Yitzhak Laor writes about an exhibition of soldiers’ photographs in Tel Aviv and introduces some of the soldiers’ memories of their military service
Israel’s Independence Day fell this year on 27 April. For his homework my nine-year-old son had to interview me about my military past. Before giving out the assignment, his teacher had invited the father of one of the children, an IDF colonel, to give a talk in full military uniform. The children were fascinated. Urged to ask questions, they mostly wanted to know whether he was afraid, though they also asked if he had killed Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, whose picture and the picture of his destroyed wheelchair were quite a hit on Israeli TV. The colonel said it was another unit, not his, ‘but he deserved to die,’ and he promised the children that ‘we don’t kill unless there is a really good reason.’ He ended the talk by telling the children he hoped that they too would one day have the chance to become senior officers in the IDF.
Our life worsens, poverty is spreading, education and health services are deteriorating, the middle class is shrinking, and we are ruled by a junta whose money and power have increased to an extent people refuse to believe, even when they are confronted with the figures. A 45-year-old colonel who retires from the army gets a lump sum of close to two million dollars, in addition to a lifetime pension and a second career, usually as an executive of one of the huge corporations, or in arms dealing.
When the average Israeli wants to explain these privileges, he points out that ‘throughout his career the colonel has been risking his life.’ But that’s been a myth for at least two decades now. The colonel hasn’t been risking his life because there is no longer a serious enemy. There is only the Palestinian desire to live as a free nation which in the form of the terrorist campaign is represented as an existential threat to the state of Israel. But it doesn’t threaten the existence of Israel. It never did, but it sure helps the military ride the wave of panic.
The real struggle in Israeli society today is not between doves and hawks, but between the majority who take for granted the IDF’s image as the defender of our nation, with or without biblical quotes, and the minority who no longer buy it. If the army does something bad it is always an exception (harig, in Hebrew). Those who believe that we are fighting for our lives also believe that we do our best to be humane, and more or less succeed. This fragile complex of axioms depends either on foolish optimism (‘soon everything will be resolved’) or on images. Arguments don’t work anymore.
The most effective images are those of dismembered bodies, screaming mothers and mourning fathers. But that is exactly why the BBC World Service is considered ‘hostile’ here. It isn’t because of the Vanunu affair, but because of the images it broadcasts of everyday suffering on the other side of the road, a ten-minute drive from the safety of our homes, our swimming-pools, our happy lives. Even CNN was considered hostile as long as it ‘misbehaved’, bringing us pictures which contradicted the basic image of our existence. Atrocities are always perpetrated against us, and the more brutal Israel becomes, the more it depends on our image as the eternal victim. Hence the importance of the Holocaust since the end of the 1980s (the first intifada), and its return into Hebrew literature (David Grossman’s See under: Love). The Holocaust is part of the victim imagery, hence the madness of state-subsidised school trips to Auschwitz. This has less to do with understanding the past than with reproducing an environment in which we exist in the present tense as victims. Together with that comes the imagery of the healthy, beautiful, sensitive soldiers.
This is the context, at the crossroads between the expanding (slowly, and maybe too little and too late) refusenik movement and the ever growing despair, evident at an exhibition called ‘Breaking the Silence’ (‘Shovrim Shtika’) which opened in early June in Tel Aviv College: an exhibition of photographs taken by mostly unnamed conscripts who served in Hebron. (Their brigade commander was the colonel who gave the talk to my son’s class.) Sixty of the 90 photos record aspects of the conflict between the Palestinians and the settlers, but 30 show the soldiers at their daily routine – and the routine tells all. Indeed, towards the end of June, the IDF’s military police raided the exhibit, ‘confiscating’, as Haaretz put it, ‘a folder containing newspaper clips about the exhibit, as well as a videotape including statements made by 70 soldiers about their experiences in Hebron’. Four of the young men who organised the exhibition were called in for interrogation. What were they interrogated about? Well, they are suspected of having committed the crimes they documented on their video – abusing Palestinians, destroying property etc.
Every once in a while opposition arises from within the monster. Hence the Courage to Refuse movement, the letter last September signed by 27 pilots who refused to attack civilian populations in the Occupied Territories, the letter in December from an elite commando unit that refused to fight, and so on. A society living in the past as if it were the present is vulnerable: the past/ present becomes a double-edged sword. You may be sued if you call anybody here a ‘Nazi’, but one hears it a lot. It would be more appropriate to compare Israeli brutality with the French in Algeria, or the British in Sudan or Malaysia, but we are taken up with the notion of ‘our past turning into our present’.
Moral repulsion isn’t the only factor, however. Young men who join the army want to fight in the most sophisticated tanks, to fire the most frightening cannon, to fly the brand new jet fighters, to operate the Apache helicopters, to conquer the most heavily fortified enemy positions, to parachute behind enemy lines. Then, after all their extremely difficult training, after all the suffering and ambition, they find there is no heroism, no glory, no diving as marine commandos under the waters of the Persian Gulf. Instead, all they do is throw families out of their homes in the middle of the night, demolish their houses, bomb a six-storey building in Gaza, starve a town, harass women at checkpoints, watch Shin Bet torture detainees, bring more misery to the refugee camps.
What the Israeli army (like the Israeli state) needs to reproduce in its soldiers is either sheer racism – that is, faith in ‘the murderous nature of the Arabs’ – or a brand of religious messianism, neo-Nazi ideology wrapped in Judaism. One of the photographs in the exhibition shows a piece of settler graffiti in Hebron which reads: ‘Arabs to Gas Chambers’. This kind of discourse has its weakness: it needs soldiers to fight for it. There are a lot who won’t.
Right now, the former soldiers who took part in the exhibition – it closed at the beginning of the month – are working on what they call journalistic research, though it looks as if they are collecting evidence for some sort of imaginary trial. The exception incriminates an individual soldier; if you can show that it is the rule you incriminate the true criminals of war, the heads of the IDF and the government. These ex-soldiers are making contact with conscripts and reservists from other brigades, gathering photos, confessions, testimonies for further exhibitions. What they are telling us is common knowledge beyond the hill, across the checkpoints, in every shattered Palestinian kindergarten. They are doing it because they still believe in some sort of Israeli justice. That faith, I fear, has no basis in reality. On the other hand, how else can one become a decent man, if not by believing in some sort of justice, in some sort of place to come to terms with power? The Place is one of the many names of God in Hebrew.
‘First week, first time at the checkpoint, at the passage between the Palestinian area and a street where only Jews can go. Those guys have to stop, there’s a line, then they hand you their ID cards through the fence, you check them, and let them through. This guy with me yells: "Waqif! Stop!” The man didn’t understand and took one more step. Then he yells again, "Waqif!” and the man freezes. So the soldier decided that because the guy took this one extra step he’ll be detained. I said to him: "Listen, what are you doing?” He said: "No, no, don’t argue, at least not in front of them. I’m not going to trust you anymore, you’re not reliable.” Eventually one of the patrol commanders came over, and I said: "What’s the deal, how long do you want to detain him for?” He said: "You can do whatever you want, whatever you feel like doing. If you feel there’s a problem with what he’s done, if you feel something’s wrong, even the slightest thing, you can detain him for as long as you want.” And then I got it, a man who’s been in Hebron a week, it has nothing to do with rank, he can do whatever he wants. There are no rules, everything is permissible.’
‘Another thing I remember from Hebron is the so-called "grass widow” procedure – the name for a house the army takes over and turns into an observation post, the home of a Palestinian family, not a family of terrorists, just a family whose home made a good observation post. You’re in somebody’s house, and everything is littered with shit, there are cartridges and glass on the stairs, so you can hear if anyone is approaching. It’s a house covered in camouflage netting so people can’t see what you’re doing inside. You find yourself in a Palestinian neighbourhood, in some family’s home, and it’s totally surreal, because there you are, sitting in the living-room, listening for people coming to attack you. There was food left behind, and there was a TV, but we weren’t allowed to turn it on – to use their electricity, this would be too much, this would be considered "bad occupation".’
‘It was Friday night, and the auxiliary company, which was stationed with us in Harsina, eliminated two terrorists. Friday night dinner was, of course, a very happy affair, and the whole base was jumping. As I was leaving dinner, an armoured ambulance arrived with the terrorists’ corpses, and the two terrorists’ corpses were held up in a standing position by three people who were posing for photographs. Even I was shocked by this sight, I closed my eyes so as not to see and walked away. I really didn’t feel like looking at terrorists’ corpses.’
‘Our job was to stop the Palestinians at the checkpoint and tell them they can’t pass this way any more. Maybe a month ago they could, but now they can’t. On the other hand there were all these old ladies who had to pass to get to their homes, so we’d point in the direction of the opening through which they could go without us noticing. It was an absurd situation. Our officers also knew about this opening. They told us about it. Nobody really cared about it. It made us wonder what we were doing at the checkpoint. Why was it forbidden to pass? It was really a form of collective punishment. You’re not allowed to pass because you’re not allowed to pass. If you want to commit a terrorist attack, turn right there and then left.’
‘I was ashamed of myself the day I realised that I simply enjoy the feeling of power. Not merely enjoy it, need it. And then, when someone suddenly says no to you, you say: what do you mean no? Where do you get the chutzpah from to say no to me? Forget for a moment that I think that all those Jews are mad, and I actually want peace and believe we should leave the Territories, how dare you say no to me? I am the Law! I am the Law here! Once I was at a checkpoint, a temporary one, a so-called strangulation checkpoint blocking the entrance to a village. On one side a line of cars wanting to get out, and on the other side a line of cars wanting to get in, a huge line, and suddenly you have a mighty force at the tip of your fingers. I stand there, pointing at someone, gesturing to you to do this or that, and you do this or that, the car starts, moves towards me, halts beside me. 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.’
‘On patrol in Abu Sneina we make a check post where you stop cars and check them out. We stop a guy we know, who always hangs around, doesn’t make trouble. Connections are made, even if we don’t speak the same language and even if it’s hard to explain. The commander stops him. "You cover the front. You cover the back.” So I cover the front. The commander says to him: "Go on, get going. Get out your jack.” The guy just stands there and stares. He doesn’t understand what they want. So the commander yells at him that he should get out his jack and begin to take the wheels off. I’m standing near a stone wall and the guy comes over and takes a stone to put under the car, and then another stone. At that point, the commander comes over to me and says: "Does this look humane to you?” He has a horrible grin on his face. It’s awful. I can’t do anything. I don’t have enough air to say anything. I take my helmet off and lean on the stone wall, still covering the front, and I cry.’
‘Once a little kid, a boy of about six, 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 exactly what I’m supposed to do. So he says: "First, I’m going to buy a popsicle at Gotnik’s” – that’s their grocery store – "then I’m going to kill some Arabs.” I had nothing to say to him. Nothing. I went completely blank. And that’s not such a simple thing, that a city, that such an experience can silence someone who was an educator, a counsellor, who believed in education, who believed in talking to people, even if their opinions were different. But I had nothing to say to a kid like that. There’s nothing to say to him.’
‘The very existence of the checkpoint is humiliating. I guard, or enable the existence of, 500 Jewish settlers at the expense of 15,000 people under direct occupation in the H2 area and another 140,000-160,000 in the surrounding areas of Hebron. It makes no difference how pleasant I am to them. I will still be their enemy. As long as you want to keep these 500 people in Hebron alive and enable them to go about their existence in a reasonable manner, you have to destroy the reasonable existence of all the rest. There’s no alternative. For the most part, these are real security considerations. They’re not imaginary. If you want to protect the settlers from being shot at from above, you have to occupy all the hills around them. There are people living on those hills. They have to be subdued, they have to be detained, they have to be hurt at times. But as long as the government has decided that the settlement in Hebron will remain intact, the cruelty is there, and it doesn’t matter whether or not we act nice.’
‘Whenever we feel like it, we choose a house on the map, we go on in. "Jaysh, jaysh, iftah al bab” – "army, army, open the door” – and they open the door. We move all the men into one room, all the women into another, and place them under guard. The rest of the unit does whatever they please, except destroy equipment – it goes without saying – and there’s no helping yourself to anything: we have to cause as little harm to the people as possible, as little physical damage as possible. If I try to imagine the reverse situation: if they had entered my home, not a police force with a warrant, but a unit of soldiers, if they had burst into my home, shoved my mother and little sister into my bedroom, and forced my father and my younger brother and me into the living-room, pointing their guns at us, laughing, smiling, and we didn’t always understand what the soldiers were saying while they emptied the drawers and searched through the things. Oops it fell, broken – all kinds of photos, of my grandmother and grandfather, all kinds of sentimental things that you wouldn’t want anyone else to see. There is no justification for this. If there is a suspicion that a terrorist has entered a house, so be it. But just to enter a home, any home: here I’ve chosen one, look what fun. We go in, we check it out, we cause a bit of injustice, we’ve asserted our military presence and then we move on.’
‘There’s a very clear and powerful connection between how much time you serve in the Territories and how fucked in the head you get. If someone is in the Territories half a year, he’s a beginner, they don’t allow him into the interesting places, he does guard-duty, all he does is just grow more and more bitter, angry. The more shit he eats, from the Jews and the Arabs and the army and the state, they call that numbness but I don’t, because serving in the Territories isn’t about numbness, it’s a high, a sort of negative high: you’re always tired, you’re always hungry, you always have to go to the bathroom, you’re always scared to die, you’re always eager to catch that terrorist. It’s a life without rest. Even when you sleep, you don’t sleep well. I don’t remember even once sleeping well in Hebron. It’s simply an experience that no human being should have. It fucks with your head. It’s the experience of a hunted animal, a hunting animal, of an animal, whatever.’
‘When I served in Hebron, for the first time in my life I felt different about being a Jew. I can’t explain it. But the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the ancestral city, it did something to me. I don’t know if I was defending the State of Israel, but I was defending Jews who were part of the state, and in a city where the controversy is different from other Arab cities. It was the worshippers’ route. One day, out of the blue, a group of about six Jewish women with six or seven little girls simply started running around, started kicking stalls and turning them over, and spitting on Arabs and elderly people. One of the women picked up a rock and shattered the window of a barber shop. A man comes out, and I find myself, on the one hand, trying to take the rock away from her, and on the other hand, defending her, so that they won’t beat the shit out of her. So on the one hand you say to yourself, fuck it, I’m supposed to guard the Jews that are here. But these Jews don’t behave with the same morality or values I was raised on. If they’re capable of writing on the Arabs’ doors "Arabs Out” or "Death to the Arabs,” and drawing a Star of David, which to me is like a swastika when they draw it like that, then somehow the term "Jew” has changed a little for me.’
‘Once I was in Hebron, when from a gate near our post that leads to the Kasbah, and from which it is forbidden to enter or exit, came a man in his fifties or sixties with a few women and small children. You walk up to him and say in Arabic: "Stop, there’s a curfew, go home.” And then he starts to argue with you. And he gets bold, like he believes that he’ll get through in the end. He’s not trying to weasel his way through, he really believes that he’s in the right. And that confuses you. You remember that actually you would like to let him pass, but you’re not supposed to let him pass, and how dare he stand there in front of you . . . Finally the patrol shows up, and from an argument between two soldiers and ten people, it becomes an argument between ten soldiers and ten people, with an officer who, naturally, is less inclined to restrain himself. Weapons are cocked, aimed, not straight at him, but at his legs. "Get the hell out of here, enough talk!” I was standing closest to him, about a metre or two. He was all dressed up, wearing a suit and a kaffiyeh, he looked really respectable. And I was standing there with my weapon, close to my chest, trying to defend myself, protect myself. I was afraid that he was going to try something. And the atmosphere was charged, more than usual. Then he sticks out his chest, and both his fists are tightly closed. My finger moves to the safety catch, and then I see his eyes are filled with tears, and he says something in Arabic, turns around, and goes. And his clan follows him. I’m not exactly sure why this incident is engraved in my memory out of all the times I told people to scram when there was a curfew, but there was something so noble about him, and I felt like the scum of the earth. Like, what am I doing here?’
‘That morning, a fairly big group arrived in Hebron, around 15 Jews from France. They were all religious Jews. They were in a good mood, really having a great time, and I spent my entire shift following this gang of Jews around and trying to keep them from destroying the town. They just wandered around, picked up every stone they saw, and started throwing them in Arabs’ windows, and overturning whatever they came across. There’s no horror story here: they didn’t catch some Arab and kill him or anything like that, but what bothered me is that maybe someone told them that there’s a place in the world where a Jew can take all of his rage out on Arab people, and simply do anything. Come to a Palestinian town, and do whatever he wants, and the soldiers will always be there to back him up. Because that was my job, to protect them and make sure that nothing happened to them.’