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A 'no-strategy' strategy: The Gatekeepers and soldier testimonies

Do not be misled by the paranoid helplessness of the six powerful men in Dror Moreh’s film – the end goal of Israel’s military rule is the complete demise of the dream of Palestinian independence.

By Oded Na’aman

A Palestinian woman shows her ID to an Israeli border policeman, while Palestinian security forces stand in the background, as she crosses from the Qalandiya checkpoint on the first Friday of Ramadan, July 20, 2012. (photo: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org)

Ami Ayalon, former head of the Israeli Shin Bet, grew up on a kibbutz near the Sea of Galilee. “I had a wonderful childhood,” he says toward the end of Dror Moreh’s Oscar nominated documentary, “The Gatekeepers”:

I knew that there’s a house in Jerusalem, and on the second floor there’s a long corridor. At the end of the corridor there’s a door, and behind the door is a wise man, who makes decisions, who thinks. Years later, after the Yom Kippur War [1973], I went to Jerusalem, and I went to that same building. I was on the second floor, and found no door at the end of the corridor, and behind the missing door, no one was thinking for me.

Ami Ayalon is one of six former heads of the Shin Bet who are the protagonists of Moreh’s highly praised documentary. Again and again, they repeat the same lesson: no one is navigating the ship; we (i.e., Israel) have no strategy, only tactics; we are winning the battles but losing the war. The film’s main contention is that Israel, and its security apparatus, has merely been responding to changing circumstances, chasing the next threat. Rather than shaping its political reality, Israel has been passively shaped by it.

Breaking the Silence, a veterans’ group of which I am a member, has collected testimonies from more than 900 hundred IDF soldiers. At first sight, the testimonies of hundreds of soldiers seem to accord with the diagnosis of the six gatekeepers. In describing their missions and experiences in the occupied territories, Israeli soldiers constantly invoke the notion of “prevention” and the importance of “showing presence” to deter any hostile attack. Military force is ostensibly exercised to preempt organized Palestinian resistance, to thwart the next blow, not in order to change the landscape or set new facts on the ground.

But it is a mistake to conclude from this that Israel is in fact a slave to threats against its security. Analyzing the soldiers’ testimonies helps to extrapolate the systemic features of Israel’s military rule. IDF soldiers are a particularly valuable source of information because they are not mere witnesses of military rule: We are the men and women who carry out the orders, who implement the instructions. We embody military rule. By listening to what soldiers have to say about their own actions, we can connect words with deeds and actions with consequences. One of the main lessons we learn from what soldiers tell us is the true meaning of “prevention.”

The testimonies show that seemingly defensive terms such as “prevention” and “deterrence” are used to describe and justify almost any use of military force by the IDF. Behind this sweeping interpretation lies the assumption that every Palestinian, man and woman, is suspect, constituting a threat to Israeli citizens and soldiers; consequently, the thought goes, deterring the Palestinian population as a whole, will reduce the probability of opposition and thereby prevent hostile activity. Thus, “preventive” military actions are not only ones that address immediate threats, but all actions which fall under this overarching strategy.

On grounds of prevention, we, Israeli soldiers, control the movement of people and goods through the separation barrier and within the occupied territories; we decide whether and which businesses open; we decide how children are transported to school and university students to their campuses, and how people in need of medical attention will get to hospitals and clinics. We impose preventive curfew. We preventively take over the property of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Houses, agricultural land, vehicles, electronic goods, and farm animals may all be taken at the discretion of a regional commander or a soldier in the field, as preventive measures. We carry out preventive assassinations, arrests, and  “mappings”—operations in which we enter every house in a given neighborhood or town and line up all the residents to take down ID numbers and names to be handed to the Shin Bet. These operations occur even in areas that are officially under the complete control of the Palestinian Authority.

Even the ongoing project of Israeli settlement and expropriation of Palestinian lands in the West Bank is portrayed by many as “forced” upon the state of Israel by the settlers themselves. But the West Bank settlements and those who inhabit them have been encouraged, enabled, orchestrated, protected, and armed, by Israeli authorities. Indeed, the very distinction between Jewish settlers and Israeli authorities is cast into doubt by soldiers’ testimonies about operations initiated by armed settlers and briefings given by settlers’ security teams. The settlements’ project is part and parcel of Israel’s military rule: by taking Palestinians’ lands and natural resources the settlements and the settlers tighten Israel’s grip on Palestinians. Thus, the settlements are a feature of Israel’s strategy of “prevention.”

The Israeli security apparatus has effectively defined offensive, unprovoked, military action out of existence. Israel seems to imagine any possible action it might take as one that is a reaction.  This rationale is common to the 18-year-old private, to military generals, to Ami Ayalon, and to the other former heads of the Shin Bet. In fact, “prevention” is not used as a description of Israel’s actions, but as a name for Israel’s strategy of military rule.

We, Israeli soldiers, rule Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip through constant intimidation, threats, arbitrary violence, and disruption of normalcy. These “preventive measures” constitute Israel’s strategy of control. The settlements, which we protect, enable, and expand, manifest and deepen Israel’s control over the Palestinian people and territories. The picture that arises from the testimonies of hundreds of IDF soldiers is unequivocal: The end goal of Israel’s military rule is the complete demise of the dream of Palestinian independence. Do not be misled by the paranoid helplessness of the six powerful men in Dror Moreh’s film: having no strategy is a strategy.

Oded Na’aman is a member of Breaking the Silence and served in the Artillery Corps of the Israeli army from 2000-2003. He is currently writing his PhD in Philosophy at Harvard and is co-editor of Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies from the Occupied Territories, 2000-2010. He is also a member of the Israeli Opposition Network.

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    1. The Trespasser

      >The testimonies show that seemingly defensive terms such as “prevention” and “deterrence” are used to describe and justify almost any use of military force by the IDF.

      Author of the article is suggesting that Israel should only dealt with terrorist activity post factum?

      >The end goal of Israel’s military rule is the complete demise of the dream of Palestinian independence.

      Since the dream of Palestinian Arab independence is the extermination of the State of Israel, it is rather obvious that Israel Defense Force should act to prevent this dream come truth.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Aaron Gross

      This was a really good article. It’s the kind of thing I read +972 for.

      Israel isn’t the only player that justifies its actions as “reaction” and “defense.” The Palestinian militias justify their offensive actions the same way, as defenses against Israeli aggression. I think that’s natural in a low-intensity war like this, where everybody’s just ever so innocently acting in self-defense.

      I’m a little skeptical of the author’s claim that prevention is a cloak for strategy. How can the two possibly be disentangled? How can you say that a given action is really for one or the other, when in fact it would be perceived by the actors as serving the aims of both, or at least the aims of prevention? For instance, taking names and IDs can definitely be seen as preventive in a counter-insurgency where terrorists are drawn from the general population.

      So my main problem with the article is methodological. How can you disentangle the two goals of prevention and strategy in Israeli actions?

      Reply to Comment
      • Oded

        Thank you, Aaron.
        We may disentangle prevention from strategy by distinguishing between the subjective experience of the Israelis and an objective sense of prevention. Take an extreme example. I might shoot someone in the street claiming that people of his skin color scare me to death and I had to protect myself of what he might do to me. I might not be lying about my subjective experience but I would still be wrong: I am in no danger and my action is an unprovoked attack. Similarly, Israelis conceive of all their actions as defensive but, by any reasonable standard, many of their actions are offensive. Random use of military force against civilians could not be reasonably portrayed as a defensive policy; the fact that many Israelis see it as such shows the depth of Israel’s current moral and ideological crisis.

        Reply to Comment
        • Aaron Gross

          Right, that’s why I was careful to put the phrase “perceived by the actors” in there. I had thought you were saying that Israeli leadership was knowingly using prevention as a cover for strategy.

          Assuming that Israeli “prevention” is objectively wrong, the question is, what causes that mistake? You seem to be hinting, at least, that Israelis believe what they need to believe about it for the sake of strategy. But I think that an “unrealistic” view of security is actually natural. It’s a natural tendency to see one’s enemies’ behavior as more threatening than one’s one, to discount the suffering caused by defensive measures, etc. I don’t think strategy is needed as an explanatory factor.

          Reply to Comment
          • ‘I think that an “unrealistic” view of security is actually natural. It’s a natural tendency to see one’s enemies’ behavior as more threatening than one’s one, to discount the suffering caused by defensive measures, etc. I don’t think strategy is needed as an explanatory factor.’ : There is much social psych research to this end. People think the enemy camp better prepared, more organized, and more cunning. These feelings then build objective strategies, for we react to proposals and their implementation through our emotions as well as reason.

            Reply to Comment
          • Aaron Gross

            I think there’s research from international relations supporting that, too. I’ve read about it, but I haven’t actually read it.

            Reply to Comment
      • Soviet Moscow was famously free of crime. And free of much else. When you take names and ID’s of an entire residence block, you chill their hope for better lives. When you do that, fewer will try for better lives. Many will internalize anger and hatred. Some will ultimately act on that anger or support others who do. The Israeli solution buy time, but does not forstall a social expolsion. Having produced security against infiltration bombing, Israel finds its is morphing into something else. Winning becomes losing. I cannot decry actions against the bombings. But now you are something else.

        Reply to Comment
        • Aaron Gross

          As I’ve said before, I don’t believe the claim that the occupation has turned Israel into “something else” internally. I’ll believe it when I see some evidence, which would probably have to be comparative with other states, including other occupying powers.

          The difference is that the Soviet police state was always internal. Israel’s was always external.

          Yeshayahu Leibovitz predicted that the occupation would turn Israel into a “Shabak state.” As Yuval Diskin said in “The Gatekeepers,” Leibovitz was wrong about that.

          Reply to Comment
          • Edo Konrad

            Aaron Gross, rewatch The Gatekeepers. Diskin says Leibovitz was right.

            Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          >Soviet Moscow was famously free of crime. And free of much else.

          Double nonsense.

          Dude, where are you getting your info from?

          Reply to Comment
    3. This is a world of probabilities. If you feel that what is happening to Bank residents is wrong, amounting to involuntary servitude, living out the IDF’s definition of security for others, then you have to be willing to assert that, allowing residents their rights to life, some violent events become more probable. That is, trying to force violent events to zero becomes involuntary servitude on those whose lives are constrained to that end.

      The question is what those enhanced probabilities are. Do you believe that enhanced life opportunity will largely keep violence at low probability? Do you think race hatred is all that is, so the answer to the foregoing is “no?” Perhaps a correlated question: is your enemy inherently inferior to what you think you are?

      Reply to Comment
    4. Noevil9

      I still can’t help my self but be amazed of how some of these discussion take a turn off the subject,and it becomes about semantics and philosophies, more than the impact and affect of the disastrous damage that this type of Israel destruction forces and policies inflict on the Palestinian population! Does that say something about the concern for only Israel and the level of disregard to the Palestinians? Or it’s just me? How much more proof and evidence do one need ,about what Israel is doing for him or her to focus on the reality of this dramatic Catastrophe to a whole nation, instead of making comparisons to what other nation did or did not do, and if that will make Israel crimes OK? Do one have to be totally in the victims shoes in order for one to feel the pain and the injustice? Do we all have to stand in the check point for hours to know that they are inhumane? Do we need to have the Phosphorus bombs dropped on our schools,hospitals ,streets and homes in order for us to know they are illegally criminal and inhumane? What is questionably funny ,we all know, that suicide bombers are crazy and inhumane,so we don’t feel the need to compare them and see if we feel that they are rationalized in any philosophical way?

      Reply to Comment