A damning report by three Israeli human rights groups has condemned the military’s widespread practice of entering Palestinian homes in the occupied territories, often in the middle of the night.
The report, which includes testimonies of soldiers, doctors and Palestinian families, claims that Israeli troops enter homes on average more than 250 times every month to conduct arrests but also for other purposes including “mapping” houses, to use roofs for observation posts or to search for money, weapons or for intelligence purposes.
Soldiers interviewed for the report, including several who spoke to the Observer, said they believed an important function of many raids was intimidatory – a claim denied by the Israeli military.
The product of two years of research by the groups Breaking the Silence, Yesh Din and Physicians for Human Rights Israel, the report details the severe psychological impact on individuals, families and wider Palestinian society of raids usually accompanied by no paperwork and whose arbitrary nature, the authors suggest, may be in breach of international law.
Describing the process the report says: “In the absence of an obligation, under military law, to obtain judicial warrants approving the intrusion into the private domain, soldiers do not present family members with any warrant or other document as to why they are invading the home or who approved the invasion.”
Avner Gvaryahu, the executive director of Breaking the Silence, who himself conducted home invasions while a sergeant in a sniper unit, described the report as exposing part of the occupation more often hidden from wider public view.
“Like checkpoints and the separation barrier it is part of the DNA of the occupation. For soldiers like myself it ended when we walked back to the jeep and went back to camp to sleep. But for Palestinians it is a long-term trauma. What it means is that you cannot feel safe in your own home or bed. For me the last memory is of the piercing looks of fear and hatred.”
The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories followed the Six Day War in 1967. While the Oslo peace accords signed between Palestinians and Israelis were supposed to herald an end to the occupation, Jewish settlements – regarded as illegal by much of the international community – have continued to be built on land claimed by Palestinians for a future state, while the Israeli military continues to conduct operations both in areas ostensibly under full Palestinian control and areas still under Israeli administration.
Among some 40 Israeli soldiers who gave testimonies for the report, a number described rudimentary training and also often a lack of language skills for interacting with the Palestinian families they encountered.
For some, like Fadel Tamimi, the 59-year-old imam at a mosque in Nebi Salih on the West Bank, the raids have become familiar over the past 20 years. He says he has lost count of the number of times soldiers have entered his home, suggesting it could be more than 20 – most recently in 2019, just before the coronavirus pandemic.
“The reason they do this is to scare everyone. To show who is in charge. They never say why or show an order or piece of paper,” he told the Observer last week. “On one occasion, I remember I had gone to the mosque for the first early morning prayers. When I came back the soldiers were in my house. They had put all of my family in the kitchen. When I went into my bedroom I found three soldiers resting on the bed.
“The consequences are psychological. You feel your privacy is being invaded. It’s horrible for a conservative family and a traditional society. The aim is to control and humiliate.”
“What comes to my mind,” says Dr Jumana Milhem, a psychologist who works with Physicians for Human Rights Israel, “is that the process involves the dehumanisation of a whole society. [Its] point is to break their human spirit.”
At an individual level, says Milhem, the consequences can lead to trauma. “People are reporting stress weeks after these events.
“There are several risk factors for the PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] that we see in high percentages in Palestinian society in general. Here we are not talking about a single trauma but a facet of the continuous trauma of occupation. The feeling of being imprisoned in your own country. This feeling of being constantly exposed.”
For soldiers involved in the raids, who have spoken of their experiences, the issue has different layers of complexity. Two described their experience of raiding Palestinian homes as representing a turning point for them, not least in how they saw themselves as “nice” or “good” soldiers and individuals.
For “M”, a woman who was involved only once in a house invasion after volunteering to go on a raid as a non-combat soldier, the prospect at first seemed exciting.
“It wasn’t my job but they were looking for women to search Palestinian women [in Hebron]. I thought it was cool. I was 19 years old and playing war. I wanted to be part of it, to see how it was from the inside. In the end it was a turning point for me.
“When I got inside, the commander said, ‘you have to search the women’. The family was really scared. I have this strong image of this other soldier who I really liked. He had a small machine gun. He’s holding it in front of this cute three-year-old. He has a face mask on and he pulls off the mask and smiles at the boy. And I’m thinking this is so fucked up. It was like, it doesn’t matter how nice this soldier is.
“I had this strong idea that held my world together. Because I am nice, I’ll do it differently. But what matters is you’re in a home at three in the morning. We can’t be there without destroying their lives and creating the terror that later comes back to us.”
For Ariel Bernstein, 29, who served in an elite infantry unit, the Sayeret Nahal, his disquiet began during the period in 2014 when the Israeli military flooded the West Bank with soldiers in the search for three teenagers kidnapped and murdered by Hamas.
“We were shown an aerial image with each house numbered. We were told to choose four homes at random to enter and ‘flip’, which means turn over everything for anything suspicious. I thought it was strange I was getting the choice.
“The second home we entered was a large and fancy home. I decided to stay with the family. Neither I nor any of the soldiers spoke Arabic so communication was very limited. The family kept saying the same thing in Arabic again and again.
“And I’m getting frustrated and telling them to shut up. And they are begging me more and more dramatically and then suddenly the old man in the house is having a seizure and he’s shaking on the ground, foaming, and the family is hysterically crying. I realise they must have been talking about his medicine.
“I had no doubt that it was important to find the kidnap victims but also it was clear from the commanders that we should use the search to take advantage to squeeze the maximum out of each house we entered for anything suspicious.
“There’s always an official security reason to do ABC to protect Israeli lives. But in practice it does mean to control [Palestinian] civilians.”
A spokesman for the Israeli Defence Forces denied that entering homes was s;to intimidate, saying its frequency depended on security threats. “The entry of security forces into the homes of Palestinian residents in the Judea and Samaria area [the occupied West Bank] is carried out in accordance with the provisions of the applicable law in the area, which does not require the issuance of a preliminary judicial order.
“The main purpose of the security forces’ entry into those houses is for security and operational purposes, and is intended to thwart the carrying out of terrorist activity against Israeli targets. As a result of these operations, hundreds of terrorist operatives are arrested, many weapons and explosives are seized, as well as funds belonging to terrorist organisations and more.
“It should be emphasised that the number of entries to homes depends on the level of terrorist threats and the operational needs to thwart terrorist acts against Israeli targets.
“The claim that the entries to Palestinian homes in Judea and Samaria are used for intimidation is false.”