Israel’s Harsh Logic
By New Matilda
‘Our Harsh Logic’, a new book of testimonies from Israeli Defence Force soldiers, exposes the brutal treatment of Palestinians and the system that allows the violence to continue. Read an exclusive excerpt here
Death sentence for a man who wasn’t armed
Soldier: We took over a central house, set up positions, and one of the sharpshooters identified a man on a roof, two roofs away, I think he was between 50 and 70 metres away, not armed. I looked at the man through the night vision — he wasn’t armed. It was two in the morning. A man without arms, walking on the roof, just walking around. We reported it to the company commander. The company commander said: “Take him down.” [The sharpshooter] fired, took him down. The company commander — basically ordered, decided via radio, the death sentence for that man. A man who wasn’t armed.
Interviewer: You saw that he wasn’t armed?
Solder: I saw with my own eyes that the guy wasn’t armed. The report also said: “a man without arms on the roof.” The company commander declared him a lookout, meaning he understood that the guy was no threat to us, and he gave the order to kill him and we shot him. I myself didn’t shoot, my friend shot and killed him.
And basically you think, you see in the United States there’s the death penalty, for every death sentence there are like a thousand appeals and convictions, and they take it very seriously, and there are judges and learned people, and there are protests and what ever. And here a 26-year old guy, my company commander, sentenced an unarmed man to death. Who is he? What do you mean, a lookout? And even if he was a lookout? So what, you have to kill him? And how did he know he was a lookout? He didn’t know. He got a report from the radio about an unarmed man on the roof, and he gave an order to kill him, which I think is an illegal order, and we carried out the order, we killed him. The man died. And listen, to me it’s murder. And that’s not the only case.
In June 2004, some 60 veteran soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces presented an exhibition of written testimonies and photographs from their military service in Hebron, in the Occupied West Bank. The exhibition led to the founding of Breaking the Silence, an organization dedicated to exposing the day-to-day reality of military service in the Occupied Territories through testimonies from the soldiers entrusted with carrying it out.
The collected witnesses’ testimonies represent all strata of Israeli society and nearly all IDF units engaged in the Occupied Territories. They include commanders and officers as well as the rank and file, and both men and women.
Although the soldiers’ descriptions are limited to their personal experiences, the cumulative body of their testimony allows a broad view — not only of the IDF’s primary methods of operation but also of the principles shaping Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories.
This month marks the publication of Our Harsh Logic, the first book of testimonies published by Breaking the Silence. The book is based on the report Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies, 2000-2010, which marked a decade since the outbreak of the Second Palestinian Intifada.
The testimonies left no room for doubt: while the security apparatus has had to respond to concrete threats during the past decade, including terrorist attacks on citizens, Israel’s actions are not solely defensive. Rather, they have systematically led to the de facto annexation of large sections of the West Bank through the dispossession of Palestinian residents and by tightening control over the civilian population and instilling fear. The widespread notion in Israeli society that control of the Territories is exclusively aimed at protecting citizens is incompatible with the information conveyed by hundreds of IDF soldiers.
In the media, in internal discussions, and in military briefings, the security forces and government bodies consistently refer to four components of Israeli policy: “prevention of terrorism,” or “prevention of hostile terrorist activity” (sikkul); “separation,” that is, Israel remaining separate from the Palestinian population (hafradah); preserving the Palestinian “fabric of life” (mirkam hayyim); and “enforcing the law” in the Territories (akifat hok).
The testimonies in Our Harsh Logic each correspond to one of these policy terms.
In the first part, “Prevention,” the testimonies show that almost every use of military force in the Territories is considered preventive. Behind this sweeping interpretation of the term lies the assumption that every Palestinian, man and woman, is suspect, constituting a threat to Israeli citizens and soldiers; consequently, deterring the Palestinian population as a whole, through intimidation, will reduce the possibility of opposition and thereby prevent terrorist activity.
In this light, abusing Palestinians at checkpoints, confiscating property, imposing collective punishment, changing and obstructing access to free movement (by setting up transient checkpoints, for example), even making arbitrary changes to the rules (according to the whim of a commander at a checkpoint, for instance) — these can all be justified as preventive activities, and the difference between offensive and defensive actions gradually disappears.
Part Two covers the second policy term, “Separation,” which does not only mean separating the two populations, but also separating Palestinian communities from each other. Palestinian movement is channeled to Israel’s monitoring mechanisms, which establish new borders on the ground. The many permits and permissions Palestinians need to move around the West Bank also serve to limit their freedom of movement and internally divide their communities. The often arbitrary regulations and endless bureaucratic mazes are no less effective than physical barriers. The policy of separation is exposed as a means to divide and conquer.
The soldiers’ testimonies also reveal a third effect, which is the separation of Palestinians from their land. The Israeli settlements and surrounding areas are themselves a barrier. Palestinians are forbidden to enter these territories, which often include their own agricultural land. The location of these multiple barriers does not appear to be determined solely by defensive considerations based on where Palestinians live, but rather on offensive calculations governed by Israel’s desire to incorporate certain areas into its jurisdiction. In the West Bank, checkpoints, roads closed to Palestinian traffic, and prohibition against Palestinian movement from one place to another are measures that effectively push Palestinians off their land and allow the expansion of Israeli sovereignty.
The reality of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation is the subject of Part Three, “The Fabric of Life.” Israeli spokespeople emphasize that Palestinians in the Territories receive all basic necessities and are not subjected to a humanitarian crisis, and that Israel even ensures the maintenance of a proper “fabric of life.” Such claims, along with assertions of economic prosperity in the West Bank, suggest that life under foreign occupation can be tolerable, and even good.
On the basis of these claims, those who support Israeli policy argue that the occupation is a justifiable means of defense, and if harm is regrettably suffered by the population, the damage is “proportionate” to the security of Israeli civilians. But, the fact that Palestinians require Israel’s good grace to lead their lives shows the extent to which they are dependent on Israel. If Israel is able to prevent a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, when considered necessary, then Israel also has the power to create one.
Israel’s claim to allow the maintenance of the “fabric of life” in the West Bank reveals the absolute control that it has over the Palestinian people. On a daily basis, the Israeli authorities decide which goods may be transferred from city to city, which businesses may open, who can pass through checkpoints and through security barrier crossings, who may send their children to school, who will be able to reach the universities, and who will receive the medical treatment they need. Israel also continues to hold the private property of tens of thousands of Palestinians.
In Part Four, which covers the “dual regime,” the soldiers’ testimonies show how, in the name of enforcing the law, Israel maintains two legal systems: in one, Palestinians are governed by military rule that is enforced by soldiers and subject to frequent change; in the other, Israeli settlers are subject to predominantly civil law that is passed by a democratically elected legislature and enforced by police. The Israeli legal authority in the Territories does not represent Palestinians and their interests. Rather, they are subordinate to a system through compliance with threats that reinforce Israel’s overall military superiority.
The testimonies in this part also reveal the active role played by settlers in imposing Israel’s military rule. Settlers serve in public positions and are partners in military deliberations and decisions that control the lives of the Palestinians who live in their area of settlement. Settlers often work in the Ministry of Defense as security coordinator for their settlement, in which case they influence all kinds of details affecting the area, such as transportation, road access, and security patrols, and even participate in soldiers’ briefings.
The security forces do not see the settlers as civilians subject to law enforcement but as a powerful body that shares common goals. Even when the wishes of the settlers and the military are at odds, they still ultimately consider each other as partners in a shared struggle and settle their conflict through compromise. As a consequence, the security forces usually acquiesce in the settlers’ goals, if only partially.
It is sometimes claimed that the failure to enforce the law among the settlers is due to the weakness of the Israeli police force. The testimonies in this section strongly suggest otherwise: that the law is not enforced because security forces do not treat settlers as regular citizens but as partners.
Despite its scope, Our Harsh Logic is limited to the information brought to light in the soldiers’ testimonies. It does not describe all the means by which the State of Israel controls the Territories and should not be read as an attempt to address every aspect of the Occupation. The full picture is missing the activities carried out by the General Security Services (Shabak) and other intelligence agencies, as well as the military courts, which constitute an important component of military rule, and additional facets of the military administration. Rather, the purpose of this book is to replace the code words that sterilize public discussion with a more accurate description of Israel’s policies in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
This is an edited extract from Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ testimonies from the Occupied Territories, 2000-2010 (Scribe, $35.00)