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August 20, 2001
A Slap in the Face

By Uri Avnery


A middle-aged man approaches the army checkpoint. Three bored soldiers look at him. One, probably the one in charge, who was standing two or three meters away, comes up to him and slaps his face.

A few hours later this was shown on television in Israel and all the Arab countries. It appears that the beaten man is an Egyptian television reporter, who was on his way to a press conference.

The IDFL (Israel Defense Forces Liar, an anonymous officer in charge of inventing pretexts for transgressions) provided the usual response: the man had provoked and cursed the soldiers. The soldier got some suspended penalty, probably for slapping people on camera. One may assume that he will be promoted soon.

What is so special about this incident? Only the presence of a foreign TV team, and the amazing chutzpah of the soldier who behaved like this without first making sure that no camera was present. Apart from that, it was a very normal incident. Things like that - and much worse - happen daily at dozens of checkpoints all over the occupied territories. Routine harassment, "in order to relieve the boredom," as a soldier recently explained concerning another incident.

Slaps in the face. Beatings. Compelling people to stand in line for hours in the blazing sun. Compelling people to sit for hours in their cars in the sun with the windows closed. Taking away car keys or identity cards. Puncturing tires. Detaining women in labor on the way to the hospital. Detaining children with cancer on the way to treatment. Detaining kidney patients on the way to dialysis. Stealing money and valuables. So what's so special about slapping an Egyptian journalist? After all, an Arab is an Arab.

Nevertheless, it is worthwhile examining this incident a little further. The soldier (Sergeant? Lieutenant?) did what he did, as do thousands of other soldiers at regular and sporadic checkpoints, because they believe that it is permitted, perhaps even desirable.

If that is true, it shows that the situation is grave. If it is not true, it shows that the situation is even worse.

When thousands of soldiers at the checkpoints behave like this for years, it is clear that the commanders are turning a blind eye. The immediate commander. The battalion commander. The brigade commander. The front commander. The Chief-of-Staff. The Minister of Defense. The Prime Minister. It would be enough for one of these people to issue an unequivocal order to stop the practice. It would be enough for the Chief-of-Staff to remove a brigade commander under whose command such an incident happened. Or for a brigade commander to remove a battalion chief. Or for the battalion commander to dismiss a company captain. Indeed, it would be enough to send one soldier to prison for 28 days (the penalty usually imposed on soldiers refusing to serve in the occupied territories) for the practice to stop at once.

If this does not happen, one cannot but hold the whole chain of command responsible - from the harassing soldier at the checkpoint up to the Chief-of-Staff. This means that the harassment is a policy. A policy designed to break the population, to turn their life into hell and induce them to leave the country. And also to teach the soldiers to treat the "locals" like dirt.

There is another interpretation, and it is no less grave: that there is no such policy. This means that the discipline in the army has broken down, that the command at all levels has lost control. Not an army any more, but a lawless militia.

That would hardly be surprising, of course. One cannot employ an army for dozens of years as an oppressive, colonial police force without causing a breakdown of discipline. One cannot demand from a soldier to stick to the truth in his reports when he hears every day the reports of the above-mentioned IDFL ("killed while trying to escape", "tried to run the soldiers over", "were compelled to shoot when their life was in danger", "cursed the soldiers", "tried to wrest the gun from the hands of the soldier" and similar routine untruths). One cannot expect a soldier, who harasses venerable old men and respectable women in the occupied territories, to behave like a quiet, courteous boy in a Haifa discotheque or to treat his wife and children decently. One cannot expect a soldier, who for years has been a hero confronting women and children, to be a hero against tanks and artillery on a future battlefield.

Every year, when the generals want to extract several billions more from the public treasury, they tell us that any moment now a major war may break out. Syria, Iraq, Iran, jointly or separately, are going to throw missiles at us full of bacteria or poison gas, and only a strong and sophisticated Israeli army will save us. The same army that has trained for years at the checkpoints.

There was another picture on TV the other day: Micky Levi, commander of the Jerusalem police, was seen quarreling with an Arab woman. Suddenly he struck out with his fist. It looked like a powerful blow. But the camera was located behind him and could not see where the fist landed. On her belly? Her breast? Or did he miss altogether and hit the air?

The IPL (Israel Police Liar, a younger brother of his army colleague) gave some silly explanation. But there is no better witness than one's own eyes. The district police commander, an officer with the rank of general, used his fist while arguing with a woman.

There was no public outcry. Neither in the media, nor in the Knesset, nor in the cabinet. After all, who wants to quarrel with the police?