On the night between Thursday and Friday, 24 and 25 November 2016 – during a period when many fires broke out in Israel – a fire broke out in a wooded area south of the settlement of Halamish, in the West Bank district of Ramallah. The fire, which the authorities later determined had been caused by arson, spread and destroyed many homes in Halamish, as well as several hectares of woodland nearby. Although the settlement was built on land belonging to the Palestinian village of Deir Nizam and borders the village to the east, thanks to the direction of the wind, homes in Deir Nizam remained unharmed although olive groves belonging to its residents were burned. Large forces of Israeli fire fighters battled the fire until it was finally put out on Saturday, 26 November. Many of the settlement’s residents were evacuated from their homes during the fire.
On Friday night, 25 November, the military imposed severe restrictions on movement in Deir Nizam. The three main entrances to the village were blocked off with dirt mounds, and soldiers were posted to guard them. Residents were also prohibited from going in and out of the village on foot until Monday, 28 November. At that point, military then relaxed its enforcement of the restrictions, but the roadblocks remained in place. Instead of regularly standing guard, soldiers are now posted at the roadblocks at random hours, almost every day. Soldiers also patrol throughout the village every day, sometimes more than once, and during the night. These patrols often lead to clashes with youngsters from the village, who throw stones at the soldiers. In some cases, the soldiers have responded with massive use of tear gas inside the village and arrests, including of four minors.
This conduct is part of Israel’s collective punishment policy in the West Bank, whereby suspicions against individuals are deemed sufficient justification for trampling the rights of the entire community and disrupting their daily lives. In this case, residents of the village were held collectively responsible for the arson and marked as a ‘legitimate’ target for public rage over the fires throughout Israel by politicians wishing to curry favor with the settlers and their supporters. As far as B’Tselem is aware, the only village residents who were arrested and interrogated following the fire were suspected of stone-throwing rather than arson and were released shortly thereafter.
Below is a review of the measures taken against the village residents, as found by B’Tselem field researcher Iyad Hadad and related in testimonies given to him on 7 December 2016.
Restrictions on movement
Some 1,500 people live in Deir Nizam, and those of them that are employed work for the Palestinian Authority or inside Israel. The village lies some 20 kilometers northwest of Ramallah and is bordered to the east and south by the settlement of Halamish, which was built on village land in 1978, and by the areas it controls. The village has three entrances, from the south, the north and the west. Beginning on Friday night, 25 November 2016, the military blocked the three entrances with dirt mounds or rocks, posted military jeeps beside the roadblocks, and prevented people from entering or leaving the village, including on foot, until Monday, 28 November.
On Monday, military presence at the entrance to the village was scaled back and residents began going in and out of the village via a dirt road that runs through fields and bypasses the western entrance, or via fields south of the village, an approximately one kilometer walk from the main road. These provisory solutions cannot meet daily needs. Later, when soldiers were no longer regularly posted at the entrances to the village, residents removed the roadblocks from the northern and western entrances, allowing access by car once again. However, a few days later the military reinstalled the western roadblock. Though military presence in the village was scaled back, soldiers are still posted in the village at random times, restricting entry and exit. Residents cannot know when they will be able to enter or leave the village, which makes planning daily activities difficult. The restrictions seriously impede residents from reaching their work places, and people who live outside the village and work there from entering, including teachers at the village school.
The village school principal, Mahmoud Yihya, 54, who lives in Deir Nizam, described the effect of the movement restrictions and of the soldiers’ presence on routine at the school, which includes an elementary, junior and high school:
Our school goes from grade 1 to 12. There are 234 students and 24 staff members. On Sunday, 27 November 2016, the school was shut down completely. Eighteen of our 24 staff members live outside the village and they couldn’t make it to work. The restrictions were eased the next day, and some of the teachers managed to sneak in through the nearby fields, so 15 of the 18 teachers who live outside the village did come in. Studies continued almost as usual, apart from technology and English because these subjects are taught by teachers who couldn’t get into the village. Later, the restrictions became random, and teachers who come from outside had difficulty assessing whether they would be able to get in. This resulted in more teacher absences and late arrivals. We got the impression that the military was making sure to post soldiers at the roadblocks specifically when teachers arrived for work. It disrupted studies and caused lesson cancellations due to teacher absences.
Students were more absent than usual, as well. On any given day three to five kids are absent, but during this time, the number jumped to 15-25. In some cases, this was due to harassment of the children by the soldiers in the village, so parents and students were afraid. Also, the soldiers patrolled specifically when the children left school. This led to stone throwing by the children, to which the soldiers responded with tear gas and stun grenades. On 5 December, the soldiers fired tear gas canisters into the school yard. It was during class, and no one was outside. The gas penetrated a classroom used by fifth graders, 11-year-old children. They felt suffocated and ran to other classrooms. More than 20 students were hurt by the gas. The next day, 13 students did not show up, and the day after that, 11 – most of them from elementary school, because the students were panicking.
Tawfiq Mizhar, 49, a married father of six from the nearby village of ‘Abud, drives passengers between the villages and Ramallah by minibus. He described how the restrictions affect his work:
I work on the Deir Nizam-‘Abud-Ramallah line. I usually do four trips a day and make 50 to 70 shekels for each trip. Because of the fires on Friday night, the Israeli authorities blocked off the entrances to Deir Nizam. On the first day of the closure, I was about to leave Deir Nizam with a minibus full of passengers, most of them students, public servants, and laborers. Then I discovered that the southern and western exits were completely sealed off, so I tried to leave through the northern exit, which was blocked with movable rocks, but there were also army vehicles and soldiers waiting there, outside the village. One of the soldiers aimed a rifle at me from a long way off, about 50 meters away, and ordered me to turn around. I was afraid and had no choice but to go back and unload the passengers. The same thing happened the next day. I went to the village center, but everyone said the roads were still closed. I tried waiting, but nothing changed. On the third day, some residents managed to open up a side exit in the western part of the village. I managed to get through there safely, even though it’s a rough dirt road full of stones and potholes. On the way back, I had to drop the passengers off there and they had to carry on by foot, because it’s very difficult to get through with the minibus. The passengers had to walk a kilometer to the village, and some were carrying backpacks and shopping bags. I imagine they suffered a lot. Because of the situation, I had to drop two of the four trips I make every day. My income has gone down significantly and it’s hardly enough to pay for the minibus expenses. I’m the breadwinner for eight people, and this situation is very worrying. We have to put off shopping, including things we need now for winter, because we’re afraid this will go on.
Entry of military forces into the village and arrest of minors:
Since the military began to collectively punish the entire village, soldiers frequently patrol it. Testimonies of residents indicate that the patrols do not serve any specific purpose such as arrests or searches, but appear to be simply a show of force. The residents report that they often take place just when school lets out. In some cases, clashes erupted between soldiers and students who threw stones at them. The soldiers responded by firing tear gas canisters and stun grenades, in one case into the school yard. During the first two weeks, the military patrolled the village every day, sometimes several times, including at night. The frequency of the patrols has since decreased, but they remain an almost daily occurrence.
On 29 November 2016, during a clash between soldiers and several youngsters, the soldiers arrested five minors between the ages of 13 and 15 for allegedly throwing stones. Two of them were released after two hours and one was held until nightfall. The other two were held in custody and interrogated until the following morning. Two other young men, one 19 years old and the other 21, were also arrested on stone throwing suspicions and released the next day. Some of these minors and young men reported that their interrogators pressured them to confess to the arson that caused the fire.
L.T., 15, from Deir Nizam, described his arrest by soldiers during the clashes on 29 November:
At around 11:00 o’clock in the morning, I was in class when I saw military jeeps driving into the village. We went on with our school day as usual and finished at midday, around 1:30. There were still soldiers outside and they were firing tear gas and stun grenades. When I got home, my aunt asked me to go get my cousin Rami, 12, because she was worried about him being out in the street with soldiers in the village. I found him by the northern exit of the village and told him to come home. We were on our way home when suddenly, we saw five soldiers running from the center of the village. We didn’t try to run away at first, but one of the soldiers fired in our direction and a bullet landed not far from us. We got scared and started running in the opposite direction. We ran into the fields and saw three other kids who were also running away from the soldiers.
We saw military vehicles there, too, and soldiers and police officers got out of one of them and started chasing us. We ran and they kept chasing us, firing tear gas at us. We choked on the gas and our eyes started to water, but we didn’t stop until we got to the residential part of the village. My aunt, Rami’s mother, saw us and came to protect us with other women from the village. She told us to not be afraid and to turn ourselves in, and that they wouldn’t do anything to us. The officers and soldiers came up and one of them grabbed my hand from behind. He punched me in the back and then took me away. They got Rami, too, and another kid, all of them violently. They dragged us to the military jeeps and tied our hands and feet.
At first, they took us to the military camp in Halamish and held us out in the open. It was cold and I only had a short-sleeved shirt on. Then they took us to the entrance to Halamish. I managed to take off the blindfold but a soldier saw me and hit me. A few minutes later, they put me in a military vehicle. We didn’t know where they were taking us, but when they took us out of the vehicle they removed our blindfolds and handcuffs. I saw that they had brought other kids there. I was cold and scared and hungry, because I hadn’t had lunch. Every time I asked for water, they said no.
In the evening, some soldiers and officers came. One of them was in plainclothes. He pointed at me and said, ‘That’s him’. They blindfolded and handcuffed me. I waited for some time, I’m not sure how long, and then they put me in another vehicle and took the blindfold off. A kid I know from the village was there, too. He had a watch and it was already 11:30 at night. They took us to the Binyamin police station and we waited opposite the reception rooms. After an hour or two, a vehicle came and I saw my father get out, along with the fathers of the other kids. They wouldn’t let us to talk them.
Then a police officer dragged me into a room and took the blindfold off . I saw an interrogator sitting behind a desk. He spoke Arabic. He took my fingerprints and took a picture of me. He told me I was accused of setting fire to the Halamish settlement and of punching a soldier in the face. I denied it. During the interrogation, he asked me to sign a white paper with Hebrew words on it. He tried to pressure me. He banged on the desk and insisted that I had to sign it, but I refused. Then they let my father come in. He saw the Hebrew page and told me not to sign. They took my father out and the interrogator tried to convince me again to sign it. He said that if I didn’t, I should talk to a lawyer. I told him I didn’t have one, and he offered to call one for me. I asked if the lawyer was an Arab and if he would help me, and the interrogator said that he would. The interrogator called some number, handed the phone over to me, and said, “Take it, talk to the lawyer”. Someone spoke to me in Arabic. He told me that if the interrogator asked whether I’d thrown stones, I should say yes and it would work in my favor. I asked him what to do if they were accusing me of setting fire to Halamish. He said it was a serious accusation that could lead to a long imprisonment, and that I shouldn’t talk about such things but just admit to throwing stones. I suspected the guy who was talking to me was a crook, even if he was a lawyer. I suspected him because of his accent, too. I told the interrogator that I didn’t want to talk to him and hung up.
The police officers handcuffed and blindfolded me again. They took me into a very small empty room, maybe a square meter in size. It was dark and had no windows. There was nothing there, not even a mattress. They left me there until the morning and gave me no food or drink, except a can of energy drink that a soldier brought me at some point after I asked him to, but I was afraid to drink it because I didn’t know what was in it. At 9:00 A.M., they interrogated me again. They accused me of arson, again. After I denied the accusations again, they handed me over to the Palestinian DCO people at the checkpoint, who took me to my father in Ramallah. That was already at 11:30 A.M. I got home at 12:30 and went straight to bed.