On my second day as a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, before I even knew how to march or aim or properly grease my rifle, I was rushed into a chilly auditorium to listen to the commander of our basic training facility give a short introductory speech.
Having learned about army life mainly from American movies, I expected machismo, bravado and grit. What I got instead was a long and measured lecture about morality.
The IDF, the commander stated, was the most moral army in the world. Like every army, we often find ourselves in difficult situations and often have to make regrettable decisions that cost innocent people their lives. But unlike any other army, said the officer, we meet the severe security challenges facing us with extraordinary care, with great compassion, with a commitment to justice and a true yearning for peace. That night, I slept well; still uncertain about what my military service might have in store, I took comfort in knowing that I belonged to an army that addressed the questions of morality and ethics seriously.
For the next three years, my faith in this point was repeatedly tested. I disagreed vehemently with the government’s policy of continuing the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a policy that propelled so many of my friends into Palestinian towns and villages, where they were expected to police a resentful and angry population. And I was incensed when the army committed the occasional travesty, such as the murder of more than 100 Lebanese civilians in Qana in 1996. But overall, during my service and after, I continued to believe that the army took the sacred notion of human life seriously.
This is no longer the case.
In the past two months, a torrent of news reports out of Israel have done much to portray a radically different picture of the IDF: violent, callous and increasingly religious, an army unlike the one in which I served more than a decade ago.
First, there were the testimonies of soldiers who served in the recent incursion into Gaza. During a seminar held in February by a prominent pre-military preparatory school–an educational institution favored by some of Israel’s most highly motivated and ideological youth–these soldiers shared stories reflecting a blatant disregard for civilian lives and property.
One commander, for example, recalled that his platoon took over a Palestinian home, imprisoning the family that lived there in one room and occupying the others. A few days later, an officer ordered that the family be released. The platoon commander let the family go, ordering them to leave the house and walk to the right. The mother and her two small children didn’t understand the instructions and ran instead to the left. And the commander, apparently, had forgotten to inform his men that he was releasing the civilian captives. As the mother and her children came running out of the house, an IDF sharpshooter located on the roof shot all three to death.
“I don’t think [the sharpshooter] felt too bad about it,” recalled the commander, “because after all, as far as he was concerned, he did his job according to the orders he was given. And the atmosphere in general, from what I understood from most of my men who I talked to… I don’t know how to describe it…. The lives of Palestinians, let’s say, is something very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers. So as far as they are concerned they can justify it that way.” Other testimonies spoke of less fateful but equally stinging incidents in which soldiers urinated on foodstuffs sent by international aid organizations and sprayed racist slogans on the walls of occupied Palestinian homes.