Magazine article New Internationalist

Gone to Soldiers

Magazine article New Internationalist

Gone to Soldiers

Article excerpt

Dan Bar-On believes that young Israeli soldiers are becoming the unintended victims in the war to defend the occupation.

THE Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), based largely on reserve units and two-to-three years of conscript service, built its morale and strength over the years on the assumption that its task was to defend Israel against the Arab enemies who wished to defeat and demolish it. This was more clearly the case during its earlier wars (1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973). During the Lebanon War in 1982, some Israelis began questioning this assumption and this questioning continued through the first Intifada (1987-93) and through the current Al-Aqsa Intifada, which began in October 2000. These wars can be seen as `wars of choice' (as opposed to the earlier `no-choice wars'). People holding such critical views (usually identified with the Israeli Left) believe politicians have misused the IDF to avoid giving up the occupied territories. This violates the IDF's defensive purpose. The army is forced to defend the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza to protect Israeli settlements. The dissenters believe recent military activities against the Palestinian population actually inflame a tense situation, diminishing prospects for peace and security. A growing number (now 465) of reserve officers and soldiers now refuse to serve in the occupied territories. About 70 of them have been court-marshalled and imprisoned. This is the biggest number of conscientious objectors ever jailed in Israel.

Since 1982 Israeli soldiers have been fighting without the national consensus that accompanied earlier wars. They have found their society (including themselves) polarized over the legitimacy of armed intervention. Professional psychological issues are also becoming politicized. The decision to classify soldiers who fought in the first Intifada as suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has become a political issue. If the military establishment agreed such a syndrome existed they would have to admit some soldiers have paid a heavy psychological price during the Intifada. This might cause upheaval in society and be interpreted by the Palestinians as weakness. Psychologists who identified this syndrome and surmised that there are soldiers roaming around untreated, perhaps a danger to themselves or others, were accused of ulterior political motives. Therapists were torn. Should we encourage the soldiers to suppress their conflictual feelings about acts they are committing against civilians (seen by some of them as dehumanizing or even immoral acts)? Or should the psychologist help the soldiers express these feelings and draw conclusions and quit the service?

Here is an example of a monologue of an Israeli soldier after he was involved in the current IDF military actions in the West Bank: Adam's (pseudonym) voice is recorded with a lovely Neil Young song in the background. The music conflicts sharply with the metallic tone in which Adam tells his story in a breathless rush to the Israeli journalist Lilly Galili.

`We were given the mission to enter a village in the West Bank, and during the mission a house was identified that was suspected of possibly containing weapons. We were told that there might also be an armed man there, and the goal was to shoot toward the roof. Not to hit anything, just to shoot. It was raining hard and there was a tree that hid the house. We shot. A Palestinian kid was hit in the back. I don't know exactly what happened to him, I don't know how old he is. They only told me it was a kid when they examined the car that came to evacuate him, to make sure they weren't using it to smuggle arms. I didn't see the kid. I don't know whether he's alive or dead. My impression was - and I don't know whether this is a fact or a feeling - that he was seriously hurt. That's it. Actually, that's the whole story. Only the next day, I saw that I couldn't function. As a commander who receives missions and assigns missions to others, I suddenly am not thinking about the missions. …

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