1) A shooting in Hebron shakes the Israeli society
The following article is due to be published in German by Internationaler Versoehnungsbund, the Austrian branch of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR).
A field worker of the B’Tselem Human Rights group was able to photograph the entire event, on a hidden camera. The footage was later that day released to the Israeli and international media. Faced with this unequivocal evidence, the military authorities had no choice but arresting Azaria and starting military judicial proceedings against him – which they probably would not have done had this video footage not existed.
This was by no means the first case in which an Israeli soldier or policeman deliberately killed an unarmed or disarmed prisoner. Nor was it the worst such case. Nevertheless, the Azaria Affair marked a very disturbing first in Israeli history. Never before did such a big part of the Israeli society rally to the complete and unequivocal support of a soldier who had killed an unarmed prisoner.
Extreme-right groups held incendiary demonstrations outside the military court when Azaria was brought there, chanting “He is a hero! Release him – kill the Arabs!”. Alarmingly, this was no fringe phenomenon. Opinion polls indicated that a great part of the Israeli public – a majority in some polls – failed to see anything wrong in what Azaria did.
It was of no avail that the Army Chief of Staff and the entire IDF High Command reiterated, again and again, that soldiers are authorized to shoot only in face of a threat, and that a disarmed opponent must not be harmed; that soldiers are given unequivocal orders to that effect, and therefore a soldier acting otherwise must be punished for his disobedience.
Israelis have a habitual, deep-seated admiration for the country’s armed forces, usually tending to place greater credence in army generals than in civilian politicians. Not in this case, however. Whatever the generals said, large parts of the public continued to hold to an opposite doctrine – i.e. that “Arab terrorists deserve to die” and that soldiers could and should kill them “without the formality of a trial” and regardless of whether they are armed or disarmed.
Outside the military court building, the extreme-right mobs started with chants jeering the IDF high command and sometimes voicing explicit threats against the life of Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot and other high-ranking officers.
In the Israeli peace movement we had our own intensive debate. There were those who thought we should have our own strong presence outside the court building. Others felt it would be a mistake to be perceived as hounding one specific young man, however guilty he was, and that we should rather treat this affair as an indication of what prolonged occupation and oppression of the Palestinians is doing to the Israeli society.
Elior Azaria was born when Israel’s occupation rule over the Palestinians had already lasted for three decades - and when he was put on trial, the occupation was nearing its fiftieth anniversary. There were good reasons to regard Azaria as a pawn in the game of much greater forces, and not to endorse uncritically the High Command’s ’ position. After all, it was the generals who daily maintain the occupation, rather than a lowly Sergeant in Hebron.
Moreover, the generals were well aware that there were other soldiers, more than a few of them, had also killed disarmed prisoners – only without a camera present. The high publicity around the Azaria Trial helped create a far from accurate image of a morally upright army, holding its soldiers to high standards of behavior and making an example of a single “rotten apple”.
All of these bring me to reflect on the changes which fifty years of occupation had wrought in the Israeli public discourse and specifically in how Israelis perceive and refer to the Palestinians.
Shortly after the Six Day War ended in 1967, a book came out which at the time made quite a bit of a stir in Israeli public opinion. Called “Siah Lohamim” (“Talk of the Fighters”) it included the record of extensive interviews and discussions with dozens of young soldiers who had participated in the June 1967 fighting.
A significant number of those interviewed – especially young Kibbutzniks, who at the time comprised a significant part of the IDF combat troops – spoke of nasty scenes and acts which they had witnessed, and in many cases participated in themselves. Many of them engaged in prolonged soul-searching, grappling with moral dilemmas over what they had witnessed or taken part in.
At the time, people further to the political left used to jeer at such soul-searching conducted after the war was over, using the term “Yorim Ubochim” (“Those who shoot and then shedding a tear”). Yet these fighters of the 1967 generation, grappling with moral dilemmas and a sense of guilt, compare favorably with later crops of combat troops who can be characterized as “Those who shoot and afterwards laugh”.
“When the bomb is released, I feel a slight blow against the plane’s wing. Nothing more”. So did Dan Halutz, Commander of the Israeli Air Force and afterwards Chief of Staff of all the Armed Forces, comment on the 2002 bombing in Gaza when a one-ton bomb was dropped in order to kill Salah Shehade, a senior Hamas man – and ended up killing fourteen civilians living in the same building. Halutz refused to express any regret or remorse. “A slight blow on the wing”, a phrase emblematic of complete and callous disregard for moral considerations, entered the Israeli public discourse side by side with the often-repeated sanctimonious assertion that “The IDF is the Most Moral Army in the World”.
All this can be traced to the corrosive influence of fifty years of occupation. It is now more than forty years since the Yom Kippur War, when Israel’s armed forces were last engaged in a “classical” war of army against army; none of the soldiers and officers now serving can recall taking part in that. Since then, Israel made peace with some Arab countries (Egypt and Jordan) while others disintegrated, and their armies with them (Iraq, Syria, Libya). The Israeli army was left with the primary task of maintaining military rule over an occupied, restive population which again and again bursts out into all-out rebellion. The tasks which Israeli soldiers are given consist primarily of “restoring order” by violently dispersing Palestinian demonstrations and protests, and the capturing or outright killing of various terrorists/guerrillas/freedom fighters (or whatever name one may attach to them).
To this should be added the army’s role as facilitator or protector of settlement activity on the West Bank. It is the army which declares parcels of land to be “State Lands” and hands them over to the settlers. It is the soldiers who arrive to enforce the decree, who stand guard as the land in question is made into “a closed military zone” and who lob tear gas grenades at the Palestinians who hitherto considered themselves its owners. And once the new settlement has been completed, soldiers stand guard at its perimeter day and night. Soldiers are instructed, whenever encountering a confrontation between settlers and Palestinians, to first of all come to the settlers’ help and only afterwards inquire what the quarrel was all about.
The up to date heroes, to whom new Israeli recruits are expected to look up and try to emulate, are mostly those who had fallen in fighting “Palestinian terrorists” of one kind or another. And such a massive indoctrination does not fade off also when has ended the three years of obligatory military service. Attitudes and opinions acquired during military service often remain with a person in civilian life, too.
2) How hope turned into bitterness
There had been one great opportunity to fundamentally change Israel’s relationship to the Palestinians, break through the enemy images and indeed end the enmity itself. It was totally missed, and indeed in many ways made things worse. In September 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, signing an agreement which was supposed to lead to peace (and which many mistook for a peace agreement itself). At the time, there was a groundswell of support for peace, in both the Israeli and the Palestinian society – of which only a sad memory now remains.
It would take an article longer than the present one to analyze in detail how and why the Oslo peace process failed. Suffice it to say here that Oslo envisioned an interim period of limited Palestinian self-government, starting in 1994 and ending in 1999, which was supposed to end with a Comprehensive Agreement. Palestinians fully expected that this Comprehensive Agreement would include an end to the occupation and the creation of a fully independent Palestinian state; Israelis expected a complete end of any manifestation of Palestinian and Arab hostility to Israel.
This might or might not have become a reality had Prime Minister Rabin not been assassinated. As it was, there never was any Comprehensive Agreement; the “interim” situation which should have ended in 1999 remains in 2017, and at least the present Government of Israel has no intention of ever changing it.
Instead of an independent state, the Palestinians are stuck with an almost completely powerless Palestinian Authority, a military occupation maintained with all severity, settlements continually expanding at the expense of Palestinian land, and a tight siege which suffocates the Gaza Strip’s economy and social life. Instead of achieving peace, Israelis are faced with an intense hostility from the occupied Palestinian population, which on occasion bursts out into deadly violence, and which increasingly takes up religious themes and becomes mixed up with Islamic radicalism.
If remembered at all, the handshake of Rabin and Arafat which aroused so many hopes, is nowadays remembered as an act of deception and perfidy. That is, Israelis and Palestinians alike think of it as representing the deception and perfidy of the other side. “We wanted to make peace with them. We tried so hard, we made so many efforts, such huge concessions. But it was all in vain. They don’t want to make peace, they just want to kill us and take our land”. That is how both an average Israeli and an average Palestinian would likely sum up the last twenty years.
The creation and elaboration of monstrous enemy images is part of making war. Most human beings do have some basic reluctance to kill other human beings. In order to efficiently overcome such scruples and engage in the organized killing of others, human beings need to find some kind of justification. To have a way of convincing themselves that “we” are the Good Guys and “they” are the Baddies, that they are nasty people doing nasty things while we are good and righteous people who do good things – and therefore, it is right for us to kill them while it is a monstrous wrong for them to kill us.
Such a creation of enemy images has always been a necessity of war. Whether fought with bows and arrows or with intercontinental ballistic missiles, the enemy image is an indispensable munition of war. Israel is certainly no exception. Israelis have largely come to accept Netanyahu’s version: Peace with the Palestinians is impossible; the Palestinians seek to gain the entire land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, and they will never accept a Jewish state in whatever borders; manifestations of Palestinian violence are just part of a worldwide “Islamic Terrorist Wave”, no different than attacks in Paris, Manchester or Barcelona; therefore, giving up territory is of no avail, and the evacuated land would simply be used to launch missiles at Israeli cities.
Accepting this view of the situation leads to regarding the conflict as a matter of survival – “It is either us or them”. And of course, human beings who perceive themselves as fighting for survival can become more callous and unscrupulous. Even with Israel possessing the strongest army in the Middle East (and one of the strongest in the world), Israelis often tend to call up images of the Holocaust, of gas chambers and crematoria. Young Palestinians who try to stab Israelis (and in most cases get killed before even getting near to an Israeli soldier) are magnified into the harbingers of “fanatic hordes, coming to slaughter us all”.
3) Is oppression Feminist?
One of the most significant implications of the creation of enemy images concerns young Israeli women. Already at its foundation, Israel had enacted conscription of women, but until the 1990’s most women soldiers were simply uniformed secretaries. However, in the past decade, the Israeli armed forces are making a considerable effort to involve female soldiers in combat duties - which includes, very prominently, involvement in maintaining military rule over the Palestinians. In the so-called “Border Guard” – the militarized police force charged with maintaining the day to day routine of the occupation – women already constitute more than a third of the troops, and their proportion continues to rise every year.
Two women Border Guard officers had been killed in incidents at the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem – a perennial “trouble spot”. A massive propaganda campaign is conducted in the mainstream media to make these two fallen women soldiers into matchless heroines, the role models which young Israeli women should seek to emulate. Serving in the Border Guard and “fighting the Arab terrorists” is depicted as a the new form of “Women’s Empowerment”.
It is an effective propaganda, and a considerable number of young women are indeed induced to fill the ranks of the Border Guard. But there is also a growing number of young Israeli women who reject out of hand this form of “Feminism” and “Empowerment”. There is an increasing number of young Israeli women who declare their total refusal to join and army of occupation and take part in the oppression of millions of Palestinian men and women.
Such refusers face the normal routine meted out by the Israeli army – being called up, declaring their refusal and being sent to a month in prison, then released and again ordered to enlist and again sent to another month behind bars and so on and on and on. Eventually, the army would get tired of it and let them go – but there is no way of knowing when that will be.
As I write, the latest two such refusers - Noa Gur Golan and Hadas Tal – are undergoing this process of repeated, open-ended imprisonment. “I know that my refusal, in itself, will not end the occupation” said the 18-year old Hadas Tal on the eve of going to prison. “I refuse because it is important not to let this oppressive system continue existing without offering resistance, in order to raise awareness and create a public discussion.”
So long as the Israeli society can produce such young people, hope is not lost.
Elior Azaria, imprisoned for killing a disarmed, severely wounded Palestinian.
Hadas Tal, imprisoned for refusing to join an army of occupation and take part in acts of oppression.