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(Ismael Mohamad / United Press International)

Israeli soldiers get "addicted to power" over Palestinians, says new book

The Israeli military teaches its soldiers not to think about the consequences of their violent behavior against Palestinians, a new book states. 

In Soldiering Under Occupation (Berghahn), Erella Grassiani analyzes confessions collected by Breaking the Silence, a group which exposes the conduct of Israeli troops, as well as interviews that she conducted herself. 

Grassiani, who lectures in the University of Amsterdam, finds that in most cases soldiers realize that their activities in the occupied West Bank and Gaza cause harm to the Palestinians. However, the majority of the soldiers do not act on this knowledge and do not try to change the situation.

Boredom

Israeli youth are brought up in an environment that idealizes combat service. Guarding a checkpoint is difficult to reconcile with a soldier’s training to be a combatant, who defends the state.

The policing task at a checkpoint is often described by soldiers as boring and with terms like “black” or “dirty” work. Soldiers describe the long hours and the monotonous nature of the work. Because the work tries their patience, it negatively affects the morale and motivation of soldiers and influences their behavior towards Palestinians.

Soldiers often get bored by patrolling, too.  To pass the time they can undertake random searches of people, who pose no threat. 

Even though there is more action involved, night-time arrests also become a routine, a paratrooper commander observes. This routine contributes to a numbing process, which normalizes harassment and aggression in the soldier’s mind.

It is disturbing to read how soldiers get excited when military operations break the routine. One military commander recalls that “everyone is excited, crazy” as soon as a call to action is made. 

During the numerous incursions into Palestinian cities in the occupied West Bank during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, soldiers also felt like “real” combatants who needed to defend their country with their weapons. Many soldiers failed to distinguish between emotions linked to suicide attacks by “the Palestinians” and performing their job, says a commander who served in Jenin. As a result, many took out their feelings of revenge on Palestinian civilians.

“I can do everything”

At checkpoints, the military holds direct power over Palestinians, which is reflected in soldiers’ weapons, dress and behavior. Soldiers operate in a system with a high degree of structural power where superiors hand out orders and punishments. Young soldiers internalize the feelings of dominance and power.

When a Palestinian questions this power by starting an argument or not listening, it can easily lead to abuse of power and trigger a harsh reaction.  “Corrective punishment” is often used to show who is in charge. Contrary to military orders but condoned by their superiors, soldiers keep Palestinians waiting for hours to “dry up” — sometimes blindfolded, handcuffed — in the burning sun.

A soldier guarding a checkpoint tells how — to his shame — he enjoyed the feeling of power and finds he got “addicted to controlling people.” People do what you tell them. You know it is because you carry a weapon, he realizes.

“God, I can do everything. It’s terrible, I told you I really, really tried for it not to happen…..this power, soldiers feel it,” says an officer with the Israeli paratroopers.

Indifferent to suffering

In general, soldiers have negative feelings towards Palestinians as they are seen as a hostile group. Physical distance can increase the soldier’s indifference towards “the other.”

Checkpoints like Qalandiya — between Jerusalem and Ramallah — increase the distance because the thick bulletproof glass which separates the soldier from the Palestinians makes a conversation impossible and blocks eye contact. Through the megaphone or intercom, soldiers repeat their monotonous orders and questions such as “ID,” “permit,” “where are you going?” and “where did you come from?”

The situation leads to a further depersonalization of Palestinians. They are perceived as a mass of “Arabs” or “Palestinians” or as categories like “the old man” or “the pregnant woman.”

The moral numbing adds to the soldier’s indifference to the suffering of the Palestinians or to the way they are treated. Soldiers do not recognize that the situation in front of them is morally problematic.

The failure to feel empathy can easily lead to aggressive and immoral behavior towards Palestinians and their possessions. For example, soldiers who got bored while being stationed in armored vehicles in the Gaza Strip for days started to shoot down solar water heaters. It is disturbing that the commander said he could understand why his soldiers “take it out” on such equipment.

Stop thinking

Soldiers and commanders detach themselves from their experience and consciously stop thinking about it. They refer to this non-thinking mode as getting into rosh katan (small head.) 

In this state of mind, soldiers ask few questions about what they are doing. They only do what they are told, without taking into account the bigger picture of their actions. It is a way to evade responsibility.

It seems that the Israeli military is also interested in soldiers following the orders they receive without asking further questions. Soldiers who think about their actions and who form their own opinions will be less inclined to just follow orders. They can cause operational difficulties.

“Yes is yes, no is no. It’s the military, the only one who can think is the commander. Soldiers don’t get space to think and that prevents the entire ‘if’ and ‘maybe.’ It secures us in that way,” says one soldier.

“In the military they teach you not to think, whatever they tell you, you do,” says another soldier.

When soldiers block their thinking, it increases the chances of misbehavior and will limit reflection on the consequences. If the thinking stops, one cannot act in a moral way.

Rotten apples?

The immoral and illegal behavior of the Israeli forces is a “direct product of Israeli political and military policies of the occupation,” argues Grassiani.

“There is a clear and powerful connection between how much time you serve in the [occupied] territories and how fucked in the head you get,” says one soldier. In the first half year serving in the occupied West Bank, soldiers have to do guard-duty and they become “more and more bitter, angry.”

When the violence and harassment of soldiers against Palestinians is exposed in the media, the Israeli military and the political establishment blame the soldiers, referring to them as the “rotten apples.” However, the discourse of “rotten apples” is used to help the Israeli forces to keep up its moral image and to save the image of the state.

Grassiani warns that the refusal of the Israeli military commanders and politicians to take responsibility for their role in the violations of rights of Palestinians paves the way for even more serious violations.

 

Comments

Thoughtful and objective examination of the impact of wrongful policy on the perpetrators. The soldier and his/her family should be very worried about the brutalising effect of military service on their family member. Won't it come home to them? Perhaps they shoud take more political responsibility for what is happening. It is interesting to read this in parallel with the famous legal ruling at the Nuremberg trial of leading Nazis, that the excuse "I was only obeying orders" is not a valid defence to wrongdoing. Grassiani's explanation of how the frontline soldiers become morally numbed places a high level of responsibility also on the commanders and above all the political leaders who create this dehumanising context. The next time we read of some private soldier being found guilty of an abuse, I will also ask whether the prosecutor made any enquiry into the contributing role of his commanders.

The effect of the policies described in the book becomes more important when one considers the fact that all Israeli citzens (with probably a few exceptions) do compulsory military service, meaning there's a whole population that participates first-hand in the kind of abuses detailed in this article. Even when/if the current state of Israel is replaced with a nation where everyone has equal rights, there will be countless people in it who have committed human rights abuses that can never be tried or punished.

Yes, Jim, it's very different from western states who today have only volunteer professional armies. Zionism has necessitated the militarisation of the whole Jewish population of Israel. Here is the Jewish dilemma: which tradition within Judaism should Jews seek to develop? Is it Joshua with his ruthless conquest of land without mercy to the native inhabitants? Or is it Rabbi Hillel's statement of the meaning of the bible as "whatever is distasteful to you, do not do it to others ... all the rest (of the bible) is commentary". Hillel placed at the centre of Judaism the "golden rule" of mutuality and empathy, discovered, naturally, through thousands of years of our pre-Bible experience and, of course, passed on later by Christianity and Islam as "love your neighbour as yourself". Zionists are prone to label their critics as anti-Jewish. But the authentically Jewish issue is whether Zionism is promoting Judaism, or whether it is undermining Judaism. Is domination of the land, idolising territorial control as a golden calf, over and above our duty to form decent relations with our fellow humans? And which of these values promotes Judaism, and which of them brings Judaism into disrepute?