Brutish Behavior by Order of the General

Youngsters of 18 and 19, the soldiers who determine the fate of people at checkpoints, have now received another violent power. The new order allows soldiers to stick their hands into the pockets of Palestinians, confiscate their property and deprive them of their livelihood.

Samar Abdullah stood pale and helpless on the road. He is a cab driver from the village of Safarin, southeast of Tul Karm, and the father of five children. He was formerly a construction worker, but a ruptured disk in his back forced him to find a different job. He had been on the road for only three months.

Abdullah wasn't familiar with the orders of behavior for the unmanned iron gate that blocks the road between Tul Karm and Nablus, and therefore he crossed the barely visible traces of the blurred yellow line on the road. Within a few minutes an Israel Defense Forces jeep arrived and three soldiers leaped out and started shouting at the stunned driver. They grabbed the keys to the cab roughly and left. By what authority did they do so? When and where will Abdullah get his property back? No one bothered to give him any answers. The next day IDF Spokesperson's Office stated: "There is no order in the IDF to confiscate keys."

That was a few months ago. It's an act that has become routine on the roads of the West Bank. Anyone who goes by checkpoints sees dozens of cars that have been confiscated from Palestinians. Anyone who drives on the dirt roads in the region, which the Palestinians find in a desperate effort to get to school, work or medical clinics, sees soldiers or Border Police who are confiscating cars in the best case, or shooting at their tires and beating the passengers in other cases.

In April of this year, the Haaretz Magazine published photographs of about 100 keys that were confiscated from drivers in the Bethlehem area and collected for display in an exhibition by a soldier who wishes to be identified only by the first letter of his name, Y., a member of the Breaking the Silence group. The IDF continued to deny that the phenomenon existed. Did the army commanders really not know about this widespread custom, or did they lie? And which possibility is worse?

Last week the denial ended. As with other injustices, here too the IDF moved from denial to laundering. When it's no longer possible to go on lying and concealing the facts, the thing to do is "legalize" the wrongdoing. An order issued by GOC Central Command Major General Moshe Kaplinski, now permits soldiers to confiscate Palestinian cars. True, only if the driver has breached the siege. But past experience shows that once the dam of principle is burst, and brutish behavior is ratified, no one will afterward be able to supervise the circumstances in which it occurs. For example, under the new order, would it have been possible to confiscate Abdullah's car, because he crossed a yellow line on the road? Who would even ask?

Youngsters of 18 and 19, the soldiers who determine the fate of people at checkpoints, have now received another violent power. The new order allows soldiers to stick their hands into the pockets of Palestinians, confiscate their property and deprive them of their livelihood. The Israeli soldier has been given another arena in which he is invited to act as sheriff, prosecutor and judge. Henceforth he can not only arrest, prevent passage, open fire, delay and humiliate; he can also confiscate. It's not hard to guess what would happen if the Israel Police were to decide to confiscate the car of every Israeli driver who committed a traffic offense.

As soon as the head of GOC Central Command allowed troops to confiscate cars - effectively because of a traffic violation, since their offense was to drive in a prohibited area - the moral message that he sent the soldiers is that the Palestinians' property, just like their lives, is dispensable, and that they, the soldiers, are indeed the omnipotent lords of the land, which is what most of them already think. This is not the first time that brutish behavior by soldiers on the ground has shaped the IDF's value system. Instead of the IDF top brass implanting values in the soldiers and making them hold their fire, in an effort to salvage at least something of the principle of "purity of arms" - the use of arms only in military confrontations and not against noncombatants - and restrain the soldiers' behavior, it is the most violent soldiers who dictate the IDF's actual ethical code. After cars were confiscated arbitrarily for years, it will now be done by order of the top commander. Morally, brutish behavior without official sanction would be preferable to brutish behavior that has the general's seal of approval.

The same pattern has been followed with respect to other decrees of the occupation. The torture perpetrated by the Shin Bet security service was denied for years, until the Landau Commission legalized it and torture became normative. It took a few more years before the High Court of Justice outlawed most of the Shin Bet's forms of torture; had it not been for the court ruling, the acts of torture might well have become part of the army's ethical code. In the present public mood, it is improbable that the High Court will find against the confiscation procedure, as it did against the "neighbor procedure." For years the IDF forced local residents to risk their lives by taking down Palestinian flags from electricity poles or removing stone barriers from the road. Other procedures involved seating children on the hoods of jeeps and forcing Palestinian ambulances to drive in front of Israeli troops. This shameful behavior led to the "neighbor procedure," in which the IDF put the lives of local residents at risk by sending them into possibly booby-trapped buildings and the like. This procedure, too, was engendered by the behavior of soldiers and became a norm.

Thus we polish our moral portrait, which supposedly will not be tarnished in the least by what we are doing. We attach fine euphemisms to the atrocities. Liquidation operations continue to be termed "targeted preemptions," even though there is no connection between their essence and their name; mass arrests without trials are known as "administrative detentions"; the demolition of thousands of homes and the uprooting of tens of thousands of trees is known as "exposure," and now comes another brutish command which regularizes another small horror. Keep on confiscating the cars of errant drivers, it's all legal, the general orders his troops; after all, these are Palestinians, and with them anything goes.