A short while back, IDF reservist Eden Abergil caused a controversy by celebrating her IDF service by posting a happy picture of herself on Facebook with bound and blindfolded Palestinian prisoners.
Today, a barbaric video showed up on YouTube, going Abergil one better. A male IDF soldier belly dances around a bound and blindfolded Palestinian woman.
The video is appalling. As with Abergil, the IDF has launched an investigation, though unlike the Abergil case, these soldiers appear to be on active duty and, thus, are subject to disciplinary measures by the army.
Whatever comes of such an investigation may mollify the critics, particularly the Israeli ones (and there are many, not only from the left, who are revolted by such behavior), but it will not solve the problem. There’s really no way it can.
In my work I’ve come to meet and get to know many soldiers, from several countries (most, of course, either Israeli or American), both active ones and veterans. I know that most soldiers do not behave this way. But it is clear, from every war, conflict, police action and occupation that there are always some soldiers who do.
Israelis are no different, but there is something that is different about this dynamic. It is that these soldiers are the products of a militarized society which has been holding millions of people under military occupation, with no rights of citizenship, for over 43 years. That has a long term effect on both occupier and occupied.
These soldiers are young men and women, who are the second or even third generation of occupiers. They have been raised in a culture that, as is natural for an occupying power, both dominates the Palestinians and also fears them. That fear is not limited to terrorists, but extends to the very existence of the Palestinians, and their legacy of dispossession.
Of course, the belly-dancing soldier and Eden Abergil are not typical (though they are also certainly not the most extreme, as you can see here, for example). But just read the testimonies gathered by the group called Shovrim Shtika (Breaking the Silence), made up entirely of Israeli reservists who served in the Occupied Territories. Or read B’Tselem’s reports. Or take a walk through Hebron, near the closed off Shuhada Street. Or just go through a checkpoint.
It’s not that Israelis are any different than anyone else, nor are soldiers different from other people. Rather, this is the effect of holding another people under occupation. It is what happens when you train young men and women who are barely out of high school to be soldiers who must learn how to risk their lives and use violence to obtain military objectives or to defend themselves.
Some number of those young people get drunk with their power over others and act like this soldier and Abergil. But all are affected by being part of an army whose main activity is not defense but policing an occupation.
I am not going to argue that Israel should end its occupation for its own sake. That argument has been made, and it’s valid and important.
But it also has a downside. It glosses over the most important reason Israel needs to end its occupation of millions of Palestinians; it’s the same reason that continuing the occupation has such a corrupting influence on Israelis and Israeli society.
The occupation is simply wrong. There is no way around the fact that depriving millions of people of their freedom is unethical.
Israel, of course, has very real security needs, and those needs can justify actions that would otherwise be immoral or illegal. One may argue, as I certainly would, that freeing the Palestinians from occupation would dramatically reduce, rather than enhance, such security threats. But that, like the counter-argument, is purely speculative at this point.
The trouble is that after 43 years Israel has become accustomed to addressing its security needs through the occupation, and, despite the fact that most of its citizens want the occupation to end, the government is far from zealous in trying to make that happen.
The settlement enterprise surely makes ending the occupation much more difficult politically for Israel. But meanwhile, those same settlements make the occupation — which would need to be oppressive in any case as any occupation must be — all the more restrictive and, yes, violent.
A conscientious Israeli leader should say that the occupation should end because it is harming Israel. It harms Israel’s standing in the world; the cost of occupation and settlements is a serious drain on the Israeli economy; it creates diplomatic problems. But we need to ask why does it have those effects?
Because it is fundamentally wrong to deprive millions of people of their freedom, and ultimately, that is why Israel must end the occupation. As long as it doesn’t, the sort of corruption taking root in Israel, and manifesting itself in the xenophobia of Avigdor Lieberman and the abusive behavior of the soldier in the latest video, will spread—because ongoing immoral actions breed more and more shocking immediate ones.