The occupation testimonies: The brutalization of the IDF

How Giving teenagers power over the lives of other corrupts them – and the IDF

“And my story is we and my story is that one time we grabbed a kid, not a big kid, a 10 or 12 year-old boy, something like that, we explained to him with the help of point with the barrel of the gun what he has to do, meaning waving the gun, showing him what do. The situation that was created was like…there is a little boy behind him, a patrol jeep, and three soldiers aiming their weapon at him and he [the boy] has to go and remove, he has to remove the blockade, these blockades. And he’s working and crying…and removing the blockades, and we go and point our weapons, and he goes to the next one and like that…then the patrol jeep commander that was with me decided that maybe they’d do something like that down the road, something which is of course not logical at all, because you leave the village from there, so there is no chance it would happen, and he says to me maybe there is something down the road, we’ll take him with us. Inside the patrol jeep there is no place to put the boy so what he does is he throws me in back, my friend and I sat in the back of the patrol jeep and the boy is strewn between us on our legs and our equipment and the grenades, and he’s crying the whole time, while he’s lying down on us, and on the equipment and our feet. I felt through his pants that he was peeing out of fear. And he’s crying and lying between two soldiers in the patrol jeep, after 10 kilometers from the village when it was completely clear that apparently they did not walk 10 kilometers with furniture to make a blockade, the commander decided that it was enough, you can take him out, he stopped the jeep, he got out and came to the back, pulled the kid out, threw him on the side of the road, crying again, with wet pants, to walk 10 kilometers back, and we kept going to the settlements that were there.” (Prevention 34, Unit: Armored Corps, Location: Baka A-Sharaqiya, Year: 2000).

Breaking the Silence (BtS) will present tomorrow (Tuesday) their new book, dealing with the policy of the IDF in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the last decade, as it is reflected not by official rhetoric, but in the action of soldiers on the ground. The book contains hundreds of testimonies, collected from 101 witnesses, presented precisely as they were told to the BtS investigators. The broken text above is a good representative.

The book is divided into four parts: “Prevention”, that is the policy of terrorizing the Palestinian population; “Separation”, dealing with the way the IDF expropriates the Palestinians of their land and property; “Fabric of Life”, explaining the way it regiments their lives; and “Law Enforcement”, or rather lack thereof, dealing mainly with the behavior of the settlers and in the way soldiers often find themselves answering to settler, non-military, superiors. The fourth part is rather well known, at least to anyone who showed any interest in what happens five minutes west of Kfar Saba, and as such contains less new information. The first three parts, however, are frustrating, despairing, but mostly enraging, enraging, enraging. I began reading, finding myself wishing I could cry; I ended it with a burning desire for vengeance.

“The soldiers who were there for Passover – I was there for two weeks straight – and there wasn’t a chance for them to bring us provisions. We were living off the frst provisions from Passover. We were there for two weeks after Passover, one week of Passover and another week afterwards, with matzah, chocolate, canned beef and olives. And I started going crazy. My friends and I went crazy, meaning we were hungry. We had to find a way to get real food. We went down to the apartments below. We broke into the apartments, we broke in, we just broke in. […]In short, we broke into that apartment with a fve-kilo hammer. It was already pretty messy. Not very, but pretty messy. We went into the kitchen, we saw there was a stove, there were spices, there was oil. There was everything. You could make food, potatoes. We said, “we’re making French fries.” In short, we made ourselves food that we needed for a change of pace. We were happy. We started eating and we didn’t feel bad about it. Unethical or something. I still today don’t think that it was something totally forbidden for us to do, because bottom line, we were really hungry. The food there was like atrocious.” (Prevention 51, Unit: Paratroopers, Location: Ramallah/Nablus, Year: 2001-2002)

The testimonies come from eyewitnesses; all too often, they themselves are involved in the crimes. Sometimes as helpless spectators, trying and inevitably failing to resist; sometimes they are shocked by what they see; but in many cases, they understood something was wrong only years afterwards. They had, of course, an excuse: this was a hostile population, a population of “terrorists”.

* * * *
I have recently finished reading Pity the Nation, by Robert Fisk, which deals with the wars in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly the great Israeli invasion of June 1982 and what followed it. The book deserves its own post, time permitting, but I want to pay attention to one specific point Fisk hammers time and again: the poisonous of the use of the term “terrorist”. Its usage automatically strips away the humanity of the other side’s militants, and facilitates turning not just them but the people around them and their family members to people whose life are for the taking. Thomas Friedman wrote something similar in his “From Beirut to Jerusalem”: The Israeli soldiers overlooking the Sabra and Shatila camps during the massacre did not hear people being murdered, he wrote, because as far as they were concerned there were no people there, just terrorists.

* * * *
The IDF rules the West Bank since 1967. Up until 2005, it also ruled the Gaza Strip. Between 1982 and 2000, it ruled the “security region” in Southern Lebanon. Much of its activity during those years involve constant friction the occupied population, which naturally enough was not friendly. The natural contempt of the occupied by the occupier always contained also fearing it, fearing its uprising, its vengeance, fear of what would happen to the occupier were the wheel to turn. One should wonder whether the fact this fear was much weaker in Lebanon and Gaza – Hizbullah had no claims on Israel and Gaza is very effectively fenced – made retreating from them so much easier, and the fact that Israel and the West Bank can hardly be separated may become a very serious block to a retreat.

Settler protected by two Border Policemen in Hebron, 2008 (Yossi Gurvitz)
The settlers are to be protected, the residents, not so much (Yossi Gurvitz)

People growing up in the 1970s still remember the happy tales of trips taken by Israelis throughout the West Bank – Gaza was much less appreciated – in the heady, drunken days following the victory of June 1967, how people would return from with all sorts of cheap trinkets. These were victory trips. They became a fading memory in the early 1970s, because, once the shock of occupation was over, the West Bank – not to mention the Strip – was no longer safe for Israelis.

As a result, the occupied territories quickly became known to just three segments of the Israeli public: the settlers (who on the one hand denied there was a problem, claiming that most Palestinians never had it so good, and the rest were agitated by bitter intellectuals, while on the other hand demanding horrible punishment of the entire population after any attack); the leftist demonstrators, always few in number; and the soldiers. Until 1987, when the First Intifada broke out, the IDF managed to rule the territories by relatively small forces; since that year, they became its main front. And in the territories, of course, there lived terrorists. Whole villages and towns of them.

In 1988, a song by Si Heiman, “Shooting and Crying”, caused a scandal precisely because it tried to make Israelis see what happens on the other side of the Green Line. The Israelis didn’t want to know and still don’t. The settlers have their all-excusing ideology. The leftists still demonstrate, uselessly. The soldiers, who until recently have mostly kept silent, or waited a decade or so and turned their memories into a book or a movie, have started speaking out. One suspects that in many ways they do so because unlike earlier generations – who were told they had to keep quiet in the name of something greater, be it the unit, the IDF, Zionism itself – this generation is used to speaking about everything, to whom silence is a stranger.

* * * *

“Now these cards, what’s amazing about them, is that you already know from the checkpoint how hard they are to get. Because people only show you those that are expired, and they tell you stories about how they are already trying to renew it. And you realize that itself that is almost impossible to get while still valid. So we were shocked to see that apparently the guys that work on the settlement had valid ones. In Yakir, in the Yakir settlement, they had Arab workers. So the few workers leave their documents at the gate, and enter the settlement. So what did the two guys that were with me do? They took the documents and put them in their pocket. A guy without his documents, you can imagine what…
Why did they put them in their pockets?
Because of their ill will. Just because, he went out for a smoke and they played a prank, they hid it from him. Of course nothing would happen to him [the reservist] Like what? It’s just some guy’s travel document. […]I don’t remember how it ended. I only remember it like…I really remember that it was the frst time I realized that an 18 year-old boy with a bit of ill will can fuck up someone’s life. The next day the guy can’t get to work, and you already know that the guy, in order to get the card, went through seven circles of hell. You’ve passed through there, in Kedumim, the District Coordination and Liaison, you know what happens there.” (Separation 14, Unit: Nashon Brigade, Location: Yakir, Year: 2001).

This ill-will, or rather this power to harm, of an 18 years old is the scarlet thread binding this book together. This is a book about slaves rising to the throne, of little nobodies granted control over the lives of others, and of the automatic tend to sadism in such positions. This is the story of the trigger happy soldiers throwing stun grenades into a marketplace, killing some chickens by the blast (Fabric of Life 1); of MPs who routinely spill out the contents of boxes of produce on the road, randomly selected, and when one of them hears a remark she doesn’t like from a Palestinian, they spill out all his produce (Fabric of Life 3); of Shimson soldiers taking a shit on the sofas in a house they occupy, and pillage the house (Prevention 47); of a paratrooper commander who, out of boredom, decided to fire at every vehicle he passes and defend his action by saying it might have been a car bomb (Prevention 37); of a company commander “whose mind was fucked”, who decided to shoot every vehicle, and a team firing at every ambulance since it may “smuggle terrorists” (Prevention 38); about paratroopers who, in a scene reminiscent of a famous movie, decide to search the entrails of a piano, find a collection of artistic swords, and confiscate them (Prevention 64); about a combat engineer doing all he can to keep his humanity, snapping when some Palestinian gives him lip, while the other soldiers snicker because now we have another criminal in the gang, no more righteous people (Fabric of Life 18); about Border Policemen having a contest about who can humiliate a parent in the presence of his children to the point of making him “shit his pants” (Fabric of Life 16); how…

There are quite a few stories of pointless killings, of the way the army channels the sadism of his soldiers for his own needs, about killing out of vengeance, about people who, as Israeli satirists wrote it at the time, “were promoted to the rank of a wanted man following their deaths”, and about the way the army lies about it all. But what stands out in this anthology is just how much it is the damaging of property which shocks the soldiers. I mean, if you kill someone, you can generally rationalize it. If he wasn’t a terrorist himself, he was likely to be a relative of one; and after, killing people is the army’s business. But looting – somehow the stench of looting overpowers all other stenches. We find this particular argument in many different places, from Jehova after the Israelites commit genocide at Jericho to Heinrich Himmler in his Posen speech, in which he justified the annihilation of the Jews but claims (it’s unclear to which extent was he aware of the lie) that the SS has purified its ranks of the looters. It’s the usual stench of people trying to purify the impure, who take offense at looting as if theft or the destruction of property is somehow worse than the killing of innocent men and women. This stench always comes from the Israel media when it reports of yet another case of looting. Destruction, humiliation – this is a normal part of the fame; depriving people of their humanity – that’s how it works. But let no one defile our struggle by trying to make a few shekels out of it. Here and no more.

Which is to say, we raised – under the IDF’s watchful eye – a generation of too-old children, spoiled ones, who think it is OK to pillage someone else’s food if they didn’t like their rations; who learned that it’s perfectly fine to abuse other people, and even joke about it, who learned there is a human dust you can spill all your frustrations at, and there’ll be no bill to pay – but knows, uneasily, even as they pillage, that for that act they may pay a heavy price. Kidnapping a child and forcing him at gunpoint to remove obstacles will be a breeze, but if they are caught stealing a gadget – oh dear, this time they’ll be dragged before a military tribunal. Besides the fear of harming the myth of the purity of arms, there is another reason for that. The IDF, as anyone who observed it knows, lacks discipline. But the officers are willing to turn a blind eye to it, as long as the people paying the price are the Palestinian subjects. Looting is more complicated: after a short while of allowing it, all the soldiers would want to do is pillage. And this puts the army’s ability to carry out the mission at risk, so it is not tolerated.

Aside from the obvious effects – the creeping corruption of the occupation; the turning of the IDF into a garrison army, incapable of dealing with a real enemy; the burning hatred the soldiers leave behind, which will make ending the hostilities very difficult – there is the unspoken problem. A very large segment of young Israelis have experienced trauma, or, in the more severe case, have internalized it and made it a part of their lives. And what happened there, will return to haunt us here. This bomb’s fuse is a slow one, but it will detonate.

(Yossi Gurvitz)

Related stories:

Breaking the Silence testimonies: part Ipart II, part III.