During her army service, Nufar Yishai-Karin witnessed the brutality of young soldiers in her armored infantry unit near Rafah. Now, in a study based on interviews with a new generation of recruits, she reveals the psychological mechanisms behind their violent and abusive behavior toward Palestinians. The soldiers' stories shocked her, but she believes they are victims, too.
When she was in fifth grade, her father took her to the Golan Heights and showed her where he had lost his best friends in the battle for the Tel Faher outpost on June 9, 1967. "For years, that battle was an inaccessible emotional zone for him," says Nufar Yishai-Karin, a clinical psychologist whose years in the shadow of her father's battle trauma shaped her consciousness and steered her to her profession.
"War has preoccupied me from early in life," she says. In high school she read many books about the Second World War and then went on to the Vietnam War. She read every book and saw every film about that war, she says, noting, "Back then I didn't yet grasp that what interested me was soldiers' war crimes."
After her army service she attended the Hebrew University and spent seven years investigating the processes that led Israeli soldiers to maltreat Palestinians in the first intifada, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Her study, which she conducted as her master's thesis in clinical psychology, focused on soldiers' testimonies about acts of violence in which they had participated. The thesis was adapted as an article that appears in the current issue of the journal Alpayim, coauthored by her thesis adviser, Prof. Yoel Elizur. The article, titled "How can a situation happen?", disguises the names of the soldiers involved, as well as times and places, in order to protect the interviewees, who were chosen as a sample from two armored infantry companies that did long service in Rafah. In an article of response, the writer David Grossman remarks that this is not a story of individuals but of hundreds and thousands "who carried out a kind of 'privatization' of a vast and general evil."
Treatment on the dunes
The story begins with the ordeal of that battle in 1967 in which her father, Yair Yishai, now about 70, fought. It dragged on for an entire day and in part consisted of hand-to-hand combat using knives as well. Twenty-two Golani infantry brigade soldiers were killed and many others wounded. "For years my father would grow silent and sad when people talked about the blunder there - the soldiers made the ascent to the outpost from the wrong side, and many were killed.
"When I was in 10th grade, one of the founders of the Golani Brigade Museum came to our house and interviewed my father about his army service and about the battle. That opened him up. After that he instructed Golani soldiers and also made a study of the battle, which contributed a great deal to his mental health."
When Yishai-Karin was drafted in October 1989, almost two years into the first intifada, she knew she was going to be a combat soldier, like all the guys. She grew up in Moshav Beit She'arim, in the Jezreel Valley, where she now lives with her six-year-old son in a spacious house where cats roam freely and an outsize Israeli flag flies at the entrance. She attended elementary school in Moshav Nahalal and high school in Kibbutz Yifat.
During her first year in the army she was not pleased. She took a service conditions course, which dealt with soldiers' rights, and also took part in psychology workshops and learned how to conduct interviews. She was then posted to the Induction Center in Tiberias.
She wasn't happy there. "I wanted to see up close what the concept of the 'melting pot' meant." She requested a transfer to the Golani Brigade and was eventually persuaded to move to Ashbal Company, an armored infantry unit. For about 15 months she lived on a base in the southern Gaza Strip, not far from the former settlements of Rafah Yam and Pe'at Sadeh.
"I got to Gaza in the summer of 1990 and joined a unit that had begun service that February," she recalls. "There were about 55 soldiers, including many staff people who had been transferred out of combat units. To be a service-conditions noncom was a type of social work. The mission was to assist soldiers with problems, which meant mainly listening to them. I used to talk to them during night duty, because they were the most communicative then."
Immediately upon her arrival there was an incident that shook her. A few of the soldiers had arrived about a week before her "and had already managed to mess things up. They arrested someone and forgot him for three days in the shower. They told me about it and didn't know how to deal with it." Her thesis quotes one of the soldiers who was involved in the incident: "After they built showers with a generator, so we would have hot water all the time ... the shower with the 'geyser' was abandoned and people decided that it would be like a detention cell. We brought some guy there and forgot him for three days ... He was handcuffed and had a piece of flannel over his mouth, and he couldn't talk, couldn't move, couldn't do anything. After three days, someone, I don't remember who, happened to go by there and remembered."
Yishai-Karin left the Gaza Strip "shocked by what I had seen but mostly concerned by the army's helplessness, by the fact that they took a unit and wore it down in a way that made violence part of the soldiers' lives. After that I spent seven years of my life in attempts to investigate and understand what had happened."
Shooting like crazies
Yishai-Karin began her psychology studies in October 1991. "Already during my army service I knew that this was going to be my research. I was particularly interested in finding out why some people in these groups work to bring about a change for the better, what it is in their personality that makes them like that and what happens in that kind of situation."
One of her teachers, Prof. Yoel Elizur, was a reservist in the army's mental health unit. According to Elizur, the unit had a good research branch in the 1990s but could not get authorization to conduct a study on soldiers' violence. "The prevailing tendency then was to silence the whole thing and say that the soldiers were generally all right," he says.
Yishai-Karin, who knew of Elizur's expertise in the subject, approached him with her research idea, and he jumped at the opportunity. The study included interviews with 18 soldiers and three officers who served with her in two armored infantry units. She knew most of them from her military service. She interviewed each of them personally in his home for a few hours and recorded the interviews; she still has the tapes. Her prior acquaintance with the soldiers led them to trust her implicitly, and they opened up fully, readily telling her about crimes they themselves had committed: murder and killing, breaking the bones of children, inflicting humiliation, destroying property, stealing.
About half the 21 interviewees are Ashkenazim, half Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent). Most are native-born and most are from middle-class families. There are members of moshavim (cooperative farming villages) and kibbutzim, residents of mixed cities such as Jerusalem, Acre and Ramle, but also some from Tel Aviv and the upscale communities of Herzliya Pituah and Ramat Hasharon. The Alpayim article focuses on one of the companies, from which 14 of the interviewees came.
The article describes the brutalization of some of the soldiers, even as others remained passive and a minority tried to struggle against the wrongs that were being perpetrated. Among the brutalized group was the impulsive type of soldier, who used the opportunity to let off steam, sometimes enthusiastically.
Testimony: "I went out on my first patrol ... Others on the patrol were just shooting like crazies ... I also started shooting like all the others ... It was ... look, I won't tell you that it wasn't cool, because suddenly for the first time you come and hold the weapon seriously, you're not training in some drill or in some dugout in the dunes, or I don't know what, or you have some commander who is looking over your shoulder in the firing range. Suddenly you are responsible for what you are doing. You take the gun. You shoot. You do what you want."
One of the study's most shocking findings is that the soldiers enjoyed the intoxication of power no less than the kick they got from the violence. "At one point or another of their service, the majority of the interviewees enjoyed [inflicting] violence," Yishai-Karin observes in the thesis. "They enjoyed the violence because it broke the routine and they liked the destruction and the chaos. They also enjoyed the feeling of power in the violence and the sense of danger."
Testimony: "The truth? When there is chaos and like that, I like it. That's when I enjoy it. It's like a drug. If I don't go into Rafah and if there isn't some kind of riot once in some week, I go nuts."
Another soldier: "The most important thing is that it removes the burden of the law from you. You feel that you are the law. You are the law. You are the one who decides ... As though from the moment you leave the place that is called Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] and go through the Erez checkpoint into the Gaza Strip, you are the law. You are God."
'Everything is permitted'
The callousness of some of the soldiers produced extreme indifference to the Arabs' suffering: "We were in a weapon carrier when this guy, around 25, passed by in the street, and just like that, for no reason, he didn't throw a stone, did nothing - bang, a bullet in the stomach - he shot him in the stomach and the guy is dying on the sidewalk and we keep going, apathetic. No one gave him a second look."
There were some tough soldiers who developed an ideology holding that even minor events necessitated a brutal response. "A 3-year-old kid, he can't throw, he can't hurt you no matter what he does, but a kid of 19 can. With women I have no problem. With women, one threw a clog at me and I kicked her here [pointing to the crotch], I broke everything there. She can't have children. Next time she won't throw clogs at me. When one of them [a woman] spat at me I gave her the rifle butt in the face. She doesn't have what to spit with anymore."
Some of the soldiers were singled out in the study as "prone to being led" - that is, they were swept up in the wake of their officers and buddies - and there were some who had never lifted a hand against anyone before their army service. "The moment the red line is broken, it is not just broken, it is smashed to smithereens, and from that moment everything is permitted," one soldier testified.
These soldiers believed that the intifada was a war, and that they had to be professional and maintain "purity of arms" - morality in warfare. But the reality of the situation and the fraternity of fighters prompted some of them to cover up for their friends, even if they stole from homes where they conducted searches or sexually harassed or provoked Arab women.
Most of the soldiers who were interviewed vividly recollect their first encounter with brutality. In one case, while still in basic training, they served as escorts for a group of suspects. "They took the Arabs, the commanding officers did, and put them on the bus between the back door and the last seat, put them only between the seats. On their knees. Then they told us: Within two minutes - and this is still just basic training - within two minutes everyone is on the bus. No one steps on the seats ... And everyone started to trample them [the Arabs] and step on them on the run ... It was a really bad winter. Minus 4 degrees [Centigrade] and rain and hail ... They each went out in the middle of the night ... They weren't given time to dress. Some of them had clogs, short-sleeved shirts ... Everyone opened the windows deliberately. People poured water on them from the canteens, so they would freeze from the cold. And the whole way they were bombarded with blows ... and I mean the whole way."
Another soldier describes one of the first times he entered a house to arrest an Arab, "an absolute giant, around 30, maybe. Rampaging. We shout at him to lie down, we hit him, but he doesn't lie down, he wants to escape ... These four guys show up and throw stones at him from all sides, and we are beating up on him ... Lie down! Lie Down! Lie down! Until in the end he lies down ... We get to company headquarters and it turns out he lost consciousness ... and a few days later he is dead."
Some junior commanders encouraged the brutality and even endorsed it. "After two months in Rafah a [new] commanding officer arrived ... So we do a first patrol with him. It's 6 A.M., Rafah is under curfew, there isn't so much as a dog in the streets. Only a little boy of four playing in the sand. He is building a castle in his yard. He [the officer] suddenly starts running and we all run with him. He was from the combat engineers. We all run with him. He grabbed the boy. Nufar, I am a degenerate if I am not telling you the truth. He broke his hand here at the wrist. Broke his hand at the wrist, broke his leg here. And started to stomp on his stomach, three times, and left. We are all there, jaws dropping, looking at him in shock ... The next day I go out with him on another patrol, and the soldiers are already starting to do the same thing."
Soldiers of conscience
An incident that fomented a crisis began when a squad commander from the hard-hearted group maltreated three bound teenagers. A soldier of conscience summoned another squad commander who was a paramedic. He told Yishai-Karin that by the time help arrived the three Palestinian boys were already "completely covered with blood, their clothes were saturated with blood and they were shaking with fear. Their hands were tied and they were afraid to move, they were on their knees."
The conscience-driven squad commander and soldier reprimanded the brutal squad commander, but were not backed up by the platoon commander. "You should know that what the two of you did is very serious," the platoon commander told them, "talking to him like that! You should know that you're in for punishment."
The two soldiers who received this tongue-lashing told another soldier what had happened, and he decided to tell the story the next day at a meeting of the brigade with the division commander. After hearing him out and asking to hear the testimonies of the two other soldiers, the division commander asked the brutal squad commander what he had to say for himself. But he refused to respond in front of the soldiers. The division commander removed him from the sector and ordered the Military Police to investigate the incident. The squad commander was sentenced to three months in prison.
Recalling this incident, which broke the conspiracy of silence in the company, Yishai-Karin notes that all the other soldiers supported the brutal squad commander, even those who thought he had gone too far and deserved punishment. In the face of the sacrosanct creed of the fraternity of fighters and unit loyalty, the soldiers of conscience were considered traitors, because "no soldier should have to go to jail because of some Arab."
How do you explain this behavior?
"Ash'har Company, which was drafted before us, was a deviant, extreme unit at the human level. The absence of supervision from the commanding level left its mark on them, and things they did before we arrived were extreme. Take the story about the boy and the kick to the crotch, for example.
"The soldiers of Ashbal Company," she continues, "were of a higher quality. There were those who had been kicked out of a pilots' course. A fierce struggle ensued between the two companies, which was actually a struggle between cultures and even a socio-economic struggle. There is a connection between a person's background and his behavior. It's something like Assi Dayan's film parody 'Halfon Hill Doesn't Answer': a reflection of the diverse forms of Israeliness, including, for example, the delicate Iraqi with the spectacles who doesn't understand what he is doing there and plans to become an accountant.
"The two soldiers of conscience were from homes that invested a great deal in the children. One was the son of a psychologist and a factory manager, and the other the son of a career officer, a lieutenant colonel. In both cases the mothers were involved, meaning they received big parcels every week. The two were superb soldiers. They hustled through basic training and had enough time to think about what was right and what was not in the company's operations in Rafah. Their commanding officers had far narrower horizons and came from a different background, and that is where the cultures clashed. The squad commander who went to prison got the shock of his life that of all the things he had done, he was doing time for beating bound youngsters. He now lives in the United States. Most of the soldiers I interviewed left the country, apart from five or six."
How did you manage to prevent revenge from being taken on the "traitors" who snitched?
"They came to consult with me - the soldier who is described as a paramedic and the one who spoke out to the division commander. The latter was distraught and deathly afraid. After the division commander left, I went over to the sergeants' quarters and met the squad commander who had inflicted the beating. Everyone was consoling him. I hesitated for a minute, and then I told them that if anyone dared to do anything I would not keep silent. I didn't have to ask: I knew they were planning revenge. Before I finished the sentence they all jumped up - how did I dare? It was clear to me that I had to draw my line. My status was so good that they forgave me. Someone said right away, 'She is the service conditions noncom of us all.'
"In my thesis I likened this situation to a family in which there is sexual exploitation or incest or violence, and it is kept secret. That's how it was in the unit. You don't inform on a member of the family. That is a basic mechanism that exists in all of us, and these soldiers represent us all."
The two soldiers of conscience - the eyewitness to the beating of the helpless youths and his paramedic buddy - were transferred out of the company. The former was sent to a snipers' course, the latter to an advanced course for paramedics, and afterward both of them took an officers' course. The soldier who revealed the story to the division commander was ostracized. Everyone boycotted him and hounded him, until he finally transferred out of the company and was assigned to a rear-echelon post.
The first two soldiers returned to the company as officers and initiated a process geared to "inculcate a professional culture." In their opinion, the company underwent a metamorphosis and the soldiers generally refrained from brutal behavior.
In her study, Yishai-Karin examined how the wrongs the soldiers committed affected them mentally. She found that the two soldiers of conscience "were the only interviewees in the sample with a narrative of personal growth, moral victory and a sense of meaningfulness about their military service. They both felt that this was because they had no doubts about what they were doing."
Yishai-Karin continues to view the soldiers she interviewed as good people. "From the point of view of the army's structure, we were in infantry companies with no battalion, connected directly to an armored brigade which for most of the period was stationed on the Golan Heights. There was no battalion commander to supervise things, and the brigade commander was also from the Armored Corps. No one understood what was really going on in the company, and there was no one to check things out. The GOC Southern Command, Matan Vilnai, [now a Labor MK and deputy defense minister] visited the company a lot and took ordinary soldiers for man-to-man talks, but the mechanisms of denial and concealment were at work and he didn't hear anything about what happened, even though he tried. One of the conclusions of the study is that the mechanisms of concealment have to be taken into account, because they are natural and will always appear.
"The army did not give that unit regular training and hardly gave them leaves. They did not get the opportunity to recover with a bit of a holiday. Training builds the unit in the direction of a regular army rather than a militia, but the unit got only a third of the training it was supposed to get. The soldiers claimed that the longer the unit spent in the field, the more violent it became and the more it was prone to impose order. They claimed that the army was aware of the drift toward violence, and encouraged it, because that way they could allocate less manpower.
"There are two means the army adopts to steer the violence in war in appropriate directions," she continues, "namely battle heritage and training. Those means were not utilized in the intifada. The two officers of conscience thought of it by themselves and introduced 'intifada drills' before going into action. If a soldier trains, he knows what is expected of him, so his behavior will fit the army's norms and not caveman instincts.
"As for battle heritage, I brought that to the army from home. My dad told me about the [first] Lebanon War. He was the commander of a reconnaissance company. On one occasion a large number of angry Shi'ites gathered at the entrance to the base and the soldiers got uptight. My father and a few other soldiers daringly waded into the mob, talked to people and calmed them down. My father told me at the time that anyone who didn't know Arabs and felt pressured by the event was liable to shoot them. That's a story I heard as a girl, in 1983.
"After that, in the intifada, I saw time and again how pressure causes reactions that are more extreme and more violent. There was a company commander who used to get stressed and cause a big hullabaloo every time. What's missing is battle heritage, like my dad's story, in which courage is tested by your not resorting to fire. Battle heritage is something inbuilt, which is transmitted by the Education Corps, and it is lacking."
Can you sum up the message of the study?
"The message might be too complex for a newspaper article. Freud talks about the destructive aggressive instinct. In a letter to Einstein in 1932, Freud wrote, 'Musing on the atrocities recorded on history's page, we feel that the ideal motive has often served as a camouflage for the lust of destruction.' That has existed in everyone, in all languages and in all religions, across all the hundreds and thousands of years of history, and probably even before. There are some cultures that are more violent, yes, but violence appears in every culture. There are situations that provoke it and cause the violence to well up to the surface.
"There is nothing surprising about the reaction of the soldiers who were sent there," Yishai-Karin continues. "In a situation of neglect, without supervision of the senior command, without genuine psychological research, without any examination, they operated on the basis of instincts and emotions. But despite everything that happened there, not a few soldiers acquitted themselves honorably, thanks to values, support from home, professionalism and self-restraint. Political opinions had no influence on behavior at all; political opinions changed in accordance with behavior, not vice versa."W
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