In late November the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) ran a Gaza ground invasion training exercise by occupying an Ashkelon playground—explosions by the swing set and all. The mock raid was a surprise to suburban residents who awoke to find their town invaded. Haaretz journalist and artist Roy Chicky Arad was tipped off in advance the military would practice a ground incursion for the besieged coastal Mediterranean strip near a manicured recreational play area.
Arad first meets the IDF hiding behind flowers at a gas station. “We are a defense force. We have no idea when the clash will be,” said a commander in the Gaza Brigade before the middle-of-the night operation was underway. As day break approached, Arad tailed soldiers fresh from a nap as they tromped through Ashkelon, “a well-maintained city that really doesn’t look anything like Gaza,” to their to their mission site: a playground. Arad continues, the soldiers were ready to “to eliminate any pockets of possible resistance.”
It was still dark when we arrived, but the sun soon rose over occupied Ashkelon, heralding a hot and uncomfortable day for the poor soldiers. It wasn’t clear why a playground had been chosen as a place to establish a position in occupied Gaza, as it were. I assume it was someone’s bad joke. The very fact of the exercise demonstrates aggression, given the relative quiet lately; we certainly wouldn’t be pleased to know that in Gaza or in any other Arab city they were practicing the conquest of Ashkelon.
Ilan, the photographer, and I were the only journalists at the site. The soldiers had been instructed not to talk to us. But in war as in war, and I managed very quickly to obtain intelligence regarding where the other squad had gone. I made my way to Amnon Street, where a young soldier was walking along the cobblestoned streets, of which there probably aren’t too many in Gaza. He said he’d been ordered not to talk to us and continued to walk among the villas.
We’re reported extensively on IDF training exercises in the West Bank. Large swaths of villages in the Jordan Valley are frequently used for live-fire exercises. As one would imagine, these exercises terrify local Palestinians who are unable to immediately distinguish between an actual raid, and a mock raid. Mock raids include parachuting soldiers, tents in the village’s mosque, and even shooting Palestinian residents.
In addition to training in Israeli communities, for years the IDF has engaged in live-fire drills in the West Bank. “Not abandoned villages nor areas specifically developed for training – simply normal towns where people live,” said Shay Davidovich who mock raided Palestinian villages in the Jordan Valley as a reservist. “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,” continued Davidovich who is now a coordinator for Breaking the Silence. “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.”
Then in 2012 a series of West Bank villages were closed to Palestinians for Israeli army training. The residents had to relocate to makeshift tent villages in nearby towns. For months they lived in Hoovervilles within earshot of F16s flying overhead. The military said the flat agricultural lands of the Jordan Valley resembled the hilly terrain of southern Lebanon, which are about as visually similar as Ashkelon is to Gaza. Around that same time the U.S. military even joined in on the operations for Austere Challenge, the largest U.S.-Israeli joint live-fire training exercises yet. Live-fire training exercises will likely continue. The high court upheld them in November 2013. +972 Magazine called Palestinians mere “props,” walking and talking props, for the military’s games.
But inside of Israel mock raids are less common.
Still last summer the IDF conducted training practices in a dormitory for Hebrew University. Around noon, without notice the military traipsed through the college student’s halls, weapons-out for the university housing themed exercise. The students “inside the dorms head the soldiers getting off the Jeeps and shouting their codes,” said Hebrew University student Nirsreen Ghanimeh, continuing, “the ones who were outside the dorms and trying to get in had been told they can’t do so, because of ‘something temporary.’” Ghanimeh said most students, except for some activists and a few locked outside the building were not bothered. Mostly her peers were confused. Some said live-fire was used. Some said only sound grenades.
But overall the Israeli students, like the residents of Ashkelon were not bothered to temporarily surrender their living space to the army. “Residents who were walking their dogs seemed pleased to see young fighters trying to catch some shut-eye under the slide,” wrote Arad. Perhaps it’s a mark of how accustomed Israelis are to the military presence. I’ve yet to encounter a day where I walk Israeli streets without spotting the dark green or tan of a young soldier in uniform. Off to serve or back from serving, seemingly most Israelis don’t mind.