Restraint? Not in evidence. (Abid Katib/Getty Images)
It's the most explosive story in Israel since the 1982 Sabra-Shatila massacre, when Israeli troops supervised the three-day killing spree, by Lebanese Christian militiamen, of anywhere from 1,300 to 3,000 Palestinian civilians in adjoining Palestinian refugee camps on Beirut's southern rim.
This time it's the 22-day Gaza war last January, where almost 1,500 Palestinians, overwhelmingly civilians, were killed. This time Israeli soldiers are directly implicated. More to the point: they're implicating themselves.
Here's what one Israeli squad commander said of the murder of an unarmed Palestinian woman (because that, even in war, is what the killing of an unarmed civilian is): “What’s great about Gaza — you see a person on a path, he doesn’t have to be armed, you can simply shoot him. In our case it was an old woman on whom I did not see any weapon when I looked. The order was to take down the person, this woman, the minute you see her. There are always warnings, there is always the saying, ‘Maybe he’s a terrorist.’ What I felt was, there was a lot of thirst for blood.”
To understand that word as the Israeli government and military use it, it's necessary to understand the word's history in Israel in the last thirty odd years, the word's context, the word's power as a golden shield from accountability. In the Israeli military, Palestinians are seldom referred to as anything but terrorists. Whatever their militancy, should they be armed, whatever their grievance, should they be belligerent, whatever their motive, should they be merely demonstrating or throwing stones or screaming at soldiers in the third hour of a checkpoint search, whatever their innocence, should they be civilians, as they most often are, they're terrorists. It's an auto-pilot mechanism, as if switched on the moment a Palestinian enters the field of vision of Israeli assumptions. It's de-humanization in order to demonize, in order to make killing easier, less culpable.
Thomas Friedman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his expose on the Sabra-Shatila massacre in 1983, summed up that mentality in his account of the massacre in his 1989 book, From Beirut to Jerusalem (Farrar Straus & Giroux). He explained why Israeli soldiers could claim they didn't know a massacre was happening, within spitting distance of where they stood encircling the camps, why or how they didn't see "wanton murder of of innocents through their telescopic binoculars."
The Israeli soldiers did not see innocent civilians being masssacred and they did not hear the screams of innocent children going to their graves. What they saw was a "terrorist infestation" being "mopped up" and "terrorist nurses" scurrying about and "terrorist teenagers" trying to defend them, and what they heard were "terrorist women" screaming. In the Israeli psyche you don't come to the rescue of "terrorists." There is no such thing as "terrorists" being massacred.That was 1982. Israelis have had a quarter century since to obliterate that distinction further, as they did in the Lebanon wars of 1996 and 2006, and as they did in the Gaza war of 2009.
Many Israelis had so dehumanized the Palestinians in their own minds and had so intimately equated the words "Palestinian," "PLO," and "terrorists" on their radio and television for so long, actually referring to "terrorist tanks" and "terrorist hospitals," that they simply lost track of the distinction between Palestinian fighters and Palestinian civilians, combatants and noncombatants.
Beginning Thursday, Haaretz and Maariv, the Israeli newspapers, began publishing transcripts of Israeli soldiers' accounts of what they saw and did during the Gaza assault. The transcripts first appeared in a publication of the Yitzhak Rabin pre-military preparatory course at Oranim Academic College in Tivon, a town in northern Israel. "Dozens of graduates of the course who took part in the discussion fought in the Gaza operation," Haaretz reports. "The speakers included combat pilots and infantry soldiers. Their testimony runs counter to the Israel Defense Forces' claims that Israeli troops observed a high level of moral behavior during the operation. The session's transcript was published this week in the newsletter for the course's graduates."
The death toll alone in Gaza is staggering evidence against the claim that Israeli troops “observed a high level of moral behavior.” The assault’s breadth and violence coupled with its pre-destined inconclusiveness were immoral. How could its executioners not be? The extended citation of one such killing spree is necessary:
The testimonies include a description by an infantry squad leader of an incident where an IDF sharpshooter mistakenly shot a Palestinian mother and her two children. "There was a house with a family inside .... We put them in a room. Later we left the house and another platoon entered it, and a few days after that there was an order to release the family. They had set up positions upstairs. There was a sniper position on the roof," the soldier said.There's also the story related by the squad leader about the ordered murder of the elderly Palestinian woman in an atmosphere of wanton violence and an absence of proper rules of engagement, let alone the defilement of person and property. Loud echoes again here of Friedman's analysis on the pre-set degradation of Palestinians in Israeli soldiers' minds as automatic terrorists:
"The platoon commander let the family go and told them to go to the right. One mother and her two children didn't understand and went to the left, but they forgot to tell the sharpshooter on the roof they had let them go and it was okay, and he should hold his fire and he ... he did what he was supposed to, like he was following his orders."
According to the squad leader: "The sharpshooter saw a woman and children approaching him, closer than the lines he was told no one should pass. He shot them straight away. In any case, what happened is that in the end he killed them.
"I don't think he felt too bad about it, 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," he said.
The squad leader said he argued with his commander over the permissive rules of engagement that allowed the clearing out of houses by shooting without warning the residents beforehand. After the orders were changed, the squad leader's soldiers complained that "we should kill everyone there [in the center of Gaza]. Everyone there is a terrorist."Israel immediately, and often justifiably, alights to the foulness of anti-Semitism when Arabs or others make no distinction between Israel and Jews, between the political and the ethnic, the act and the person. But there is such a thing as Israeli bigotry, as vile and as consequential as anti-Semitism—the more so, between Israel and Palestine, given the relationship between the two. Israel is the powerful one. Israel is the occupier. Its bigotry has far more potency, when it is executed as policy—as it is every day, Palestinians will attest—than the pathetic bigotry of desperation Palestinians engage in. When a soldier says that “the lives of Palestinians, let's say, is something very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers,” he’s saying it all: Arabs, in Israeli soldiers’ eyes, are less than they are. Less than human. Less than zero.
The squad leader said: "You do not get the impression from the officers that there is any logic to it, but they won't say anything. To write 'death to the Arabs' on the walls, to take family pictures and spit on them, just because you can. I think this is the main thing: To understand how much the IDF has fallen in the realm of ethics, really. It's what I'll remember the most."
So why bother giving them the benefit of a life, let alone doubt. That woman and her children obliterated by the sharpshooter would have been alive today had they had the benefit of doubt. They didn’t. That wasn’t a woman and a mother, after all. Those weren’t children. They were all terrorists.
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