Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Israel's Latest (Publicized) Abu Ghraib Affair

So Israeli telejournalist Ilana Dayan does a "Fact" (Uvdah) segment about how Israeli soldiers in an elite unite tortured and abused Palestinians. That produces a Haaretz editorial and little else, not even a lot of talkbacks. Most Israelis I know consider the Palestinians to be inferior; they don't really care about the abuse. Those who do care will tell themselves that these are a few bad apples and that the IDF is the most moral army in the world.

What they don't get is that the most moral army in the world inevitably commits acts of immorality against occupied populations. So even if we allow that the IDF deserves that title (funny, I missed the awards competition), that doesn't mean that the IDF doesn't commit despicable acts on an hourly basis.

Please watch the broadcast show here.

Still, why is it that we don't hear more of human rights abuse? After all, Israel is a small country and many of our children serve in the IDF. If this sort of abuse were widespread, then wouldn't we hear more about it?

Not necessarily. In fact, here are some of the reasons we don't.

First, soldiers have the attitude that what happens in the West Bank stays in the West Bank. They don't come home and talk to their families and friends about things they are ashamed of -- if indeed they are ashamed of it. Most soldiers do what they are told to do and don't pause to consider what they are doing when they are doing it. By the time they leave the army and have time to think on their experiences, they are smoking grass in India, or trekking in South America, and trying to move on with their lives.

Second, much of what is considered human rights abuse falls under the category of "necessary, if regrettable, deterrence." There are operational reasons why soldiers, like police officers, have to infringe upon human rights. I am not saying that these are extreme cases, but it is difficult to draw the line between what is militarily necessary or not, and that line is not drawn by you. So you don't even realize that some of what you are doing is abuse.

Third, soldiers get desensitized quickly. The first time they are asked to abuse civilians, some are shocked. But after repetition, and when boredom sets in, they need to up the ante.

Fourth, some human rights infringement are deemed militarily necessary. So if you want to be a good soldier, you have to obey orders and follow procedures, even if that means that a pregnant women will die in childbirth at a roadblock. You are then told that these things are unfortunate, but without that roadbock, Jews may die. Etc.

But, to my mind, the biggest reason why most Israeli soldiers do not talk about their human rights abuse is because they consider Palestinians to be inferior losers.Hence, they will do things to them that they would not do to even their enemies who happen to be Jewish. They do not see the Palestinians as themselves; they are incapable of placing themselves in the shoes of the Palestinians.

At the Breaking the Silence event in Washington, DC, Adam Harmon, who defended the morality of the IDF, made a telling comment that revealed the depth of his insensitivity to Palestinian humanity. He said something to this effect:

I can understand how the Palestinian civilians can feel deeply frustrated by the roadblocks. But I can't understand how they feel humiliated. We did nothing to humiliate them. We certainly did not intend to humiliate them.

That line, uttered by a genuinely likable guy, explains why you don't hear more of the IDF abusing soldiers. Most soldiers like Harmon don't understand that a long-term occupation is BY ITS VERY NATURE a humiliating experience. Even if the IDF soldiers handed out checks to the Palestinians at the checkpoints, or flowers, or free nargila, they would still be humiliating them because they control their lives. The occupation robs the occupied of their dignity, of their value.

Harmon, I add parenthentically, was born in New Hampshire. Apparently, he has never heard of that state's motto, "Live free or die." Taking away a person's freedom is worse than death. And that is what the Israelis have done to the Palestinians in Gaza and on the West Bank. They have robbed them of their freedom. No matter what the Israelis intentions may be -- and I am willing to grant that their intentions are honorable, for the most part -- they have inevitably humiliated the Palestinians.

In a sense, Ilana Dayan and Haaretz take they easy way out. By publicizing yet another Israeli "Abu Ghreib" they desensitive the Israeli public to the humiliation that is inherent in the occupation, any occupation. The expose becomes a new Jewish ritual of self-condemnation that lasts, if it is present at all, for a few minutes. The truth is that in Israel, few give lip-service even to their shock.

So why am I writing this? Two reasons:

First, over time, I believe, people's minds can change. Even hearts of stone can be eroded. The Israeli spin was once universally accepted in the West, even by most intellectuals. Now, can one think of a single serious non-Jewish intellectual who buys it? The first time I read Said's The Question of Palestine, I dismissed him out of hand as a Palestinian Dershowitz. (That was in my liberal Zionist phaze.) We don't need polemicists, I thought, we need thoughtful moderates. Ditto for Chomsky. I was stuck in the Zionist liberal middle. It took an intifada to push me over to the real middle.

Second, even if nothing happens, even if no hearts are changed, even if things get worse...I will have done what I think God wants us to do. If you don't know what I am talking about, read about it in that book by the other Jeremiah.

Here is the Haaretz editorial. Well-worth a read, even though the headline could have been written -- and should have been written -- every day for the last forty years.

Something bad is happening to us

Three years ago, the CBS television network broadcast photos of American soldiers abusing prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The horrifying pictures led to the trials of eight soldiers, dismissals and a storm of outrage in America. At the trial of one prison guard, who was sentenced to eight years in jail, a psychologist gave his evaluation: that the man was an entirely ordinary person, without any particular violent tendencies, who served as a guard for many years in civilian life but never behaved sadistically toward American prisoners. The situation of occupier and occupied, as opposed to that of citizen versus citizen, causes ordinary people to become violent and lose restraint. At Abu Ghraib, the trial found, there was institutionalized contempt at every level. The prison guards understood that "this is the way to behave here."

Last night, the investigative television program "Fact" broadcast pictures of our own Abu Ghraib affair. It is doubtful whether a country that has grown used to 40 years of occupation, and the stories that accompany it, will be shocked. We have become accustomed to treating the Palestinians as inferior people. Generations come and go, and new soldiers abuse the residents of occupied Hebron in almost the same manner. Stories similar to those broadcast last night were exposed by the Breaking the Silence group three years ago. The saying "occupation corrupts" has become a slogan of the left instead of a warning signal to everyone.

This time, it was regular soldiers in the Kfir Brigade. They exposed their backsides and sexual organs to Palestinians, pressed an electric heater to the face of a young boy, beat young boys senseless, recorded everything on their mobile phones and sent it to their friends. One of their "mischievous acts" was to test how long a Palestinian who was being choked could survive without breathing. When he passed out, the experiment was stopped. The soldiers described activities to "break the routine" that consisted entirely of abuse. It was enough for a boy "to look at us the wrong way" for him to be beaten.

Earlier, at the trial of First Lieutenant Yaakov Gigi, officers spoke of burnout, of "something bad happening to the brigade," of a Wild West, of a moral crisis. The commander of the brigade, Colonel Itai Virov, said "we failed on several parameters." His words reflect a denial of the depth of the failure. This continuing routine, far from the eyes of the commanders, must lead to a series of investigations, and perhaps to dismissals as well. It is unconscionable for the head of the Hebron Brigade, the division commander, the GOC Central Command and even the chief of staff to ignore the ongoing behavior of soldiers in the brigade responsible for routine security in the West Bank. Colonel Virov admitted that there was a conspiracy of silence in the brigade - in other words, a norm of abuse and its concealment. To change norms, one has to shock and be shocked, not be satisfied with a few imprisonments and empty words about a loss of values.

Perfectly ordinary people, as the American psychologist said of the Abu Ghraib abusers, are capable of behaving like monsters when they receive a message from the top that it is permissible to abuse, beat, choke, burn, make people miserable and generally do anything that man's evil genius is capable of inventing to others who are under their control. Something bad is happening to us, they are saying in the Kfir Brigade. That "something" is the occupation.

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