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Palestinians survey the damage after their home was ransacked by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank hamlet of Awarta.
Palestinians survey the damage after their home was ransacked by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank hamlet of Awarta.

Israelis retaliate for killing of settlers

Residents of Awarta describe how Israeli commandos stormed the village, imposed a curfew and arrested many people as "revenge".

AWARTA, WEST BANK // A week after Israel's military put this impoverished Palestinian hamlet on lockdown, residents spent the weekend cleaning their ransacked homes and accounting for missing loved ones.

Hundreds of Israeli commandos stormed Awarta on March 12, imposing a five-day curfew a day after the murder of five members of a Jewish family living in the adjacent Israeli settlement of Itamar.

While speculation has centred on Palestinians, the details of the investigation are under a court gag order. Israeli officials have not announced if they have suspects and the military could not be reached for comment on the issue yesterday despite repeated calls by The National. Residents of Awarta, who deny any involvement in the incident, described the soldiers' response as nothing short of ethnically motivated intimidation, aimed as much at inflicting revenge on their community of about 7,000 as trying to solve the case.

"It's torture, collective punishment," said Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian politician who surveyed the damage on Friday, adding that this was one of the most intense Israeli incursions into a Palestinian area in the West Bank since the height of the second intifada.

"They beat children, arrested people haphazardly, destroyed houses. I saw one house where the family was shot at by the soldiers when they came to enter it. I saw an infant child who was injured because a soldier knocked his father down while he was holding him."

Human-rights workers, Palestinian officials and residents say between 45 to 60 residents still remain in Israeli custody, in many cases after soldiers stormed their homes, blindfolded and beat male family members at gunpoint and hauled them off to prison.

Shawan Jabarin, the director of Al Haq, a Palestinian human rights group, said there was evidence that Israeli soldiers used the curfew to collect village-wide DNA samples of residents. Roughly 500 people were rounded up in a local school at one point where soldiers took swabs of detainees' mouths.

"These DNA samples won't be used just for this incident but for data to be used in the future," he said, calling the crackdown a violation of human rights and international humanitarian law.

Residents said nearly every house in the village was searched in a similar way: soldiers would enter, often by kicking in doors, barricade families in rooms - in some cases for 12 or more hours - and destroy possessions.

Hisham, 30, a schoolteacher, said soldiers commandeered both the roof of his family home and the first floor. Meanwhile, he and four other family members were detained in their living room for nearly 12 hours.

He said the soldiers used the first floor as a lounge where they watched television, slept and littered the ground with cigarette butts. During their searches, he added, the soldiers overturned tables, broke dishes and stole money.

At one point, said Hisham, who declined to give his last name because he feared Israeli reprisals: "It was cold and we had the heater on. A second soldier went into a room and threw over the table, tossing everything around, and a chair fell on the heater. It caught fire, so he came out and got me and made me put out the fire."

The events were triggered when two unidentified intruders scaled Itamar's perimeter fence on the evening of March 11, entered the home of Udi and Ruth Fogel, and stabbed them to death along with three of their children. The youngest was a three-month-old baby.

Palestinian Authority officials have condemned the murders but appear to have few options over how to handle the Israeli response in Awarta. The PA's control over the village is limited, since much of it is under the authority of the Israeli military.

Many believe the crackdown was used by the military as a display of revenge to appease settlers over the Itamar murders. During the curfew, Bassam Abdat, 37, said he saw Jewish settlers walking freely around Awarta, some carrying signs that read: "People of Awarta, leave our land".

Tension between Palestinians, Israel's military and nearby settlements is nothing new. Awarta residents, for example, seethe over the fact that Itamar was built on land that they once farmed and that several new mobile homes have been erected in the settlement since the murders there last week. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, announced the construction of 500 new settler homes following the Itamar murders.

When soldiers came to his home, Mr Abdat said: "I told the soldiers that they didn't have to destroy anything," he said. "After that, they put me and my family in a room and began destroying things."

His cousin, Rami Abdat, 33, who lives nearby, said he began hiding family valuables after neighbours said money and jewellery had been stolen during the searches. "Even my grandparents had money on their counter and they [soldiers] stole it," he said.

Faisal Qawareek, a 48-year-old resident of Awarta, said the soldiers detained four of his sons. "They took their IDs, blindfolded the older ones, tied their hands behind their backs and threw them on the ground and hit them. I said, 'Why are you beating them?'"

Last year, the bodies of another of Mr Qawareek's sons, Mohammed, 19, and a cousin, Salah, 19, were found shot dead near Itamar, their hands tied behind their back.

He is taking legal action against the Israeli soldiers whom he accuses of the killings, which human rights groups, including Al Haq, say were carried out in the style of an execution.

Mr Qawareek suspects Mohammed's death is the reason why Israeli commandos began their crackdown in the village by first tossing stun grenades at his home and firing live rounds that pockmarked, and even pierced through, its exterior.

"I yelled at them, 'I know why you are doing this. Soldiers killed our son and now you are coming after us'," he said.

He said the soldiers kicked in many of the doors to the house, ripped down posters of his deceased son and ransacked every room. They used a shed in the back as a toilet.

"One soldier told me he wanted to enter the house in the back," he said. "So I handed him the keys, but he threw them to the ground. Then he just kicked in the door with his boots," he said.



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