Nahum Barnea

Beitunian nights: The IDF in the West Bank

Op-ed: The army takes over security from the PA at night, when it can quietly apprehend would-be 'martyrs'; we should discuss young Palestinians' desire to kill and be killed as an escape.

The night between Wednesday and Thursday this week was saturated with rain. It fell periodically. It began with a sprinkle, putting the windscreen wipers at dilemma whether or not to move, sometimes getting stronger and sometimes drizzling again. A soft English rain, the last winter rain or the first spring rain. It was two o'clock in the morning. The convoy of seven armored military vehicles crossed the Ofer camp. The electric barrier was pushed aside, the vehicle lights went out, and the communications network was filled with voices. We entered Beitunia, a Palestinian town in area A, which is the southwestern portion of Ramallah.



During the day, a Palestinian policeman is stationed at the side of the bridge that marks the entrance to the town. This is the Palestinian Authority's way to demonstrate sovereignty. At night, he disappears. The night kingdom belongs to the IDF; the day kingdom belongs to the Authority, with reservations. If the IDF decides there are special circumstances, it can also enter during the day. The only neighborhood the IDF is careful to avoid entering is the Muqata, the central government compound in Ramallah. Muqata is out of bounds by command.



Israeli armored truck en route to West Bank (Photo: IDF Spokesperson)
Israeli armored truck en route to West Bank (Photo: IDF Spokesperson)


One of the commanders – let’s call him "a military official in the region" – tells me that when he was asked by foreign visitors why the IDF arrests minors at night, pulling them out of bed and causing them considerable panic. "If we arrest them during the day, that would undermine the quality of life," he said. "Our goal is to fight terror with minimal harm to the population.”


The result is complex. Typically, IDF brigade commanders inform their PA counterparts when IDF forces enter PA territry. Sometimes they announce this a few hours in advance and sometimes in real time. The Palestinian Authority security leaders did not like the freedom of movement that the IDF gave itself, but accepted the reality. Some think this acceptance is running out: If we do not reach an understanding with the Palestinian security apparatus, they will turn against us. Against this background, last week a bitter conflict broke out between ministers Elkin and Bennett, members of the Cabinet, and the prime minister and the defense minister. I will return to this confrontation later.


Meanwhile, in Beitunia, the rain falls. The roads, covered in deep pits thanks to years of neglect, filled with water. A cold, wet wind blowed at the soldiers’ backs. A cloud settled on Beitunia. In the street lamps’ light we all looked blurry, hazy, like a Chinese painting. Dogs roamed the streets but refrained from barking. Beitunia looked like a deserted town, the set of a movie. They repressed ourexistence; we repressed their existence.


Col. Israel Shomer, brigade commander of Binyamin, sends the forces out to the area every night. Tonight, they are operating in six places simultaneously in the Ramallah area - Beitunia, Qalandiya, Bayt Surik, Bayt Deko, al-Judeirah , and Hizmah. Their mission is to arrest suspects. Some places are in areas A, others in B and C. According to the Oslo Accords, the IDF is prevented from entering areas A. Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 abolished this distinction.


The force in Beitunia was based on a coed combat battalion of the Home Front Command. Some arrived at their destinations on foot, some on a Safaron -- a formidable, tall and opaque armored vehicle, which can fit a squad of soldiers. Its name is derived from the Safari trucks that served in the IDF in Lebanon.


The first target was a young man who wrote a farewell letter to his friends on the internet: he was about to become a martyr. His family lives in an apartment in a four-story building,  on the first floor, the door on the left. It is a three-room apartment: a living room, bedroom and a room decorated with a Palestinian flag where the four sons, one of whom is an amputee, slept. They received the soldiers quietly, without protest, as if waiting for them. Only the mother, a young, bleary-eyed woman, looked frightened.


The suspect was handcuffed and a blindfold was tied around his head. It will cover his eyes when he enters the Jeep. The other brothers were recorded in a Shin Bet agent’s notebook. Although the soldiers were silent, there was no doubt that all occupants of the building woke up; the whole neighborhood woke up. People followed what was going from their dark apartments. Only one apartment, up the hill, turned on the light.


We went to the north end of Beitunia, just a five minute drive from the Palestinian prime minister's office. In a lone home, lower than the road, lives a suspect defined as a “riot activist”. Rioters are usually handled by the PA’s forces:  they can live with he knife-wielders, but the demonstrators threaten them as well. This man is suspected of throwing stones. He also lives with his parents and brother. After half an hour of interrogation, he comes out, led by the soldiers. His brothers follow behind, a family of big, heavyset men.


The third target was a Palestinian security forces member. He is suspected of running an arms trade business alongside his regular job in the PA security forces. The sale of improvised Carl Gustav rifles, improvised pistols, rifles stolen from the IDF, has become a popular line of work as shooting attacks on Israelis increase.


He lives in a small apartment on the ground floor of an apartment building, with a separate entrance. On the wall hangs a picture of Arafat, and under it an old shotgun. The soldiers ransack the apartment, hoping to find weapons. They fish out only one pistol of shabby appearance, with the bolt and firing pin removed. The gun is displayed on a nearby table while the suspect, handcuffed and wearing a jumpsuit, tries to convince the investigator that he was innocent. Someone listening to the conversation might think that it was between two friends. It was three-thirty in the morning.


57 terrorists 

Beitunia is a middle-class suburb. It has houses with three or four floors, one of the few industrial zones in the West Bank, with Fatah's activities on the surface and Hamas activities beneath those. If Ramallah is Tel Aviv, Beitunia is Bat Yam.


In the 90s, Jibril Rajoub, head of the Preventive Security apparatus, build its headquarters here. It was a real palace, in the style of Ceausescu, large, luxurious, powerful. Legends had it that in the brief  brief time that Arafat ordered full cooperation, in 1996, Rajoub took Hamas operatives to the hills of Beitunia and shot them dead with his pistol.


During the second intifada, the IDF demolished the building to the ground. I met Rajoub a short time later, at a safe house in Beitunia, when he was pursued by Israel and also by terrorist organizations. He tearfully mourned the loss. Since then, he has never forgotten or forgiven.


The area controlled by the Binyamin Brigade supplied the current intifada with 57 terrorists. Thirty-one went to attack inside the Green Line, mostly those from Qalandiya and Kfar Aqab, villages that are part of greater Jerusalem. Most of the attackers were killed; a minority was arrested. Others operated against settlers and soldiers in the brigade’s district. There are still a few firing squads roaming about in the area. Just as we look for them,so are the Palestinian security forces, for their own reasons. Like the man from Silwad, a beautiful Hamasite village near Ofra. Two months ago, he fired on an IDF jeep, injured a company commander, and fled. His father gave him up to the Palestinian security forces. He was sentenced to ten years in prison.


In the absence of a system that would neutralize attackers in advance, the IDF prepares to deal with them in the field. Soldiers were dispersed during the day along the paths and intersections where most attacks occur. They check the persons of every Palestinian, be they male or female. Anyone who pops up in the IDF Military Intelligence's and the Shin Bet’s intelligence lists is picked up at night.


The air must be cleared, IDF officers tell the Palestinians. Hatred and incitement encourage the terrorists; the air must be cleared, say the Palestinian. When a military convoy passes near the school, do not be surprised if children throw stones.


The general atmosphere was the axis around which talks betwee IDF officers and PA personnel revolved. There are two versions of this story, involving considerable differences. One version, the IDF one, arose in remarks that were said this week by Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot to members of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. In recent years, the IDF greatly expanded its presence in Palestinian cities. It hurts the sense of governance there and makes it difficult for the Palestinian security apparatus to cooperate.We need to examine where we can reduce our presence. Some of the talks on this issue are at the tactical level – brigade commander talks to another brigade commander. This is no political issue. The talks continue:  there is no explosion.


Immigration and Absorption Minister Ze'ev Elkin is a member of the Cabinet. His version is inverted. "You can not play dumb and say that it is a tactical thing," he told me this week. "The Palestinians have made this threat: if you do not return complete control over the Area A, we will stop security cooperation.


"This is a political demand, not a defense one. We looked for a compromise. We said, we will go in only when there is a ticking bomb. Then Netanyahu demanded that the Palestinians recognize officially that we are allowed t go in. Even this is a political demand: It actually erases what was said in the Oslo Accords.


"I was angry at Ya'alon and Netanyahu, who concealed the negotiations from the Cabinet. When I gave my opinion openly, I was called to Netanyahu to clarify. He explained that the Palestinians refused to accept his demand, and the talks were stopped. There was no point in bringing the issue to the Cabinet, he said. There was an attempt to communicate, and the matter exploded.” 


Elkin has very harsh words regarding the defense policy:"I have a dispute with our defense leadership. They, Ya'alon and the IDF, still cling to Rabin’s hope that the Palestinians will do the work for us, without the High Court of Justice and B'Tselem. They believe the Palestinian security mechanisms are part of the IDF's order of battle. This illusion led us to the second intifada. What has improved the situation is the IDF's freedom of action in Area A. I am absolutely against change in this matter, certainly not now, when things are unstable.


"Their threat to cease cooperation is similar to the threat by Abbas to resign. The cooperation is beneficial to them more than it is beneficial to us. Eighty percent of the security in the West Bank is us. Because of us, Abbas and the Palestinian security mechanisms continue to exist.


"Ya'alon is going along too much with the conventional perception among the top brass. He was wrong. Even regarding settlements he is wrong. When he was minister of strategic affairs, he attacked defense minister Barak because he moved against the settlers. Now he is more anti-settler than Barak was."


The relationship between what is stirring up Cabinet ministers and what happens during Beitunia's nights is loose. The chief of staff noted in remarks at the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee an additional four incidents in which he believes unnecessary politics were inserted into military affairs. The first was removal of Jewish identity training from the military rabbinate; second, the shaving requirement in the IDF. "I came to a pilots' graduation ceremony," said Eisenkot. "They all shaved; I was at a graduation ceremony of officers. Everyone has his own beard. The main problem, by the way, are the secular people. The current generation of soldiers hates to shave.”


A third issue is the rules of engagement. Politicians, and now rabbis, preach to the IDF about when and where to shoot. The fourth matter is particularly interesting: Eisenkot said that some in the Left, apropos the Buchris affair, that he was promoted in the IDF because he was wearing a yarmulke. "I have known Buchris since he served under me when I was a brigade commander," he said. "He's an excellent officer."


Dying on the knife 

This statistic I heard from two different sources, from two different security branches, revealed an interesting angle in the current intifada: in the past six months, the rate of suicides in Palestinian society decreased dramatically. Unfortunately, I did not get numbers that illustrate this statement, but I can say that policy makers in the security establishment consider it a key to understanding the motives of some of the attacks. This is true for teenage boys and girls experiencing problems at home or at school; it's true for women, including mothers, who were suspected of bringing dishonor onto the family; and it is true for people suffering from mental health issues.


The assumption is that when suicidal thoughts encounter dreams of a heroic death, the knife is the obvious solution. When the knife is unsheathed, an accursed outcast is transformed into a martyr, a hero. His or her picture is taped to the walls, his fame is carried by everyone, and his family is respected and gets financial assistance. More than the terrorists want to kill Israelis, they want to be killed. True, this is a convenient explanation for the Israeli establishment - too convenient. It dwarfs the decisive contribution of the occupation to Palestinian youths’ willingness to die on their knives; it buries the problem in a psychological closet and erases the sense of guilt and expectation from the government to do something - diplomatically, economically, militarily - to change the reality. In short, it fits current policy like a glove. Nevertheless, it is worthy of discussion.


When Police Commissioner Ronnie Alsheikh spoke three weeks ago at an event for bereaved families in Eilat, he compared Israeli society to Palestinian society: "While we elected to sanctify life, our enemies have chosen to sanctify death," he said.


The audience loved the phrase. Many, including bereaved Druze and Bedouin families, came over to thank him. But when the remarks reached the TV channels, their scope changed. The police chief was seen as someone who entered a debate that did not pertain to him. The unusual curiosity that the new commissioner arouses in the media, and perhaps in the public, boomeranged back to him.


It will not help him to say that he did not ask to issue a moral verdict on Palestinian society, but but was thinking of the young women and men who are seek refuge from their plight in police bullets.




פרסום ראשון: 03.18.16, 23:59
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