Palestinian children ‘most affected’ as Israel tightens its grip in hunt for teens

Those most affected appear to be young children who have never been through the intifida, says one resident of Tafuh, whose two granddaughters wake up screaming at night, wondering if the soldiers will come back.

Palestinian Mohammed Mahmoud Ruziqat, 64, shows the broken mirror in one of the bedrooms in his home in the village of Tufa on the outskirts of Hebron, on June 19, 2014. Earlier this week, the Israeli army arrived at his son’s home, demanding for a place to sleep in. Heidi Levine / The National
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TAFUH, PALESTINE // As the sun beat down on the concrete houses of the sleepy West Bank village of Tafuh, just two kilometres outside Hebron, a Israeli military convoy snaked its way through the dusty streets.
It passed the narrow lanes and alleys that branch off the village's main street, as Palestinian children gave ironic waves, shouted abuse and occasionally launched boulders and rocks at the two khaki jeeps and an armoured truck.
At a municipal park, a dozen heavily armed soldiers filed out and spoke to a group of Palestinians. A special forces officer in jeans and a flak jacket approached The National, warning us to stop following the convoy and threatened to confiscate IDs and "make big problems" if we did not comply.
Whatever the Israel Defence Force (IDF) was doing in this hilltop village, it clearly did not want an audience.
Sitting in a house a few streets away, Mohammed Mahmoud Ruziqat, 64, had already witnessed the Israeli military's push into villages such as Tafuh, part of a campaign to find three teenagers kidnapped outside a settlement just a few kilometres away from Hebron on June 12.
On Sunday, around 30 soldiers arrived at his son's front door demanding somewhere to sleep for the night. After herding the family out of the house and into his own, Mr Ruziqat, his son and grandchildren had to wait until the following night before the soldiers left and his son's family could return.
But the father of 13 — who has five sons and eight daughters in all — said it was his two granddaughters, Nangis, 5 and Yasmeen, 6, who had been most affected by the incident. Unlike Mr Ruziqat and his children, who have lived through at least one intifada, the young sisters had never before seen heavily armed soldiers appear at their door.
"They both have nightmares. They wake up screaming in the night. I hear them talking to each other, asking if the soldiers will ever come back," he said.
Over the past week, the IDF have pressed deep into the West Bank as part of Operation Brother's Keeper, which was launched after three teenagers – Eyal Yifrach, 19, and Gil-ad Sha'er and Naftali Frankel, both 16 – went missing last week.
Although Hebron for the most part appeared to be normal on Thursday, with bustling and traffic-clogged streets, army checkpoints were set up in the afternoon on major roads out of the city. This week has also seen raids on houses in Balata refugee camp, outside Nablus, and in Ramallah.
Early on Thursday, Israeli soldiers clashed with about 300 Palestinians during a raid in Jenin.
More than 280 Palestinians have now been arrested as part of the campaign, including 51 released in 2011 as part of an exchange agreement for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas in 2006 and eventually released in return for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Israel has been candid about the dual effort of this latest incursion, which aims both to locate the missing teens and punish Hamas, which signed a unity deal with rivals Fatah in April after seven years of fighting and now backs a new Palestinian government.
The deal was widely applauded in the EU and even the US, but condemned in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas of choosing terrorism over peace with Israel and even attempted to suggest that the pact was partly responsible for the kidnapping of the three teens.
Most families who spoke to The National from both Tafuh and Hebron were coy about their political allegiances — not a great surprise given that even before the current crackdown by the IDF, those who admitted affiliation with Hamas in the West Bank risked arrest by either the Palestinian Authority or Israel.
Mr Ruziqat said blaming Hamas for the kidnapping, as well as the focus of the current military campaign, was a red herring.
"We are not Hamas, we are not Fatah. This family are independent, we support no one party," said Mr Ruziqat. "When the Israelis say that they are just targeting Hamas they are lying."
A few streets away carpenter Osama Erzeqat, 37, was in his workshop when the Israeli troops arrived on Sunday. They told him they were looking for his brother, who he said is currently in Saudi Arabia. When Mr Erzeqat could not produce a key for his brother's house, the IDF broke down the door.
Despite dozens of soldiers and dogs taking part in the subsequent search, Mr Erzeqat climbed onto the roof of the building and took a video of the raid, which he proudly showed on his mobile phone.
"They say they are going after Hamas, but they are trying to make the Palestinian people frightened to resist the occupation," he said.
It was not only Tafuh that has been affected by recent raids, in Hebron too a number of homes have been targeted and Palestinians arrested. The soldiers came to Mohammed Akram Al Qawasmi's house in Ain Dair Baha at 5am on Sunday and blew the glass out of the front door, showering his eight-year-old son with shrapnel.
The IDF took the young boy and his mother to Hadasa Hospital in Jerusalem, but another of his son's, Zaid, 28, was arrested in the latest raid and his brother, Subhi, ordered to visit the IDF offices in Hebron for interrogation.
"Since Zaid was arrested I haven't been able to work," said Mr Al Qawasmi, who runs a construction business with his son and cradles his daughter, Sadeel, 2, in his arms. He too denied that a Hamas link could be to blame for the raid on his house. He admitted that his is a religious family — his brother is currently in prison after attending an Islamic Jihad rally — but denied they are Islamists.
"We don't support any one party. We are independents," he said.
If the three families had anything in common bar their misfortune, it was the way they documented the recent events, each proudly showing videos and pictures on their mobile phones of raids and damage done to their homes. Mr Al Qawasmi showed a video of his eight-year-old son, Mohammed, lying in a hospital bed in Jerusalem.
"I want to go and visit him but I can't get a permit," he said.