Opinion |

The Israeli Military's Unspoken Contract With Its Soldiers

Soldiers cannot be expected to carry out the crimes necessary for the occupation unless the state tacitly agrees not to prosecute them. This is the true reason the army brass is coming to Elor Azaria’s defense.

David Zonsheine
David Zonsheine
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Israel Defense Forces soldiers searching a Palestinian in Hebron, December 2015.
Israel Defense Forces soldiers searching a Palestinian in Hebron, December 2015.Credit: Gil Cohen Magen
David Zonsheine
David Zonsheine

The Israel Defense Forces’ mechanism for dealing with the serious crimes that the occupation produces can be described as a funnel. Its upper rim contains all the serious crimes the army commits in the territories, and it has a wide circumference. As the crimes flow down the funnel, it becomes narrower: starting with the number of investigations opened, then the number of indictments and guilty verdicts, and ending with the number of significant convictions. Thus the crimes flow into a thin spout, at the end of which is the dense filter of the military legal system.

This configuration, of course, is not accidental. It is impossible to rule over people who are denied their rights without resorting to severe violence and committing many crimes, and you cannot use soldiers to carry out these crimes without making a contract with them: You carry out missions that any reasonable person would avoid, and we will keep most of the crimes from reaching court. Perpetrators who somehow wind up in the courtroom receive light punishment.

This contract between the foot soldiers and the government, which has been revealed in these past two months, is a rigid contract, even though it is not written. In practice, the leadership made a contract with the public, the army brass and the prosecution, and all are committed to it and carry it out to the letter. The contract has been adhered to for almost half a century: The funnel sent cases downward, the filter filtered, there were no puddles, and no stain spread too far into the Israeli consciousness.

The crimes flowing deep into the unconscious and never surfacing allowed the occupation to continue and flourish practically undisturbed. And then came the B’Tselem video of soldier Elor Azaria shooting an incapacitated Palestinian in the head. The country raged, and the contract, at least superficially, was slightly undermined.

In an item broadcast on Channel 10 on August 26, Itai Vered presented what appeared to be the first results of this contract violation, although it is still too early to assess its extent: People declaring on social media that they will not show up for reserve duty because of Azaria’s trial. This is a gray form of refusal, the type that does not end in jail. Alongside violent remarks aimed at the army in general and its top brass in particular, they voice a frustration that is liable to expand into the Israeli political center.

Retired senior officers such as reserve generals Uzi Dayan and Dan Biton, and Brig. Gen. (Res.) Shmuel Zakai, voice a similar frustration. Even if they must be criticized for standing alongside Azaria’s defense team, it is more important to see their words in the context of defending the contract. All three know that Azaria is the system’s result. They realize the contract is beginning to unravel, and don’t want foot soldiers to pay the price. Not because they fear for these soldiers’ fate – if they were really concerned for them, they wouldn’t have played a part in the system that sends them on missions that cannot be carried out without committing such severe crimes. The top officers are worried because they know that if the army and leadership violate this contract, it will bring violations by soldiers – meaning refusal to serve.

Sgt. Elor Azaria in military court in April 2016. Credit: Ariel Schalit/AP

Even if it is still too early to assess the extent to which the contract has been violated, Dayan provided an indication of this fear when he discussed on live radio an event for which he was responsible — when paratroopers killed five innocent Palestinians at the Tarkumia checkpoint — an event that he managed to make disappear from the public discourse.

Dayan knows that 50 years of Israeli control have turned the Palestinians from subjects, human beings, into objects – certainly when they die. His words reflect his fears that the system is also turning soldiers into objects.

The Israeli public, especially its soldiers, are staring at this contract like a deer fixated on the searchlights of a passing patrol vehicle. The contract can be broken only after the IDF is released from its mission of ruling over the Palestinians, everyone believes. The soldiers cannot both eat rotten fish and sit in jail for it. But the cameras documenting and bringing to public attention what only front-line soldiers used to know are changing the picture and the system’s ability to uphold its part of the contract.

The opinion of expert witness Uzi Dayan, that the killing of Palestinians is an internal military matter, complements the stance of the Israeli center-left, which considers Azaria a bad seed. The phenomenon that journalist Itai Vered identified shows that after so many years of violent rule over the Palestinians, the contract that Dayan and others are trying to defend has been undermined. And the system, which refuses to talk about the source of the many killings, has been sentenced to revealing it and how it is implemented.

The growing number of documented incidents will force the system to prove to soldiers that it intends to maintain its part of the contract. They will not allow anything less.

The writer is the director general of B’Tselem.

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