'Heaven Help Us if We Offend Their Sensibilities'

A 1969 pamphlet instructing soldiers on how to treat Palestinians in the territories emphasizes propriety and compassion

In 1969, 40 years before Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, Israel Defense Forces soldiers serving in the Palestinian territories received a small booklet titled "Letter to soldiers in the administered territories."

Israeli Border Police watch Palestinians returning to Jenin after the 1967 Six-Day War.
Aryeh Kanper, GPO

This General Staff document detailed how to treat the population under the army's control. The aim was to instill a considerate, humane military administration.

"For many years the population in the territories has been raised to hate Israel, a victim of unending anti-Israeli propaganda and incitement," the booklet reads. "Our military victory will not turn their hearts toward us. At the same time, we must clearly distinguish between the general population and the small minority involved in incitement, demonstrations, terror activities and sabotage. We should remember that injuring the innocent will not only produce another terrorist, it is likely to increase bitterness and cause more people to aid saboteurs."

The booklet offers a glance into a forgotten era, when IDF army chiefs believed they could conduct an enlightened occupation. It was an era when commanders wrote and believed "the [military] administration is proper and efficient. There is an atmosphere of general and individual security for residents in the territories."

Brig. Gen. Dov Shefi (ret. ), a former IDF chief prosecutor, was appointed attorney general for the West Bank at the height of the Six-Day War in 1967. In his first months on the job, Shefi was one of the officials shaping Israeli policy there.

"Those were the days when you couldn't be appointed district military governor without being interviewed by [then-defense minister] Moshe Dayan," Shefi says. "He wanted to make sure that the person had the right mentality for this job, that he didn't have dictatorial tendencies. Dayan did not want to make the mistakes the Americans made in Vietnam. He returned from Vietnam before the [Six-Day] war with a lot of insight from what he had seen," says Shefi.

"As long as Meir Shamgar was chief prosecutor for the army, and Shlomo Gazit was the coordinator of government activities in the territories, there was no naivete. There was a genuine intention to work according to the book, and let people live without being hounded by the government: live and let live.

"There was a strong emphasis on relations with the populace, for example, not offending Arab women. We were very strict about this. And if we had to put [a soldier] on trial, we did it.

"I got a lot of satisfaction from living by the book. Unfortunately, things have changed because the people involved changed. Dayan was no longer defense minister, Shamgar ceased being army chief prosecutor, and there were other changes that affected things."

The booklet does indeed express these policies. "Many people live in the territories administered by the IDF," it reads. "The Israel government's stated and de facto policy recognizes the full rights of the residents to live decent lives in their homes. They shall not be damaged, nor shall there be unnecessary intervention into their business.

"These residents have traditions and customs that are different from ours. They are very religious. Heaven help us if we offend their sensibilities. Activities and deeds that seem ordinary to us are likely to be interpreted completely differently by the population of the occupied territories. We must change our thinking and act cautiously."

Soldiers were forbidden from accepting invitations to homes or restaurants, participating in parties or funerals, establishing any contact with local women, lending money, mediating in disputes, speaking broken Arabic or buying goods at unrealistically large discounts.

Gender sensitivity

The booklet gives guidelines for behavior with Arab women. "Residents of the occupied territories are especially sensitive about the behavior of others toward their women," it reads. "We must maintain the following rules: Do not search women or their clothing. Refrain from all contact with Arab women. Do not open fire on women and children."

Maj. Gen. Gazit (ret. ), head of army intelligence in the 1970s, had previously worked in the military government. In his book "Trapped Fools: Thirty Years of Israeli Policy in the Territories" Gazit describes the military administration's goals regarding the populace.

Israel's government policy was aimed at avoiding an escalation that would encourage extremism and lead to rebellion and violence, he writes. This policy was meant to make Palestinians feel that the Arab armies' losses and the presence of Israeli forces had left their daily routines virtually unchanged, and thus there was no urgent reason to take action and end Israeli control, he writes.

Gazit describes the guidelines he gave: Aspire to inconspicuousness. The very presence of Israeli control, army office buildings, the flag, army patrols - all of these were likely to be the source of unnecessary provocation, or a point of friction between the army and the populace.

Dayan's policy was clear: reduce the signs of the Israeli presence in the territories as much as possible. The less visible the occupation forces are, the easier it will be for the residents to accept the situation, Gazit writes

Reality, of course, hit the policy makers in the face. Demonstrations, strikes and terror attacks became part of daily routine.

In terms of permissible responses to violence, the soldiers received exact instructions: in the event of gun fire, "Open fire only on the shooter, or thrower of a grenade or Molotov cocktail, once he has been located and refuses to surrender to our forces."

The order of responses during demonstrations was: "1. Giving verbal warnings and an order to demonstrators to disperse. 2. Using means at your disposal such as water hoses. 3. Striking with batons and rifle butts. 4. Opening fire."

On curfews: "Organized attempts to violate curfew will be dispersed with blows and water hoses. If [the demonstrators] do not obey, and suitable means are ineffective, they are to be warned that they will come under fire. If the warning does not achieve its goal, commanders of the rank of sergeant and up are authorized to shoot into the air. In any event, do not open fire on women of any age or on children. It is permissible to use violence (blows ) if required to maintain curfew."