End this brutalised occupation

Palestinian freedom also means freedom for Israelis — from the slide into moral degradation

By Jonathan Freedland, March 26, 2009

Soon my favourite festival will be upon us, the season of freedom, where we celebrate the greatest liberation story in human history. I love everything about Pesach, from the ridiculous — kosher-for-Passover washing-up liquid, anyone? — to the sublime, including the glow that comes from a family sitting around a Seder table retelling a tale passed down the generations since the beginning of Jewish time.

So, as the days get brighter and the pots and pans come out of storage, my mood should be light. And yet a cloud keeps blotting out the sun. It is the cloud that brings the latest news from Israel.

I’m thinking not of the coalition shenanigans, but a Haaretz report about T-shirts — specifically those custom-designed for units of the Israeli army, usually with a slogan and an arresting graphic. Many of these are innocuous enough, centred on laddish in-jokes. But Haaretz found another variety altogether. One shirt for infantry snipers showed a picture of a dead Palestinian baby, alongside his sobbing mother and a teddy bear. The caption read: “Better use Durex.”

Another had a child in the cross-hairs of a gunsight, alongside the words: “The smaller they are, the harder it is.” A soldier from an elite unit explained that: “It’s a kid, so you’ve got a little more of a problem morally and also the target is smaller.”

Another gunsight image had the cross-hairs hovering over the belly of a pregnant Arab woman, above the line: “1 Shot, 2 Kills”. Others depicted IDF soldiers raping women or blowing up mosques. The soldiers quoted said the T-shirt designs had usually been approved by their commanders.

I know that many who read these words will say Haaretz must have exaggerated. Or that these ghastly T-shirts were surely the work of “a few bad apples.” If it is more widespread than that, well, that’s just what army life is like: young testosterone-filled men, letting off steam. Better that they depict a rape on a T-shirt than they do it in real life. And they’re surely no worse than soldiers in any other army. Besides, let’s not forget the terrible things done by the other side…

Many JC readers will want to take comfort in those thoughts. But another Haaretz story makes that difficult. For the paper produced evidence that this is not a problem confined to T-shirt design. It ran 3,700 words of direct testimony from Israeli soldiers who served in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. One infantry squad leader recalled an episode involving his own operations company of the Givati brigade, telling how a sharpshooter shot and killed a woman and her two children, even though they posed no threat.

“Aviv” of the Givati brigade recalled how his company commander had insisted that an unarmed, elderly Palestinian woman be shot and killed, even though she visibly posed no danger. “That is what is so nice, as it were, about Gaza,” said Aviv: “You see a person… and you can just shoot him.”

There have been reflexive responses to these revelations too, including claims of media distortion. But these are soldiers in their own words, reported by one of Israel’s most trusted military analysts, Amos Harel. I spoke with Harel at length this week and he stands by his story in every particular, calling only for a military investigation to get at the truth.

The reflex reactions — repeating the mantra that the IDF is “the most moral army in the world” or rapidly changing the subject, speaking of the evils of Hamas or, better still, the media — are not good enough any more, comforting though they might be. The evidence is piling up too heavily. You don’t have to take the word of the United Nations or assorted non-governmental organisations for it: just read Israel’s own press. Revelations like this are coming every day.

What does it tell us? Not that Israel’s young men in uniform are somehow uniquely cruel: of course they are not. We know that British and American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have not behaved like angels. This is what occupation does to the occupier: it brutalises. And this is not some passing phase. Israel has been ruling over Palestinians as their occupier for 42 years, for more than two thirds of the country’s entire history.

It should be obvious now that Israel has to move — with the urgency of a nation trying to save its soul — to be rid of this occupation. That should mean not just allowing, but pleading with the US and others to impose a solution — not the out-but-still-in-charge arrangement that has prevailed in Gaza since 2005 but one that genuinely extricates Israel from the lands it has occupied since 1967.

Such a solution would give the Palestinians their freedom at long last. It would also give us, Israelis and Jews, our own freedom, even our redemption. As Pesach approaches, there can surely be no more urgent prayer.

Last updated: 12:59pm, March 26 2009