This article is re-published here with the permission of author, Yaacov Lozowick. — Ellie Katz
First posted at Yaacov Lozowick’s Ruminations
March 22nd, 2009
Two months after the IDF operation in Gaza, an internal Israeli conversation taking place in Hebrew is being splashed over media outlets the world over, from the New York Times to the Zevener Zeitung, the local newspaper of a townlet west of Hamburg no-one has ever heard of: yet it carried an item about the Israeli discussion. Unremarkably, the reportage, whether measured and calm, breathless and excited, or antagonistic and gleeful at uncovering Israel’s crimes, is uninformed and silly. That the reporters can’t follow the original discussion because of lingual and cultural barriers is obvious; sadly, they seem not to have read the English translation very carefully, either.
The facts of the operation are partially clear. Following a century of strife over contradictory claims to a very small land, Israel unilaterally disengaged from the Gaza strip in 2005. In the months leading to this disengagement the Palestinians had sensibly refrained from provoking Israeli ire and had carefully held their fire; as soon as the IDF left Gaza, however, the shooting of kassam rockets at Israeli civilians was renewed. Six months later the Palestinians democratically elected Hamas, a party whose fundamental documents and standard rhetoric are deeply antisemitic and genocidal, calling for the death of all Jews. Wisely or not, Israel, Europe and the United States boycotted Hamas, while Israel and Egypt partially blockaded the Gaza strip, especially after a bloody little civil war in 2007 in which Hamas ousted its Fatah rivals and took sole control. Throughout this period the rocketing of Israeli towns and villages continued, with thousands of projectiles hitting Israeli territory between 2005 and 2008. In December 2008 the IDF invaded Gaza in an attempt to put a stop to the shooting. In the ensuing operation 1,300-1,400 Palestinians were killed. According to the Palestinians, 960 of the dead were civilians; the Israelis admit that some 400 civilians were killed, and claim to know the names of at least 580 dead fighters.
The truth may never be known, and is unlikely ever to be agreed upon. (Related article here). Yet no matter which version we prefer, it is clear that in three weeks of battle in a densely populated area, indeed, much of it urban, fewer than a thousand civilians died, perhaps fewer than half. Seen against the backdrop of every urban battle in history, such a number must reflect a high degree of restraint and efforts not to harm civilians. Had Israel wished indiscriminately to kill Palestinians, the numbers would have been vastly greater; even had the IDF been merely callously indifferent to Palestinian lives, the numbers would have been dramatically different. Yet this cannot be a source of sanctimonious satisfaction, since even the Israeli numbers tell of hundreds of dead civilians. It is important for Israel, irrespective of the uninformed world listing in to the discussion, to figure out what happened.
In the summer of 1967, as the IDF reserve soldiers came home from the battlefields of the Six Day War, a group of kibbutz members inspired by the charismatic Holocaust survivor, partisan, and poet Aba Kovner, gathered together to talk about the war. While most of their compatriots were still reeling euphorically from the swift transformation of facing extinction in May 1967 to brilliant victory in June, these thoughtful young men reflected upon the gray zones. Their discussions were published as a book: Siach Lochamim, or Discussions of Warriors. It was important, widely read and quoted; an English version was published in 1971 as “The Seventh Day: Soldier Talk about the Six Day War“. Was it an influential book? Probably not. In post-modern jargon, it was an expression of the hegemonic elite of Israeli society, a few short years before the end of the hegemony and the onset of the present multi-cultural society. Still, it serves as a model some Israelis wistfully look back at.
Danny Zamir, head of the Oranim Academic College, is one of them. Yet there’s an ironic twist to his position. These academic colleges (“Mechinot”) are the invention of a rival group, the Zionist Orthodox,the political home of the Settlers. Twenty years ago some of them felt the need to insert a year of reflection and personal growth between high school and service in the IDF, feeling educated and mature 19-year-olds would better serve their country than less mature 18-year-olds. Zamir has copied their successful model.
This is important, because he and his student-soldiers are not a cross section of Israeli society. On the contrary. They are mostly members of a once illustrious group of Ashkenazi, secular, educated and left-leaning Israelis. One should not belittle them; while they no longer dominate Israeli society, they remain an honorable, creative and important section of it. Yet they are afflicted with a misconception shared by their political relatives in many Western societies: that they are somehow better than the others, more intelligent, more compassionate; that they are right, while everyone else is wrong, and boneheaded for not seeing their light. As in other countries so also in Israel, the rest of society returns the compliment with its own set of prejudices; the Querdenker in me loves them all, and takes none of their conceits all that seriously.
Zamir and his warrior-students have all read Siach Lochamim, and their discussion after the Gaza operation was consciously, carefully modeled on it, with Zamir usurping Kovner’s role, and the young men following their grandfathers – only the social terrain has changed. They are no longer the elite who command the nation’s attention and respect; rather, in their minds, they’re an embattled minority surrounded by a churning mass of inferiors. Read the description of their discussion carefully, and you can’t miss the arrogance.
This is really frustrating, to see that they understand that inside Gaza you are allowed to do anything you want, to break down doors of houses for no reason other than it’s cool.
“You do not get the impression from the officers that there is any logic to it, but they won’t say anything. To write ‘death to the Arabs’ on the walls, to take family pictures and spit on them, just because you can. I think this is the main thing in understanding how much the IDF has fallen in the realm of ethics, really. It’s what I’ll remember the most.”
Here’s the code: When this young sergeant talks about trying to explain to his soldiers that civilians must be protected, he’s casting himself as their moral superior, which is what he feels. He understands, they don’t. When he’s arguing with his religious comrades, however, and especially with the rabbis, he’s facing ideological foes who are his intellectual and social equals, so his criticism becomes sharper:
“What I do remember in particular at the beginning is the feeling of almost a religious mission. My sergeant is a student at a hesder yeshiva [a program that combines religious study and military service]. Before we went in, he assembled the whole platoon and led the prayer for those going into battle. A brigade rabbi was there, who afterward came into Gaza and went around patting us on the shoulder and encouraging us, and praying with people. And also when we were inside they sent in those booklets, full of Psalms, a ton of Psalms. I think that at least in the house I was in for a week, we could have filled a room with the Psalms they sent us, and other booklets like that.
“There was a huge gap between what the Education Corps sent out and what the IDF rabbinate sent out. The Education Corps published a pamphlet for commanders – something about the history of Israel’s fighting in Gaza from 1948 to the present. The rabbinate brought in a lot of booklets and articles, and … their message was very clear: We are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the gentiles who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land. This was the main message, and the whole sense many soldiers had in this operation was of a religious war. From my position as a commander and ‘explainer,’ I attempted to talk about the politics – the streams in Palestinian society, about how not everyone who is in Gaza is Hamas, and not every inhabitant wants to vanquish us. I wanted to explain to the soldiers that this war is not a war for the sanctification of the holy name, but rather one to stop the Qassams.”
I’m not certain this comes across in the English translation; in the original Hebrew it’s crystal clear, and no Israeli will miss the lingual codes. Some may agree with them, others be affronted by them, but everyone sees them. This is crucial, because most of the report is not about the Palestinians at all, and it doesn’t describe things that happened, rather it focuses on a subjective interpretation. Read carefully, and you’ll see that actually, the soldiers didn’t generally behave with the wanton rage the descriptions would have you expect; on the contrary:
Yossie: “I am a platoon sergeant in an operations company of the Paratroops Brigade. We were in a house and discovered a family inside that wasn’t supposed to be there. We assembled them all in the basement, posted two guards at all times and made sure they didn’t make any trouble. Gradually, the emotional distance between us broke down – we had cigarettes with them, we drank coffee with them, we talked about the meaning of life and the fighting in Gaza. After very many conversations the owner of the house, a man of 70-plus, was saying it’s good we are in Gaza and it’s good that the IDF is doing what it is doing.
“The next day we sent the owner of the house and his son, a man of 40 or 50, for questioning. The day after that, we received an answer: We found out that both are political activists in Hamas. That was a little annoying – that they tell you how fine it is that you’re here and good for you and blah-blah-blah, and then you find out that they were lying to your face the whole time.
Yossie, being a platoon sergeant, didn’t lay down policy. If the troops behaved reasonably, it wasn’t because he’d convinced them, it was because their own cultural baggage dictated so.
Aviv describes agonizing as, near the end of the operation, it seemed likely his unit would penetrate a part of the city of Gaza which had not been evacuated of civilians. Ultimately this didn’t happen, but his thought process is fascinating:
“At first the specified action was to go into a house. We were supposed to go in with an armored personnel carrier called an Achzarit [literally, Cruel] to burst through the lower door, to start shooting inside and then … I call this murder … in effect, we were supposed to go up floor by floor, and any person we identified – we were supposed to shoot. I initially asked myself: Where is the logic in this?
“From above they said it was permissible, because anyone who remained in the sector and inside Gaza City was in effect condemned, a terrorist, because they hadn’t fled. I didn’t really understand: On the one hand they don’t really have anywhere to flee to, but on the other hand they’re telling us they hadn’t fled so it’s their fault … This also scared me a bit. I tried to exert some influence, insofar as is possible from within my subordinate position, to change this. In the end the specification involved going into a house, operating megaphones and telling [the tenants]: ‘Come on, everyone get out, you have five minutes, leave the house, anyone who doesn’t get out gets killed.’
He’s a sergeant, yet he argues up the military chain; later the orders are changed, certainly not because he argued, but then again, perhaps because he and many others all did: we can’t know; even he doesn’t know. In any case, it’s a thinking army, trying to fashion the proper way of battle, while at battle.
The deliberations were not only about life and death matters; they also covered more mundane topics. Back to Yossie, billeted in the home of Hamas activists:
“What annoyed me was that in the end, after we understood that the members of this family weren’t exactly our good friends and they pretty much deserved to be forcibly ejected from there, my platoon commander suggested that when we left the house, we should clean up all the stuff, pick up and collect all the garbage in bags, sweep and wash the floor, fold up the blankets we used, make a pile of the mattresses and put them back on the beds.”
Zamir: “What do you mean? Didn’t every IDF unit that left a house do that?”
Yossi: “No. Not at all. On the contrary: In most of the houses graffiti was left behind and things like that.”
Zamir: “That’s simply behaving like animals.”
Yossi: “There was one day when a Katyusha, a Grad, landed in Be’er Sheva and a mother and her baby were moderately to seriously injured. They were neighbors of one of my soldiers. We heard the whole story on the radio, and he didn’t take it lightly – that his neighbors were seriously hurt. So the guy was a bit antsy, and you can understand him. To tell a person like that, ‘Come on, let’s wash the floor of the house of a political activist in Hamas, who has just fired a Katyusha at your neighbors that has amputated one of their legs’ – this isn’t easy to do, especially if you don’t agree with it at all. When my platoon commander said, ‘Okay, tell everyone to fold up blankets and pile up mattresses,’ it wasn’t easy for me to take. There was lot of shouting. In the end I was convinced and realized it really was the right thing to do. Today I appreciate and even admire him, the platoon commander, for what happened there. In the end I don’t think that any army, the Syrian army, the Afghani army, would wash the floor of its enemy’s houses, and it certainly wouldn’t fold blankets and put them back in the closets.”
Fascinating, isn’t it. Yossie and his comrades have a common moral code. They’re stationed in a Palestinian home, and soon they’re having quasi-normal relations with them, talking, sharing cigarettes and so on. There have been Israelis in Arab captivity in some wars (not to mention Gilad Shalit right now), and I’ve never heard the parallel story. At the end, feeling a bit betrayed that the Palestinians had been lying, the soldiers don’t feel like cleaning up; Zamir, however, from the perch of his stricter moral code, or is it arrogance, makes it clear this is bestial (that’s what the original Hebrew word says). In essence, Zamir admonishes his student, you have also become bestial if you’re like all those others.
I agree with Zamir that they should have cleaned up. Yet in the annals of war this is hardly obvious, nor the norm. Leaving a mess is impolite; it’s not bestial. This is exactly where the internal Israeli conversation, happening in Hebrew, turns into something radically different in the malicious hands of unknowing outsiders.
The killing of civilians is of course a different subject altogether. Yet in spite of the world-wide excitement about these testimonies, which if you believe the reports contain Israeli confirmations of wanton brutality and destructiveness, they contain descriptions of only four civilian deaths; here’s the case of three:
Ram: “I serve in an operations company in the Givati Brigade. After we’d gone into the first houses, there was a house with a family inside. Entry was relatively calm. We didn’t open fire, we just yelled at everyone to come down. We put them in a room and then left the house and entered it from a different lot. A few days after we went in, there was an order to release the family. They had set up positions upstairs. There was a sharpshooters’ position on the roof. The platoon commander let the family go and told them to go to the right. One mother and her two children didn’t understand and went to the left, but they forgot to tell the sharpshooter on the roof they had let them go, and it was was okay and he should hold his fire and he … he did what he was supposed to, like he was following his orders.”
Question from the audience: “At what range was this?”
Ram: “Between 100 and 200 meters, something like that. They had also came out of the house that he was on the roof of, they had advanced a bit and suddenly he saw then, people moving around in an area where they were forbidden to move around. I don’t think he felt too bad about it, because after all, as far as he was concerned, he did his job according to the orders he was given. And the atmosphere in general, from what I understood from most of my men who I talked to … I don’t know how to describe it …. The lives of Palestinians, let’s say, is something very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers. So as far as they are concerned they can justify it that way.”
According to a radio broadcast two days ago, Ram has since admitted he wasn’t an eyewitness to any of this, it’s only hearsay. Or to be accurate: the tragic death of that woman and her two children happened; the talk about “the atmosphere in general” and so on, that’s hearsay. Ram assumes the shooter would have said he was merely following orders – a loaded statement if there ever was one – but he doesn’t know this. He implies that had he been stationed on the roof, he would have known better – and perhaps he might have. Then again, perhaps not. The devil – not figuratively – is in the details: was it daylight or nighttime? Were the children toddlers, or teenagers? Did their killer recognize them for who they were, or could he have easily been convinced they were something else? These specific questions make all the difference between the confusion of war and a malicious killing. They need to be clarified by professional investigators, not by a kangaroo court.
War is one of the worst occupations men can engage in – though genocide and some large scale injustices are worse, and their prevention justifies war. There is no such thing as a pretty war. The decision to be in war entails, always, the decision to do things that would be totally unacceptable in any other context. For this reason, the decision must be made with care, including detailed planning, meticulous training, permanent self reflection even under fire, and calm examination of everything afterwords so that mistakes not be repeated. Israel is currently examining itself, in a public, communal discussion. I cannot think of any other society which does this in such a frank and open manner; certainly never any of our enemies, but not any of our friends, either. The decision of our critics to cast this in a very different light tells mostly who they are, not who we are.
Hat tip: Neukoelln Botschaft
From Schmoozing with Elya & Ellie Katz