Over the weekend, Israeli troops raided the offices of Youth Against Settlements (YAS), an activist group in Hebron that monitors human rights violations by the Israeli army and Jewish settlers.
For 24 hours, soldiers occupied the YAS offices and several other local homes, group members told Al Jazeera. The move came amid escalating violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, where a wave of shootings and stabbings has killed 77 Palestinians and 10 Israelis. Many of the deaths have taken place in and around Hebron, where the Israeli army has tightened movement restrictions on Palestinian residents.
Al Jazeera spoke with Lukas Wiehler, a 20-year-old student and YAS volunteer who was present during the Israeli raid, about what happened and how this could affect the group’s activities in the days ahead. The Israeli army did not respond to inquiries on the matter.
Al Jazeera: Can you describe what happened when Israeli troops came to the YAS offices?
Wiehler: It started in the evening on Friday, after two Israelis were shot. The military extended their presence; they were everywhere. You could see they were really afraid. They almost didn’t allow us to enter the centre.
At five in the morning, they suddenly knocked at our door. It took time for us to get to the door, and they started to call our names, which was very creepy for me because I didn’t know that the military knew my name and where I was staying.
Al Jazeera: How did you react to this?
Wiehler: I was really, really afraid, and I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to call the leader of YAS and ask, ‘Should I open the door, or what should I do?’ I didn’t understand what was going on. But another person was already opening the door, and they [the soldiers] just went inside.
They went in every room. First, they put us in one room and they wouldn’t allow us to leave. They checked everything; we heard them moving stuff, looking in different cupboards and the kitchen. In the end, they gave us an order and said, ‘This is a military base for now; you have to stay inside this room.’
We could hear them moving stuff and moving furniture on the second floor. There were many of them – we could hear them moving and walking around. They said we could go back to sleep, but we had to stay inside the room. But every 10 minutes, they were coming in the room and asking for something or checking if we were still there, so, of course, it was not possible for us to sleep.
I called my embassy for help. I called friends and other people I knew. The Israelis realised I had a phone, and they took my laptop and our cameras and everything.
Eventually, we were allowed to go to the toilet, get some food, make some coffee – but only step by step. We had to ask, every time: ‘Can I go to the fridge? Can I go to the toilet?’
Al Jazeera: Did the Israelis ever explain to you why they needed to take this house over as a military base?
Wiehler: No. I asked: ‘Do you think we are a threat to you? Do you think we are a danger?’ One soldier replied, ‘I’m pretty sure, because we are following orders of the military, and they are following orders of the intelligence, and the intelligence knows who is a threat.’ From the point of view of the soldier, he was convinced that it must be reasonable that he go inside this house.
Al Jazeera: What is the mandate of Youth Against Settlements?
Eventually, we were allowed to go to the toilet, get some food, make some coffee - but only step by step. We had to ask every time, 'Can I go to the fridge? Can I go to the toilet?'
Wiehler: This is a nonviolent organisation. We support all the people here who live inside the military-controlled zone of Israel in many different ways. We help them to rehabilitate their houses because they are not allowed to bring stuff to rehabilitate.
When there are attacks by settlers or soldiers, YAS goes there and films and documents. They also collect, from different groups and activists, different documents and help to publish it. There are discussions and demonstrations.
Al Jazeera: What did the Israelis take from the centre, and are they still keeping this material?
Wiehler: They took three computers, including a brand new iMac, and many memory cards, and destroyed every camera and microphone. They eventually gave me back my mobile phone when they released me. I don’t know what they did with it.
On Sunday, we saw the second floor, the media centre, where all the laptops, storage, documents and cameras are. They destroyed almost all of the cameras. They left a big mess; everything was laying on the floor.
Al Jazeera: Do you have any idea what they were looking for, or why they seized this equipment?
Wiehler: They’d say they were looking for weapons, but they were not simply looking for something – they were also destroying. If they just left a mess and said, ‘OK, we have to check for anything,’ that would be a little bit understandable – but they destroyed it, and there was no reason because it’s absolutely legal to have cameras inside a private home.
Al Jazeera: Do you think this raid will have any impact on the activities of YAS going forward?
Wiehler: Yes, I think it has an impact because, so far, we don’t know which documents and which data they destroyed. We don’t have copies.
But we will continue to do this work. For now, it’s not clear what part of the data is destroyed, but we won’t give up. We will still stay inside the centre. We just hope it never happens again, but we never know, because when there is an order, the military can just do anything.
Follow Megan O’Toole on Twitter: @megan_otoole