When we think of Israel’s repression of Palestinians, we think of the kinds of scenes we saw at the start of this year: indiscriminate bombing of civilians, soldiers brutalizing nonviolent protesters, settlers brazenly stealing houses left temporarily empty. What we miss are the horrors and indignities Palestinians are subject to when cameras aren’t rolling and there are few witnesses around.
“A Life Exposed,” a new report produced jointly by human rights organizations Yesh Din, Breaking the Silence, and Physicians for Human Rights Israel, shines a spotlight on just one such indignity: the Israeli military’s practice of arbitrary home invasions, or raids, in the West Bank.
When carried out within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, such actions require having a warrant or probable cause, and are subject to a host of other rules and regulations of the sort democratic societies usually mandate. But the Israel Defense Force (IDF) is free to barge into a Palestinian home in the occupied Palestinian territories without any of those, effectively for any reason and at any time, regardless of whether the action produces any results. These reasons include arresting someone; looking for money, weapons, and other objects; seizing a property for military operations; and “mapping” — gathering information about a home’s physical layout and the people who live there, a practice that was recently barred after years of outrage.
By drawing on more than two hundred pieces of testimony from both Palestinians and IDF soldiers, the report presents a harrowing picture of the nature of these home invasions and their lasting psychological impact, especially for children. According to the report, a typical Israeli military home invasion involves anywhere from around five to thirty IDF soldiers and lasts an average of eighty minutes. In roughly a quarter of the cases examined by the report’s authors, Israeli soldiers simply broke open the door to a home rather than wait for the occupants to open it, and 88 percent of the operations took place between midnight and 5 AM.
“In many cases, perhaps most cases, a search ends in nothing, as clearly emerges from testimonies given by both Palestinians and soldiers,” the report states.
Multiple respondents liken the scenes left in their homes by rampaging IDF soldiers to an “earthquake,” with Israeli troops ransacking homes and leaving dirt, household items, broken dishes, and other smashed objects scattered on the floor. Even one Israeli sergeant first class compares the “mountain of a mess” left behind to the results of a “typhoon.” Another describes going to a house reported to be holding weapons and smashing its walls open with sledgehammers, leaving the house “in ruins” — and still finding nothing.
Soldiers used physical force in roughly a quarter of the cases gathered, the report states, and issued threats, including pointing firearms at household members, in 30 percent of cases. A blind and disabled man recalls a soldier beating him in his sleep and breaking his chin and left arm as part of an arrest raid on the home of his neighbor, who expressly told the Israelis not to involve the neighboring homes. A soldier recalls an elderly man suffering an epileptic seizure in the middle of one raid, choking on the floor as his family asked permission to bring him his medicine, which the soldier and his comrades forbade them from doing at gunpoint. An ambulance eventually arrived once the man had stopped breathing. (It’s unclear from the report whether he survived.)
Even when physical violence was not involved, Palestinians were subjected to a range of outrages. One raid took place on a couple’s wedding night, with Israeli soldiers destroying furniture, including their bed. (“We had to explain to her that this was not unusual,” the bride’s father-in-law recalls. “It happens after almost every wedding.”) In another case, Israeli soldiers strip-searched the women present, in one case by force, and stole money from the apartment’s occupants. Soldiers sometimes occupy people’s property for weeks, sleep in their beds, and treat rooftops and stairwells as toilets.
The report outlines the lingering feelings of trauma and loss of control among Palestinians on the receiving end. Children wet themselves in fear during and after the invasions. “These invasions significantly impair the development and functioning of both children and adults, while the repetitious and arbitrary nature of such invasions exacerbates the feelings that accompany the event and the post-trauma symptoms,” states the BMJ Paediatrics Open, the trade journal of the UK’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Children’s Health, in a write-up on the report. The authors note that Palestinian children have a rate of post-traumatic stress disorder ranging from 34 to 50 percent, significantly higher than the 7- to 12-percent rate for children worldwide.
“[T]he children who are there, it’s the most terrifying and traumatic thing for them, maybe for me too, but especially for them,” one soldier said.
This is what billions of dollars of annual US military aid to Israel helps underwrite: the ability of heavily armed Israeli soldiers to courageously terrorize children and bludgeon elderly civilians in their sleep.
Besides being morally abhorrent, these practices are, of course, entirely counterproductive to any sort of “counterterrorism” strategy, their ostensible purpose. As one soldier said: “There are young children there and all they’ll remember for the rest of their lives is how much they hate the soldiers because they were at home with their mom and [soldiers] came like in the middle of the night and put them in one room and a soldier stood over them, threatening them with a weapon when they were four years old.”
Finally, as the report points out, these practices are yet more evidence that Israel is an apartheid state: The clear gap between Israeli civil law and the military’s prerogatives in searching Palestinian homes constitutes the application of “a different legal system to Israelis and Palestinians on the basis of national distinction,” in the words of the report.
US leaders justify support for Israel on the grounds that it is “the only democracy in the Middle East.” How differently the American public might see the issue, if only it were informed about what their tax dollars are really paying for.