‘I can’t fall asleep’: The trauma of Israeli raids on Palestinian homes

A new report by human rights groups highlights the arbitrary nature and psychological harm of the Israeli army’s home invasions on Palestinian families.
Israeli soldiers raid a Palestinian house as hundreds of demonstrators march in the West Bank city of Hebron calling to open Shuhada Street, February 20, 2019. (Activestills.org)

A decade or so ago, I joined Israeli activists at the Palestinian village of Asira al-Qibliya in the occupied West Bank, located near Yitzhar, an Israeli military outpost that was turned into a civilian settlement in the 1980s. We arrived a few hours after settlers had raided the village, attacked Palestinian residents, and vandalized their property. Fearing the settlers might come back, some residents asked us to stay overnight.

The settlers did not return, but at around 2 a.m., Israeli soldiers invaded the village, moving from one house to the next. We woke up to the sound of hard knocks on the metal door of the home we were staying in. The soldiers, who were surprised to find Israelis in a Palestinian village, gathered all of us — including children — in the garden, and conducted a quick “interrogation” with each person.

As opposed to a police interrogation, the soldiers did not inform us of our rights. While it was clear that they were unlikely to cause us harm, since we were Israeli citizens, I still remember trembling with fear as we stood outside in the cold, half asleep.

When the soldiers noticed I had a camera, they yelled, “No filming!” With my hands still shaking, though, I was still able to take a few shots. The soldiers were “merciful” with the Palestinian family that was hosting us, but the house next door was completely upturned, and their belongings were emptied out. About an hour later, the soldiers went back into their military jeeps and disappeared into the night. They did not produce a search warrant or provide an explanation for the raid.

These military home invasions, which are embedded in the violence of Israel’s occupation, are the subject of a new report released on Tuesday by human rights organizations Yesh Din, Breaking the Silence, and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel. The report focuses on the mental health effects that such raids have on Palestinians, and how, aside from the army’s stated objectives, these invasions have themselves become a goal. There is no official procedure for home raids in the West Bank, which effectively means that, as far as Israel’s military is concerned, any Palestinian home at any given time is a legitimate target.

The report, titled “A Life Exposed: Military invasions of Palestinian homes in the West Bank,” is based on 158 testimonies from Palestinians who have had their homes raided in recent years; 31 interviews conducted by health experts with affected Palestinian families; and interviews with 40 Israeli soldiers and five officers who took part in such invasions.

In 88 percent of incidents documented in the report, the Palestinian families testified that soldiers ordered them to gather in a single room, or separated them into different rooms, where they were kept under guard. In 30 percent of the invasions mentioned, Palestinians reported that soldiers threatened them with violence, and in 25 percent of the cases Palestinians said soldiers used force or physical violence against a family member. Of the families interviewed, 64 percent said their homes were raided more than once. Of the invasions recorded, 88 percent took place between midnight and 5 a.m.

Statistics from a new report by Yesh Din, Breaking the Silence and Physicians for Human Rights Israel on military home invasions in the occupied West Bank, based on 158 investigated cases.

Statistics from a new report by Yesh Din, Breaking the Silence and Physicians for Human Rights Israel on military home invasions in the occupied West Bank, based on 158 investigated cases.

“Military invasions into Palestinian homes [in the West Bank] are of the most common and routine operations under Israeli occupation,” says Ziv Stahl, the director of Yesh Din’s research department, who also worked on the report. “Although Israelis are less familiar with this phenomenon than checkpoints or home demolitions, many Palestinians are born and raised in a reality in which armed soldiers routinely raid their homes,” she continued. “This is a violent and repressive tool that is central to Israel’s mechanism of control over Palestinians.”

A show of force

The declared goals of military home invasions are to search houses, conduct arrests, or collect intelligence (“mapping”), but the recorded testimonies describe a very different reality. Based on the soldiers’ statements, the implicit aim of such raids is what is described in military colloquialism as “a show of force” and “creating a sense of persecution.” They are meant to deter people — entire communities — from participating in political activities opposing the occupation.

“I think that in fact, the main purpose is deterrence, and as I said, that’s something they say: we have to create deterrence in the area,” a first sergeant who served in Israel’s artillery corp between 2013 and 2016 told Breaking the Silence. “Part of the attempt to calm things down is to create deterrence and say: the IDF is here. We’re here, and we can come into your house at any time.” When the interviewer asked whether they would enter random houses, the soldier said: “Absolutely, it’s totally [a game of] eeny, meeny, mini, moe.”

One of the report’s central points is that, based on military law, no judicial warrants are used in these invasions, which means that they are also not subject to any judicial review or scrutiny. Every officer, or soldier authorized by an officer, has the power to order a home invasion in the West Bank.

In March, Yesh Din, PHRI, and six Palestinian families petitioned Israel’s High Court demanding that the military cease entering and searching Palestinian homes without a judicial warrant, except in urgent cases. The court ruled that the state should be the one to determine whether it can disclose its confidential procedures on home invasions.

“Every Palestinian family and every soldier who has served knows this practice, but the general public is less aware of it,” says Michael Sfard, the legal advisor for Yesh Din and Breaking the Silence who filed the appeal. “This petition states that no legal system in the world gives law enforcement the sole discretion to conduct a search on private property,” adds Sfard. “Since 16th-century England, every legal system has established a separation between the officers who enforce searches and interrogations, and the judicial authority that approves them. This rule exists in Israeli law as well, and applies in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, where a search warrant is required.”

The purpose of the petition is to compel the state to create a mechanism through which home searches can be authorized, notes Sfard. “Even if at first it will only be a rubber stamp, as soon as there is a bureaucratic process, that is already an improvement,” he explains. “Occasionally, there will be a judge who will take this process seriously.”

‘Palestinians are experiencing collective trauma’

The report also examines the psychological impact on Palestinians who have been subjected to IDF home raids. Adults whose homes have been invaded report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, including sleep disturbance and hyperarousal. Children and adolescents, meanwhile, report increased dependence on their parents and aggressive behavior, alongside the adults’ own symptoms.

“I cannot fall asleep before 1:00 or 2:00 a.m.,” R.S., a woman from the town of Sinjil in the northern West Bank, is quoted as saying in the report. “I start ruminating, and as soon as I hear a noise, I expect the military,” she adds. “Sometimes, not often, I dream that they come to take my husband and he escapes. Now, I stay with the thoughts until 2:30-3:00 a.m., and then I calm down a little — once the time they are expected to come passes.”

According to Dr. Jomanah Milham, a psychiatrist and volunteer with PHRI, “military home invasions, which are usually accompanied by verbal or physical violence, are a threatening experience and liable to cause post-traumatic stress disorder.” She notes that symptoms of PTSD can include flashbacks, nightmares and sleep disturbances, excessive alertness, and decreased functioning.

“[The report’s] findings are consistent with numerous previous studies that show Palestinians are experiencing collective trauma as a result of the ongoing occupation,” Milham adds. “The negative mental health consequences that result are among the highest in the world.”

The damage caused by the raids are not incidental or a by-product of the army’s actions, but rather an integral part of them, the report notes. Taking everything out of closets and drawers, ripping up couches, and smashing plaster walls have become a routine part of IDF home searches.

A sergeant who served in an elite army unit from 2014 to 2017 told Breaking the Silence about one of his soldiers’ anger at not finding any weapons during a search. “I remember him starting to toss things around just from the frustration. He walks around the living room, and everyone is sitting, and he starts smacking the TV really hard and gets angry that we couldn’t find [weapons].”

A Palestinian examines the damage in his house after an Israeli night raid in the village of Salem, near Nablus, West Bank, August 26, 2015. (Activestills.org)

According to the report, if Palestinians submit a complaint, the IDF’s internal legal apparatus retroactively justifies property damage during home searches. Investigations into vandalism are therefore closed without a single soldier standing trial, and the military prosecutor effectively dismisses the complaint without opening a criminal investigation.

The report also reveals that of all the complaints Palestinians have submitted since 2008 with Yesh Din’s assistance regarding property damage, every single investigation has been closed without any indictments being filed.

No search warrant, no explanation

In 64 percent of the 35 incidents documented as search raids, affected family members testified that the soldiers left empty-handed. Soldiers who conducted the raids also stated that their searches often came to nothing.

For example, one soldier who took part in dozens of home invasions in Hebron in search of weapons was asked if he remembered any instance in which the soldiers found what they were looking for. “We never did,” he replied.

Another general who served in Hebron in 2014 told Breaking the Silence that after an Israeli police officer, Baruch Mizrahi, was shot dead in the area, his unit was sent to conduct searches in the town of Bani Na’im. “No one expects to find any weapons in some house in Bani Na’im,” he recalled. “It’s like ‘You’ve carried out a terror attack, now you’re going to pay for it.’ Simple as that. There are going to be arrests, there are going to be searches.”

Israeli soldiers take part in a search operation in the West Bank city of Hebron, June 17, 2014. (Activestills.org)

Most raids that aren’t classified as searches are carried out for “mapping” purposes — a generic term the army uses for entering homes in order to make a record of its inhabitants, collect information about them, and film the building. Mapping often involves photographing residents, including minors.

“I distinctly remember we had to do some mapping, take pictures of people, take pictures of residents,” a first sergeant who served in the Nahal Brigade’s 50th Battalion between 2007 and 2011 said in one testimony. “And I actually took pictures of people with my own camera, and ID cards, you take down all the details, and later, when I was asked what to do with this stuff, I asked the officers, and they basically said: listen, we have no idea. I waited a few days, about a week, and then I deleted the pictures.”

Marshad Karaki, who lives in Hebron, recounted a home search he had experienced in June last year during Ramadan. Around 10 soldiers entered his house at about 1:15 a.m., some of whom were masked.

“The soldiers said they wanted to know who lived in the house. They demanded to see everyone’s ID cards,” Karaki recalled. “They were armed to the teeth. The soldiers put all the men in the living room and demanded each of us hold their ID card in their hands. They took photos of us with a camera, not a phone — each and every one with the ID card open in their hands. No explanation was given as to why they entered our home specifically, and they didn’t have a search warrant. The officer who commanded the soldiers was polite and said this was a routine search.”

A minor detail that the report mentions, almost as an aside, is that in around half of the documented home raids, the soldiers had their faces covered — which they do at their own initiative, with face coverings they bring from home, even as their officers remain unmasked. “It looks better… when you post a picture… [showing] we went to do arrests and you’re all covered like that,” a first sergeant from the Paratroopers 101st Battalion told Breaking the Silence. “Soldiers love it. I think for Instush [Instagram].”