TAFFUH, Palestine: It was the sound of the front door being kicked in that woke the Izrayqat family early Wednesday as Israeli troops barged into their home in Taffuh village near Hebron.
Even the four children were sleeping because school had ended and the summer holidays were already under way.
“They kicked in the doors at 7:30 a.m. (0430 GMT) and told us to get out,” Umm Omar Izrayqat said, describing the moment when troops came searching for signs of three Israeli teenagers believed kidnapped by the Islamist militants from Hamas.
“I took my four children. We didn’t even have time to get ready properly, so I put these dirty clothes on and left,” she said, gesturing toward her dress, which had been in the laundry pile.
Like elsewhere in the southern West Bank, life in this village west of Hebron has been turned on its head since the three teenagers went missing late last week, prompting a massive military search operation.
Over the past six days, troops have turned properties upside down and arrested more than 240 Palestinians, leaving no stone unturned in the search for the students, who disappeared while hitchhiking Thursday.
Israel has accused Hamas militants of kidnapping the youth, two of them minors, and has launched a major crackdown on its members.
But it is ordinary families who are bearing the brunt of the operation.
After ordering the Izrayqat family out of their home, the soldiers began using the house as an operating base, Umm Omar said.
“I went back inside to get my mobile phone and found them asleep on my daughter’s bed,” she said.
“If our relatives didn’t live nearby, we’d have ended up in the street,” she said, explaining that they had found refuge with the family next door.
Other families have had the opposite problem, being forced to stay in just one room inside their own homes as soldiers took over the house.
Karima Khmayseh, 39, said she and her children had to cower in a corner of their main room as the army rifled through their belongings.
“They put us all in one room and then searched it, even going through our personal papers, even though I told them not to,” she said.
“They searched everything, even the bed.”
The three Israeli youths disappeared while trying to hitchhike from the Gush Eztion settlement bloc, with the army focusing its manhunt predominantly on Hebron and the surrounding area, which is home to some 663,000 Palestinians.
So far, there has been no formal claim of responsibility, and Hamas has dismissed Israel’s accusations as “stupid.”
But the scope of the searches and the lockdown imposed around Hebron has made life very difficult for the local population, with some accusing the army of lashing out.
“This is not an inspection to find kidnappers, this is just destroying our houses,” 30-year-old Umm Mukhtar said.
“I don’t think they’ll find the missing Israelis in the bathroom or the washing machine, or in the cupboard,” she retorted sarcastically.
But after six days of searches and still no sign of their whereabouts, there appeared to be no end in sight.
“A lot of time will pass until the situation in the West Bank returns to what it was, if it ever does,” an Israeli military official told Maariv newspaper Wednesday.
And some are warning that “Operation Brother’s Keeper” may run into Ramadan, which begins at the end of June.
“My feeling is their Ramadan is going to be disrupted,” a senior military official told Haaretz newspaper, acknowledging that life in the West Bank was becoming increasingly difficult for Palestinians,
“This event will have long-term ramifications,” he said.