Analysis |

Questioning of Breaking the Silence Spokesman Meant to Silence Israeli Army Whistleblowers

Mistreatment of Palestinians is an inseparable part of Israel’s military presence in the territories; efforts to undermine this claim are bound to fail

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A blindfolded Palestinian kneeling after being detained by Israeli soldiers in Hebron, in the West Bank.
A blindfolded Palestinian kneeling after being detained by Israeli soldiers in Hebron, in the West Bank.Credit: Ariel Schalit / AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The state prosecutor’s decision to summon the spokesman for the anti-occupation veterans’ group Breaking the Silence for questioning – after 1st Lt. (res.) Dean Issacharoff admitted on film that he beat a Palestinian during his army service in Hebron – is a case of selective enforcement. At the same time, it smacks of considerable self-righteousness.

In principle, the prosecutor is correct in arguing that such open and documented testimony requires investigation. But the insistence on investigating Issacharoff, coming shortly after a public request to do so by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, does not square with the willingness to forgive and the slow pace and frequently evasive approach the authorities have shown over the years when it comes to complaints about hurting Palestinians.

It is true that during the period in which the current attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit, served as military advocate general [the army’s top legal official], closer cooperation began with organizations that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now trying to portray as public enemies. But in the same breath, the Israeli judicial system has always taken care to curb and limit the scope of its interest in incidents involving violations of norms in the territories.

I have reservations about the activities of Breaking the Silence – primarily the devotion of a large part of its energies to overseas activities. But attempts to undermine the group’s claim that mistreatment of Palestinians is an inseparable part of Israel’s military presence in the territories are destined to fail.

Not all soldiers carry out beatings indiscriminately. Far from it. In many units, efforts are made to deter soldiers from exceeding the rules, and to take disciplinary action against those who violate the law. But in many instances, there is also a natural tendency to close ranks and defend soldiers who have transgressed, for the sake of fellow comrades-in-arms.

As an observer of more than 20 years – after military service in the territories, and from extended reserve duty there – I can state with a degree of confidence that Issacharoff is not alone. Anyone who would counter by saying, “Speak for yourself. No such things would ever have happened in our unit,” probably tried really hard not to look very far afield.

It would be reasonable to assume there is almost not a single army unit in which, at some stage or another, there hasn’t been a case of violence that violated the rules. It especially occurred during the first intifada that broke out in the late 1980s, in connection with the policy of then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin of breaking Palestinian bones (which in practice encouraged the soldiers to carry out beatings to disperse demonstrations and avoid weapon fire that would cause loss of life). It occurred again at the height of the second intifada (which ran from 2000 to 2005), when the soldiers’ hostility toward Palestinians grew in the face of continued murderous assaults by suicide bombers against Israeli civilians.

Such phenomena were more common in units that bore the brunt of the exhausting policing activity, such as carried out by the Border Police units and Kfir Brigade battalions. But it was by no means confined to low-ranking units. Such things also happened among select, prestigious units.

Two examples from personal knowledge: An infantry unit was deployed in Nablus and Jenin in the late 1980s. A company commander recounted how a brave and highly regarded combat battalion commander landed a slap in the face of a Palestinian man on the first day of operations, adding: “And you can imagine how the soldiers acted after that.”

Nearly 20 years later, in an infantry company of reservists in the Tul Karm area, two combat soldiers abused a Palestinian teenager at a roadblock. The line of command discovered this and, to its credit, punished them severely, arresting them, dismissing them from the company and filing a report that reached the division commander.

Long conversations as a reservist and journalist with hundreds of soldiers and commanders taught me that they all have similar stories – certainly from the really difficult years. By the way, the current period is actually exceptional, both because the level of terrorism has dropped and also due to the deterrence that increased usage of cameras – both by the Israel Defense Forces and left-wing organizations – has seemingly brought about.

And for the thousandth time, it also needs to be stated that there is no such thing as a fragrant occupation. Subjecting a civilian population to your total control provides many opportunities for violence or abuse, far from the oversight of commanders. On numerous occasions, Palestinian civilians have had encounters with small groups of Israeli soldiers that went undocumented.

The fact that a company commander or sergeant commanding a group of soldiers on patrol keeps them on a tight rein and prohibits any maltreatment does not ensure that another patrol won’t violate orders without anyone knowing. It’s not usually a question of political ideology, but rather one of character and general values.

War and even routine policing operations place huge amounts of power in the hands of armed combat soldiers. It provides an opening that will always be exploited by the sadist. But there will also be soldiers who are bored or frustrated, or who seek revenge. What applies to every Western army sent on similar missions also applies to the IDF – which for some reason Israeli society continues to insist on calling “the most moral army in the world,” without a scintilla of proof.

Anyone who wishes to continue to dot the West Bank with settlements and outposts in the name of a divine promise to Abraham needs to be aware of the moral price involved. That also goes for anyone (like me) who currently has doubts about the possibility of reaching a permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians that would sufficiently address Israel’s security interests.

Calling Dean Issacharoff in for questioning doesn’t look like an attempt to get at the truth. It appears to be an effort to deter those who speak about the harm caused by the occupation, and to ensure that those who succeed him won’t even dare speak out.

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