I’m not such a big fan of Steven Erlanger at the NY Times, but he seems to capture the pressure and contradictions of service in the IDF and particularly in the West Bank/Judea and Samaria that many IDF soldiers have to live with in this article.
There has always been a sense of strength mixed with fatigue that the security situation in Israel brings to its citizens and soldiers. I believe many Israelis had once throught that by this point peace in the country’s history, the situation would preclude the necessity of the types of actions that are required in Judea and Samaria, and certainly of a war such as was fought with Hizbullah. The reality of the ongoing security issues for Israel, however, brings those hopes crashing and take an emotional toll. This is being reflected in many ways these days. As Erlanger notes, movies such as the upcoming Beaufort depict this ambivalence, just as one can see it in the type of media coverage the losses in Lebanon during last summer’s war engendered. The fatigue and growing unwillingness to lose any soldiers in war, much less the 133 who were killed and certainly far fewer than the 600 or 2300 who were killed in ’67 and ’73, respectively, is also indicative. Of course, it is also frustrating for Israelis to know their military has lost some of its edge over the past several years as was starkly revealed in the recent Lebanon war.
Erlanger, not surprisingly, focuses on the West Bank:
Mr. Manekin and his colleagues spent a lot of their time at security checkpoints around Hebron and Nablus, controlling the movement of Palestinians to try to ensure that suicide bombers could not infiltrate Israeli cities. The checkpoints are part of a security network, including the separation barrier, that protects Israel, but also deeply inconveniences Palestinians who would never consider strapping on a bomb.
Mr. Manekin is the director of Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli combat soldiers and some current reservists, shocked at their own misconduct and that of others, who have gathered to collect their stories and bear witness. Since 2004, the group has collected testimonies from nearly 400 soldiers (available in English at www.shovrimshtika.org/index_e.asp).
He spoke of how some soldiers humiliate or beat Palestinians to keep crowds in line and how soldiers are taught to be aggressive, but how most behave within decent moral limits â€” and of how the fear that hundreds of people could erupt in anger wears on the soul and turns young men callous.
â€œI don’t think this is a problem of the military,â€ he said. â€œIt’s a problem of the society. We’re sending these kids in our name. And there has to be a space to talk of bad things. It’s not enough to say, â€˜But there’s Palestinian terrorism,’ which there is, but that’s too easy.â€
He felt conflicted whenever he went back into the army on reserve duty, he said. â€œI love my soldiers, and I’m a good officer,â€ he said. â€œBut going back into that system is hard. Still, I see my future here and my children’s future. And I want a safe country, like everyone, and also a moral country.â€
Another rose to respond:
…One man stood and said Mr. Manekin and his friends were hurting Israel, especially its image abroad, in order to salve their own consciences. Many in the audience nodded in agreement. Tall and dignified, about 45, the man said that he, too, had served in the West Bank, â€œand I’m proud of what I did there to defend Israelis.â€
It is crucial to intimidate people at checkpoints to keep them cowed, he said, his voice shaking a little, â€œbecause we are so few there, and they are so many.â€
And finally, the middle ground, represented by a Uriel Simon, and elderly professor emeritus of biblical studies at Bar-Ilan University who is Orthodox:
Everyone is afraid of mirrors, Mr. Simon said, readjusting the knitted skullcap on his nimbus of white hair. â€œWe hate the mirror. We don’t want to look at ourselves. We don’t like photographs of us â€” we say, â€˜Oh, that’s not a very good likeness.’ We want to be much nicer than we are. But here there are also prophets who are mirrors, who are not afraid of kings and generals. The prophet says, â€˜You are ugly,’ and we don’t want to hear it, but we have to look at the mirror honestly, without fear.â€
Later, Mr. Simon tried to describe the ambivalence and even confusion, as he saw it, in the room.
The army is central to Israel, and the problems so complicated, he said. At the beginning of the summer war, as in the beginning of any war, including the war in Iraq, â€œthere’s a euphoria that derives from an almost irrational belief in power and force, that the sword can cut through all the slow processes.â€ It is more enthralling if, like Israel, â€œyou have so much power that you can’t use, and suddenly you can.â€
But the euphoria is always short-lived, he said, because no army is as efficient as advertised, and power rarely delivers the clean outcome it seems to promise.
â€œWe bomb southern Lebanon like mad, and still they continue to send missiles at us,â€ he said.
The frustration is even more intense â€œfor a people like Israel forced to live on its sword, for who will save this little state?â€ he asked. â€œThe United Nations? The good will of America? We’d be overrun 10 times before America awakes, even if it wants to awake. So every 10-year-old knows the sheer importance of the Israeli Army, and the more you need it the more you expect from it.â€