By Yuval Azoulay
Shooting Palestinian bystanders; illegally commandeering cars and going on joyrides; torturing a youth by pressing a heater to his face and beating cuffed prisoners on their way to custody. These are only some of the reported cases of abuse for which Israel Defense Forces soldiers serving in the West Bank are currently on trial.
“We’ve been hit by a tsunami,” said the commander of the Kfir Brigade, members of which were recently implicated in a rampage through a West Bank town that left two Palestinians wounded, one of them seriously. Kfir is the largest IDF unit in the West Bank. “I suppose every brigade goes through low and high periods, and right now we’re in a low one.”
Another officer in the GOC Central Command admitted that “the brigade is in a rough patch.” But some officers say that the incident, while lamentable, is not unusual; what is different about this case, they say, is that most units involved in such incidents sweep them under the carpet. In any case, Kfir officials are careful not to call the incident a “moral crisis.” They do concede, however, that had they reorganized their unit and made changes to the decision-making process than perhaps the headlines would have been different.
Last July, soldiers from the brigade commandeered a local taxi, forcibly removing its passengers. The driver, Mohammed Issa Mahrazeh, was also removed, tied up and blindfolded and returned to the vehicle, where he was held for the duration of the incident. He sustained bruises.
While driving through the town of Dahariya, the soldiers noticed a young man approaching the vehicle. According to the indictment, the officer ordered one of the soldiers to “distance” Badham Samamra, 18, from the car with his weapon. The soldier pointed his weapon out the window of the taxi and shot Samamra. The bullet entered Samara’s left shoulder and exited through his chest, causing moderate to serious injuries.
During the trial of the commander of the force during the Dahariya incident, First Lieutenant Ya’akov Gigi, his lawyers argued that his actions were part of a pattern of inappropriate behavior within the brigade that had filtered down to the junior officer corps and the combat troops.
Other soldiers from the Kfir Brigade are currently being tried separately for allegedly taunting Palestinians by exposing themselves. Meanwhile, soldiers from another infantry unit are suspected of applying an electric heater to the face of a Palestinian youth. According to Israel Radio, IDF soldiers used the cameras on their mobile phones to record themselves abusing detained Palestinians. Some of the soldiers allegedly beat the detainees while one of the soldiers is accused of exposing himself.
Channel 2 television’s “Fact” investigative program recently aired additional alleged incidents of abuse by soldiers in the Kfir Brigade. “We’d go on a patrol,” one soldier told Channel 2. “If even one kid looked at us the wrong way, he’d be slapped. Rocks were thrown at us during one patrol, and we caught one of the kids who knew the perpetrators. We beat the crap out of him until he told us who did it.” The soldier said that he and other soldiers tracked down a boy said to be involved, aged 14, and placed the tips of their rifles in his mouth. “We said, ‘You want to die? Just say when and where,'” the soldier recalled.
In another instance, soldiers at roadblocks choked 10-year-old Palestinians with their bare hands until the children passed out. “Hebron is like the Wild West and the army is the law,” a soldier said. “We would see who could go without breathing the longest.”
The Kfir Brigade was created in December 2005. In consists of six battalions whose soldiers man 30 percent of the roadblocks in the West Bank and are responsible for 60 percent of arrests. They have succeeded in decreasing the number of terrorist attacks in the West Bank.
But the drudgery of working opposite an often hostile civilian population is far from glamorous. Furthermore, as a new unit Kfir lacks the sense of history of the Paratroopers or the Golani Brigade; they have no heroes to look up to. “They are trying to instill a sense of pride in the unit, but so far they have failed. The [color] of the beret is ugly – like that of Hezbollah. If you look at its lining you might expect to find a ‘Made in Syria’ label,” a soldier who only recently finished advanced training joked.
“Our legacy is the present and the future and there’s nothing that can be done about that. The legacy is being slowly built through traumatic events,” a senior officer in the unit said. “Low morale is an explanation but it’s not an excuse. It shouldn’t happen at all.”