Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The reaffirmation of IDF ethics

An IDF sergeant has been found guilty of shooting dead an incapacitated Palestinian assailant “without reason”. 
Certain elements of this case resonate with me because of a past experience. They may be very different but both this case and my experience are in essence about the reaffirmation of IDF ethics. 

One part of the Zionist dream has been fulfilled. Jews have become a “normal” people in their own state. Unfortunately, normal also means that Israel has its fair share of (potential) criminals and murderers. The prisons are full.
The bad people are also called up. They become soldiers as well.

I met a sadist in the IDF.
It is 1966 and I am serving in a special paratrooper base. It is tough.
It has been called suicide base. There was an incident where a soldier ground up razor blades and ate them. I am not sure if this story is true or just a legend.
I did know someone who never used to clean his mess tin because he said he wanted to get jaundice.

The sadist was our platoon sergeant (there were three squads). His name was Velvella. He was a short, stocky man of Moroccan ethnicity who also used to give us unarmed combat training.
During the day he had little to do.  He used to wait until the night when we were allowed to go to bed. Then he would keep us up half the night by making us clean things and extra inspections.

He knew who the weakest were and he used to give them humiliating punishments.
One of his favourites was “walking like a whore”. Then the soldier would have to squat, hold his rifle above his head and walk about. After a bit this would become very tiring. If the soldier stopped or fell over he would kick him. He would punch soldiers if they were not quick enough.

I remember one incident. It had been raining and the whole area was muddy. He ordered one of his favourite victims to crawl through the mud. He thought he was not crawling fast enough, so he started kicking him. The soldier suddenly began to scream and the mud started turning red. He had to be taken to hospital.

We did not get on. He did not try those punishments on me but said he was filing complaints against me for insubordination. As there were so many complaints, he said, my prison sentence would be very long and I would be sent to a special prison.

Velvella was aggressive towards everybody, even his own family. I had a friend who worked in the office. He said he overheard Velvella phoning his wife.
He told her he would not be coming home until late, because he would be fucking the female officers.

One time we were sent up north in trucks with full gear. It was for an infiltration raid in Lebanon. A mine had exploded on a football pitch near the border.
At the last moment the raid was called off and instead we lay in diamond form ambushes all night.
I heard that Velvella was really angry that he did not get the chance to kill anybody. On the way back he saw a pack of wild dogs. He chased after them in his jeep and shot them. 

The net result of Velvella’s influence on my platoon was that we moved about like sleep-deprived zombies and we had an astronomical percentage of AWOL (Absent Without Leave).
I used to talk about this with a corporal from another platoon. How we met is another story. He was dati, religious. His surname was Goren and he was a relative of the Chief –Rabbi at the time.

Our base received a new commanding officer. He did not understand how our platoon could have such a high AWOL. He started asking questions.
Goren told him what was going on. He was the whistle-blower. He told him to speak to me.

We were in the field. I was informed that the commanding officer wanted to see me. I did not have to go to his office he would come to me.
Everybody knew why he was coming and people started pressuring me to keep my mouth shut. There were no threats. It was more stuff like, we get the best food and we can solve the problem without outsiders.

The commanding officer turned up and took me to one side. He asked questions about the situation and I told him what I had witnessed.
Then he said to me, “why didn’t you shoot him?”.
I had not expected that question and did not have a real answer.
He continued by saying that we were the first generation after the Holocaust and the IDF was not the German army. We had a high moral code and that is what made us different from the Germans and Arabs.
He said that if I ever witnessed an IDF soldier being punched or kicked I should shoot whoever was doing it. “Tell them afterwards that I gave you permission”.

After listening to him I had two dominant emotions.
The first was shame that I had done nothing to stop what was going on.
My second emotion was pride. The pride of belonging to the IDF, an army with such high ethics.

Fifty years later an IDF sergeant has been found guilty of manslaughter by a military court for shooting dead an incapacitated Palestinian assailant “without reason”.
I am not comparing sergeant Azaria to Velvella. I am comparing the IDF reaction in two cases with a gap of fifty years.
Not right-wing or left-wing, just the reaffirmation of the same IDF ethics. A resounding answer to those who accuse the IDF of heinous crimes.
According to a poll, 67% of Israelis want sergeant Azaria to be pardoned. The judges who convicted him have been threatened and now have to be protected.
The country, not the IDF, has changed. And I do not think for the better.

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