When Israel army plays games with villages, Palestinians pay high price
As the Shawakha brothers rushed to protect their home from intruders, they had no clue they were unwitting participants in an Israeli army exercise that would leave one of them dead.
"It was March 27, 1:30 in the morning," recalls Akram Shawakha, 36, who was on watch duty on the top floor of the modest family home on a hill east of the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Their house is on the outskirts of the wealthy village of Rammun, where most residents have emigrated to America.
"I saw two men dressed in ordinary clothes near the entrance," said Akram, a cement factory worker who was taking the first shift on guard duty to keep an eye on the family's 10 sheep and their car from would-be thieves.
Clutching a stick, Akram went down to wake his brothers -- 39-year-old Anwar and 28-year-old Rashad -- then went outside as they got dressed and picked up a knife to protect themselves.
Akram confronted the two strangers, addressing them in Arabic "which they spoke perfectly," he recalls.
"I asked them who they were.
"One of them said: 'Don't worry, we know everyone in Rammun.' We insisted on seeing their identity papers, and they put their hands in their pockets and pulled out their guns, not to threaten us, but with the intention of shooting."
Gunfire erupted and a confused melee ensued. The three brothers suffered bullet wounds although they managed to throw blows of their own as they fought.
"Everything happened in less than a minute," Akram says.
"Then Israeli soldiers in uniform arrived and we were ordered to stop. My brothers were lying on the ground, injured. I asked the soldiers for help."
The two "intruders" were quickly whisked away in a military vehicle as the three brothers waited, lying on the ground. At one point, "a soldier fired a round at the ground, injuring Rashad further," Akram says.
Eventually the three brothers were taken to an Israeli hospital.
Rashad died on April 2.
The story was picked up by the Israeli media, which soon discovered that the two "intruders" were in fact soldiers participating in a training exercise by the "Dudevan" military unit, which specialises in infiltrating Palestinian areas disguised as Arabs.
Shortly after the two surviving brothers were released from hospital, they filed a complaint through the Israeli rights group B'Tselem.
On April 24, nearly a month after the incident, the military prosecutor informed B'Tselem that it had opened an investigation.
The military has repeatedly refused to comment on the investigation, saying only that it is ongoing.
"It wasn't until I was at the hospital that I understood the people we confronted were soldiers," Anwar Shawakha said, adding he had only realised what had happened when an army officer called "Adam" told him during his interrogation.
"Their lives were never in danger. We just wanted to know their identity, but their identity was their guns," he says.
"We thought they were thieves. At no point did they mention Israel, nor the army, nor did they order us to go back into the house, otherwise none of this would have happened," he sighs.
"Rammun is a quiet village."
Using Palestinian villages as a training ground for undercover Israeli troops is not uncommon. In 2007, the practice prompted Israeli NGO Yesh Din to complain to the military's top legal adviser, warning the exercises could endanger both Israeli and Palestinian lives.
Yehuda Shaul, founder of Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers critical of army practices in the occupied territories, says such exercises have increased in recent years.
"As the West Bank becomes more and more secure, security-wise, there is more and more training on 'live' Palestinians," he said.
Back during the violence of the second intifada (2000-2005), the security situation was too dangerous for troops to carry out such undercover work, but since then, the army has been taking advantage of the calm for training purposes.
"Now training on Palestinians is not putting the troops in danger, so as the West Bank becomes more and more calm, we hear more and more of these stories," he said.
A newly trained unit doesn't want "their first arrest operation to be carried out on a real sting, on a really wanted person," he explains.
"So you pick a quiet village in the area where you're based, you open the map, choose a random house ... You go in the middle of the night, you surround the house, you grab a guy as if it's a real arrest."
The argument is that training "has to be as close to the real thing" as possible, he said.
"It is another form of what we call in the army 'Making our presence felt' -- if Palestinians get the feeling that the army is everywhere all the time, they will be afraid to attack," Shaul said.
"When you control people under military occupation for so long, you're starting to play games. Individual soldiers play games at checkpoints with people, and the big army plays games with villages."