When the front door of his family’s house blew open, 25-year-old Tamer Laham couldn’t believe his eyes.
A group of Israeli soldiers, some wearing masks, gloves and personal protective equipment, stormed into his apartment, while dozens of others patrolled the hallway, roof and street outside.
The soldiers went straight into the room of his brother, Ramiz, 23.
“They checked his ID, used a thermal scanner to check if he had a fever, and told him to get dressed,” Tamer told The Electronic Intifada. He was speaking outside his family’s home in Dheisheh, the largest of three refugee camps in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem.
While some soldiers monitored the family, the rest of the group began ransacking their home, leaving no piece of furniture unturned.
“They destroyed everything, they blew up our door, destroyed our couches and broke things in the kitchen. It was terrible,” Tamer said, adding that the soldiers were “extremely aggressive,” yelling at the family the whole time they were in the house.
When it was time to leave, the soldiers threw a protective health suit at Ramiz, ordering him to put it on.
“While Ramiz was putting on the suit, they began laughing and taunting my mother, saying, how does Ramiz look with corona?” Tamer added.
Bethlehem under lockdown
Bethlehem had been put under lockdown after several cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the city.
The number of confirmed cases in the West Bank reached 47 on the date Ramiz – a journalism student at Palestine Ahliya University – was arrested.
The Palestinian Authority’s police presence had been beefed up around Bethlehem, preventing all non-essential movement and setting up checkpoints between different neighborhoods.
Palestinians in the city had adjusted to a new normal. Businesses and restaurants were shuttered, streets were empty except for police. Tourists, the city’s economic lifeline, were nowhere to be found.
While the adjustment wasn’t easy – with most of the city suddenly out of work – it seemed to bring one benefit. Israel’s forces of occupation were unexpectedly absent from Bethlehem.
“Israeli forces typically raid Dheisheh and the other camps in Bethlehem multiple times a week, and sometimes nightly,” Ahmad Odeh, a local activist, told The Electronic Intifada.
Odeh said that while most residents of the camp were fearful and anxious in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak, “people began to joke that, maybe because of the coronavirus and the closing of the borders around Bethlehem, Israeli troops wouldn’t be raiding our homes for a while.”
“We thought that, maybe, during a global pandemic, they might stop their attacks,” he said, with an air of sarcasm.
That’s why everyone in the camp, Odeh said, was shocked when soldiers came barreling into the Laham home.
“Everyone has been glued to their televisions and phones watching and reading the news, worried about the virus,” Tamer Laham said. “But we never thought we would have to worry about the occupation as well.”
“We are not safe in our homes”
Palestinian activists and rights groups have criticized Israel for continuing its repressive occupation practices in the midst of the pandemic.
Israel arrested at least 357 Palestinians, including 48 children, in raids during March.
Israeli settlers have continued to attack Palestinian villagers, farmers and their livestock and property.
Settlers and soldiers have been seen spitting at Palestinian cars, seemingly with the intent of spreading the virus in the occupied territory.
Palestinian Authority officials have slammed Israel for potentially exposing Palestinians to the virus as soldiers come into close contact with them, particularly during night raids.
After the soldiers left his family’s home, taking his brother Ramiz, the entire family was “terrified” that they were infected with the virus, Tamer Laham said.
“We were really worried,” Tamer added, noting that the soldiers were “touching everything” during the raid. “We called the [PA’s] Ministry of Health and they came and tested all of us, and put us in mandatory two-week self-isolation.”
“The soldiers came into contact with at least three other families that night, so we were worried about them, and also about Ramiz, who could have caught the virus in the jeep, during interrogation, or even in the prison.”
Compounding the families’ fears were reports in the media of Palestinians prisoners being exposed to the virus. Earlier this month, a Palestinian tested positive for the virus after he was released from the Ofer prison near Ramallah.
“The Israeli occupation is putting Palestinian civilians and political prisoners in danger, more than usual, by threatening to bring the virus here,” Ahmad Odeh said.
“It doesn’t make sense to deploy hundreds of soldiers into the camp and raid people’s homes and arrest them during a crisis like this,” he said, adding that Israeli officers frequently call Palestinians for interrogation to the Gush Etzion police station south of Bethlehem.
“If they really needed to arrest or interrogate people, they could ask them to come in on their own volition, rather than putting everyone at risk. But they are doing this on purpose,” he said.
Since his brother was arrested two weeks ago, Tamer al-Laham has repeatedly asked himself the same question: “The whole world is concerned about overcoming a global pandemic, and Israel is worried about arresting young Palestinian students? What danger did Ramiz, a journalism student, pose?”
“Everywhere in the world, they are telling people to stay at home to protect yourself. But the Palestinian people, even if we stay at home, we are not safe – not from the virus or from the Israeli occupation.”
Akram al-Wa’ara is a journalist based in Bethlehem.