Haaretz has an editorial on command responsibility for abuse of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers, and what it reflects about Israeli society as their occupation of Palestinian lands grinds on:
Something bad is happening to us
Three years ago, the CBS television network broadcast photos of American soldiers abusing prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The horrifying pictures led to the trials of eight soldiers, dismissals and a storm of outrage in America. At the trial of one prison guard, who was sentenced to eight years in jail, a psychologist gave his evaluation: that the man was an entirely ordinary person, without any particular violent tendencies, who served as a guard for many years in civilian life but never behaved sadistically toward American prisoners. The situation of occupier and occupied, as opposed to that of citizen versus citizen, causes ordinary people to become violent and lose restraint. At Abu Ghraib, the trial found, there was institutionalized contempt at every level. The prison guards understood that “this is the way to behave here.”
Last night, the investigative television program “Fact” broadcast pictures of our own Abu Ghraib affair. It is doubtful whether a country that has grown used to 40 years of occupation, and the stories that accompany it, will be shocked. We have become accustomed to treating the Palestinians as inferior people. Generations come and go, and new soldiers abuse the residents of occupied Hebron in almost the same manner. Stories similar to those broadcast last night were exposed by the Breaking the Silence group three years ago. The saying “occupation corrupts” has become a slogan of the left instead of a warning signal to everyone.
This time, it was regular soldiers in the Kfir Brigade. They exposed their backsides and sexual organs to Palestinians, pressed an electric heater to the face of a young boy, beat young boys senseless, recorded everything on their mobile phones and sent it to their friends. One of their “mischievous acts” was to test how long a Palestinian who was being choked could survive without breathing. When he passed out, the experiment was stopped. The soldiers described activities to “break the routine” that consisted entirely of abuse. It was enough for a boy “to look at us the wrong way” for him to be beaten.
Earlier, at the trial of First Lieutenant Yaakov Gigi, officers spoke of burnout, of “something bad happening to the brigade,” of a Wild West, of a moral crisis. The commander of the brigade, Colonel Itai Virov, said “we failed on several parameters.” His words reflect a denial of the depth of the failure. This continuing routine, far from the eyes of the commanders, must lead to a series of investigations, and perhaps to dismissals as well. It is unconscionable for the head of the Hebron Brigade, the division commander, the GOC Central Command and even the chief of staff to ignore the ongoing behavior of soldiers in the brigade responsible for routine security in the West Bank. Colonel Virov admitted that there was a conspiracy of silence in the brigade – in other words, a norm of abuse and its concealment. To change norms, one has to shock and be shocked, not be satisfied with a few imprisonments and empty words about a loss of values.
Perfectly ordinary people, as the American psychologist said of the Abu Ghraib abusers, are capable of behaving like monsters when they receive a message from the top that it is permissible to abuse, beat, choke, burn, make people miserable and generally do anything that man’s evil genius is capable of inventing to others who are under their control. Something bad is happening to us, they are saying in the Kfir Brigade. That “something” is the occupation.
February 26th, 2008