The real problem isn’t the fact that the army evades dealing with crimes against the Palestinians, but rather that such acts have become the norm.
In the corruption whirlwind of the past few weeks, who even had time to respond seriously to war crimes in the territories, among them the recent incident in Jericho? We’re talking about another episode that was pushed to the margins and faded away among the army’s varying and vague versions of events – all aimed at avoiding prosecution of the Israel Defense Forces soldiers who were filmed beating and abusing a wounded Palestinian whom one of them had shot.
Yasin al-Saradih, a 36-year-old Palestinian, was shot on February 22 when he tried to attack a group of soldiers with the rim of a car wheel with an iron bar stuck through it. He was immobilized and no longer posed a threat to the armed soldiers. But this didn’t stop them from attacking a man wallowing in his own blood, beating and dragging him into a nearby alley. For half an hour he lay there with no medical assistance before being evacuated, after one of the soldiers fired a tear-gas canister into the alley where he lay.
It isn’t clear what Saradih’s condition was at that point. The National Center of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir determined that the direct cause of his death was the gunshot wound. That may be true, but he was still alive after he’d been shot. How much did the abuse contribute to his death, along with the fact that he was left like a stinking carcass with no medical attention? No one has provided an answer.
In a routine series of events, a group of paratroopers confiscated a vehicle from a Palestinian and turned the children sitting in the back into a live, human shield against the stones being thrown at it.
The heroes of the Border Police rolled a stun grenade at a man fleeing with his baby in his arms; the IDF, as usual, ruled that this was against regulations and was investigating.
The IDF also recently examined the case of Mohammed Tamimi, half of whose skull was crushed by a rubber-coated bullet, and decided that he’d been hurt when he fell off his bicycle.
The army had previously looked into the incident involving legless demonstrator, Ibrahim Abu Thuraya, who was in a wheelchair when he was shot and killed on the other side of the fence along the Israel-Gaza Strip border. It was decided that he was inciting and posed a security threat. In addition, the IDF investigated the case of the Gazan fisherman, Ismail Abu Riala, who strayed beyond the border of the marine ghetto – an original Israeli invention – whereupon the brave navy men shot him from their sophisticated patrol boat. Everything was investigated and no one is to blame for anything.
These actions have a name: They are war crimes and crimes against humanity. Under the Geneva Convention the definition of such crimes includes political, racist or religious persecution and/or other inhuman treatment. Under the Rome Statute, the basis for the establishment of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, “war crime” is a generic term that refers to those sorts of actions during an armed conflict. Crimes against humanity, the convention says, are events that constitute part of a government policy (although the perpetrators don’t necessarily have to identify with this policy), or involve a widespread practice of perpetrating atrocities by a government or an authority acting de facto on its behalf.
A war crime is especially serious when there is a directive behind it. For example, the murderous violence of the Japanese army against American and Australian soldiers during World War II, or against the civilian population in China and Korea. But there is also a situation, like that in the territories, in which soldiers commit war crimes without receiving instructions from the political echelon or the approval of the military command; the army then evades dealing with them and covers them up.
Every discussion of IDF ethics must take the army’s response into account. But the real problem is not the evasiveness of the IDF, whose version of events is treated as God’s living word only in Israel, which is rife with anti-Arab racism. What’s important is that these acts have become the norm. They are committed time after time without provoking barely any public or internal army debate.
The IDF is committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, and most of the perpetrators are never called to account. In the colonialist reality in which the army operates these are routine practices against a population that is subject to dehumanization. The IDF sees its soldiers as belonging to a different “level of civilization.” After all, the colonial officer cannot share the same universal moral values as the native who attacks him with a knife. Therefore, there is continued chatter here about “the most moral army in the world” – the product of a dichotomy that Israel makes between what the international community has determined is a war crime, and its struggle against a people that it sees as not subject to the ethical rules shared by civilized nations.
How do we get out of this? Israel uses demagoguery that rejects acts of “exceptional” violence against Palestinians, but avoids severely punishing the “exceptions,” which it claims are only those caught on B’tselem’s cameras. Obviously there’s nothing serious to discuss about dealing with most of these atrocities.
What happens to an army where a norm of war crimes has been established for so many years? What will happen if this army is ordered by an extremist regime to carry out ethnic cleansing and expel hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to Jordan or Lebanon? How will the soldiers, who now kick a wounded Palestinian, respond when told to shoot at the thousands who oppose the move? Does anyone in the IDF believe that its soldiers won’t execute these missions?
Prof. Daniel Blatman is a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.