As world opinion turns, Israeli soldiers parade their tyranny

The National — 11 May 2014

Israel is facing its first digital mutiny in the ranks. And the issue fuelling the soldiers’ discontent could not be more revealing about the self-harming character of Israeli society.

This month, a social-media campaign went viral in defence of David Adamov, an Israeli conscript caught on camera pointing his cocked rifle at a 15-year-old Palestinian in Hebron who dared to argue with him. He also threatened to put “a bullet in the head” of another young Palestinian for filming the confrontation.

Outraged by media reports that Adamov had been jailed for 20 days, hundreds of male and female soldiers posted photos on social media sites holding placards in front of their faces — to avoid punishment — expressing support for their comrade in arms.

Within hours, a Facebook page backing Adamov had attracted more than 100,000 likes. A senior government minister, Naftali Bennett, joined the outcry, declaring on his own page that the soldier “did the right thing”.

The ironies mounted as the campaign unfolded. Fellow soldiers have styled Adamov “David of Nahal”, a reference to his army brigade and, it seems, an allusion to the Bible. In his supporters’ eyes, Adamov is the victim-hero of an unlikely ­Goliath — a mouthy, unarmed Palestinian minor.

The military chief of staff, Benny Gantz, has admitted that the incident raises matters of “military ethics”, but only because of the insubordination expressed in the ­social media campaign, not because of Adamov’s misuse of his firearm. And more revealing still, the army responded to the uproar by pointing out that Adamov had not been jailed for abusing the Palestinian youth but because, in an unrelated matter, he assaulted his commanding officer.

The Nahal brigade had been in the news a few weeks earlier. Its soldiers were discovered to have designed and printed a graduation T-shirt with a hate-filled message for Palestinians. The shirt featured an image of a Nahal soldier in the city of Nablus above the slogan “Nablus, we’re coming!” and a warning to Palestinian mothers that their sons’ fate would be decided by the brigade.

The problems at the heart of these two incidents were underscored in a recent Amnesty International report titled Trigger Happy. The human rights group identified a disturbing pattern of behaviour: Israeli soldiers were targeting unarmed Palestinians, including children, with live ammunition, in some cases as they fled. Amnesty called the army’s use of force mostly “unnecessary, arbitrary and brutal”.

Amnesty found that, after a lull in Palestinian deaths following the end of the second intifada in the mid-2000s, the rate of killings and injuries is dramatically on the rise.

Unlike the situation a decade ago, Palestinians were often being killed at largely non-violent demonstrations against land confiscations. Stone throwing, even when it posed no danger to soldiers, was routinely greeted with live ammunition.

Amnesty described army investigations into the killings as “woefully inadequate”. It could not identify a single soldier who had been convicted of the “wilful killing” of a Palestinian in the occupied territories in the past 25 years.

Of course, in no period in its history did the “most moral army in the world” come close to justifying its self-promoted reputation. But the transformation of the occupation into a permanent state of affairs, as well as recent technological innovations, appear to be making a dire situation even worse.

What the Amnesty report highlights is an entrenchment of prejudices shared equally by the higher and lower ranks. It has not helped that over the past decade extremist settlers have come to dominate the officer class.

Palestinians, including children, have become dehumanised in the eyes of Israeli society. And long-standing impunity means soldiers understand that reckless or malevolent behaviour will rarely if ever land them in trouble.

Paradoxically, technology — particularly cameras in mobile phones — has only compounded these ugly trends.

Shortly after the Adamov incident, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu used a press conference to deplore young Israelis’ obsession with their phones and the “selfie”, arguing that Israeli youth were “slaves” to technology.

Although he did not set out his reasoning, it is not too difficult to fathom. Israeli soldiers, like teenagers around the world, love to boast online about their exploits. The difference is that some Israelis posing for a selfie may be committing a war crime as they do so.

Young Palestinians are using their smartphones for similar purposes: to document their abuse and humiliation at the hands of armed ­Israeli teenagers. The ensuing photos and videos now feed the outrage of a watching world and regularly embarrass Israel’s image-makers.

Strangely, Israeli soldiers are behaving no more cautiously. In fact, they seem to be exaggerating their cruelty for the reality show that is their military service. And their commanders, faced with endless discomfiting episodes, seem more committed than ever to avoid setting a precedent by punishing them.

Possibly through overexposure, wider Israeli society seems to have rapidly become more inured to this kind of gratuitous violence.

The paradoxes run deeper still. The ever greater transparency of the occupation fuels the soldiers’ sense of victimhood and oppression. If they are now to be denied the title of “the most moral in the world”, then they seem to believe their army ought to be dubbed “the most misunderstood”.

This mirrors a more general ideological shift to the right in Israeli society as global sympathy for the Palestinians grows. The world may consider us oppressors, say Israelis, but we refuse to act the part of the guilty: we will proudly parade our tyranny instead.

Israeli society, like its soldiers, is caught in a self-destructive cycle: its very sensitivity to criticism pushes it ever more resolutely towards outcast status.