The topic about which I wish to write is so disturbing that after scribbling a few facts and figures I found myself glaring at the screen unable to express my thoughts or feelings in any meaningful way. This has gone on for some time until on Christmas day I decided to do something. I shunned my ever-refilling email mailbox as well as my friends on facebook and decided to take action. But once again I found myself staring at the screen unable to write. Where does one seek inspiration to write? I thought of all the wonderful things I have read by others and then it hit me: Edward Said.
If one wants to write about almost anything, but certainly about Palestine and Israel in any meaningful way Edward Said is sure to inspire thoughts and shake the mind so that words may flow out of it. As I began a random search of his name an abundance of information came up. The following quote was the first thing I saw: “Remember the solidarity shown to Palestine here and everywhere… and remember also that there is a cause to which many people have committed themselves, difficulties and terrible obstacles notwithstanding. Why? Because it is a just cause, a noble ideal, a moral quest for equality and human rights.” At last I found a video of a lecture given by Edward Said on May 8, 2003 at the University of Washington, a video I subsequently posted on my facebook for the benefit of others. I did this knowing full well that most people will not have the luxury I did on Christmas day to view the complete 99 minutes of the lecture, and so I posted a comment to say: “even if you only listen to 5 minutes of this, it will be worth it.”
But back to the topic of this article: I have recently returned from spending three weeks in the Middle East. The purpose of the trip was to enter Gaza through Egypt and to deliver a few basic medical tools to Ahli hospital in Gaza. Needless to say, this part of the trip was a total failure. The Egyptians, just as the Israelis command, have locked the gates of Rafah and anyone curious enough to learn the details of my trip is welcome to select the “Gaza trip” in this site. But a trip to the Middle East is never about just one thing. It is not humanly possible to avoid visiting friends in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. Nor is it possible to avoid running into old friends, Israelis who live in their bubble and care nothing about the actions of their democratically elected government. These friends will usually categorize me and my views on the Palestinian Israeli issue, as Edward Said puts it, as: “Reductive and simply wrong.”
Frankly had Israel been a totalitarian regime like, say Nazi Germany for example, one could understand the lack of popular resistance to the atrocities committed by the government and its army, police, border patrol and secret intelligence services. Had this been some middle eastern dictatorship, where one “only opens his mouth on the dentist’s chair” as one friend of mine puts it, fearing kidnapping and torture for speaking against the regime, one might be inclined to forgive Israelis for allowing their elected government to treat Palestinians with such brutal force. But as we are so often reminded Israel is a democracy. Its government represents the will of the people. These people, the citizens of Israel, like to be thought of as peace loving people but they vote for people like Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak, Bibi Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni. They serve in the occupation army willingly, they are glad to go, as the son of one of my good friend’s said to me with pride, he is going to volunteer to serve in the “Sayarot” or the illustrious Special Forces. These same “Special forces” by the way, received a severe blow by Hezbollah in the last Lebanon War.
Before leaving Israel I was given a copy of a movie that I decided to watch on the plane. It had a curious name, as many Israeli movies seem to have, particularly when they are translated into English. The name of this movie is “To See If I’m Smiling.” In the name of the sacred equality it is demanded of us to constantly mention the Israeli victims of the conflict. We are reminded that we must never forget the suffering of the Jews who came to their homeland after 2000 years to finally find a refuge from persecution of the other nations. Well, this is a story about the suffering of the Israelis, five young Israeli girls to be exact. Five young, innocent and idealistic girls who willingly entered an occupation army of brutally violent criminals; the girls were ordered to facilitate the beating, torture and virtual rape of Palestinians living under occupation, and eventually they realized that they were being beaten and raped themselves. They were permitted only to leave from time to time to take a breath of fresh air and then they had to return. Many of the girls felt that something was wrong, and wanted to speak up, but as they looked around them they saw that what was going on was looked upon as normal and so they stayed and said nothing. Then, after two years the girls were allowed to leave, to return home as though nothing had ever happened.
Israel is the only country in the world that has law binding, compulsory army service for women. In “To See I’m Smiling” five girls speak out about the most acts they had performed while they were in the service of Israel’s occupation army. But during their service they were also complicit in their own mental and emotional rape and abuse by the system they served. The intensity of their experience and their emotions don’t allow them to forget and in this movie they speak out about what they had done and how they ended up doing it.
Meytal is an officer in the medical corps. By training she is a medic and she chose to become an officer. “I was ecstatic when I heard that I was assigned to Hebron” she says, because as she admits, she heard that Hebron was where the real action was taking place. Real fighting, real casualties and everything that comes with being a soldier. She recalls that soon after she arrived there was an “operation” and she says: “I felt the danger, real danger. There was gunfire everywhere.” The brutal force Israel uses against Palestinians especially in Hebron assists in the myth that Israel is actually fighting a war, rather than merely applying brutal force against a population that has no means of defense. “Our guys returned with a body” of a young Palestinian that was killed by the Israeli forces. She never expected that she would be given the duty of “cleaning up” the body. “We had to clean him before returning him to the Palestinian Authorities” she says “so that there will be no blood stains and so that they will not know what we did to him.” “This particular man suffered a head injury and he did not die immediately,” Meytal continues deliberately, “he died a slow death, and he lost control of his sphincters. That’s what happens” she calmly explains, “He had basically defecated and urinated all over himself”. “People look at me now and ask me: you did what? You cleaned a corps? But I cannot afford to be disgusted by this. “Why” the narrator asks and Meytal replies, “Because it is on my hands, the blood is on my hands. I cannot be disgusted by my hands, I have to be able to use my hands.” Meytal also recalls a time when she was hosing down a body and he happened to have an erection, an embarrassing yet not an irregular occurrence. “Another girl walked by and she happened to have a camera. I asked her if she would take a picture of me with the body.” At the end of the movie she looks at the photos and says “I want to see if I was smiling.” She says and as she looks at the pictures with obvious horror she asks, “how could I have thought I would ever forget this.”
Rotem is in charge of an observation post – “it is an amazing sense of control, you have a lot of power, telling the commanders where to send the troops.” Once she spots the offenders, children getting ready to throw rocks or erect a roadblock, she calls in the troops. But as she goes through a debriefing she has doubts and she asks the officer debriefing her: “If the boys do not admit they will be released, won’t they?” “Hem yodu” the officer says in Hebrew – “they will confess!” This statement runs shivers down her spine. “What does he mean they will confess, under what circumstances?” at one point a child was shot and killed; “at that point I stopped feeling” she says and she realizes she was the one guiding the forces to that child. Now at the young age of 21, she has to live with the fact that she is responsible for the killing of an innocent child. In a scene right out of Macbeth she recalls, “When I was on leave I called a friend and said to her that it wont come off.” “What won’t come off?” her friend asked. “Don’t you get it?” She replies “I keep trying with soap and it wont come off. The blood on my hands, it wont come off. My friend thought I was joking, she didn’t realize this was no joke”
Inbar is an Operations sergeant for a unit that patrols the walls and towers surrounding Gaza. “The unbearable lightness of death” is how she describes the state of things. It used to be that if someone approached the fence the Israeli soldiers would fire warning shots in the air. Then one day they started shooting to kill. “I remember that first time when a man ran up the fence yelling “Allahu Akbar”, and they shot him. His body remained there stuck on the fence.” It is like the Wild West, she says, we do whatever we want. I was overwhelmed by the control. You can summon someone with your finger and without hesitation they obey!
At one point the Commanding Officer was patrolling and he saw a boy standing around with the soldiers. “Why is this child still here?” he asked, “He was released hours ago.” “We were just playing with him” the troops reply causally. The child was crying hysterically, having been beaten and abused. “I want a report ASAP “ the Commander says and some time later Inbar brought the report to him. In the report, she says, the soldiers did not even lie, – they told of the cigarette burns, beatings and other forms of abuse the boy suffered in their hands. Inbar presented the report to the CO; he read it and then he said he wanted a different report. “With this report, internal investigations will be all over us. Go ask the unit commander to issue a different report.” This was asked of her without hesitation, without a doubt that she would indeed obey this horrendous illegal order.
Inbar says that she was “considering calling the press – I hesitated and then I just didn’t, because, well, because.” The new report was issued and it said that the child is a pathological liar and that was the end of it.
Dana, NCO Officer in charge of education. “You become a-sexual in order to belong. You learn to talk like a guy, you have to loose your femininity.” As I was walking around, familiarizing myself with the troops I came a cross one group who all had Masbaha (prayer beads) and copies of the Koran. “Where did you get these?” she asked and they replied “we got them from Kalkilia” – in other words they stole them. “I was shocked, looting is illegal. At a meeting with the regiment commander I told him the story.” She recalls “are you sure about this?” he asked. She confirmed what she said and he called the company commander. Later when the company commander and the soldiers saw her they spat when she walked by. “One day” she recalls that there was a lot of commotion. “I stopped washing the dishes, which is what I did most of the time, and I stepped out. Everyone was excited, the guys had just returned from an “operation” and there was a body in the vehicle. They took it out and the guys began to take pictures of themselves with the body. Something deep inside told me that this was wrong, that there is something wrong about posing with dead bodies.”
Tal recalls patrolling in a Palestinian town when all of a sudden they heard the song “I got the power” blaring from the mosque. “They took over the mosque and played music! What A terrific joke! They guys loved it.” We loved the adrenaline. “We got to go to the shooting range which is a lot of fun. I became really good at filling coke cans with bullet holes. I even had one on my desk with a sign that said: Anyone who annoys me will end up like this coke can.” My first “operation” involved a protest that erupted in the aftermath of the army blowing up someone’s house. “People were running in all directions like crazy. The crowds are running amok! I noticed a child that was crying and screaming and I wanted to pick him up. It is a basic instinct to want to comfort a crying child, it is a basic motherly instinct. Suddenly his mother came and I saw the look on her face. That look said everything to me about what I had become.
Libi is a combat soldier. We were there to impose order. Angered by the death of another soldier girl she decided she would take her revenge on every person who crossed her checkpoint during her 14 hour shift. “I lined up more than 80 people and I had them stand in order, do pushups, and I treated them as though they were my recruits, humiliating them throughout the whole shift. None of the other soldiers thought I was doing anything wrong. It was nothing out of the ordinary.”
When the abnormal become normal and the worst of mankind become “nothing out of the ordinary” we know things have gone badly wrong. Israeli cabinet ministers, Generals and field officers need to be brought to justice form their crimes. And sooner would be better than later.