When Israel's 'Love of Our Soldiers' Turns to Malice

Ariel Bernstein
Ariel Bernstein
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Police restrain a protester during a demonstration calling for better treatment of disabled army veterans, last month in Tel Aviv.
Ariel Bernstein
Ariel Bernstein

When I found out that Itzik Saidian had immolated himself in protest against the harsh treatment and rebuff by the Defense Ministry, my blood boiled, but I was not at all surprised.

Saidian and I fought in the same war in 2014. I was deployed in the north and in the Gaza Strip, he was stationed a little farther south than I was. I was also diagnosed with PTSD by the unit for battle response, based in Tel Hashomer.

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My therapist said I was entitled to compensation by the Defense Ministry, but added that it was important that I know it would take at least two years. Parenthetically, she said it’s a humiliating experience, during which every effort would be made to prove there was something wrong with me before I was drafted. If I smoked grass or saw a psychologist in high school, this would be described as an indication of previously existing psychological problems. “Be prepared for it,” she said. I decided not to sue for compensation and give up the exhausting process.

I was lucky. My psychological injury was superficial compared to that of Saidian, whom the state sent into the Gazan neighborhood of Sajaiyeh in an outmoded, unsafe armored personnel carrier, and he saw seven of his comrades killed before his eyes. Nothing so terrible happened to me. But it was hard for me to control my anger when I saw former Defense Minister Naftali Bennett appearing on prime time TV, supposedly at Saidian’s side as he fights for his life in the hospital.

I met Bennett for the first and only time for a few moments before going into Gaza, before we went in to take Beit Hanoun. I served as a combat soldier in the Nahal Brigade reconnaissance unit, and Bennett came to the deployment area, enthusiastic and smiling and told us to “go into Gaza like an iron fist.” He didn’t miss a single photo op with us.

Two weeks later a cease-fire was declared and we withdrew. We sat on the dunes outside of Beit Hanoun and watched the air force planes drop bombs incessantly for an hour, razing the neighborhood where we had been. On the other side of the fence, our families and other good people were waiting to cheer us up. There was a DJ who played morale-raising music and a chef who volunteered to cook for us. We lost friends in Gaza, we left ruins behind. When we came out, it was to a festival.

A few years later I joined Breaking the Silence. I decided the time had come to talk about the missions I was sent on, in Gaza and the West Bank; the rules of engagement I was given; the lie we were told, that “there are no civilians in Beit Hanoun”; about the two boys, brothers, whom I was sent to arrest because they were too close to the separation fence. I felt that it was my turn to ask questions.

This is where Bennett’s support stopped. It was no longer important that with his encouragement I went into Gaza “like an iron fist.” From a hero, I became “ungrateful” as he put it. And Bennett was moderate compared to his party colleague Matan Kahane, who said I was a traitor and an antisemite.

In November Makor Rishon journalist Maya Pollak published a long article about the “mental health revolution in the Israel Defense Forces.” When she spoke of the main motives for the reform, one of them was “an opportunity to share the disturbing stories from the border crossings, so [soldiers will not] turn to Breaking the Silence after release from the army.”

When mental health in the IDF is also made subservient to PR needs, it’s not surprising that a person has to set himself on fire before it is willing to look closely at its treatment of PTSD. In this sense, Bennett did not invent anything. He is a manifestation of the atmosphere in society to “embrace IDF soldiers,” as long as they make do with this automatic embrace. Itzik was injured in an operation that could have been prevented, as part of a policy of “mowing the lawn,” that results in who knows how many casualties every year, not to mention mental health damage and Palestinian casualties.

Itzik Saidian was abandoned by the entity that sent me and my friends to fight in a besieged, crowded, desperate city, then did everything it could so we wouldn’t talk about what we did there.

No politician can today sell me a bill of goods about “loving the soldiers.” Itzik was not abandoned because of love of soldiers, he was abandoned out of heartlessness. Politicians don’t choose to muzzle Breaking the Silence out of love of soldiers, but out of fear of dealing with the consequences of the violent policies they carry out. The tie that binds the persecution of combat soldiers who cast doubt on the sanctity of the tasks they carried out to spitting in the face of soldiers with PTSD is not only ungratefulness, but also a refusal in principle to look straight in the eye of the reality we are forcing on generations of soldiers.

Excuse us for damaging your PR about our post-trauma with our insistent questions and painful stories. We will persist.

The writer is an interviewer for Breaking the Silence.

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