Four Israeli soldiers carry out a routine procedure of ‘showing presence’ by throwing a smoke grenade into a Palestinian home. Its real purpose? Terrorizing innocent people.
By Yossi Gurvitz for Yesh Din
The incident in question, given the daily routine of the occupation, is relatively minor. On December 3rd, 2007, Adnan Abu Haniyeh, a resident of the West Bank village Yanoun, woke up from the sound of an explosion. Something blew up, the windows of his house were shattered and the house was filled with smoke. His little girl screamed in terror, and for a time the family feared that her hearing was permanently damaged. The walls of the house were covered with soot. Abu Haniyeh then heard the sound of a military Hummer.
The rest of the incident will be described according to the investigative files of the Military Police Criminal Investigations Division (MPCID). According to the files, the incident happened this way:
That night, four IDF soldiers arrived in a Hummer at the outskirts of Yanoun to carry out a routine procedure, which the IDF calls “showing our presence.” Those four soldiers were: Platoon Commander Shmulik, Sergeant First Class Eliahu (the driver), Sergeant First Class Rotem and Sergeant Nathan.
Lt. Shmulik ordered the driver to park the vehicle near the village, and before ordering one of the soldiers to shoot a flare. There is a general agreement among the suspects that Eliahu threw a stun grenade in the direction of the house; according to some of the testimonies, Rotem asked the lieutenant for permission to also throw a smoke grenade. The suspects agree that due to the noise made by the Hummer, Shmulik did not hear Rotem’s request, and Rotem — who claimed he thought he heard confirmation — threw the smoke grenade. Eliahu and Rotem both denied they intended to throw the grenades at the house; they failed to explain to the investigators how the grenade nevertheless managed to hit the house.
In his interrogation, carried out by MPCID with relative speed only 14 days after the incident, Lt. Shmulik admitted that he ordered the soldiers to fire a flare and throw a stun grenade. He told the interrogators that he did not hear Rotem asking to throw a smoke grenade, that he knew about it only after the event, and that he would not have approved the request, as it went against procedure. Nevertheless, the lieutenant was in charge, it was his duty to know of the goings on, and took full responsibility for what happened. He also said that following the incident, he was relieved of his command.
But hold on. All the soldiers interrogated testified that a short while before this incident, that very evening, they were all at the village Furiq, together with Deputy Company Commander Itsik (DCC). There, they carried out a very similar action: they threw stun grenades randomly, made a lot of noise, and then continued on (without DCC Itsik) to Yanoun. The IDF took no issue with the incident in Furiq.
What happened in Yanoun? It is worth exploring the testimonies of the soldiers themselves. According to Nathan, “it’s a known procedure, in order to deter and show presence and force, and this isn’t the first time we did it.” Eliahu, who threw the stun grenade, called it a “routine activity.” Unlike Rotem, however, he threw the grenade with the approval of the lieutenant, and that Rotem’s independent action was “improper.” Eliahu claimed that only later did he come to know that his grenade exploded inside a house; that this wasn’t his intent; that the entire incident was “a major mistake and I am sorry it happened.” He knows, he told his interrogators, that you may throw a stun grenade in the direction of Palestinian houses, but not inside them; he knows that, because an hour earlier he saw DCC Itsik doing precisely that.
Let’s leave for now the fine Jesuit distinction between the idea that throwing a grenade “in the direction” of a house is perfectly okay, while actually hitting a house is forbidden. Let’s try and look at the procedure behind the action. What did Eliahu’s commander think he was doing? Well, Platoon Commander Shmulik defined “showing presence” as “a mounted recon of the village; the use of sirens; throwing stun grenades in streets; roads and open spaces; and the use of flares.” According to Shmulik, while this an accepted, routine practice, the IDF lacks a written procedure on it, and that throwing stun grenades requires the approval of a company commander or deputy. This is the error Shmulik made, which led to his removal from command: he approved Eliahu’s use of a stun grenade without first clearing it with DCC Itsik.
Note that all of these aggressive actions are not directed at what the IDF calls “disturbers of order”: they are directed at a non-violent and peaceful village. DCC Itsik told the interrogators of MPCID nearly the exact same tale. What he called “initiated activity” includes the firing of flares and throwing stun grenades, but only with the approval of the sector commander – in our case, Itsik himself. He was unfamiliar with the procedure of throwing smoke grenades and considers it to be a violation of the norm. Itsik told his interrogators that there while are no written procedures, there is an oral one: “these are the directions which came down from the brigade.”
Before speaking to Itsik, the interrogators spoke to his superior, Lt. Col. Oren, the commander of the Sabre Battalion, whose troops were also involved in the incident. The BC tells the interrogators that, as far as he is concerned, the problem was that Shmulik acted under his own authority, without prior approval of DCC Itsik. The action, he told the investigators, “was operationally legitimate, as long as it is approved by the proper authority,” adding that, “there is an operational logic to this activity.”
But when the investigators tried to find the incident in the operational logs of DCO Nablus, of the Sabre Battalion or of the Shomron Regional Brigade, they found nothing. The “initiated activity” in Yanoun goes completely unmentioned, and there is no mention of the previous one led by DCC Itsik in Furiq.
When the investigators turn to command to explain themselves, they get conflicting answers. The operations officer of the Shomron Brigade said that there is such a procedure and it is carried out with the approval of the battalion commander (for reasons unknown, the MPCID investigators do not ask Lt. Col. Oren whether he gave the order. I wonder why). The division, on the other hand, denied the existence of an “initiated activity” procedure vehemently: there is no such procedure, and anyone who acted on it was wrong. The Givati Brigade’s ops officer (Sabre is one of Givati’s battalions) is unfamiliar with the procedure.
Let’s focus and go up the rank ladder:
The grunts – They are familiar with the “showing presence” procedure, and carried it out several times. They know it well enough to realize that throwing a stun grenade requires the approval of an officer, and that throwing a smoke grenade into a house is forbidden.
The platoon commander – Knows the procedure well, knows that throwing a smoke grenade is forbidden, knows he stepped out of bounds by not asking permission to throw a stun grenade from his deputy company commander.
The DCC – Knows the procedure, says basically the same thing as the platoon commander. Says the directions come from the regional brigade.
The battalion commander – Lt. Col. Oren is familiar with the procedure, thinks it has an “operational logic,” thinks the problem with PC Shmulik is that he did not receive permission for throwing the grenade from his DCC.
The ops officer of the regional brigade – Is familiar with the procedure, even though he thinks the rank that is supposed to approve it is somewhat higher (battalion commander rather than the DCC).
The divisional ops officer – No such thing, no such procedure, I don’t know it, never saw it, never heard of it.
So what is the story? It’s actually quite simple.
The Shomron Regional Brigade has a procedure for terrorizing Palestinians. It includes the firing of flares, stun grenades and the general disruption of life. The goal, which is repeated time and again, is “to show presence” or “create deterrence.” In other words: let these villagers know we can make life harder for them.
But it is an un-declared procedure. Everyone is familiar with it, and everyone knows that its legality is, to put it mildly, questionable. Therefore it is given orally and not written down (“these are the directions which came down from the brigade”), and no one needs to be surprised when the MPCID investigators find no record of it in the operational logs.
Just a minute. Is the division really unaware of this procedure? Has its ops officer previously served in the UN forces? No. It’s just that at the divisional level, they already know that when MPCID comes knocking, it means trouble.
Note that the investigation ends at the battalion commander level, and the investigators never ask him whether he gave the order. They don’t interrogate the Shomron Brigade commander, even though his ops officer says he knows the procedure well. They do not, of course, interrogate the division commander. There is a limit to what MPCID can do. Interrogate grunts? All in a day’s work. A DCC or platoon commander? Not a problem. The battalion commander? This is uncertain ground. A brigade commander? One hell of a headache. A division commander? Fuggetaboutit. Because, one step up from the division commander is the Commanding General. This is a good spot to remind you that during Operation Protective Edge, we demanded that the the MPCID must not be able to be the investigatory body for precisely this reason: it cannot properly interrogate the senior officers, and has no authority to interrogate the politicians involved.
Is this procedure, of throwing stun grenades for the purpose of instilling fear, a local issue? Not quite. In the testimonies gathered by Breaking the Silence, we find a testimony by an lieutenant who served in the Bethlehem area in 2009. He states that his troops carried out “showing presence” actions where “we would throw stun [grenades] in the alleys.” Another officer, also a lieutenant., testifies about his time in the Nablus region in 2009, where he and his soldiers carried out “initiated actions,” which included throwing stun grenades, using sirens, and general harassment, “in order to show them who’s the man.” Stun grenades and sirens: the same procedure, very same words, used by Lt. Shmulik four years earlier. The procedure is alive and kicking.
Returning to an earlier appeal we made back in 2009, when we demanded then-Colonel Itay Virob be put on trial we found that Virob (while giving testimony for one of his troops, who assaulted Palestinians) spoke of a procedure called “livnat shibush.” Virob described the procedure in these words:
“The first is entering the village. Jeeps racing at the entrance of the village. Sometimes the very entry of the village will disrupt the way of the [terrorist]. Another way is using pressure: throwing stun grenades, breaking into several houses or institutions in the village, arresting residents, seizing roofs etc. There are occasions when the brigade commander can instruct how to disrupt, sometimes it is under the consideration of the commander in situ.”
The procedure as described by Virob is the same one known to Shmulik and Itsik as “showing presence.” Note that Virob says that sometimes the disruption (or, as our petition termed it, “a procedure dealing with an assault on a civilian community with means and ways intended to cause panic and fear, and with intent to disrupt normal life at that place”) is carried out according to the discretion of the local commander. “Livnat shibush” is another name, perhaps coined by another brigade (Kfir) for what Regional Brigade Shomron calls “showing presence.” Everyone knows it, and the Kfir Brigade Commander sees no problem with testifying about it.
It is important to note that our files document another case in which an officer threw a gas grenade into a house. In this case, IDF officers showed up to apologize in person, and the officer involved was quickly removed from command and jailed. The throwing of a smoke or gas grenade into a house, which may be deadly, is prohibited by the IDF in routine circumstances. Throwing the smoke grenade in Yanoun was clearly a violation of the procedure and further proof that the procedure is well known.
The IDF has a procedure which is used with the permission and direction of senior officers, silently and without documentation — its purpose is to terrorize innocent people. Israelis who follow the IDF know it has another such procedure, which comes to the surface everyone once in a while, when everyone pretends to be shocked: zubur, i.e. institutionalized, intra-unit violent hazing toward young soldiers. Time after time, soldiers are put on trial when violence spirals out of control, claim they were fall guys, since the officers knew of the procedure; the officers went through it themselves and accepted it as part of the unit culture. The public, which is routinely shocked by the violence shown by soldiers toward one another, ought to ask itself what sort of violence these soldiers allow themselves to use — with the knowledge and denied encouragement of their commanders – against transparent people whose lives are under their rule.