Since the three Israeli teens went missing while hitchhikinging at the Gush Etzion settlement bloc last week, just after midnight—every night—the Israeli army reoccupies the West Bank. Aside from patrolling and conducting arrests in every major Palestinian city in the early morning hours, it also raided Bir Zeit University, a ten-minute drive from Ramallah and the most esteemed Palestinian institute of higher education, after dark for the first time since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994.
Around 1:30 am, 12 beige armored jeeps, one armored flatbed truck, and one white armored security services jeep drove inside the university grounds. At each campus entrance, another military vehicle blocked the gate. A handful of conscript soldiers stood guard next to Bir Zeit University security who were unable to prevent the military from taking control of the school.
At that time around 30 students were holding a sit-in to protest the detention of three of their classmates who were beaten and arrested by the Palestinian Authority days ago at a demonstration in support of hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners. When the army swept through their encampment, the students ran off, leaving behind blankets, prayer rugs, and a ring of notebooks. It looked like a study group had been chased off.
Because these students are members of the campus Hamas political party, meaning they run in university not government elections, and make decisions about cafeteria food and not armed attacks on Israel, their relatively small act of dissidence had drawn ire from the Israeli army. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is in the midst of a crackdown on anything and anyone affiliated with Hamas. “We have evidence that Hamas is responsible,” for the abduction of the teens, said the IDF over the weekend although until no evidence has been publicly disclosed.
Then some 50 soldiers went to work searching for green banners and Hamas flags inside the student union. Israeli forces backed a truck in front of the main doors and loaded it with the Hamas paraphernalia, including two red drums that snared as they were lobbed onto the heap of shiny green fabric. No sleeping students were arrested. A few Israeli journalists embedded with the soldiers milled back and forth through the lines, which prevented Palestinian journalists from entering buildings on campus.
Around 3:30 am the army convoy began exiting the university. Those that stayed behind went into the science building. Nearby, around ten Palestinian youth congregated and threw stones in the direction of the military. Others blocked the road to the school with piles of large rocks. The army fired tear gas and rubber bullets. A few hills over in Surda, clashes also took place.
The objective of finding the missing students seems absent from many of the army’s undertakings over the past few days. Most prominently, the show of force to abscond with a truckload of Hamas ornamentation has raised concern from within the Israeli government that the army is bent on purging any sign of Hamas in the West Banks rather than carrying out a rescue mission. “The central effort here must be to find the kidnapped teens and bring them home, and not a focus on toppling the Palestinian reconciliation government,” Meretz’s Zahava Gal-On said to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a briefing this afternoon.
The IDF has mustered a kind of military presence that has not occurred since the troubled second Intifada, yet there is no popular uprising to match these nightly incursions. The West Bank’s largest city Hebron, is under Israeli control. The army moved into several private Palestinian homes in the city of 800,000 and can be seen on foot in the streets of Area A– the regions that the Oslo agreement delineated to be under Palestinian security control.
Hebron is considered a Hamas stronghold, and along with the northern West Bank city of Nablus it has been hit the hardest in these operations. Two nights ago a source close to the Palestinian District Commander’s Office told me the Israeli army contacted the Palestinian Authority and informed them that they were going to raid the city. Palestinian police were instructed to steer clear of the army’s locations. A Palestinian human rights worker also confirmed that the municipal police station was curiously closed. That same night an Israeli commander said the army was reactivating all of the Intifada-era “flying checkpoints” between Nablus and Jenin. A trip that should take an hour now takes seven.
Since last Friday the Israeli army has arrested 280 Palestinians, of whom 200 have affiliations with Hamas. Last night, 30 were arrested, the night before 65, the night before 125. The decrease in numbers arrested does not signify a lessening of the army’s presence. Before daybreak in the village of Kfar Nema in Ramallah district, hundreds of soldiers entered the sleepy town. And in Yatta near Hebron, Palestinian activists reported that the army was digging up graves in the town’s cemetery and breaking into the Orphan’s Society.
In the past few days over 100 buildings have been commandeered by Israeli forces. In places like Hebron, explosive devices are used to break open metal gates in front of homes and offices, so the army can confiscate any cameras mounted on exteriors. Local journalists have reported that the army confiscated computers and other electronics.
In the afternoons, West Bank cities seem unaffected, but by nightfall the streets are empty in most urban centers. Issa Amro, an activist with Youth Against Settlements in Hebron, says he fears “the army is working gradually to occupy Hebron completely.” Ten checkpoints have been erected in and around Hebron in less than a week. There are “more restrictions on our movement. We are not allowed to leave the container checkpoint. We are not allowed to leave the Hebron District.”