Opinion

Untamed Israeli Soldier Tells Truth. His Commanders Rush to Deny It

A Palestinian shepherd crosses the road with his sheep, West Bank, January 2019.
Gil Eliahu

An Israel Defense Forces soldier is caught telling the truth, and his commanders are already rushing to deny it. But long-term journalistic experience teaches that soldiers lack filters of propriety, because they are still young and not yet completely tamed, and because they aren’t aware of the fact that their role as guardians of the loot and defenders of the looters is patently not proper. They spout what they hear in the corridors, between the tents and in the jeep speeding along on its way to carrying out orders.

In October 2018, a soldier at the Coordination and Liaison Office in Jericho answered an Israeli activist, who asked: Where are the shepherds from the Samra hamlet who were detained by soldiers – and why were they even detained. The shepherds were already released, about an hour after being detained, the soldier informed the caller, explaining that this was a form of punishment “with greater deterrence, so they won’t repeat the things they did.”

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What are the shepherds doing? Grazing their sheep. And the soldiers? Obeying. And what order are they obeying? If the shepherds in question are Palestinians – to chase them away, along with their sheep and goats. Or, in the words of the truth-speaking soldier: “They were walking with their sheep and blocking a road, and when they were asked to leave they refused. That’s the report I received.”

Because Palestinian sheep have not yet learned to digest asphalt, or even gravel, we can assume that they weren’t actually blocking a road, but rather crossing it on the way to the pasture. The activist replied that blocking a road really is not all right, but wondered aloud whether it was the job of armed soldiers to keep sheep away from it.

“You know I’m not the one who decides,” replied the soldier. But, “In Area C, as the army, we’re in charge both of security and of civilian matters.” In other words, the activist concluded, the detention was not the whim of a soldier violating an order. “True,” confirmed the soldier, “it’s for deterrence, because these are things that happen frequently.”

The activist once again wondered aloud, “I thought that a judge hands down the punishment,” and the soldier answered him candidly: “Those are decisions on a much higher level. In Area C the brigade commander is the judge. That is the policy of the State of Israel.”

The soldier doesn’t know, or is already sufficiently tamed not to want to know, that the Palestinian families of Samra have lived there for decades, in the wadi hidden beneath the two lower, western slopes of the Umm Zuka range in the northern Jordan Valley. During those decades the families raised their sheep, pastured them in the area and also planted wheat and barley for personal use.

Up on the mountain is the army base of the Lions of Jordan battalion. Not far away is an unauthorized and illegal outpost built in early 2017, which the soldiers call “Uri’s farm,” after its builder and original resident. But to raise cows, add buildings, prepare land and lay water pipes, one person is not enough (even if he is the scion of a veteran and esteemed settler family, as I was told).

After the outpost was built the Civil Administration issued stop-work orders, which remain in force. The conclusion? There is some more powerful entity that is preventing enforcement of the law. Local settlers’ councils? The Judea and Samaria Regional Council? The prime minister? Your guess is as good as mine.

At the same time, Jewish Israelis who move around the area in jeeps or with herds of plump cows are evicting the shepherds from Samra in various and sundry ways, or else the soldiers harass them instead of the settlers – in other words, detain, delay and kick them away, along with the anti-occupation activists who accompany them.

A recording of the soldier’s words in October was appended to the petition of 33 Israeli left-wing activists against the army’s practice in the Jordan Valley of blindfolding Palestinian shepherds, whom they routinely delay for several hours. The petition eventually forced the commanders (Jordan Valley Brigade Commander Col. Udi Tzur, head of Central Command Maj. Gen. Nadav Padan and Col. Eyal Toledano, the army’s legal adviser in the West Bank) to admit that soldiers who have blindfolded Palestinian detainees acted in violation of written instructions, and to promise that they will toughen regulations so that it wouldn’t happen again.

Likewise, the reply of the State Prosecutor’s Office, as of last week, suggests that the commanders deny what the soldier in the Coordination and Liaison Office said – that the delays themselves were meant to distance Palestinians from Area C and that the order came from the brigade commander.

But the facts on the ground speak for themselves. This pattern, of combined violence by settlers and soldiers, is clear. It exists at approximately seven illegal and unauthorized outposts that were built in the Jordan Valley and its western margins. This violence comes in addition to older layers of institutionalized violence that Israel has exercised since 1967, in order to leave the Jordan Valley as empty of Palestinians as possible.

We will repeat for the millionth time what we are referring to: taking control of the water sources, declaring firing zones and nature reserves, building settlements, confiscating land, demolishing buildings, erecting checkpoints, installing iron gates and digging deep trenches.

Under these difficult conditions of official persecution, the groups that remain steadfast are the communities of shepherds that have become used to making do with heartbreakingly little. But they are arousing the envy of the nouveau-settlers in their expanding single-family farms. Where it is possible they harass them, and call on the army to chase them away. Everything is deliberate, planned and coordinated.

And all around the silence is deafening.