When I was Eden Abergil
The occupation did not transform us into law-breaking criminals, it only taught us that it's best to be on the stronger side.
The photographs of the female soldier Eden Abergil on Facebook with the young, bound Palestinians did not "shock" me, as did the automatic responses of people on the left who complained, as usual, about the corrupting occupation and our moral deterioration. Instead, the photos brought back memories from my military service. Once, I was also Eden Abergil: I served in a Military Police unit in Lebanon whose mission was to take prisoners from the Shin Bet's interrogation rooms to the large holding camp of Ansar. I covered many eyes with pieces of cloth, I bound many wrists with plastic cuffs.
I never knew who the prisoners were and what they had done wrong, and I was not trained to know how to treat them. Everything was improvised. They showed me how to cuff them, apply the piece of cloth and load them onto army vehicles. And off we went. Very quickly I learned four words in Arabic that soldiers used when handling the prisoners: aud (sit ), um (stand ), yidak (put your hands out ) and uskut (quiet ). In the basement for Shin Bet interrogations at Nabatieh, in an old tobacco factory that had been transformed into the regional division headquarters, I saw prisoners eating like dogs, bent over with their hands tied behind their backs. And I smelled their sweat and urine.
I never saw "irregularities." No beatings, no slappings, no maimings. But if the cuffs were put on a bit too tight, half a centimeter that couldn't be reversed, the prisoner suffered great pain. The palms swelled because blood flow was restricted, and the trip became a nightmare when the prisoners begin to beg: "Captain, captain, idi, idi [my hands]." There were soldiers who tied the cuffs on too tight - a small torture that's not in the reports by Amnesty International or the Goldstone Commission. It's a torture that depends on a single soldier, without instructions from above or the military advocate general. An outlet for the hatred of Arabs during a routine mission.
And there were the humiliations. We did not force the prisoners to sing "Ana bahebak Mishmar Hagvul" ("I love you Border Police" ), as in the territories. The big hit back then was "Yaish Begin, mat Arafat" ("Long live Begin, Arafat is dead" ). In retrospect, it's not certain that our Lebanese prisoners were opposed to Arafat's removal; they may have even identified with that part of the song.
I once performed a leftist act of courage. I was guarding a truck full of prisoners who were waiting in the sun to be processed at Ansar. Suddenly a reservist thug showed up, with sneakers and no shirt on, and wanted to get on the truck and beat the prisoners. I refused to let him on. He made a threatening move. I had no chance against him one on one. I cocked my weapon, he took a step back and, enraged, said: "It's because of people like you that the country is in the state it is."
There was nothing special in my experience or in the photographs of Eden Abergil. Tens of thousands of soldiers who served in the territories and Lebanon, like Eden and me, were exposed to similar experiences. This is the routine of occupation: pieces of cloth, cuffs, sweat in the sun, aud, um, yidak, uskut. That's the way it has been for 43 years. When 18-year-old soldiers with weapons guard civilians with their hands and eyes bound, and see the prisoners lying in pools of urine in the interrogation basements, the situation is violent and humiliating without diverging from orders or regulations.
The occupation did not "corrupt" me or any of my colleagues in the unit. We didn't return home and run wild in the streets and abuse helpless people. Coming-of-age problems preoccupied us a lot more than our prisoners' discomfort. Our political views were also not affected. Anyone who hated Arabs at home hated them when he was defeated and weak in the army, and those who read Uri Avnery before being drafted believed that it was necessary to leave Lebanon and the territories even when they actively took part in the occupation.
But we learned one lesson: Regardless of politics, it's better to be the guard than the prisoner. Even those who dream of a permanent settlement and a Palestinian state and want to see the settlements gone prefer to tie on the cuffs than be cuffed. It's better to guard the prisoner and eat at the mess hall than to eat on your knees with your hands tied behind your back in a smelly room. The occupation did not transform us into law-breaking criminals, it only taught us that it's best to be on the stronger side.