Palestinians have denounced the sweeping raids, arrests, and travel restrictions that have followed the disappearance of three teenage settlers near Hebron in the occupied West Bank last Thursday, and accused Israeli authorities of dishing out “collective punishment.”
The massive manhunt for the three Israeli boys — one a US dual citizen — who disappeared while hitchhiking from their religious school in the settlement of Gush Etzion has already involved thousands of Israeli soldiers, leading to around 150 arrests and one death.
A 20-year-old Palestinian was killed during a raid on the Jalazoun refugee camp, near Ramallah, while dozens of others have been arrested in an ongoing series of raids and home searches throughout the occupied territory.
Israeli authorities also closed most entry points to the West Bank and imposed severe restrictions on the residents of Hebron — a city where tensions between Palestinians and settlers have long been extremely tense.
Israeli authorities have accused Hamas of kidnapping the boys. Yet so far they have provided no evidence to that effect, prompting critics to accuse Israel of using the teens' disappearance as an opportunity to disrupt a recent unity deal between Hamas and Fatah and eliminate any Hamas supporters in the West Bank.
An unnamed Israeli official told Reuters today that Israel was "looking to capitalize on the search by enforcing a wider clampdown on Hamas in the West Bank."
'It is a disgrace to drag children into this conflict, whether Israeli or Palestinian.'
Other unverified reports — shared on social media and on fliers around Hebron — claimed the military wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group or an armed group affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was behind the kidnapping.
Rights groups denounced the alleged kidnapping, but also warned against abuse in the search for the boys.
“Any Palestinian armed groups unlawfully holding three Israeli teenagers should release them immediately and unconditionally,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement today. “Israeli forces searching for the three should respect the laws of war with respect to the Palestinian population in the occupied territory and not carry out mass, arbitrary arrests.”
“It is a disgrace to drag children into this conflict, whether Israeli or Palestinian,” Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW Middle East and North Africa director, said.
As the search continues, many Palestinians in Hebron have kept to their homes, both unable to travel to school and work because of the movement restrictions imposed upon them and out of fear of retaliation.
Settler attacks on Palestinian residents are very common, and many feared the kidnapping would only escalate violence. A Facebook group created three days ago in response to the teens’ disappearance called for the murder of one Palestinian every hour, until the missing teens are found. The group had nearly 18,000 supporters today.
'It’s a collective punishment.'
Hebron, or al Khalil as it is known to Palestinians, is city of great religious significance to both Muslims and Jews. It ios split into two areas — one under Palestinian and the other under Israeli military control — and home to 170,000 Palestinians and some 600 settlers in four different settlements, as well as upwards of 3,000 Israeli soldiers.
The city has often been stage of clashes and violence, and OCHA estimates that at least 700 Palestinians were injured by soldiers or settlers between January 2012 and July 2013 alone, according to data by Defense for Children International Palestine (DCI-Palestine), which documents settler violence against children.
“Israeli military forces detain or arrest Palestinian children in Hebron on a regular basis,” Ivan Karakashian, an advocacy coordinator with the group, told VICE News, citing, among others, the example of “27 backpack-wearing children on their way to school” rounded up by soldiers in March 2013.
“DCI-Palestine estimates that the Israeli military has detained over 8,000 children since 2000. Since 2008, there have been at least 170 Palestinian children in Israeli detention at any given time.”
VICE News spoke with Issa Amro, a 34-year-old Hebron resident and an activist with the Palestinian group Youth Against Settlements, about the deteriorating situation in the city and the impact of the kidnapping on Palestinians fearing retaliation.
Here’s what he told us.
VICE News: Can you tell us about the last few days in Hebron?
Issa Amro: First of all, they blocked all the Palestinians from traveling to Jordan or abroad, so many students are stuck in Hebron. They blocked all entrances to Hebron and they closed the main road for the villages, and they started a big campaign to search from home to home, invading the houses, scaring the families, attacking them, beating them up, terrifying the children.
And, at the same time, Palestinian workers are not allowed to go to their jobs inside Israel anymore, and all over the West Bank they arrested more than 150 Palestinians. Settlers attacked two families, they attacked cars, and they attacked Palestinians who were on the road. It’s a collective punishment.
'Many think that Israel is using this as an excuse to punish the Palestinians.'
Israeli authorities said Hamas is behind the kidnapping, though they have not provided evidence of this. What do Hebron residents think?
We don’t even have evidence that Palestinians did it. Many think that Israel is using this as an excuse to punish the Palestinians for going to international institutions. As an activist, I believe Benjamin Netanyahu is responsible for these kidnappings regardless of who did it.
He’s the one who closed all the doors for the peace process, he’s the one who’s getting settlers to attack Palestinians without accountability, and with full impunity. Unfortunately, Palestinians are described as terrorists, but we have 5,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Among them, 220 Palestinians are in administrative detention and today they are in their 54th day of hunger strike, asking for justice, asking for a fair trial.
'Right now things are very tense in Hebron, we are afraid for our safety as well as for our people’s safety.'
In the video below, shot a few years ago, Amro gives a tour of Hebron.
This alleged kidnapping is bringing a lot of attention to Hebron, one of the most tense cities in the West Bank. Is this also shedding light on the challenges of daily life for Hebron residents?
Unfortunately, this is bringing no attention to Palestinians who are living in a ghost town — because of settlers’ violence and fanatic attitudes towards Palestinians, because of the closure of the main street in Hebron since 1994, and because of the closure of Palestinian shops. Around 1,800 shops were closed because of the policy of the Israeli government, and more than 1,000 apartments were closed. And there’s more land confiscation and more settler violence.
Yesterday, settlers attacked a Palestinian girl with her father. Just recently they opened one more settlement in Hebron, and at the beginning of this year they started an archeological site, a garden inside Tel Ramada in Hebron, to confiscate Palestinian land. These days it’s even worse and Palestinians are reaching the point that they have no hope for any future.
'If Palestinians did it, I understand it.'
What does Youth Against Settlements do, and have you planned any actions around the ongoing raids?
We are doing our best to get rid of the occupation and dismantle all settlements by non-violence and by civil disobedience, and by recruiting Palestinian youth to non-violence. In spite of that we are targeted and we are attacked, detained, jailed, and tortured by Israeli security forces and settlers.
Right now things are very tense in Hebron, we are afraid for our safety as well as for our people’s safety. Many people, the majority of people in Hebron are just staying at home, they are afraid it will get worse.
If it does turn out to be the case that this is a kidnapping by Palestinians, would you condemn it?
If Palestinians did it, I understand it, because of the law they have for releasing Palestinian prisoners by negotiation. But it’s affecting all other Palestinians, it’s collective punishment for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.
We are not condemning this, because the settlements are illegal according to international law and those who come to live in the West Bank are responsible for their safety, not us.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi