Israeli soldiers express pain of war

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 15-Aug-07 | Author: Colin Hinshelwood| Source: Asia Times

"One day I saw an elderly Palestinian. Really old. With a long white beard, his face all wrinkles, carrying two shopping bags, passing by a small religious Jewish boy, probably a first-grader, six to seven years old, maximum nine. The child came up, looked at the Arab in the eye - mind you, this is a street that both Jews and Arabs are allowed to use - and said to him: 'You filthy Arab!' spat in his face and ran off. Far away, he climbed some roof and threw stones at him. I was shocked."

This is just one excerpt from a catalogue of testimonies from Israeli soldiers who have recently come forward and spoken out for the first time about the mind-numbing situation they find themselves in while on duty in the Palestinian occupied territories. Many of the accounts make for macabre reading.

The soldier in the testimony above goes on to say that when he approached the child's parents to tell them what their son had done, he was rebuked by the parents for siding with a Palestinian and told that their son had acted legitimately. Time and again, the collected testimonies bear witness to crimes of hate and racism carried out by either Israeli soldiers or by the Jewish "settlers" within the occupied territories on unarmed Palestinian civilians, including women and children.

After finishing high school, most Israeli teenagers are expected to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Boys will serve a minimum of three years, while girls are required to put in two years' service. Young, impressionable and taught by a hawkish society that it is their divine duty to protect the State of Israel, these young people become the front line in the streets, commanding absolute power over Arab residents and often abusing that power with impunity.

Armed with US-issued M16s, they patrol the streets of Palestine day and night, free to question, detain and humiliate Arab civilians at will. To the Palestinians, these "Lords of the Flies" have become a daily symbol of the oppression of the occupation, and they are simultaneously hated and feared throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In 2004, Yehuda Shaul was a commanding sergeant in Bethlehem. He was from a right-wing Jewish family and was brought up to believe that his duty was to serve Israel. However, the systematic abuse of innocent Palestinians started to get to him psychologically during his three years of service. He began to doubt his superiors, began to question his role in the occupation.

About three months before his discharge, Yehuda spoke with his comrades privately - and quietly, for questioning the cause was considered treasonous. He discovered that they too felt overcome with guilt about participating in physical acts of abuse, acts that often constituted war crimes.

"We all knew that something was wrong here," says Yehuda. They pledged to do something about it as soon as they were discharged.

Their first photo exhibition in Tel Aviv in 2004 was met with disbelief, grief and outrage by the Israeli public. The exhibition, "Bringing Hebron to Tel Aviv", was only intended as a light introduction to the scenes the soldiers had witnessed. They had displayed what they considered to be the least provocative photographs and testimonies from their tour of duty in the southern Palestinian province. The real horrors they kept concealed.

"We had done some very bad stuff," admits Yehuda contritely. "We had very bad pictures. People would puke if they saw them." Nevertheless, the effect was astounding to a sheltered society that had little or no first-hand knowledge of the human-rights violations taking place every day in their back yard. "People just stood there in front of these black-and-white photographs and gaped with their mouths open," recalls Yehuda. "They had no idea what was going on."

Evolving from the publicity surrounding the exhibition, Yehuda and his fellow ex-soldiers founded Breaking the Silence, a non-governmental organization dedicated to bringing the truth home. Over the past three years, the three full-time staff and 15 volunteers of Breaking the Silence have interviewed, videotaped and catalogued testimonies from more than 450 soldiers. The interviewees are anonymous, of course, their statements forbidden under military-secrets acts. Soldiers could be court-martialed or jailed for speaking out. But many of them do.

Many testify to cleanse their souls of guilt: "I want to talk about an incident that took place during a funeral at the Abu Sneina cemetery ... There were dozens of mourners, even more, I think ... The [IDF] officer approached the funeral and wanted to disperse it ... He had a look of hatred in his eyes ... He even cursed, cocked his weapon and approached an 80-year-old man who could hardly move and pointed his gun in his face ... I'm still mad at myself for not saying anything. I simply lowered my eyes and didn't know what to do with myself."

Other soldiers bear witness to the feelings of superiority that their status and their weapons give them. Posted at checkpoints and faced with long queues of Palestinians trying to go to school, to market, to hospital or to work, many uniformed young men and women start to show off in front of each other.

The peer pressure is immense, with younger or weaker soldiers desperate to prove their mettle in front of their officers. Many soldiers openly admit that they look upon the Palestinians as something less than human, "like animals". The few words of Arabic they do employ to speak to villagers are restricted to phrases such as "Waqif! Ta'al jib al-hawiyya!" ("Stop! Give me your ID card!"), "Stand back!" or simply "Go away!"

There are few incidents more gut-wrenching than the sight of an elderly man or a woman being forced to lie flat on the ground with their hands clasped behind their head, as kids young enough to be their grandchildren spit on them, laugh at them, and poke them with their feet and their rifles. Yet this is a daily reality for the displaced and maltreated Palestinians. Even political leaders face abuse at roadblocks when traveling between townships.

"I realized that I simply enjoy the feeling of power," admits an anonymous ex-soldier. "I am the Law! I am the Law here! ... The next car follows. You signal. It stops. You start playing with them, like a computer game. You come here; you go there, like this. You barely move; you make them obey the tip of your finger. It's a mighty feeling ... You know it's because you have a weapon; you know it's because you are a soldier. You know all this, but it's addictive."

Working in shifts of eight hours on, eight hours off, the armed teenagers are authorized to stop Arabs, detain them at random, search their persons and their vehicles, empty trucks full of fruit and vegetables all over the ground, harass and insult women and even force people to undress. Boredom and monotony are often used as an excuse for the behavior.

Without fear of redress from commanders, young soldiers turn into monsters. In many cases, it seems, barbaric acts are even encouraged. A first sergeant with the Armored Forces at Daharia Junction recalls one of his fellow soldiers being egged on at a roadblock. A line of Palestinians was waiting to pass and the officer was told off for not getting them into a straight line. Frustrated, the soldier ran toward the line and attacked the first person he saw.

"A man about 50 years old with an eight-year-old kid or something ... He just beat the hell out of [him]. He hit the man's face with the handle of his rifle, kicked him in the groin, spat on him, cursed him - simply went berserk. In front of the man's little boy. He just humiliated him."

Atrocities have been recorded throughout the West Bank, which lays waste to any claims that the testimonies may be isolated incidents or the reactions of rogue battalions within a "hot spot" area of particular civil unrest. In the northern city of Jenin, scene of the infamous 2002 massacre of refugees by the IDF, an Israeli paratrooper gave this account of an incident in March 2003:

"We had fixed positions inside the Kasbah of Jenin; the armored personnel carriers [APCs] were on the streets below us. They were moving continuously. We were expressly told that we were just waiting for someone to climb on an APC, and ordered 'shoot to kill'. We quickly understood that we weren't expecting to deal with armed people, as no armed Palestinian would roam the streets with so many APCs around ... We understood that from talks with our officers.

"After a day or two, a [kid] climbed on one of the APCs. There were lots of guesses about his age. First they said he was eight; later, that he was 12. I don't know. In any case, he climbed on an APC, and one of our sharpshooters killed him."

Much of Breaking the Silence's work involves seminars and tours, generally to Hebron, where between 1,000 and 2,000 soldiers provide security for the 400 Jewish settlers. The remaining 150,000 Palestinian residents of the city are forbidden to enter the streets that the settlers have occupied. Hebron is considered the birthplace of Judaism, and as such, the Jews who have been "settled" in the center of the city are known to be fanatical in claiming the city they regard as their God-given birthright.

Israeli human-rights group B'tselem has made Hebron the focus of its campaign for this year in an attempt to bring the injustice of the situation to light. A video clip of a Jewish settler spitting on and abusing a Palestinian woman and her daughter while a soldier looked on recently appeared on the Internet site YouTube, causing a slight tremor back in Israel.

How could such racist and belligerent acts be occurring only one hour's drive from Tel Aviv? No one was ever charged, no soldier ever cautioned. The Israeli public remains largely ignorant of the war crimes by their sons and daughters and forever sees the army as the backbone of the country.

Many of the Jewish settlers themselves are unaware that their neighborhoods are being created at the expense of Arab families who are evicted and marched out of town at a moment's notice. Ancestral Palestinian homes are bulldozed daily to make way for settlements that have been repeatedly proclaimed illegal by the United Nations and the International Court of Justice.

For the teenage soldiers who are sent to enforce security around Jewish homes on Palestinian land, the situation must be, at best, confusing. They find themselves at the beck and call of settlers who demand that Arabs be expelled from their vision at all times. Instead of enjoying their teenage years dating, partying and going to the beach, Israel's young people are ground through a military machine that does little to cultivate feelings of peace, justice and equality.

"The thing about Hebron," admits another young soldier who has bravely broken the silence, "is the total indifference it instills in you ... One story is about a little kid, a boy of about six, who passed by me at my post. He said to me: 'Soldier, listen, don't get annoyed, don't try and stop me. I'm going out to kill some Arabs.' I look at the kid and don't quite understand what I'm supposed to do."