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Ha’aretz: Listen as the silence breaks

by Dalia Karpel

September 21st, 2007.


“We – Israeli Soldiers – were put there to punish the Palestinians”, says Ilan Vilenda, an Israeli soldier who served in Rafah during the first Intifada.

Ilan is the only soldier of 21 who agreed to have his name published, after he was interviewed by psychologist Nofer Ishai-Karen.

The soldiers spoke freely to Nofer, who served with them in the same ESHBAL platoon 20 years ago; They disclosing their innermost emotions about the horrendous crimes, in which they took part: Murder, breaking bones of Palestinian children, actions of humiliation, destruction of property, robbery and theft.

Soldier “A” testimony:
“We decided to turn an old shower in our base to a make-shift detention cell. A Palestinian was brought there, handcuffed and mouth banded so he couldn’t talk, or move. We “forgot him there for three days”…

Soldier “B” testimony:
“I was on my first patrol. Others simply shot like mad. I started to shoot as they did. They ‘set my on’. I took my weapon and shot. Nobody was there to tell me otherwise”

— Psychologist Ishai-Karen was shocked to find that the soldiers enjoyed the ‘intoxication of power’, and had pleasure from using violence. She said: “Most of my interviewees enjoyed their own instigated violence during their Occupation service”.

Soldier “C” testimony:
“The truth is that I love this mess – I enjoy it. It is like being on drugs. If I didn’t enter Rafah, to put down some rebellion -at least once a week- I’d go berserk.

Soldier “D” testimony:
What is great is that you don’t have to follow any law or rule. You feel that YOU ARE THE LAW; you decide. Once you go into the Occupied Territories YOU ARE GOD”.

Emotional dumbness

Soldier “E” testimony:
We drove an APC through Rafah. A man of 25 walked nearby. He didn’t hurl a stone at us or anything. Then without any reason “X” shot him in the stomach. We left him lying on the sidewalk”.

Soldier “F” testimony:
Some “tough guys” developed it into ‘an ideology’, according to which we have to react brutally even for minor events. A woman threw a sandal at me. I kicked her with my foot at her crotch. I broke her. She can’t have children any longer. Next time she won’t throw sandals at me… and when another woman spat at me she got the butt of my gun in her face. She can’t spit now.

Soldier “G” described his first forced entry to a home to detain a Palestinian:
“He was real big, some 30 years old. He refused detention. We hit him but couldn’t force him down. Some people came hurling stones at us. We beat him and told him to lie down. Till he finally did. We drove to the base with him. By that time he had lost consciousness. He died some days later”.

Nofer Ishai-Karen: “Some NCOs encouraged the soldiers to behave brutally, and provided their own example.

Soldier “H” testimony:
After two months in Rafah a new NCO commander arrived. The first patrol, which he commanded, was at 06 hours. Rafah was under curfew. Not a soul was on the street. Then he saw a young boy, of about 4, playing in the sand in the courtyard of his home. The kid was building a castle in the sand.

Suddenly the NCO, a guy from the Engineers Corps, ran to chase the kid. We followed. He captured the kid and broke his elbow. Broke the kid’s elbow! Damn me if I’m not telling the truth! Then the NCO treaded on the kid’s stomach three times, before he moved on. We couldn’t believe our eyes… But the next day we went on patrol with that guy and the soldiers started to imitate him…

What happened then?
Some guys couldn’t stomach it. The case of severe abuse of three young adolescents, who were bounded hand and foot by a staff sergeant, got them to alert a senior officer. “When the medic arrived the boys were bleeding all over, their clothes were soaked with blood, and they were shivering from fear.

They were made to kneel like dogs and were afraid to move”. The NCO was punished by 3 months detention. But the platoon commander backed the NCO and reprimanded the conscientious soldiers for ‘defaming the platoon’.”

Nofer Ishai-Karen: The sacred value in the [Israeli] Army is “fighters’ solidarity”, i.e., loyalty towards your fellow combatants. The platoons protected its secrets, as a family defends its ‘black sheep’. The fellows regard as “traitors” the conscientious soldiers, says Nofer Ishai-Karen. The cover-up was complete when our ‘good guy’ was excommunicated and ostracized by the entire platoon. And the NCO? He left the country, and now lives in the U.S. of A. The majority of the soldiers of these platoons had left Israel. Only five or six remain in Israel.

Nofer studied two platoons ESHBAL and ESHKHAR, the last was more extreme in its violence, she says.

Finally back to Ilan Vilenda, the only soldier who allowed Nofer to use his full name and even be photographed. Vilenda was a staff sergeant in charge of ‘operations’.

Ilan Vilenda’s testimony:
“Our job was to beat them… I personally hit a boy and another. I used my hands or the truncheon. We beat more severely [Palestinian] adults. We acted like policemen but we acted outside the law. There was this Palestinian who had a TV at home. The World Cup in Soccer was on, and we used to invade his privacy to watch the games. After a while he had enough, and asked us take the TV set and move.

“I was born on a Kibbutz, to a family whose values were humane ‘Zionist left wing’. The Palestinians threw tons of stones at us. Whereas at the beginning my ideological commitment restrained my actions, my anger accumulated, and I released it violently. It was meant to be. We were there “to make them [Palestinians] pay. My political views changed too. I now support the extreme-right-religious National-Religious Party. After his release from the army, Vilenda and 5 other Israelis were arrested in Goa, India for possession of LSD. “I wanted to serve my country. This was my task… but the entire IDF is executing illegal-orders.

Who is responsible?

General Matan Vilna’i [now serving under Ehud Barak as vice Minister of Defense] was at the time [during the First Intifada] Chief of the IDF Southern Command. He often visited our platoon and discussed with soldiers, says Nofer But… there you go… the ‘Instruments of DENIAL and CONCEALMENT’ went to work…”

Besides: The Israeli Army didn’t provide the unit with regular training, nor were the soldiers given regular leaves, or provided with free time to recuperate and recover. The interviewed soldiers maintained that the longer they operated [against the Palestinians in Rafah] without leave, the more violent they became in imposing their kind of ‘Law and Order’. They claimed “Army [commanders] were aware of the erosion towards violence, and encouraged it in order to save manpower”.

General Matan Vilna’i must have known what happened. High-ranking officers who served on the Occupied West Bank had voiced similar warnings against Israeli Army behavior. “The orders left a wide gap, a margin… of intentionally un-specified ‘grey zone’, which encouraged violent behavior of soldiers”, said Reserve Colonel Elisha Shapira, who served in the Nablus Area at the same time. Soldiers were told “don’t hit Palestinians – but bring them to interrogation ‘swell-headed’ – blown-up”.

The events, which Nofer Ishai-Karen researched, happened some 17 years ago. The situation has further deteriorated since that time. Now Israeli Army and Air Force General openly take pride in acts of revenge against Palestinian civilians. Maj-Gen Eliezer Shkeidi took pride in announcing that his pilots break the sound barrier over Gaza, producing sonic booms.

These cause severe PTSD symptoms among young children; they have also caused miscarriages among pregnant women. The indiscriminate shelling of Palestinian homes had caused many deaths lately, including many children. Perhaps last but not least: The Israeli cabinet, backed by Washington, said it would disrupt power and fuel supply to Gaza.

[1] This is an abbreviated translation of an article by Dalia Karpel titled HAMEDOVEVET [=the one who makes people talk]. The article appeared on the Hebrew Weekend Supplement, on 21 September 2007. It is based on academic research, which Nofer Ishai-Karen and Psychology Prof. Joel Elizur, of the Hebrew University published in ALPAYIM Magazine Vol. 31.

[2] The article was not translated to English and thus did NOT appear in Haaretz English Language edition.

[3] Psychology Prof. Joel Elizur, of the Hebrew University, who guided Nofer Ishai-Karen in her Master’s thesis, served in the reserves in the Mental Health Department of the Israeli Army. But the IDF wouldn’t allow him to research into Israeli Soldiers’ violence. The researchers hold the interview raw audio material.

[4] To my best knowledge the Israeli Army hasn’t either charged a single case of abuse or murder by soldiers of Palestinians in proper court.