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The 'West-Bankization' of Israel?

From Washington Jewish Weekly
By Ori Nir

Israelis were recently appalled by reports of sadistic hazing in the Israel Defense Forces' tank corps. Israeli newspapers uncovered routine patterns of beating, lashing, severe humiliation and other forms of brutal behavior toward new recruits.

But it seems that few were truly surprised. In the eyes of many, the story was depicted as one more expression of the growing brutalization of the IDF and of Israeli society. Hardly a day goes by without a murder, a road-rage related stabbing, a heartbreaking case of domestic violence, a Mafia-style drive-by shooting or an incident of teen violence.

 "You have to be blind not to notice that our domestic security situation has long since spiraled out of control," Ha'aretz's leading columnist Yoel Marcus recently wrote.

 It would be a colossal stretch to argue that the occupation is exclusively responsible for this ugly wave of brutality and hatred. But it would be equally irresponsible to ignore the impact of the brutal behavior of Israelis across the Green Line on what is happening inside Israel. What happens in Nablus and Hebron doesn't stay there.

 In February 1988, as a reporter covering the West Bank, I witnessed a group of Israeli soldiers beating an unarmed Palestinian teenager with clubs just north of Hebron. Moments earlier, the soldiers ‹ against IDF regulations ‹ were hurling tear-gas canisters into a home in which frightened Palestinian women and children were huddled. This conduct ‹ bone-breaking blows and overzealous use of tear gas and rubber bullets ‹ was all too commonplace in the West Bank and Gaza at that time, the first weeks of the first Intifada.

I had a short, tense conversation with the commander of the soldiers, who was eager to get rid of me and a fellow journalist. Before leaving, I stuck a business card in his hand. Months later, shortly after he finished his military service, the commander phoned me and asked to meet.

He was confused and embarrassed. He explained that the mere power you have often drives you to exercise it in ways that you know are wrong. "You do it because you can," he said. And that frightened him. He was scared of telling people what he and his soldiers did because of what it would say about him and about the IDF, he said. He was alarmed by how easy it was to let your violent urges take over. What if it happens to me in civilian life? he wondered.

Well, it did. Maybe not to him personally, but on the national, collective level, anti-Palestinian brutality did cross the Green Line. You can see it in the way law enforcement officers used force against Israeli civilians. Example: in Umm al-Fahm and Nazareth, in October 2000, Israeli police snipers shot and killed stone-throwing Arab citizens of Israel, who demonstrated in solidarity with their Palestinian brethren. Israeli police had never before used lethal sniper-fire to control demonstrating crowds.

The practice was "imported" from the IDF's playbook for controlling Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank and Gaza. An Israeli civil rights activist once called it the "West Bankization" of Israeli law enforcement officers' conduct.

 But the trend certainly didn't end there. Israeli sociologists and journalists have documented during the past two decades the lingering impact on Israeli society of the IDF's aggressive behavior in the West Bank and Gaza. It's obvious. It's even natural. Israelis are aware of it, at least at a certain level. But many Israelis, refusing to come to terms with the IDF's actions across the Green Line, have built a wall of suppression and denial to block it out.

And when the courageous, patriotic Israeli soldiers of Breaking the Silence try to tear down that wall by talking about what they saw, and did in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel's government launches a campaign to dry up their funding and to intimidate them, as it has been doing in the past few weeks.

The occupation burdens Israel politically, economically and militarily. It is also a heavy moral liability. Exercising power, as a military occupier, over a civilian population leaves deep, violent scars in the minds of young Israelis. It conditions them to solving problems by force. It contributes to the brutalization of Israeli society. It's yet another reason to redouble the efforts to seek peace and pursue it.

Ori Nir, the spokesperson of Americans for Peace Now, previously covered Palestinian affairs for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz.