Rattling the Cage: All our sons

That sharpshooter could have been any of my neighbors' sons, any of my friends' sons - he could have been my son in a few years' time.

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
My hunch is that there are a lot of parents of soldiers who fought in Operation Cast Lead who supported the war, who think Israel didn't do anything wrong and who are proud of their sons - but who do not want to know too much about what they did in Gaza. If they were sure their sons only fought terrorists, they might be ready to hear about it in detail. If they were sure their sons fought Palestinians who were likely terrorists, they might be ready to hear about that, too. But what they don't want to hear is that their sons shot unarmed Palestinian civilians basically because they were there. They don't want to hear that their sons, for instance, did what those soldiers from Oranim College said a couple of their comrades did - shoot an old lady and a mother and her two children to death. Why did they do it? According to the soldiers' stories published last week, because those Gazans were passing too close for comfort, there weren't supposed to be any civilians left in the area, so anybody there - man, woman or child - was a potential terrorist to be shot on sight. "Aviv" from the Givati Brigade: "That's what is so nice, supposedly, about Gaza. You see a person on a road, walking along a path. He doesn't have to be with a weapon, you don't have to identify him with anything and you can just shoot him. With us it was an old woman, on whom I didn't see any weapon. The order was to take that woman out the moment you see her." "Ram" from the Givati Brigade, recounting the killing by a sharpshooter of a mother and her two children who, after being ordered to leave their house and head right, mistakenly headed left: "They had also come out of the house that he was on the roof of, they had advanced a bit and suddenly he saw them, people moving around in an area where they were forbidden to move in. 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." NOW IF YOUR SON fought in Operation Cast Lead, you figure there's very little chance, statistically if for no other reason, that he ever killed an old lady, a mother or a child in cold blood like that. But could he have been in a situation where he was under orders to kill whomever came too close - say, "between 100 and 200 meters" away, like that mother and her two kids? Was he prepared to follow orders like that sharpshooter? Did he know any other soldiers who shot or killed unarmed civilians who were "moving around in an area where they were forbidden to move in"? Here you figure there's a reasonable chance - not a certainty, but a reasonable chance - that your son's answer would be "yes." And you don't want to risk hearing that. So you don't ask him. You don't even let yourself begin to think about it. Unfortunately, there are a lot of parents who don't give a damn which Palestinians their sons are under orders to shoot, and then there are a lot of others who'd congratulate them for doing what those Oranim graduates described. I have nothing to say to them. But there are a great many parents, if not a majority then a very large minority, who don't raise their children to do that sort of thing, and don't want to think that that's what they're sending them to do - that that's how the IDF fights in Gaza and the West Bank. To these parents, of whom I am one, I say: We have a problem, because what those soldiers described rings very, very true. It's what we heard was going on in the war from Palestinian victims, from journalists, from charity and human rights organizations, from foreign dignitaries and now, finally, from IDF combat soldiers who were there. And it's not the first time, of course; we've been hearing these kinds of stories from soldiers who served in the territories for decades - although the accounts were rarely as chilling as those we heard last week. What made the war stories from those dozens of Oranim graduates supremely appalling was that they weren't talking about a few bad apples who broke the rules - they were talking about orders to kill absolutely innocent people, even if they were old ladies, mothers or children. Those soldiers from Oranim talked about an atmosphere in which such conduct was believed right, necessary, patriotic - even divinely willed, according to some of the rabbinical pep talks they got. IT MAKES PERFECT sense. Throughout the war we heard IDF officers saying in the media that this time they weren't taking any chances with soldiers' lives for the sake of the lives of Palestinian civilians. In principle, that sounds reasonable enough in a war. On the ground, though, what that meant, as Ram said about the shoot-on-sight policy, was that "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, are something much, much less important than the lives of our soldiers. So as far as they are concerned, they can justify it that way." They were told that civilians had been warned to flee, which meant the only Palestinians still around might well be terrorists. They were reminded that even women and children had been suicide bombers in the past. Thus, it was right and necessary that any living Palestinian seen within a certain distance after a certain time be considered a terrorist threat and, as such, shot. The soldiers who killed that old lady and that mother and her two children didn't need to be racists or sadists or personally screwed up in any way. All they had to be were very young men who wanted to be good warriors, who didn't want to make any mistakes, who were indoctrinated that they were fighting for their country's survival and who obeyed orders. That sharpshooter could have been any of my neighbors' sons, any of my friends' sons - he could have been my son in a few years' time. As the father of two boys who are presumably headed into the IDF, I am scared. I can teach them not to hate Arabs, I can teach them not to be racists or sadists, and I can expect them not to be rotten apples in the army. But even if I try to teach them that an IDF soldier has the duty to disobey an order over which a "black flag" is flying, I cannot, in all fairness, expect them to do that when they're 18 or 19, when they're in a war, and when everybody around them and above them is gung-ho. If my son had fought in Operation Cast Lead, I'd also be afraid to ask too many questions. We can refuse to think about this, we can tell ourselves that Oranim is a hotbed of left-wingers, we can bury this so the anti-Semites and The Hague don't use it against us. Or we can admit the truth and decide that we have to change. We can be loyal to Israel's image. Or we can be loyal to our sons.