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Globalization

Israeli army under fire for controversial training

Israel's army has been facing condemnation both at home and abroad for a handful of what it calls "training exercises," including mock arrests and a staged raid at a Palestinian community center.

Ahmad Amro and his friends were breaking the fast one evening during Ramadan when a group of soldiers approached the Hebron community center they were sitting outside.

"Around 12 of them appeared from three different directions," he said. "Then more of them came and shut all the doors, started jumping all over the place, running from one room to another, going upstairs, acting as if one of them had been injured and carrying him off on a stretcher … We didn't know what was going on, or why they were doing it."

Ahmad later discovered the soldiers were training, rather than carrying out a real raid, and later returned to their base without making any arrests. Nobody came to apologize or explain what had happened afterwards.

The incident was one of more than 40 that have been documented by different human rights groups in Israel, which are working together to challenge the practice, which they say is inhumane and in breach of the Israeli Defense Forces' (IDF) duty to protect the local population. One of them, Yesh Din, has asked the Supreme Court to rule on the legality of this type of training.

Israeli soldiers during a training operation

Some of those affected have documented intrusive and intimidating exercises on teh part of the IDF

Yesh Din lawyer Emily Schaeffer said examples include simulated raids, mock arrests and even hiding explosives in cars at checkpoints so soldiers can teach dogs to sniff them out - which often results in damage to the inside of vehicles.

But the Palestinian victims, she argued, have no idea at the time: "For them it feels exactly the same as a house arrest, as a house raid, as a village raid - that the village is under attack.

And until such time as they realize it is a drill, it causes panic, chaos, and in some cases, it even causes a response on behalf of the Palestinians who feel like they're in danger and want to respond to defend themselves."

Speaking out

That is why officers involved in this kind of practice have also started to speak out against it. Many have given testimonies to Breaking the Silence, an organization that represents former soldiers who are critical of the IDF. They say they're as much victims as the Palestinians they're practicing on. They also argue there are plenty of purpose-built facilities in Israel where soldiers can simulate situations for training purposes, using actors and mock-up villages if necessary.

Reservist Amit Gvaryah was involved in a mock arrest in 2009 in a village near Bethlehem and contacted the group afterwards.

"We were put in danger for no good reason," he said. "There must be other, better, ways to train soldiers other than putting them in a situation where not only might they kill other people but they in fact might be killed."

Palestinians walking past Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint in Kalandia

Some say the training practices are meant to be a reminder of occupation

Amit claims the point of this kind of exercise isn't to train at all, but part of an IDF strategy to remind Palestinians they're under occupation.

"If the IDF wants to scare Palestinians it's working," he adds. "Is that a good thing for the IDF in the long run? I doubt it. Is it good for the Palestinians? I'm sure it's not. Scared people tend to do stupid things."

In a letter to Yesh Din, the IDF's Military Advocate General defended training as necessary "to maintain the competence of the IDF forces" but admitted that in at least one incident, one of the purposes was to "demonstrate IDF presence."

A spokesman later told Deutsche Welle the situation is 'more complex' than that, without going into detail.

Emily Schaeffer said: "Yesh Din believes the policy is a violation of basic norms of international humanitarian law, and we don't see any way the practice can be continued such that it wouldn't violate those norms."

Follow reporter Marijke Peters on Twitter @MarijkePeters

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