Opinion

What Really Happens in the World's Most Moral Army

As a proud Israeli leftist who believes in the two-state solution, I should have been a compassionate soldier in Gaza and the West Bank. But this is a story about the corrupting effect of limitless power

Eyal Harel
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Eyal Harel, serving as a reserve major in the Israel Defense Forces.
Eyal Harel, serving as a reserve major in the Israel Defense Forces.
Eyal Harel

I, too, was the Israeli officer with the mole on his lip who served somewhere, at some point, and saw, experienced and did what many good Israelis – those who help old ladies across the street and teach their children not to be violent – insist on not knowing. You know, the kind of things we do in the world’s most moral army.

You don’t want to hear about the Border Police patrol I joined as a cadet in an officers’ training course, from which I was pulled during the violence following the opening of the Western Wall Tunnel in 1996. Or about how we caught a Palestinian boy of no more than 12, riding a donkey between Qalqilyah and Kfar Sava. You don’t want to know that after a “chase” of about five minutes, the Border Policeman shooed the donkey away and beat the boy up – why, I will never know.

Because I didn’t ask. My stomach tightened; maybe I cleared my throat. But I didn’t do anything. Nor did I tell anyone. None of us ever told anyone. Maybe because it was too confusing to see the code of ethics we’d learned at Bahad 1, the Officers Training School, shattered into tiny pieces on the floor of reality.

It was an experience that I thought would shape me, so that when I needed to take responsibility for a platoon or company, as a levelheaded reserve officer spearheading the defense of Israeli citizens living in the Gaza Strip of 2002, I would know how to act with moderation, tolerance and restraint.

But somehow, that isn’t quite what happened. That officer with the mole on his lip that Amira Hass wrote about (“To the parents of the Israeli officer now starring in this disgraceful video,” May 9) merely cocked his weapon. I actually fired mine. Twice. One bullet each time. That was the only way that I, who only knew Hebrew, could send a message to someone who knew only Arabic. It was the only thing resembling Arabic that I knew.

The first time, all I wanted was to tell a few dozen men who had gathered near the entrance to the southern Gazan settlement of Rafiah Yam, on their way to work, to move a little. The second time, I wanted to tell a group of Palestinians who were looking at a body that had washed up on the beach to go home because there was nothing to see.

And somehow it was the most normal thing. Because in Gaza, everything was permitted. As one of the commanders of the Girit outpost that sat on the neck of Rafah, I was involved in dozens (yes, dozens) of incidents in which all the positions in the outposts fired simultaneously at the houses in Rafah, using any weapon possible. In 98 percent of the cases, the shooting began because someone imagined that they saw something, and the rest was just part of the fun. To our credit, I must say we weren’t discriminating. As we fired in all directions, we were also firing at our own troops in the neighboring outpost, at the Israelis of Rafiah Yam and at anything in-between.

In such a situation, there are no rules and no one holding you to account. As an engineering unit without too many resources, we were often given new, unfamiliar weapons. And the best way to test their efficacy was to aim them at the homes of Rafah. Thus, we conducted tests with light bombs that fell in the middle of the city. It’s how we tested an automatic grenade launcher that fired grenades in bursts, indirectly firing into Rafah. At whom or at what, we had no idea. Everything was allowed. That’s how we behaved in the most moral army in the world.

From there, we proceeded to activities in the West Bank, policing Palestinians and defending settlers. We did a lot of things without authorization but with a lot of encouragement, as we turned ourselves into policeman, judge and executor of lengthy delays at roadblocks, sometimes in subzero temperatures. Nobody cared, let alone investigated.

For years, I thought I was one of the good ones, one of the moral ones. A left-winger who demanded that other leftists be in these places precisely so they’d make the right decisions; to prevent unnecessary friction. It took me years to understand that you cannot square this circle. It took me years to see the whole picture and to take responsibility for the things I did, or that were done under my watch.

I got my slap in the face from the most innocent place.

It was a night ambush near the settlement of Efrat, on the bend of a dark and pretty scary road. Without signaling and without warning, we four cowboys, armed to the teeth, jumped on the next victim. It was a battered yellow Fiat 500 traveling to the nearby village. The passengers were a father, mother and two small children, all of them terrified. They had good reason to be scared. I could have slapped them. I could have punched them. I could have told them to run to the turn and come back. I could have detained them for hours in the middle of the night. I could have shot them. No one would have questioned my judgment.

I had the ultimate power. And it felt great. It felt like a computer game in which I couldn’t lose.

And then, as the family was standing aside, trembling with fear, waiting for us to take their car apart, my attention was caught by the little girl. She was probably 5, the same age my youngest son is now. She was pulling her father’s pants leg and trying to tell him something, but he wasn’t listening. He was clearly terrified.

I couldn’t understand what she was saying. Who needs to understand Arabic, anyway? But something about the girl trying to get her father’s attention played on some rusty string of the basic moral principles I’d stored away when I set out for reserve duty. It turned out she needed to pee. She wanted her father to take her to pee, but he was too scared to move or even say anything.

This was the exact moment when reality bit me hard. For the first time in my adult life as a proud Zionist, reserve officer, one who voted for the left and supported a Palestinian state, I realized that in that place, in that second, the fate of an entire family that was only trying to get home safely was in my hands; that I could show them mercy or the whip. Me.

And I was frightened. Suddenly, I realized the unlimited power I had. There were no checks, no balances, no controls. I could do as I pleased. And even if I couldn’t, that’s certainly what the poor people we’d stopped thought.

I told the father to take his daughter to pee, and we left. I’m not sure they managed to start their car after all that, but we weren’t there anymore.

I don’t know what happened to the boy from Qalqilyah that we beat up, to the children in Rafah whose homes we took potshots at, or the girl who needed to pee. I don’t know if any of them died from an errant shell, tried to blow up a bus or became a peace activist.

What I need to do to repair some of the damage I’ve done is to recognize it. And no less important – to make you recognize it, too. Breaking the Silence [the veterans’ organization that solicits testimony from Israeli soldiers in the territories] is not the enemy. It is us. Those you have sent to the territories to do the dirty work and were expecting to return with clean clothes. It doesn’t work. And it certainly isn’t moral.

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