In testimonies from Occupation, the most moral army comes off like Cossacks
In a memorable exchange on the Gaza War between Norman Finkelstein and Benny Morris some months ago, Finkelstein asked Morris about one of the more bizarre allegations in the Goldstone Report: the evidence of the massive destruction of chicken farms in Zeytoun during the war. “You think those chicken farms were part of Hamas infrastructure?” Finkelstein asked. “It depends if they were Hamas chickens”, Morris replied, laughing. Such flippant cruelty, of course, has become routine with Morris; there is little reason to expect the man who infamously mused in Haaretz about the prospect of Palestinians being put in cages to view the destruction of their livestock with anything but indifference, or perhaps satisfaction. More sensitive critics of the Goldstone Report, however, appreciate the implications of this particular allegation. As Moshe Halbertal, Professor of Philosophy at Hebrew University, writes in his essay “The Goldstone Illusion”, “One of the most disturbing [charges about the destruction of civilian infrastructure] is the report of the flattening with bulldozers of the chicken farm at Zeytoun, in which 31,000 chickens were killed. Such destruction, like other reported destructions of agricultural and industrial facilities, does not seem to serve any purpose.” This was essentially the conclusion that the Goldstone Report reached, calling the destruction of the Sawafeary chicken farms in Zeytoun a “deliberate act of wanton destruction not justified by any military necessity.”
In a coastal strip of land, where the vast majority of people live chiefly off of seafood, eggs must be something of an unusual delicacy (especially since the siege has prevented real delicacies, like chocolate, from entering Gaza). According to the Goldstone Report, Sameh Sawafeary and his family “supplied approximately 35 per cent of the egg market in Gaza.” Mr. Sawafeary testifies in the Report to watching the destruction of his own farms through a peephole in his home, since he was “afraid of being seen and shot.” Sawafeary also told the Goldstone Mission that “the drivers of the tanks would spend hours flattening the chicken coups, sometimes stopping for coffee breaks, before resuming their work.”
This kind of behavior is something that Israel’s apologists, like Halbertal, cannot explain; they simply can’t fathom why those privileged -- and disciplined -- enough to serve in the “most moral army in the world” would seemingly go out of their way to vindicate Goldstone’s later claim that the war at large set out to “deliberately punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population.” What precisely was running through the minds of those soldiers who destroyed Sawafeary’s livelihood will likely remain a mystery. But thanks to the Israeli collective “Breaking the Silence” we now have the most profound document chronicling Israeli abuses from the perspective of those who engineer and administer them. Coinciding as it does with the publication by Nation Books of an edited version of the Goldstone Report, it is worth noting that the history contained in Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies 2000-2010 is every bit as horrifying as what happened during those “twenty-two days of death and destruction”, as Amnesty International called the Gaza War. Taken together (the full book is here) the two reports portray a population under relentless pressure, punctuated by acts of petty cruelty, extreme violence and war. Indeed, it is quite ironic that despite Israel’s longstanding efforts to separate the Gaza from the West Bank, the Palestinians have at least been united, for the whole world to read about, as mutual victims of the atrocious behavior of the Israeli army. I have spent a good part of the last few days going over the 432-page Testimonies, and there is no respite. I have been told that Yitzhak Rabin, and other establishment “doves”, were once profoundly disturbed by the effects of the occupation on the “morale” of Israeli soldiers (if not the Palestinians). If so, it is a good thing Rabin isn’t around to read these testimonies.
“Our mission is to disrupt...and harass the people’s lives”, one solider remembers being told “quite distinctly”. By that standard, the occupation has been a remarkable success. It is quite pointless to pluck incidents in the Testimonies at random; no one is necessarily more disturbing than any other. The first section, “Intimidation of the Palestinian Population -- ’Prevention’”, chronicles the more violent acts of Israeli soldiers. In a testimony labeled “Her limbs were smeared on the wall”, a member of the “Givati Brigade” in 2008 describes how a mother in Gaza was blown up in her home by a “fox”, an explosive used to break through doors and walls. After knocking on the door to the home, a soldier put down the “fox”, “and right at that moment [the mother] decided to open the door. And then her kids came and saw her. I heard [about] it during dinner after the operation, someone said it was funny, and they cracked up from the situation that the kids saw their mother smeared on the wall.” Other incidents testify to Israeli innovations with regard to the use of “human shields”. In Bethlehem in 2002, for example, we learn that a captain was having stones thrown at his jeep. So he “just stopped a 40-something Palestinian, passing by, tied him to the hood of the jeep, the guy was just lying on the hood, and drove him into the village. No one threw rocks any more.”
Apart from violence, a running theme is the humiliation of parents in front of their children. Also an apparent preoccupation of Israeli soldiers in the Territories is terrifying people to the degree that they urinate on themselves. At a checkpoint in South Hebron in 2001, a soldier recalls an incident where an officer, trying to straighten out a line, “just beat a guy up...He hit him in the face with the butt of his Galil [storm rifle], kicked him in the balls, spit on him, cursed him...he just shat on him. Right next to his little boy. He just degraded him.” One soldier, serving in Wadi Ara, tells an interviewer that “work with the [Arab] population was entertainment”, by which the soldier means “pouring out the kids’ bags and playing with their toys. You know, to grab one and play ‘keep away their toys.’” (Another soldier talks about playing a similar game, “there is/there isn’t electricity in the village”). “Did the kids cry?” the interviewer asks. “All the time. They cried and they were afraid. Meaning you couldn’t miss it.” Then there is the following exchange:
“The adults cried too?
“Of course, they were degraded. One of the goals was always: I got him to cry in front of his kids, I got him to crap in his pants.
“You saw situations where people went to the bathroom in their pants? Yes.
“From being beaten, for the most part. Being beaten to death, and threatened, and screamed at, you are just terrified. Especially if it’s in front of your kids, they yell and threaten and scare them, so you also are scaring the kids. One time, again, there was some man we stopped with his kid, the kid was small, like four or something. They didn’t beat up the kid, but the policeman was annoyed that the adult brought the kids so they would have mercy on him. He says to him: ‘You bring your kid so they’ll have mercy on you, let’s show you what that is.’ He goes and beats him up, screams at him, saying, ‘what, I’ll kill you in front of your boy, maybe you’ll feel more...’ It’s terrifying. Again, there are a lot of stories of honor. Did he piss his pants out of fear?
“In front of the boy.
“Yes. A lot of stories of honor, like check me out, I got him to crap, I got him to whatever. They talked about it routinely all the time...”
After the eruption of the Second Intifada in Baka-a-Sharqiya, a soldier relates how Palestinians would attempt to create miniature “blockades” next to checkpoints with “anything they could get their hands on: tires, furniture, everything”. The soldiers would have to dismantle the blockades, which they determined was “too dangerous for us”. The soldier goes on: “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 pointing with the barrel of the gun what he has to 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”. At that point another commander comes along, impressed by the boy’s work, and decides that he wants him to do the same at another village. So he puts the boy in a Jeep, but “Inside the patrol jeep there is no place to put the boy so what he does is he throws him in the 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.” Driving along, however, the commander realizes that “they [Palestinians] did not walk 10 kilometers with furniture to make a blockade”, so he “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.”
The writer consistently evoked by a reading of the Testimonies is Orwell; one wishes his Jewish incarnation were alive in Israel today to write an essay called “Politics and the Hebrew Language”. Describing his experiences harassing children, and deliberately making them cry, a soldier tells an interviewer about his “work with the people.” “‘Working with the people’ is a nice turn of phrase”, the interviewer replies. Another soldier in Hebron explains the practice of “Mapping”: “Mapping is when you get an address from above, I don’t know why, and you like go, go from house to house. You enter a house, you take IDs. I remember that you do searches in the room afterwards, and then one of the senior guys came, dumped out the closet, so you also dump out the closet...then you dump-dump-dump and then leave, you move to the next house.” The interviewer asks, sarcastically, “What are you looking for? It sounds very organized”. “When I was a soldier I didn’t understand what it was”, the soldier replies. These reflections fall under the third section of the Testimonies, called “Administering Palestinians Civilian Life -- ’Fabric of Life’”. As the editors of the report explain, “Israel’s official spokespeople argue that Israel does not withhold basic life essentials from Palestinians or engender a humanitarian crisis, but does, despite its security needs, allow for a Palestinian ‘fabric of life’ in the Territories.” As Orwell noted, “political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” The writers from Breaking The Silence explain: “The Israeli military forces make use of code-words like ‘fabric of life’ and ‘proportionality’ to describe and characterize different sorts of assignments: checkpoints, house and infrastructure demolitions, forced entry into Palestinian houses, and even targeted assassinations. The soldiers’ testimonies in this chapter give a more accurate account of the Palestinian “fabric of life” under Israeli Occupation: arbitrary, temporary, and empty of dignity.”
Then there are those chickens. They seem destined to emerge as a symbol, in any given report on Israeli atrocities, of the forces at work against the Palestinians. In the Goldstone Report, the wanton destruction of the farms mirrors the wholesale destruction of Gaza: the chickens, allowed to roam outside before their death, not unlike a population under placed under siege and then bombarded. In the Testimonies, we are privy not to the massive and concentrated use of force, but the everyday cruelties of an occupation, the steady takeover of people’s lives. In Jenin, in 2002, a solider in the “Nahal Brigade” describes “veteran soldiers” locking the owner of a house in a room. The soldiers “wanted to cook a meal so they slaughtered some of his chickens and barbecued them downstairs. Yeah, this is what they did, I remember them coming back happy after their meal...Yeah, they did what they fucking wanted.”
Here, a different writer in conjured up. In his celebrated “Red Cavalry Stories”, the early-twentieth century Russian writer Isaac Babel describes the experience of a Jew serving alongside Cossacks after the Revolution. One of his more famous stories, “My First Goose”, is about a Jewish soldier slaughtering a goose, then demanding that a peasant woman roast it for him, in order to impress those in his regiment. Some Israeli soldiers, as we have seen, are apparently confident enough to do the cooking themselves; but the Testimonies are filled with similar examples of young boys trying to impress each other, living up to some obscene definition of “manhood”, with predictable results. One solider recalls throwing a stun grenade inside a middle of a market. “The commanders say: ‘Throw as hard as you can in the center.’ I threw in the center, it hit a chicken coop. The stun grenade hit the coop and killed the chickens, I don’t know. There were tons of yells and screams and then the rocks started and that was it, it deteriorated.”
That the “most moral army in the world” has been revealed, in its most elite units, to be behaving like Cossacks is obviously disturbing. From the limited perspective of Israel’s own self-interest, however, far more disturbing will be the revelation that these kinds of historical examples are on soldiers’ minds as well. Describing repeated naval blockades in the Gaza Strip in 2005, before the official siege was underway, a member of the Israeli navy says, “70 percent live on fish, they have no choice. For them it’s not eating. There are whole families who don’t eat because of it for a few days. They eat bread and water. Like in the Holocaust.” Such an analogy is always -- and perhaps rightly -- decried as inflammatory and offensive. That it is coming from Israeli soldiers themselves indicates that what we are being given, by Breaking The Silence, is a final wake-up-call before the moral perversion of endless occupation leads to even greater calamity.
Matthew Phillips is pursuing an MA in Middle East studies. He is a frequent contributor to Mondoweiss.