Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Gaza – Why this IDF Abuse Was Different From Other IDF Abuse

As "Breaking the Silence" continues to collect testimony of the soldiers who witnessed, or participated in, abuse of Palestinians in Gaza, the first scholarly attempt to place the Gaza events in military and historical context is by Yagil Levy, one of the top military analysts and historians in Israel.Levy manages, in the space of a short Haaretz op-ed, to explain why things were different in Gaza, despite the problem of soldier abuse being nothing new. These are not self-contradictory claims. Armies always abuse civilians under occupation (except in those MTV-inspired recruitment ads in American movie theaters, in which the soldiers are always helping the occupied population – usually children -- while a rockster sings about America, and nobody gets his face blown off.) Yet some campaigns are worse than others. The Gaza campaign was particularly awful, although the greater crimes by far occurred at the level of the top brass. Still, Levy has some interesting things to say about mid-level commanders. This is all very preliminary, and as I wrote below, there is still no scholarly study of why some IDF soldiers abuse civilians and others don't.

It's the Same Violence

By Yagil Levy

The disclosure of testimony by graduates of the Yitzhak Rabin pre-military academy at Oranim Academic College about the conduct of the army during Operation Cast Lead drew three responses.

The first regarded the testimony as something anomalous that required investigation. The investigation, as usual, was sent to the Military Police Investigation Unit, which found the suspicions baseless.

The second was an attempt to link the improper behavior patterns with the prominent presence of rabbis with the soldiers, and the materials they disseminate to them.


The third reaction, which sums up the previous two, involved pondering the question of why the Israel Defense Forces have relinquished their traditional values. The implication was that if the scum was cleaned away, the ranks would no longer be defiled.

That is not necessarily so. An army by definition is a violent organization. The question is, what restrains the use of violence?

The rules of engagement give the officers and soldiers broad autonomy, and thus great deal responsibility. The soldiers' tendency toward violence does not merely stem from the values they bring with them from home or from ideological persuasion. An important role is played by the competition the soldiers feel for their status in the unit, the importance that their status in the army plays in determining their status in the civilian environment from which they came, and the degree of competition among the army's various units.

An army is a competitive environment no less than a violent one. The competitiveness is especially strong when the number of conscripts drops and when the fighting units are manned by a large percentage of soldiers from the social periphery and religious groups that move from the fringes to the mainstream.

An achievement in the military field is especially significant for someone who enlists in the army in order to gain social status or to leave an ideological mark and not merely to fill a basic civic duty, which is what motivates (now diminishing) parts of the established middle classes. An accomplishment is measured through the test of militancy.

The army itself intensifies this competitiveness; in its attempts to market itself among the public of potential conscripts, it increases the exposure given to the units and turns them into brand names. What is important in the testimonies that were disclosed is not the preciseness of detail about the use of fire but rather the enthusiasm to employ violence. As someone said: "Everyone went upstairs and fired together, they were really excited as if it were fun - we're shooting." In a competitive environment, it is more difficult to restrain violence. The key question is whether the units have a critical mass of soldiers who have heightened sensitivity and who can restrain their colleagues and if necessary report about irregularities in the chain of command. The change in the composition of the army makes this less likely in relation to the army of the first Lebanon war and the first intifada.

The late appearance of "breaking the silence," after four years of fighting in the territories, bore witness to that. The meeting of graduates of the Rabin academy and their attempt to influence (retroactively) the army's conduct outside the formal army channels also testifies to this.

When a critical mass of soldiers of this type is lacking in the ranks, the action takes place outside the army and not within it. In both cases graduates of relatively established groups, who do not feel that the test of how they fight is definitive for their status in their own eyes or in the eyes of others, act toward restraining the army and do not flinch from dealing with criticism that raises eyebrows about their patriotism. Even inside the army one can discern different patterns of behavior between units that differ from the point of view of their social profile.

This is not a new phenomenon. The IDF of the present decade is in certain aspects more controlled and restrained than the army of the 1950s which carried out the retaliation raids, and than the IDF of the War of Independence or the organizations that preceded it.

The youths in the Palmach also operated in an environment that was competitive compared with other organizations. The way in which the Palmach generation competed for its place as compared with other groups led to a nurturing of excessive aggressiveness.

It was only when this generation and its successors became established that it became possible, after the Six Day War in 1967, to hold "siah lohamim," a frank discussion among soldiers about the fighting, which was critical at that time. According to recent reports, today's fighters brand their actions through T-shirts with nationalistic and sexist slogans.

The Palmach fighters did not put slogans on their shirts, but they could enjoy a song by Haim Hefer which spoke of the castration by the Palmach of an Arab who was suspected of raping a Jewess. The style has changed but not the substance.

Prof. Levy is a member of the faculty at the Open Universi


Danny said...


What Levy is implying is this: Non-Russian Secular Ashkenazim, have getting mellower the past few decades. As they have mellowed, the IDF got mellower (at least relative to the standards by 1948), but at the same time their mellowness along with demographic changes have meant that they are less prominent part of the Army, more and more dominated by other elements: Russians, Mizrahim & Religious people, who are not so mellow.

Levy doesn't bring any facts here, so while it does fit with people's stereotypes, I don't know whether this is true.

fiddler said...

"there is still no scholarly study of why some IDF soldiers abuse civilians and others don't"

There was no shortage of wars in the last century - is there no study of why some soldiers abused civilians and others didn't in any of those? I wouldn't think the psychology of Israeli soldiers was fundamentally different than that of others.

Levy: "The implication was that if the scum was cleaned away, the ranks would no longer be defiled.
That is not necessarily so."

He can say that again. The trouble is that a person who has done evil isn't therefore necessarily a constitutionally evil person (if such a person exists at all). And conversely, there's potential for evil in every one of us. So Levy is absolutely right insisting to look at the cause, not just at the symptoms of the disease.

"graduates of relatively established groups, who do not feel that the test of how they fight is definitive for their status in their own eyes or in the eyes of others"

On the contrary: why did these soldiers speak out if not because they felt they and/or their comrades had failed the "test of how they fight", as opposed to those who counted their barbarity as success?
They're competing, too, on a higher level, not for the number of nicks in their gun stocks but for their place in what they want to be a civilised society, in spite of the inherently anti-civilised nature of war - and that society's place in their lives. In short, they're saying, it's our state, too.