A cemetery; usually a place for loss and remembrance; grief and commemoration. However in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, a cemetery is also a place for military training. The bodies that fill the graves are Palestinians; the soldiers partaking in the military training are Israelis serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). This is the image captured on video by activists from Israeli human rights group Yesh Din just over a week ago.
In the Muslim cemetery the Israeli soldiers were simulating the breakup of a demonstration. Some were dressed as Palestinian protestors, whilst an armed unit was charged with dispersing the demonstration. The armed soldiers fanned out across the cemetery, weaving through graves as they made their way to break-up the "mock" peaceful protest.
"We were shocked to discover last week that training was taking place in a cemetery in Hebron, in blunt disregard of the sensitivities of local civilians," said Yesh Din attorney Emily Schaeffer. "I find it hard to believe that the IDF would hold training of this type in a Jewish cemetery, or in any Jewish neighborhood in the West Bank or within Israel."
The incident in the Hebron cemetery is part of the ongoing recruitment of Palestinian villages and homes for IDF military training. Under the auspices of "training," IDF soldiers can invade Palestinian villages, without informing the residents, and with no "legal obstacles".
The legality of training inside Palestinian villages is anchored in the principles of "belligerent occupation," Military Advocate Generals deputy prosecutor for the IDF's operational affairs, Major Harel Weinberg concluded last week, in a document written in response to a complaint filed by Yesh Din. The complaint was filed following a series of similar training incidents involving Palestinian villages.
"The military commander is obliged to maintain security and public order in the Judea and Samaria Region (Israel's name for the occupied West Bank). 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," read the document.
Still, Weinberg wrote that troops taking part in such training were required to "avoid putting the population at risk, damaging their property or causing unreasonable disturbance to their daily routine."
An Israeli soldier who is now a member of "Breaking the Silence", an organization of veteran IDF soldiers working to expose the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories, commented in response to Weinberg's response:
"How can an entire army battalion pass through a village without disrupting its inhabitants' daily routine? How can we train for days near a civilian population without causing damage to their property? How can we train with live bullets while ensuring that no one will be injured?"
"Imagine a massive amount of infantry troops all around, with explosions shaking the earth under your feet. Tanks and attack helicopters open fire as soldiers run through the village setting off stun grenades. There's a lot of noise. It is important to note that at no point did I stop for a second to think about the fact that we were training around villages where regular people live their daily lives."
In 1972, a pro-Palestine Israeli media outlet, the soldier said that Palestinians were "little more than props" to some Israeli soldiers:
"I heard testimonies about soldiers who trained by breaking into homes on which there was no suspicious intelligence information. They would force the entire family in one room, search the house, and leave. I learned about how the army's canine unit would train by searching random cars that simply want to pass through a checkpoint (soldiers would hide explosives in the car and let the dogs turn rummage through the whole car until they find them).
I learned about detaining innocent people – what we called a "mock arrest" – who have no idea where we came from or what we wanted from them, and then suddenly releasing them."
Included in the numerous incidents that prompted Yesh Din to file a complaint was the simulation of a "mock" attack on the village of Imatin in May, where around 100 armed soldiers spread out amongst the homes. The practice assault on a house using specialized equipment during the Muslim holy holiday of Ramadan and while the family were sitting in the garden and some members were still inside the house.
In 2012, three brothers were shot, one later died, after apprehending agents from the Israeli undercover unit "Duvdevan" whom they had mistaken for thieves. The agents were conducting an infiltration practice drill.
While for the soldiers this is training, for the Palestinians subjected to night raids and arrests, it resembles all too closely the reality of life in the West Bank, where even the sanctity of a cemetery is not safe under occupation.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.