you come back no more. Furthermore, just when the Palestinians need the services of the iDF – even if they don’t want them – it’s almost never there. Every year, Yesh Din and Rabbis for Human Rights warn the IDF of the dangers expected during the olive harvest, while noting the places known to be dangerous. This could have been an unusual opportunity for the IDF to practice what, according to the prosecution, it’s there for: maintaining security and public order.

Yet, lo and behold, despite repeated warnings the soldiers are almost never there – unless, of course, the media is. Even when the army is supposed to defend Palestinians from marauding settlers, it fails time after time. Somehow, when it comes to protecting Palestinians it turns out it just shoots tear gas at them and sometimes uses force against them and detains them – and only them. I’ve heard of detachment from reality, but this response from the MAG Corps sets a new record.

Furthermore, these exercises often take place – as the MAG Corps admits in its letter – for reasons which have nothing to do whatsoever with “maintaining security and public order.” One of the incidents was declared by the prosecution to be a “navigation running exercise,” whose purpose was “creating deeper familiarity of the forces with the relevant sector” – but also “demonstrating IDF presence in the sector.” By “demonstrating IDF presence” it means “showing them who’s boss.” If you want to see how an IDF “demonstration of presence” actually looks, here’s an example:

The IDF does, from time to time, practice in Israeli towns and villages but it makes sure to notify the residents, which it does not do in Palestinian towns. Furthermore, while training within Israel, the soldiers avoid entering houses. The Palestinians lack even this minimal protection, which would ensure that their house would be their fortress at least during a drill.

It’s not at all clear that international law allows the IDF to practice in Palestinian villages, and without advance warning. It makes clear that where there is an available alternative that does not harm the occupied population, it must be chosen. If the IDF wishes to train, we’re all for it – let it build itself proper training facilities – rumor has it that it already has some such facilities which look like Palestinian villages – in Israel, or on those lands it has already confiscated for its use in the West Bank.

And we haven’t said a word about the fact these exercises, aside from the panic they cause among the civilian population, can rapidly turn into violence. In the past, an exercise of the “mista’arvim” (soldiers who masquerade as Arabs) went pear-shaped, and ended with the killing of one Palestinians, who thought he was chasing away thieves.

Recently, Attorneys Michael Sfard and Emily Schaeffer, legal counsels for Yesh Din, sent a letter to the military prosecution demanding a halt to training in Palestinian residential areas, otherwise we’d have no choice but to turn to the courts. We hope the IDF reins itself in before the High Court of Justice has to interfere.

Extended video of IDF conducting training inside a Muslim cemetery in Hebron:

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.

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