It feels as though the whole of the refugee camp has taken an inward breath. Every member of the camp is silent—only murmured voices of Hebrew can be heard through the dark, narrow alleyways. Every light has been turned off, but the quiet is tense instead of peaceful. The only movement is the periodic head peeking through curtains straining to stealthy check out of a window to see which way the soldiers are coming.
This is Azza refugee camp in Bethlehem at 3am. Two blocks down the street, the scene at Aida refugee camp is much the same. Refugee camps across the occupied West Bank have experienced these raids and arrests in the middle of the night regularly over the past two weeks as part of the Israeli army’s crackdown on the Palestinian population in the wake of the disappearance of three Israeli settlers. The three teens went missing by the illegal Israeli settlement of Gush Etzion, near the Hebron governorate, however every governorate in the occupied West Bank has now felt the force of the current military operation.
In Azza refugee camp, seven buildings were targeted. Each building houses a particular extended family, with four to seven nuclear families in one building. Every house that was targeted in the night raid had an affiliation in some way to the political faction Hamas, the group Israel has claimed is responsible for the abduction of the missing teens, however Hamas have denied the claims. Since the campaign began, over 550 Palestinians have now been arrested, mostly during night raids.
But the night raids, which are being held under the pretext of searching for the missing teens, look nothing like one might expect. Cupboards are raided through and broken, leaving pots and pans cluttered all over kitchens. Washing machines are pulled out of the wall and thrown over, televisions and house phones broken, and items of value have been reported as stolen. The people of the camp who spoke to Mondoweiss said they felt the night raids were a form of collective punishment and not a search for the missing settlers. Mustafa Najar, who’s home was raided, attested to these sentiments.
“They aren’t looking for the settlers, I am sure of it. Why would they come and wreck everything in our homes? I asked what they were looking for and they just told me to be quiet and to not ask any questions,” Najar said. “They kept telling me I wasn’t allowed to speak while they held their guns up to me, I can’t argue with a gun pointed at me, but I know they are not looking for people. There are no people in our kitchen cabinets.”
During night raids the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) enters a building and gathers the people in each apartment into one room on the main floor. Khalil Nashash told Mondoweiss that he was unaware the IDF was in his building, but because his house shares a door with his father’s across the hall, the army was allowed in while he was still asleep. According to Nashash, the IDF released a German Shepherd inside the building, and he awoke with the dog on top of him, attacking him before he even realized the army were in the camp.
“Our house must have been one of the first they went to, I was sleeping in my bed when the dog came into the room, jumped on my bed and bit my face and grabbed onto my lip,” Nashash said.
Ashraf Najar lives in a four story building with his father Mustafa and other members of his family in the camp. Ashraf said 50 soldiers stormed their house during the raid, and 15 members of the family were forced into one of the corners in a living room, while soldiers pointed guns at them. Several children were present, including a newborn.
“Now the soldiers are gone we have put [the children] to bed, but they are crying, they are only small,” Ashraf said. “When we were all in the corner the soldier had their guns pointed at us, we were told to be silent, the children didn’t understand and we had to try and make them be silent”
During the three-hour raid, snipers were positioned on roofs throughout the camp. The red lasers of the guns could be seen scaling the walls of buildings of the camp for the duration of the army’s operation.
The atmosphere in Azza remains tense. Because no arrests were made during the most recent raid, residents are nervous and believe the army will return. Like most of the West Bank, residents are unsure of the foreseeable future, as the three missing settlers are still unaccounted for.