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Israeli Army Engaged in Fight Over Its Soul
Doubts, Criticism of Tactics Increasingly Coming From Within

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 18, 2003; Page A01

JERUSALEM -- The hunt for suspected militants sent Sgt. Lirom Hakkak bashing his way through a wall into a Palestinian family's threadbare living room, his slender frame sweating under nearly 35 pounds of body armor and combat gear, his M-16 rifle ready.


Troops from the 202nd Paratrooper Battalion are briefed before a raid aimed at detaining a suspected Palestinian militant in the West Bank city of Nablus.
(Ilan Mizrahi For The Washington Post)

He noticed the grandmother first, her creased face so blanched with terror that she appeared on the verge of collapse.  A middle-aged couple huddled close by, trembling.

“They could be my parents,” Hakkak, the 22-year-old son of an Israeli poet, recalled thinking.  In that split second of recognition, he said, “you really feel disgusting.  You see these people and you know the majority of them are innocent and you’re taking away their rights.  You also know you must do it.”

With the Israel Defense Forces in the fourth year of battle with the Palestinians, the most dominant institution in Israeli society is also embroiled in a struggle over its own character, according to dozens of interviews with soldiers, officers, reservists and some of the nation’s preeminent military analysts.

Officers and soldiers have begun publicly criticizing specific tactics that they consider dehumanizing to both their own troops and Palestinians.  And while they do not question the need to prevent terrorist acts against Israelis, military officials and soldiers are speaking out with increasing frequency against a strategy that they say has forsaken negotiation and relied almost exclusively on military force to address the conflict.

Nearly 600 members of the armed forces have signed statements refusing to serve in the Palestinian territories.  Active-duty and reserve personnel are criticizing the military in public.  Parents of soldiers are speaking out as well, complaining that the protection of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is not worth the loss of their sons and daughters.

Such issues are being debated at the highest levels of Israel’s political and military leadership.  At the end of last month, the military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, told columnists from Israel’s three leading newspapers that the road closures, curfews and roadblocks imposed on the Palestinian civilians were creating explosive levels of “hatred and terrorism” among the populace.  Last week four former heads of the Shin Bet domestic security service said the government’s actions and policies during the Palestinian uprising had gravely damaged Israel and its people.

While such public comments have infuriated Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a former general who favors stringent measures against the Palestinians, they reflect the anxieties of many active-duty soldiers and reservists over whether the military is provoking more terrorist attacks than it is preventing.  In addition, members of the armed forces said they feared that some of the harsher tactics — especially assassinations of suspected Palestinian militants, which often also cause civilian deaths — are corrupting Israeli soldiers, and by extension, Israeli society.

“What’s happening is terrible,” said retired Brig. Gen. Nehemia Dagan, former chief of education for the armed services.  “The ethics and morals of Israeli society are more important than killing the heads of Hamas or Islamic Jihad.”

“It’s a difficult type of war.  It’s harder to uphold ethics,” said Asa Kasher, a professor of military studies at Tel Aviv University who is rewriting the armed forces’ code of ethics, which he first wrote nine years ago.  “There are no books on moral regulations for fighting terror.”

While Kasher said he does not believe the core values of the Israeli military have changed, this conflict has “put people into utterly new situations — whether it’s a private at a checkpoint or the chief of staff.”

“Even my friends who are Jewish think what the army is doing is wrong,” said a 20-year-old first sergeant, Noam, who is a sniper in the 202nd Paratrooper Battalion.  Israeli military officials requested that the full names of active-duty soldiers not be printed for fear that they could be subject to prosecution for war crimes in countries that oppose Israel’s actions in the Palestinian territories.  Noam said he has told his friends: “I’m not killing anyone for no reason.  I’m doing this because I have to do it.”

At the same time, many other soldiers assert they are proud of what they have done.  For much of this year, Dor, a shy 19-year-old medical officer, was based with the paratroops near the West Bank city of Nablus.  He was only 27 miles from his home in Netanya, an Israeli seaside city that has been the target of six suicide bombings since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.

“You think of your girlfriend sitting in a cafe, and it makes things here more personal, more relevant,” Dor said.  “When you stop a bomber, you feel good about yourself.”

Opinion polls continue to rate the Israel Defense Forces as the country’s most respected institution, though public confidence levels have eroded slightly since the military’s incursion into West Bank cities in the spring of 2002.  The Israeli news media, including the military’s official weekly newspaper, have become more willing to scrutinize an institution once considered sacrosanct.

Many analysts say they see a growing willingness among today’s soldiers and officers to not only speak out against the tactics employed in the Palestinian territories, but also to refuse to serve.  That, the analysts say, signals an unprecedented challenge to the armed forces and the government.

Israel maintains mandatory military conscription and reserve duty in which eligible men, and some unmarried women, serve about one month each year, usually until age 41, though requirements vary substantially depending on the individual’s military specialty.  The military is what Michael Oren, a military historian, calls a “neighborhood army,” which most Israeli boys and girls grew up knowing they would join.  Active-duty and reserve soldiers maintain a fierce dedication to the military, and believe they have an obligation to protect their homeland, as well as the lives of families and friends.

But in dusty camps, at blistering desert roadblocks and, perhaps most frequently, when soldiers go home and take off their uniforms, introspection often blurs the clear outlines of duty.

“You’re in a situation where you need to be blind,” said Hakkak, the Israeli sergeant, tugging nervously at unruly strands of his brown hair as he discussed his role in the conflict.  “You do things as a machine, it doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong.  The things you’ve done affect you in a very serious way.”

Nearly 900 Israelis have been killed during the conflict — more than 250 of them soldiers.  Almost 2,500 Palestinians have been killed.  It is difficult to determine how many of those casualties were civilians, with estimates by Palestinian human rights groups and Israeli research groups ranging as high as 85 percent and as low as 48 percent.  No verifiable independent count exists, and the Israeli military provides no statistics on Palestinian civilian deaths.

Nearly a year after leaving active duty, Hakkak, who like many soldiers later found work as a security guard, said he was still haunted by his West Bank tour.

“In my dreams I see myself killing people I didn’t kill,” he said.

An Army’s Mystique

Cpl. Mati Milstein was sweaty and bored — extremely bored, as he recalled.  He was halfway through an eight-hour shift at a Gaza Strip checkpoint near a Jewish settlement when he spotted a car approaching.  A Palestinian man and his young son were inside.

Milstein, his coffee-colored eyes set in a face that seemed all sharp angles, trained his M-16 rifle on the father and ordered him out of the car.  He remembered that the “young son watched in horror.”

The soldier peered inside the trunk.  The father and his boy were probably returning from the beach and were no security threat, Milstein told himself.

“But I wasn’t finished,” Milstein later wrote in a Jewish newsletter.  “At gunpoint, I ordered the father to open the hood and show me the engine, open the glove compartment, lift up the front seats, crawl into the back and show me whatever was stuck between the rear seats, open his shopping bags, empty his pockets.”

Then, with the man’s identity card in his pocket, Milstein ambled over to his shaded and fortified checkpost and gossiped with a colleague, keeping his M-16 trained on the father and son, who remained standing under the wilting sun.

Milstein, an American who moved to Israel and joined the army four years ago, said he discussed the incident with no one — not with fellow soldiers, nor with his parents back in Santa Fe, N.M.  “We tend to keep those experiences within us,” he explained, echoing the feelings of almost every soldier interviewed.  “It’s very personal.  We might prefer to forget what happened.

“I didn’t think about the implications until afterward,” said Milstein, whose father is a psychiatrist and mother is a psychologist.  “I didn’t feel good about what I did — that I couldn’t keep myself from sinking to this.”

Last year Milstein decided to tell his story in the newsletter of the Jewish Federation of Greater Albuquerque.  Sitting in a Tel Aviv coffee bar with an army buddy on a recent afternoon, he tried to dissect his reasons for taking his personal feelings public.

“There’s a mystique about the army — that we are the most moral army in the world, we only do good things,” Milstein said.  “But this is what’s happening.  I think it’s important for people to know.”  He thought it particularly important to tell other Jews because, he said, “they don’t really know what’s going on.”

Today, as a 28-year-old reservist who works for an Israeli Web site, Milstein continues to serve — reluctantly — in the Palestinian territories when he receives call-ups.

“There are terrorists stopped and terrorist attacks prevented,” he said.  “In that respect, there is a very clear purpose and reason for being there.  But I don’t think we should be there.  All the incidents that happen at checkpoints make the Palestinian population hate us more.  It counteracts the useful work of tracking suicide bombers.  It strengthens the hand of the armed Palestinian groups.  It makes it easier for Hamas to justify its attacks on Israelis.”

Disobeying Orders

Brig. Gen. Yiftah Spector is one of the most decorated pilots in Israeli history, a triple ace credited with downing 15 enemy planes in wars spanning three decades.  In recent years, Spector became a revered flight instructor for the air force.  This year alone he spent 47 days on reserve duty and flew 110 times, mostly training cadets and their instructors.

Last month scores of Palestinians were killed or wounded when pilots attempting to kill militant leaders dropped bombs or fired missiles into crowded urban neighborhoods in the Gaza Strip.  Spector and 26 other current and former Israeli air force pilots signed a letter stating their opposition to executing “illegal and immoral orders to attack.”  They refused “to take part in air force strikes in civilian population centers” and “to continue to hurt innocent civilians.”

The letter angered many of their commanders, rattled the political establishment and astounded a society that has long considered military pilots to be among the elite.  The air force commander, Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz, grounded all the pilots and fired the nine instructors, including Spector, his longtime friend and colleague.

Spector, 63, was undeterred.  In an interview a few days after personally surrendering his wings to Halutz, he said: “I am the public.  I can speak my heart.”

“If we continue, there are going to be greater and great dilemmas and there will be more and more mistakes,” said Spector, a sculptor and painter who invented a computerized aircraft flight control system.  The government, he said, is “deaf, blind and stupid” for relying exclusively on military force to resolve the conflict.

In addition to the pilots, 567 reserve army officers and soldiers have declared publicly that they will no longer serve in the Palestinian territories, and hundreds of others have quietly asked their commanders for reassignment, according to military lawyers and Israeli military experts.

Many government officials have dismissed the numbers as inconsequential in a military of about 186,000 active-duty and 445,000 reserve troops.  Some military analysts disagree.

Fear of the Unknown

“My biggest fear is that we get numb,” Nadav, a 26-year-old captain, said recently at a shabby Israeli base just outside of Nablus, about 28 miles north of Jerusalem.  He sat at a dusty, plastic-covered table in his office, chain-smoking Marlboro Lights and contemplating the impact of this war on his army.  Like all officers in the Israeli military, he began service as an enlisted soldier.

Nadav, a compactly built man who took a break to travel the world after his mandatory service and returned to active duty last year, described a trip to Ethiopia.  On the first day, he was overwhelmed by the poverty.  After a few days, he said, “I didn’t see it as much,” adding, “I’m afraid that will happen to us.  We will start doing things, like taking over a house, and blowing up a door will look natural — that we’ll do stuff and not think about the person, even if he’s killed.”

Nadav commands a company of about 105 soldiers in the 202nd Paratrooper Battalion.  His troops are native Israelis as well as immigrants from across the globe — 20 from Russia and other former Soviet republics, 10 from Ethiopia, others from Argentina, Britain and, until recently, two from the United States.  The unit’s members call themselves “the Rattlesnakes.”

He refers to them as “my children.”  He worries about the strain the conflict has put on the unit and his men.  Before last year’s West Bank incursions, troops usually spent four months in the field and four months training at a rear base.  This year, Nadav’s men were allotted one month of training and reorganization after 11 months of combat operations.

One night this year at the beginning of a shift, the Rattlesnakes collected in front of an elaborately detailed, computer-projected aerial photograph of Nablus, an ancient city known to most of the men in the room by its Hebrew name of Shechem and revered by Jews as the spot where Abraham received the promise of a land of Israel.

The night’s mission was a raid intended to nab a suspected Palestinian militant.

“We know very little,” cautioned the deputy commander who gave the briefing.  “Name, what he looks like....  We don’t know where he is.  These are the suspected places” — three houses where intelligence reports indicated the suspect could be spending the night.

Each squad was to leave its armored jeeps or truck at a specific location; each man had a precise rooftop, tree line or alley at which to position himself; each was responsible for knowing the location of his colleagues to reduce the chances of casualties caused by friendly fire.

Soldiers say few operations prey on their psyches more than searches for suspected militants.  Sometimes the troops blast through doors with explosives, fearful of the potential danger of armed fighters on the other side.  All too frequently, they find Palestinian families cowering in their own houses.

“One time we went into a house. . . really, really aggressively,” said a 22-year-old first sergeant, Gabriel, whose copper-colored hair sprouted from beneath a maroon skullcap emblazoned with the emblem of the paratroops.  “The people were really scared.  The people were shaking.  Not just the women — the father, all of them were shaking.”  It was the wrong house.

“I really, really, really felt bad,” said Gabriel, who said he watched Walt Disney movies to relax on his weekends at home.  “If it’s a terrorist, you don’t feel as bad.  I really felt bad.  I couldn’t stop apologizing.  There was nothing I could do.  I’m a simple soldier.”

Noam, the 20-year-old first sergeant, spent his youth in Israel, moved to England with his family and returned nearly three years ago to serve in the armed forces.  In those three years, he said, he has lost count of how many Palestinian homes he has raided.

“You feel sorry for the family,” said the lanky soldier with short black hair.  “They have done nothing wrong....  You think of what it would be like if someone came to your family.”

“A person not in the army might think you should get out of the occupied territories,” said Noam, watching two Rattlesnakes play a heated game of table tennis as they waited for the night’s mission to begin.  “But by being here, you know you stopped a potential murderer.  That’s the only satisfaction.”

His soft voice drifted off: “Even that’s not too much satisfaction.  It’s a war.  No one likes this.”

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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For archive purposes, this article is being stored on website.
The purpose is to advance understandings of environmental, political,
human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues.