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Operation Destroy the Data
24 April 2002
It's a scene that is repeating itself in hundreds of Palestinian offices taken over by IDF troops for a few hours or days in the West Bank: smashed, burned and broken computer terminals heaped in piles and thrown into yards; server cabling cut, hard disks missing, disks and diskettes scattered and broken, printers and scanners broken or missing, laptops gone, telephone exchanges that disappeared or were vandalized, and paper files burned, torn, scattered, or defaced - if not taken. And it's all in rooms full of smashed furniture, torn curtains, broken windows, smashed-in doors, walls full of holes, filthy floors and soiled bathrooms. Here and there, the soldiers left obscene graffiti or letters full of hatred, but compared to the data that was destroyed or taken, the insults read like poetry. Even the overflowing toilets look more like human weakness compared to the organized vandalism reflected in the piles of smashed computers.
It's not merely the expense of the hardware that has to be replaced. The loss is immeasurable in shekels or dollars. Years of information built into knowledge, time spent thinking by thousands of people working to build their civil society and their future or trying to build a private sector that would bring a sense of economic stability to their country.
These are the data banks developed in Palestinian Authority institutions like the Education Ministry, the Higher Education Ministry and the Health Ministry. These are the data banks of the non-governmental organizations and research institutes devoted to developing a modern health system, modern agricultural, environmental protection and water conservation. These are the data banks of human rights organizations, banks and private commercial enterprises, infirmaries, and supermarkets. They all were clearly the targets for destruction in the military operation called Defensive Shield.
The Israeli public has been spared the sights of the destruction. Here and there, a photo of some demolished office sneaks into the TV news shows. But Israeli TV news doesn't find a few seconds to report on a Palestinian woman or a child of nine who was shot dead from a distance, inside their homes, by an anonymous Israeli soldier, so how can it find time or reason to report on the crazed destruction perpetrated by a unit of soldiers in one office.
The IDF has given up denying that some soldiers looted - money, jewels and video cameras - private homes. That can be explained by officers too weak to impose discipline on their soldiers and by soldiers too weak to fight material temptation. But the systematic destruction of the data banks was not a matter of personal weakness by either officers or soldiers.
Let's not deceive ourselves; this was not a mission to search and destroy the terrorist infrastructure. If the forces breaking into every hard disk of every bank and clinic, commercial consultant's office or PA ministry, thought that a list of weapons or wanted men was inside the disk, all they had to do was copy the information and pass it on to the Shin Bet. If they thought incriminating evidence was hidden in the Education Ministry and the International Bank of Palestine and in a shop that rents prosthetics, the soldiers would have examined document after document, and not thrown the files on the floor without opening them.
This was not a whim, or crazed vengeance, by this or that unit, nor a personal vandalistic urge of a soldier whose buddies didn't dare stop him. There was a decision made to vandalize the civic, administrative, cultural infrastructure developed by Palestinian society. Was it an explicit order or one given with a wink? Was it an order or was it the result of permission given to soldiers to do what they want? Did the order - or wink - come down from the battalion commander or from the brigadier? Was it from the headquarters of IDF forces in the West Bank or from IDF Operations? Did it come from the general in command of the Central Command or from general headquarters?
Either way, the scenes of systematic destruction show how the IDF translated into the field the instructions inherent in the political echelon's policies: Israel must destroy Palestinian civil institutions, sabotaging for years to come the Palestinian goal for independence, sending all of Palestinian society backward. It's so easy and comforting to think of the entire Palestinian society as primitive, bloodthirsty terrorists, after the raw material and product of their intellectual, cultural, social and economic activity has been destroyed. That way, the Israeli public can continue to be deceived into believing that terror is a genetic problem and not a sociological and political mutation, horrific as it may be, derived from the horrors of the occupation.