Fear of the dark: The crushing impact of Israeli night raids on Palestinians


Some nights, Palestinians will wake up to the smell of tear gas and the sound of boots on their roofs.

On other nights, Israeli soldiers will use tools designed to silently open doors, and inhabitants will only realise the army is raiding their home when they wake up to a gun pointed at their face.

Although rarely discussed abroad, nocturnal raids by the Israeli army in the occupied Palestinian territory are one of the most consistent reminders of the occupation for many Palestinian communities, with sometimes devastating consequences on their everyday lives.

So far in 2016, Israeli forces have carried out an average of 81 raids each week in the West Bank according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, most of them taking place at night or in the early morning hours. However, the number of weekly raids rose to an average of 105 in July after attacks which killed two Israelis.

The Israeli army most often conducts its night incursions to detain Palestinians or summon them for questioning, although they also use these raids to deliver home demolition notices, or to confiscate the Israeli work permits of Palestinians.

The army says they detain Palestinians during night raids over suspicions that they are Hamas operatives, or under the more vague and all-encompassing charge of “suspected illegal activities.”

The high frequency of raids is compounded by the large number of troops deployed to carry them out. Ma’an, a 20-year-old resident of the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem, says that several hundred soldiers will come to the camp, even to carry out only one arrest.

“In July 2014, they attacked the camp with 1,500 soldiers,” he tells Equal Times. “They entered the camp from three different sides, each with a group of 500.”

Refugee camps in the West Bank are often the communities most affected by the night raids – even if, like Dheisheh or the nearby Aida camp, they are located in Area A, which is officially under full Palestinian Authority (PA) control.

“During the daytime, you are under official Palestinian Authority security, and sometimes at nighttime [you are] under Israeli security. So people don’t always know who there is at night, and they are afraid,” Salah Ajarma, the director of the Lajee community center in Aida, explains.

In the past ten years, Ajarma says, Israeli soldiers have sometimes raided Aida as frequently as every other day, acting with much more violence than before the 1993 Oslo Accords.

“Before Oslo, when they came to the camp there would often be an Israeli captain, they would enter homes without destroying anything, they wouldn’t kill people,” he recalls. “But now when they enter the camps they can kill and injure, they scare people, they beat them in front of their parents.”

“They practice shooting tear gas at certain windows, and once at the Aida mosque,” Ajarma adds. “A lot of windows in the camp are broken this way.” The disproportionate use of strength has led many local residents, such as Omar, 24, to believe that the night raids aim to intimidate Palestinians. “When the soldiers come to Dheisheh, they know exactly what they are going to do. They know exactly which house they want and which member of this family they want,” Omar says. “But sometimes, they attack different houses, people who are not their target. They want to scare people.”

Naji Owdah, the director of local association Laylac in Dheisheh, says that up until recently, Israeli forces would enter the camp “three or four nights a week” firing tear gas and sounds bombs, causing serious health issues for Palestinian residents, including his young granddaughter who was visiting from abroad.

“The first time my daughter came to Dheisheh with her ten-month-old daughter, on their second night here we were attacked by soldiers. Since we don’t have air conditioning we sleep with the windows open, and that night at 3.30am I woke up and there was gas everywhere in my house,” Owdah remembers. “The baby woke up and started crying, she had to stay in the hospital for three days.”

His granddaughter eventually recovered, but Owdah insists that this was only one example among many of the effects of the military incursions.


Psychological traumas

Beyond the physical dangers, the night raids take a serious toll on the social and psychological wellbeing of Palestinians.

Marcos Moyano, the mental health activities manager for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Hebron, estimates that around half of the organisation’s patients in the area have experienced home incursions at some point in their lives.

While stressing that reactions to potential traumatic events like night raids could vary widely from one person to another, Moyano underscores the impact of Palestinians dealing with repeated exposure to such situations.

“I don’t think that we can integrate it as a normal event. We are talking about an event that is outside of the ordinary range of human experience,” he tells Equal Times. “It happens very frequently, but I would not call it normal.”

Moyano says that reactions to situations such as night raids include emotional numbness, feelings of anxiety and troubled sleep, but could also extend to flashbacks, hyper-alertness, avoidance, or even dissociative symptoms, adding that reactions vary according to age.

“Among children, what we find most often after home incursions is an increase of fear and feelings of insecurity, which also produce frequent nightmares and a high prevalence of bedwetting,” he notes. “Among adults, they have more feelings of shame, powerlessness, but also concern.”

Moony, a 21-year-old resident of Dheisheh, says that raids into her home, along with the killing of several relatives, have affected her deeply.

“When I was eight years old, they came into our house, they beat my brother, and they put us into a small room for two days,” she recounts. “Until now I am afraid of soldiers. When I see a soldier, I cry.”

Since the beginning of a wave of unrest in October, Moony notes that the army has resorted to also carrying out incursions in the morning – sometimes hours after a night raid in the same area.

“We don’t feel safe anymore, we don’t feel that we can do whatever we want in our land, our camp, or even in our house,” she says. “One minute I am in my house at 8 in the morning drinking coffee, and the other there is screaming because the soldiers are here and there is gas.”

Ajarma says that Israeli incursions have threatened the already fragile sense of privacy in overcrowded camps and “killed the life inside the family, between husbands and wives.” During times of heightened violence, he adds, devout Muslim women have worn their hijab while sleeping out of fear that soldiers could break in at any moment.

For Omar, the night raids have also affected his education.

“If the soldiers come in the camp that night and you don’t fall asleep until six, this will affect your studying, your whole schedule. Even when I didn’t miss classes, I was unfocused all day.”

However, Owdah cautions against disempowering perceptions of Palestinians as being psychologically damaged by the actions of the Israeli army.

“Some NGOs come here and start working with Palestinians as if they are mentally ill. But we are not like that,” he says. “What we are suffering, it’s normal. It’s not possible not to be suffering under the occupation and under the army. It’s not possible.”