Locked out
By Gideon Levy
April 23, 2004

A soldier who recently completed his compulsory service took home a collection of keys to Palestinian cars, confiscated by troops and stored in an army post near Bethlehem. The IDF says soldiers do not confiscate keys

Now they're hanging on nails, as in an exhibition, some 60 sets of keys to Palestinian cars, keys that were confiscated by IDF soldiers. All together, over 100 different keys. Keys to the car together with keys to the house, the office, the store, the storeroom - taken by soldiers for various and sundry reasons. This is an exhibit of the private spoils of soldier Y., who recently completed his compulsory service in an Israel Defense Forces field unit, after spending most of his time serving in the territories.

Y. decided to take with him the keys that were stored in an army post near Bethlehem, in order to make his comrades' exploits known.

"When we entered the operations room, I saw a metal box full of these keys," he recounts. "I said to myself: If there are so many, I have to take them home with me. Sometime I'll have to tell the true story, especially after I read that the IDF Spokesperson's Office denies that soldiers confiscate cars. I said: Hell, I've been on missions where that was just what we were supposed to do. For example, if someone was driving during a curfew, we would take his keys and tell him to come to Checkpoint 300 (the entrance checkpoint to Bethlehem) sometime. That's how things were. I believe that these keys were sitting there in the operations room for a long time."

Keys attached to a remote-control device, a lone key, a set attached to a lucky horseshoe with the word "Jerusalem" engraved on it. Another set attached to a yellow plastic tag with an Arabic name written on it. A bunch of keys held together with a brown shoelace. A Daewoo keychain and one from Chevrolet - the American dream. A key to a Toyota, to an Opel. A keychain in the shape of an alien figure, a key that says "Made in Italy."

More and more keys, each one with a story, keys that once opened something for someone, that were essential - arbitrarily confiscated by soldiers and never returned to their owners. When did they confiscate the keys? Why didn't they return them? Who decides how long the confiscation lasts? On what and on whom does it depend? Who instructed the soldiers to confiscate property that doesn't belong to them?

About two months ago, we witnessed such a confiscation next to the locked iron gate that bisects the Tul Karm-Nablus road. A taxi driver inadvertently crossed a blurred yellow line on the road, in front of the locked gate. Apparently, it is forbidden for anyone to cross this line, even though there is no sign that says so. Moments after the violation was committed, an IDF Jeep suddenly appeared, the soldiers quickly got out, shouting, converged upon the startled taxi driver and grabbed the keys to his taxi, without any explanation. The man, a new driver, wasn't even aware that he had crossed the line. No one bothered to tell him when he would get his car - his source of income - back. They just told him to get lost.

At the time, the IDF Spokesperson's Office responded: "There is no order in the IDF to confiscate keys."

Order or no order, in the past few years, claims of arbitrary confiscations of keys have been heard daily throughout the territories, from Jenin to Rafah, so there can be no doubt that this is a systematic policy and not a smattering of exceptional incidents. Related to another malicious systematic method - slashing the tires of "defiant" cars - confiscation has served as a convenient punitive measure taken by soldiers against people who have driven in a forbidden zone, who parked in a forbidden spot, who moved when it was prohibited or who just annoyed the soldiers for some reason.

In Hebron, we once saw soldiers puncturing all four tires of a car that they decided was improperly parked. On more than one occasion on the road through the fields to Beit Furik, we met drivers sitting beside their incapacitated cars after soldiers confiscated their keys for having taken that improvised route. There's nothing easier for soldiers than to confiscate the keys to a Palestinian's car, and to hell with his property, his rights, his schedule or his life.

If the hand is so light on the trigger, then why shouldn't it take some keys, too?