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'How speaking out about the occupation nearly landed me in jail'

When even reporting an immoral act by a senior officer carries with it a serious price, it becomes clear that one cannot win against the army. Been there, done that. 

In July 1989, as a young, bored soldier in the IDF’s main draft base in Tel Ha’Shomer, I asked my colonel to be transferred to the Civil Administration in the Gaza Strip. We were on friendly terms and he quickly made the arrangements, walking through my first sham court martial. I was in charge of running a small garden toolshed, which was broken into while I was on vacation – many of the tools stolen. This was standard procedure; I myself broke into a rival’s shed a few days later and stole some of my stuff back. But not enough. My staff sergeant, who did not at all like me, made certain I’d stand trial for the missing hoes and shovels. The colonel made it all go away in two minutes, and the public property (admittedly, not much of it) simply vanished into air.

I had other reasons to leave Tel Ha’Shomer besides a vengeful NCO and a boring job. The First Intifada was in full bloom and I was itching to do something worthwhile. I have recently left my yeshiva under a cloud, was highly militant in my leftist views, and felt I needed to do something.

About that time, Yonathan Geffen – a two-bit pundit (who was actually a much better poet) – wrote a column, suggesting a leftist has three options facing the Intifada. The first was dropping out: feign insanity or religious conversion, and get out of the military. The second was dumbing down and closing your mind: obey your orders, initiate nothing, and try to repress everything you see. The third was actively changing the military by volunteering to serve in trouble spots and leading by example. There was a fourth option which Geffen didn’t mention and which tells you about conventional leftist discourse at the time: disobedience.

It didn’t occur to me, either, and so I asked for and receive a transfer to the Civil Administration unit in Deir El Balah, in the central region of the Gaza Strip. It didn’t take me long to notice violent and illegal behavior among my colleagues; it took them even less time to realize they have a leftist on their hands and basically shut me out of such knowledge the best they could.

What people who didn’t serve in a military unit don’t realize (and what the people who did and asked others why they didn’t complain understand all too well) is just how intensive this experience is and how much pressure is put on you. I tried my best. I complained to the colonel about an incident (I cannot recall the details, but it included unjustified violence) only to be ignored. Then, following the advice of the leader of my town’s the left-wing Ratz party leader Avi Oren (of blessed memory), I wrote a report to MK Dedi Tsuker, then of Ratz and the founder of B’Tselem (an Israeli NGO which documents human rights violations in the occupied territories), describing a particularly violent incident by my direct officer. A soldier reporting an incident to an MK is an act in accordance with the law.

The officer and his two goons summoned a Palestinian for some trivial offense – building something with a permit, if I recall correctly – and then proceeded to beat him senseless. The officer burst into my office, white-faced, told me the prisoner has passed out, and ordered me to summon a doctor. I did, and then, as per procedure, wrote out a report about it in the operational journal. This was my job, and this was a noteworthy incident. The officer returned to the office and glanced at the journal. “Did you report it to headquarters already?” he asked quietly. I told him no. He took out a knife and cut the page from the journal.

Now, most of those incidents would not have made it into the journal in the first place. I was unusual. Reporting the incident to B’Tselem was even more unusual. When the shit storm broke out in the pages of the late, lamented daily paper Hadashot, the Civil Administration went into crisis mode. We received phone calls from the chief of staff’s bureau, and the officers in Deir El Balah needed less than an hour to identify the leak.

My officer took me out for a ride. We were in the vehicle – him, me, a driver and one of his two goons. He ordered the driver to take us to the outskirts of the Dir El Balah refugee camp, one of the most notoriously violent camps around. He ordered the driver to halt the vehicle, and told me “get out.” I stared at him, and he began ranting that since I was so friendly with the Arabs, I might as well join them. This went on for several minutes, with no one else saying a word. I ended the rant by cocking my rifle and chambering a round, making clear my intentions without saying a word. He shut up, and told the driver to drive us back to base.

Would I have pulled the trigger? I don’t know.

The incident quickly made the round at the base – I guess the driver talked – and people came to shake my hand and congratulate me on my courage in facing down an officer. But afterwards, few of them would exchange words with me. I became a pariah. The officer was promoted several weeks later, out of the unit, though not before putting me on trial for some trumped-up charges (he failed after the unit’s executive officer saw through it).

This wasn’t the end of it. I was contacted by the Military Police Criminal Investigations Division (MPCID), and pressured into serving as an informant. I think I did an excellent job. Some people would boast about harming some Palestinian and would find themselves under investigation several weeks later. MPCID did a better job at protecting me, I must say, then Tsuker did: they basically collected reports from the victims before summoning the soldier, so as to cover me. I still came under suspicion, but as I pointed out, they didn’t take me into the field anymore, so I couldn’t have witnessed anything, could I?

Six months after the initial incident, I was put on trial, despite a promise from the Chief of the Civil Administration that I wouldn’t be, under the condition that I tell him precisely what happened, which I did. My new commanding officer protested that a promise had been made and broken, to no avail. A colonel came during the night to try me. I received a suspended sentence for reporting an incident to an MK, which – again – was my legal right. The officer who beat someone for a building offense until he lost consciousness and illegally destroyed the report? Promoted.

In the process, I became an accessory to the occupation. Yes, I ensured that some criminals were put on trial, and I tried to do my best to help people, but I also had to do my job, which included ordering bulldozers so that house demolitions could be carried out, and writing reports which made it possible for the occupation to function in that regard.

The Civil Administration isn’t a proper army. It is supposed to be the carrot, not the stick. People who served in combat units knew that reporting on their comrades meant reporting on people whom they will have to rely on in real combat zones, such as Lebanon. It simply wasn’t done.

This is what I would say to any of the hypocrites who ask the “silence breakers” why they didn’t go through the proper channels when they had the chance. And to any young person with a conscience, I would simply say: don’t repeat my mistakes – you can’t reform the army. At best you’d serve as a fig leaf, at worst you’d get seriously beat up for your troublemaking. Refuse to serve, or dodge your way out of the system, but simply don’t go there. You can’t win and, anyway, this isn’t your game. You can’t save others; save yourself, at least.

WATCH: Former female Israeli soldiers break their silence

Related:
Why soldiers don’t ‘break the silence’ to the IDF
The soldiers’ stories that Israel lacks the courage to hear

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Joel

      “I ended the rant by cocking my rifle and chambering a round..”

      Lol.

      Yossi. If only for your big balls; you’ve made me into a fan!

      Reply to Comment
    2. The Trespasser

      “I ended the rant by cocking my rifle and chambering a round..”

      By IDF law, loading a weapon without an order OR direct life threat is a severe offence and is should be punished by at least 28 days of detention in a military prison.

      Since such detention never took place, chances are that the mentioned incident did not happen at all, altogether with all other incidents described in this story.

      Reply to Comment
      • LOL. Remind me, what is the military code penalty for willfully abandoning your soldier in enemy territory?

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          There are two kinds of unlawful orders in IDF:

          1 – “Unlawful order” or “פקודה בלתי חוקית”. An order which contradicts known laws.

          For example, to search a house without a warrant.

          The soldier must comply but should complain afterwards.

          The responsibility is on the commanding officer.

          2 – “Manifestly/clearly unlawful order” or “פקודה בלתי חוקית בעליל”. An order which not only contradicts known laws but additionally it contradicts moral values​​, contrary to the conscience of a reasonable person, “it stabs the eye and makes the heart outrageous” as IDF definition goes.

          For example – to throw fragmentation grenades into the house prior to searching it without a warrant.

          The soldier must not comply and should complain afterwards.

          The responsibility is on the soldier.

          Obviously, an order to get out of vehicle inside enemy territory could not be classified as either, and only if the officer would command to drive away, it would become a “Manifestly/clearly unlawful order” from the side of the driver.

          However, loading a weapon without an order or clear, present danger is unlawful by any standards, and officer and soldiers had broken the law by not reporting it.

          Reply to Comment
          • Can you, perhaps, think of a reason the officer did not report the incident? I can think of several. I also know of another case when a soldier was in fact abandoned in hostile territory (due to cowardice of an officer) which was not reported, as it would have reflected badly on a senior officer.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            Because said incident exists in the same plane of reality as Ahmed Jabari’s truce proposal or Muhammad al-Dura’s grave?

            Basically, every one who was in the vehicle at the time had committed a crime by performing an illegal action and/or not reporting it – you surely must know that a soldier must report on oneself if is doing something illegal.

            Speaking of other incident, army – as a system – can not be held responsible for cowardice and lack of integrity of its certain members.

            Reply to Comment
          • Bullshit. Soldiers search houses without a warrant on a daily basis in the West Bank. Just goes to show your level of understanding of the IDF.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            Nice. You have no arguments so you are attempting to distract conversation by referring to a previous, irrelevant post, to which you had already answered.

            Searching houses without warrants it illegal, but is permitted to carry out and would not comprise a war crime – as opposed to throwing frag grenades into houses prior to search.

            My level of understanding how IDF works if good enough to not to buy bullshit intended to be sold to foreign “progressives”.

            Reply to Comment
          • Here are two arguments:

            1. Are you seriously suggesting no soldier ever committed a crime? This is what you mean by saying “since what you describe is a crime, and since it was not reported, it did not happen.” If this is what you think, please elaborate and explain how a gang of armed young men who were trained to drop human morality are somehow immune to criminal urges.

            2. House searches are not illegal for IDF troops in the West Bank. They are perfectly legal. No soldier needs a warrant to enter a Palestinian’s house. If you don’t know that much, I suspect you nothing whatsoever of the IDF.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            >Are you seriously suggesting no soldier ever committed a crime?

            I had never suggested anything similar. You see, having over 4 months of “dafuk” gives a rather good insight to crime and punishment.

            >This is what you mean by saying “since what you describe is a crime, and since it was not reported, it did not happen.”

            No. What I mean is that some events belong to fantasy realm, for instance Ahmed Jabari’s peace proposal or soldier’s disobedience to a lawful order of an officer to dismount a vehicle and loading his weapon instead.

            >House searches are not illegal for IDF troops in the West Bank. They are perfectly legal. No soldier needs a warrant to enter a Palestinian’s house. If you don’t know that much, I suspect you nothing whatsoever of the IDF.

            Law enforcement agent is allowed to conduct search on private premises – home or vehicle – in two cases:

            1 – To stop ongoing or recently commited crime, if some well-based suspicion is present – without search warrant.

            2 – To investigate, collect evidence, etc. – with search warrant.

            The fact that all activity by IDF is considered as prevention of a crime by default, does not change the letter of law.

            Supposedly you should have this much of the IDF.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            Nice. You have no arguments so you are attempting to distract conversation by referring to a previous, irrelevant, post, to which you had already answered.

            Searching houses without warrants it illegal, but is permitted to carry out and would not comprise a war crime – as opposed to throwing frag grenades into houses prior to search.

            My level of understanding how IDF works if good enough to not to buy bullshit intended to be sold to foreign “progressives”.

            Reply to Comment
          • Benny

            I like it when people pretend the IDF has a consistent set of rules.

            Reply to Comment
      • Piotr Berman

        I guess Yossi did perceive a direct threat. In any case, if the order was reasonable, the officer should insist on the order being executed regardless if Yossi did load his gun or not.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Myron Joshua

      Yossi, from what you write it seems that the Military Police Criminal Investigations Division (MPCID) had serious intention and did serious work in trying to locate problematic soldiers. Do you feel that your cooperation with them did a service that justified your presence? (Since avoiding service altogether would not have hindered the execution of your other jobs.)

      Reply to Comment
    4. shmuel

      With all the deep insights offered in this article the above idiots, as usual, cannot do anything else than to focus on the most useless sentence of the piece.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Lawrence A Dickerson

      One point I consistently noticed is how the author consistently violated the chain of command and went to the top.No wonder your NCOs didn’t care for you.You broke the very code and laws of at least the US military and I hope the Israeli units have the same Code of Condust.

      Reply to Comment
      • Had you served in the IDF for more than two hours, you’d realize how laughable it is to even mention the USM CoC.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Joel

      Pardon my vapidity,Shmuel.What deep insights did we miss?

      Reply to Comment
    7. Yossi, surely you can’t expect me to believe these big whoppers. How could the most moral army in the world act in such a despicable manner? (I hope you realize I am being sarcastic)

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        Given that you haven’t served in a military and really have nothing to compare with, your sarcasm is a bit out of place.

        Reply to Comment
    8. rsgengland

      This article once again alleges serious impropriety by the IDF.
      And yet as always, the allegations and evidence are very vague.
      There is always allusion to some event, perpetrated by some person or other in some location, with key facts either forgotten or ‘withheld for obvious reasons’.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Lisa K

      Thank you for sharing your story, Yossi. It’s never easy to share a personal story, no matter how important it is to do, when you know it will be publicly judged. Right wingers will call you a liar, and left wing “purists” will judge you for having served at all. But the majority of us will read it, think about it, absorb it, and hopefully influence the way we think about the Occupation in a constructive way. So thank you again.

      Reply to Comment
    10. sh

      A Lebanese artist is exhibiting at the Venice Biennale this year. His exhibit is called Letter to a Refusing Pilot. Quote:

      “From the background material for the exhibit: “In the summer of 1982, a rumor made the rounds of a small city in South Lebanon, which was under Israeli occupation at the time. It was said that a fighter pilot in the Israeli air force had been ordered to bomb a target on the outskirts of Saida, but knowing the building was a school, he refused to destroy it. Instead of carrying out his commanders’ orders, the pilot veered off course and dropped his bombs in the sea. It was said that he knew the school because he had been a student there, because his family had lived in the city for generations, because he was born into Saida’s Jewish community before it disappeared. As a boy, Akram Zaatari grew up hearing ever more elaborate versions of this story, as his father had been the director of the school for twenty years. Decades later, Zaatari discovered it wasn’t a rumor. The pilot was real.”
      http://www.haaretz.com/culture/arts-leisure/a-lebanese-artist-s-search-for-the-israeli-pilot-who-refused-bombing-orders.premium-1.530166

      This piece, written in 2003 and provoked of the famous statement by Dan Halutz about how he feels when dropping a bomb, includes the story, isn’t behind a paywall
      http://www.seruv.org.il/english/article.asp?msgid=60
      and tells of several pilots who refused and what happened to their objections at the time. Hagai Tamir, the one who refused to bomb the village near Sidon was not blacklisted nor was his career compromised but his objection was apparently not recorded and a different pilot was ordered to bomb the school, which he did.

      Apart from wondering if discussions like this still take place today, one can’t help noting that silence was being broken before Breaking the Silence started up to little effect, except perhaps as a chronicle that will one day be of use to historians and psychologists.

      Reply to Comment
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