The Givati battalion commander knew he was in for a shitstorm. Footage of his officers in the West Bank Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh last Friday was spreading on social media Monday, and with it, criticism of their conduct. He quickly texted a message to his battalion staff, “Don’t pay attention to the media, This is how I expect my men to act.”
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He’s not the first Israel Defense Forces commander in recent years to find out online that his officers were coming under public fire. But usually, this is after they have been filmed using violence against Palestinian civilians. In this case, the Givati troops were being slated by Israelis for not having reacted when a group of girls and women had begun pushing, kicking and slapping them.
The commander may well have reflected at that moment that had they been caught on camera beating the women, they would have received much more support from the Israeli cybersphere.
After the video was shown on television Monday night, the headlines on the front pages of Israeli tabloids Tuesday morning told of national shame. Politicians flocked to the airwaves, arguing over the soldiers’ response. Former Habayit Hayehudi MK Yinon Magal tweeted that he “missed [Elor] Azaria,” the soldier currently serving a prison sentence for executing a wounded Palestinian assailant two years ago in Hebron. In an interview he said that the soldiers should have introduced the women to their rifle butts. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of Habayit Hayehudi, went one further, expressing the hope that the girls would “end their lives in jail.”
Left-wing politicians and pundits tried to argue that the officers deserved to be commended for showing restraint, but that was hardly an argument to inspire confidence. National pride was saved as news arrived that one of the girls, 16-year-old Ahed Tamimi had been arrested in her home in the early hours, four days after the event was filmed.
“Those who harm our soldiers by day are arrested by night,” tweeted Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Tamimi is now under arrest for allegedly attacking soldiers, but what no one could explain was why, if indeed there was a valid reason to apprehend her, was she not taken into custody on Friday? Unless, that is, the real charge against her is having made Israeli soldiers look impotent on camera.
There is a complete disconnect between the way Israelis see themselves and their soldiers, and how they are perceived from the outside. That is natural.
Every society has its own pride in national symbols and institutes. What is still surprising, after so many years in which Israelis have been exposed to foreign media, is that they still can’t conceive of how anyone can see IDF soldiers as anything but figures that instill confidence and empathy. I’ve given guest lectures for advanced command courses in which the cream of the IDF’s officers corps, its future battalion and brigade commanders, found it difficult to grasp the fact that often in interactions with foreign correspondents, especially in the typical operational scenarios of the West Bank military occupation, they are automatically at a disadvantage.
The decision, not only to arrest Ahed Tamimi, but to distribute the footage of her arrest to the Israeli media this morning, reflects the priorities of the IDF Spokesperson Unit and the military leadership it serves. The IDF’s overriding need is not to be seen as weak in the eyes of the mainstream Israeli public. The order to arrest Tamimi, four days after the incident and only after the video of her altercation with the officer had been broadcast on the nightly television shows, was an exercise in damage control and in satisfying the urge of the Israeli public to somehow expunge the humiliation. A Palestinian girl slapping an IDF officer was a national insult that could only be soothed by the pictures of her being taken from her home by female Border Police officers in full body armor.
It didn’t matter at that moment that to the Palestinians these images would broadcast a very different image and could quite likely inflame the already existing tensions. It didn’t even matter that when broadcast on international networks, all a foreign audience would see was a defiant young woman being suppressed by cruel occupiers. It didn’t even matter that this is almost certainly exactly what Ahed Tamimi wanted. Because at that moment, the only thing that mattered was satisfying an atavistic desire that our brave soldiers not be humiliated in public.
Deputy Minister Michael Oren, realizing what a PR disaster these images could be, tried to spin the event as concern for children’s welfare. “The Tamimi family,” he tweeted in English, “which may not be a real family —dresses up kids in American clothes and pays them to provoke IDF troops on camera. This cynical and cruel use of children constitutes abuse. Human rights organizations must investigate!” There may be some truth to his allegations. The Tamimis are veteran protesters and have demonstrated over the years a talent for producing compelling scenes for camera crews visiting Nabi Saleh. But his tweet also gives away the true sin of the family members. Their propensity for provoking IDF troops on camera means that Israel can’t have it both ways - to maintain a 50-year military occupation over Palestinian civilians and also expect that the soldiers doing so will look good on television.
The dirty secret that has been revealed here is that the Israeli politicians who are perpetuating the occupation are not really worried about international pressure on Israel or about Palestinian resentment and violence. Their deepest fear is that the broad Israeli public will pay attention to what its sons and daughters are doing daily in the West Bank in their name — that there simply is no way to stage manage a telegenic occupation. The Israeli veterans of Breaking The Silence who have tried to shake their fellow countrymen from their stupor of denial have been persecuted and vilified. And now the Palestinians are likewise not allowed to make the IDF look bad.