Rattling the Cage: War stories our daughters won’t tell us

Everyone knows why the soldiers who talk to the organization remain anonymous: if their identities were known, they’d be pariahs.

February 3, 2010 20:50
Tank shells exploding over Gaza during Operation C

cast lead 190. (photo credit: AP)

The most shocking testimony in the new Breaking the Silence report, I think, is number 95. A female Border Police sergeant describes how the guys would catch Palestinian kids trying to sneak into Israel to sell cheap little toys: 

It was simply routine – emptying the children’s plastic bags and playing with their toys. You know, grabbing the stuff and throwing the toys among us like balls.

Q: The children cried?

Constantly. They cried and were terrified. I mean, you couldn’t miss it.

Q: Adults cried too?

Sure. To humiliate them. One of our goals was this: I made him cry in front of his child, I made him shit in his pants.

Q: You saw cases of people soiling their pants?


Q: Why?

Especially at beatings, beating them to a pulp and threats and yelling, where the guy is terrified, especially in front of the kids... There was this once, again, an adult detained with his child, a tiny kid, about four years old. The child was not hit, but the patrolman was annoyed that the adult was taking the kid with him so he’d be shown consideration, and told him: “You’re taking the kid along so as to be pitied. Let’s show you what’s what.” And he beat him to a pulp, yelled at him, said: “Why, I could kill you right in front of your kid. Maybe you’d feel more...”

Q: And he wet his pants for sheer fright?


Q: In front of his child?

Yes. There are lots of honor stories like, I made him shit in his pants, I made him do that. Such talk was routine, not anything special...

Q: Where would this be told? In the dining hall? In the presence of the officers? Openly in public?

Openly in public. I think that if an officer says he didn’t know, he’s lying. At least the senior officers knew. Again, the platoon commanders dealt with this less, but the company commander, the deputy company commander, the operations officer – they encouraged this even in a big way. Again, not directly, they didn’t actually come out and say go on, beat them up, but there was this legitimacy. Otherwise it wouldn’t have happened.

BREAKING THE SILENCE, a group of IDF combat soldiers, just published the testimonies of 21 unnamed women soldiers who served in the West Bank and Gaza over the past decade. They describe a routine of beating, humiliating and stealing from innocent Palestinian civilians, of shooting recklessly and at times killing unarmed suspects, of a general spirit of raucous cruelty.

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“Not all of them brutalize people, not all of them are full of hate, but the atmosphere legitimizes such things. And the girls, there was another one with me who wouldn’t take part in the fun, so they would pester her to no end,” said a Border Police sergeant. (Testimony 78)

In recent years, Breaking the Silence has published scores of combat soldiers’ anonymous accounts of occupation duty, including those of 26 troops who served in Operation Cast Lead. The IDF’s official response is always the same: The soldiers’ anonymity “reveals the real goals” of the organization, according to the IDF Spokesman’s Office statement.

“There’s no way to check their credibility,” the statement continued, stressing that the IDF has “a number of bodies” that investigate claims of  misconduct. “Turning to these bodies,” according to the IDF, “is the right and responsibility of every soldier who believes an illegal order has been carried out.”

Nice words, but another theme that runs through the women’s accounts is that in the field, a code of silence prevails. In Testimony 66, a woman sergeant in a Nahal battalion recalls arriving at the training base and seeing the soldiers returning from “some mission” in Kalkilya.

“I walked around among the various companies, all smiles and happy, and talked a bit with the soldiers and saw that almost all of them have these Arabs’ prayer beads and little Korans. I asked them, where do you get these? They said, what do you mean? We were in Kalkilya just now; we took souvenirs from houses.”

The following day, in her introductory interview with the battalion commander, she told him what she’d seen and heard. “He got annoyed, almost threw the table, picked up the phone and called the company commander in question that very moment. So the company commander said: I never saw this girl in my life. She’s lying, making it all up. No way. My soldiers would never do something like that. He hands me the receiver and I tell him: Listen, this happened. He says: Who are you anyway, you little runt, you don’t understand a thing. He was really yelling at me. And... from that moment on that company ignored me... The company commander passed it on down through his chain of command that the Education Corps NCO is a rat... and this company... spat at my feet for having told the battalion commander on them.”

I THINK everyone knows why the soldiers who talk to Breaking the Silence remain anonymous: because if their identities were known, they’d be pariahs in this society – Goldstones on a smaller scale. (Actually, one of the women, Inbar Michalzohn Drori, who served at the Erez crossing in 2000-2002, wrote an op-ed in Yediot Aharonot challenging the IDF to question her. “I can describe exactly which orders were given by which commanders, the routine beatings, the humiliations and excessive force used against the Palestinians passing through the crossing,” she wrote. “These things were out in the open and known to everyone who served there, from the highest commander to the lowest grunt.”)

There are other accounts of a nine-year-old West Bank boy being shot to death by soldiers while he was running away (Testimony 9); of a Hebron man armed with nothing but his ID card being shot in the belly by a “psycho” woman soldier (Testimony 22); of an asthmatic Hebron baby dying after checkpoint soldiers delayed his passage to the hospital because his father grew angry (Testimony 30); of an elderly Gazan farmer being killed by a tank shell when he got “too close” to the border fence (Testimony 37); and story after story of soldiers eagerly punching, kicking, spitting at, terrifying, stealing from and laughing at helpless Palestinian men, women and children.

[N]ot everyone on the force are like all they do is beat up Arabs. But there was definitely that atmosphere and it was totally routine.

Q: Patrolwomen, too?

Also. (Testimony 64)

The only thing that’s new about these testimonies is that they’re all given by women – girls, really. Otherwise, they’re old news; we’ve been reading and hearing them for 20 years and more in the media and human rights reports.

People here have gotten used to them; they don’t want to hear them anymore; they’ve run out of tolerance for those who tell such stories and those who publicize them. Not surprisingly, the Prime Minister’s Office and right-wing enforcers like NGO Monitor and Im Tirtzu are trying to anathematize Breaking the Silence and other left-wing dissenters in this country.

But there’s a world beyond Israel, and there are Diaspora Jews other than Alan Dershowitz, and out there it’s the occupation that people are losing tolerance for. And as long as the occupation lasts, the world, including Diaspora Jews who still have a conscience, will be reading, hearing and seeing stories about it.

We can go on brutalizing the Palestinians. Inadvertently, we can go on brutalizing our daughters and sons, too. We just can’t do it in silence – which is what gives me hope.

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