ISRAHELL UPDATE: Israel’s War on Protest (A MUST READ)

The Israeli courts ordered the release this week of two foreign women arrested by the army in the West Bank in what human-rights lawyers warn has become a wide-ranging clampdown by Israel on non-violent protest from international, Israeli and Palestinian activists.

The arrest of the two women during a nighttime raid on the Palestinian city of Ramallah has highlighted a new tactic by Israeli officials: using immigration police to try to deport foreign supporters of the Palestinian cause.

A Czech woman was deported last month after she was seized from Ramallah by a special unit known as Oz, originally established to arrest migrant labourers working illegally inside Israel.

Human rights lawyers say Israel’s new offensive is intended to undermine a joint non-violent struggle by international activists and Palestinian villagers challenging a land grab by Israel as it builds the separation wall on farmland in the West Bank.

In what Israel’s daily Haaretz newspaper recently called a “war on protest”, Israeli security forces have launched a series of raids in the West Bank over the past two months to detain Palestinian community leaders organising protests against the wall.

“Israel knows that the non-violence struggle is spreading and that it’s a powerful weapon against the occupation,” said Neta Golan, an Israeli activist based in Ramallah. “Israel has no answer to it, which is why the security forces are panicking and have started making lots of arrests.”

The detention this week of Ariadna Marti, 25, of Spain, and Bridgette Chappell, 22, of Australia, suggests a revival of a long-running cat-and-mouse struggle between Israel and the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a group of activists who have joined Palestinians in non-violently opposing the Israeli occupation.

The last major confrontation, a few years into the second intifada, resulted in a brief surge of deaths and injuries of international activists at the hands of the Israeli army. Most controversially, Rachel Corrie, from the US, was run down and killed by an army bulldozer in 2003 as she stood by a home in Gaza threatened with demolition.

Ms Golan, a co-founder of the ISM, said Israel had sought to demonise the group’s activists in the Israeli and international media. “Instead of representing our struggle as one of non-violence, we are portrayed as ‘accomplices to terror’.”

The first entry of Israeli immigration police into a Palestinian-controlled area of the West Bank, the so-called “Area A”, occurred last month when a Czech woman was arrested in Ramallah. Eva Novakova, 28, who had recently been appointed the ISM’s media co-ordinator, was accused of overstaying her visa and was deported before she could appeal to the courts.

Human rights lawyers say such actions are illegal.

Omer Shatz, the lawyer representing Ms Marti and Ms Chappell, said a military operation into an area like Ramallah could not be justified to round up activists with expired visas. “The activists are not breaking any laws in Ramallah,” he said. “The army and immigration police are effectively criminalising them by bringing them into Israel, where they need such a visa.”

Officials in the Palestinian Authority (PA) have grown increasingly unhappy at Israeli abuses of security arrangements dating from the Oslo era. The PA’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, recently described the Israeli operations into Area A as “incursions and provocations”.

Although the supreme court released the two women on bail on Monday, while their deportation was considered, it banned them from entering the West Bank and ordered each pay a $800 bond.

The judges questioned the right of the army to hand over the women to immigration police from a military prison in the West Bank, but left open the issue of whether the operation would have been legal had the transfer occurred in Israeli territory.

The Spanish government is reported to have asked the Israeli ambassador in Spain to promise that Ms Marti would not be deported.

Ms Marti said they had been woken at 3am on Sunday by “15 to 20 soldiers who aimed their guns at us”. The pair were asked for their passports and then handcuffed. Later, she said, they had been offered the choice that “either we agree to immediate expulsion or that we will be jailed for six months”.

On Wednesday, shortly after the court ruling, the army raided the ISM’s office in Ramallah again, seizing computers, T-shirts and bracelets inscribed with “Palestine”.

“Israel has managed to stop most international activists from getting here by denying them entry at the borders,” said Ms Golan. “But those who do get in then face deportation if they are arrested or try to renew their visa.”

The ISM has been working closely with a number of local Palestinian popular committees in organising weekly demonstrations against Israel’s theft of Palestinian land under cover of the building of the wall.

The protests have made headlines only intermittently, usually when international or Israeli activists have been hurt or killed by Israeli soldiers. Palestinian injuries have mostly gone unnoticed.

In one incident that threatened to embarrass Israel, Tristan Anderson, 38, an American ISM member, was left brain-damaged last March after a soldier fired a tear-gas cannister at his head during a demonstration against the wall in the Palestinian village of Nilin.

In addition to regular arrests of Palestinian protesters, Israel has recently adopted a new tactic of rounding up community leaders and holding them in long-term administrative detention. A Haaretz editorial has called these practices “familiar from the darkest regimes”.

Abdallah Abu Rahman, a schoolteacher and head of the popular committee in the village of Bilin, has been in jail since December for arms possession. The charge refers to a display he created at his home of used tear gas cannisters fired by the Israeli army at demonstrators.

On Monday, the offices of Stop the Wall, an umbrella organisation for the popular committees, was raided, and its computers and documents taken. Two co-ordinators of the group, Jamal Juma and Mohammed Othman, were released from jail last month after mounting international pressure.

The Israeli police also have been harshly criticised by the courts for beating and jailing dozens of Israeli and Palestinian activists protesting against the takeover of homes by settlers in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

Last month, Hagai Elad, the head of Israel’s largest human rights law centre, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, was among 17 freed by a judge after demonstrators were detained for two days by police, who accused them of being “dangerous”.

Ref: Counterpunch

Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is http://www.jkcook.net.

A version of this article originally appeared in The National (www.thenational.ae), published in Abu Dhabi.

Israeli Court Rebukes the Military

Not every day, and not even every decade, does the Supreme Court rebuke the Military Advocate General. The last time this happened was 20 years ago, when the Advocate General refused to issue a proper indictment against an officer who ordered his men to break the arms and legs of a bound Palestinian. The officer argued that he considered this to be his duty, after the Minister of Defense, Yitzhak Rabin, had called for “breaking their bones”.

Well, this week it happened again. The Supreme Court made a decision that was tantamount to a slap in the face of the army’s current chief legal officer, Brigadier Avichai Mendelblit.

The incident in question took place in Ni’alin, a village which has been robbed of a great part of its land by the Separation Fence. Like their neighbors in Bilin, the villagers demonstrate every week against the Fence. Generally, the army’s reactions in Ni’alin are even more violent than in Bilin. Four protesters have already been killed there.

In this particular incident, Lieutenant Colonel Omri Borberg took a Palestinian demonstrator, who was sitting on the ground, handcuffed and blindfolded, and suggested to one of his soldiers “let’s go aside and give him a rubber”. He ordered the soldier to shoot a rubber bullet, point blank.

For those who do not know: “rubber bullets” are steel bullets coated with rubber. From a distance, they cause painful injuries. At short range, they can be fatal. Officially, soldiers are allowed to use them at a minimum range of 40 meters.

Without hesitating, the soldier shot the prisoner in the foot, although this was a “manifestly illegal order”, which a soldier is obliged by army law to disobey. According to the classic definition of Judge Binyamin Halevy in the 1957 Kafr Kassem massacre case, the “black flag of illegality” is waving over such orders. The prisoner, Ashraf Abu-Rakhma, was hit and fell on the ground.

Veterans of the Ni’alin and Bilin demonstrations know that such and similar incidents happen all the time. But the Abu-Rakhma case was special for one reason: it was documented by a young local woman from a balcony near the crime scene with one of the cameras provided to villagers by B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization.

Thus the Lt. Col. committed an unforgivable sin: he was photographed in the act. Generally, when peace activists disclose such misdeeds, the army spokesman reaches into his bag of lies and comes up with some mendacious statement or other (“Attacked the soldier”, “Tried to grab his weapon”, “Resisted arrest”). But even a talented spokesman has difficulties denying something that is clearly seen on film.

When the Military Advocate General decided to prosecute the officer and the soldier for “conduct unbecoming”, Abu-Rakhma and some Israeli human rights organizations applied to the Supreme Court. The judges advised the Advocate to change the indictment. He refused, and so the matter reached the court again.

This week, in a decision unusual for its severe language, the three justices (including a female judge and a religious one) found the “conduct unbecoming” charge itself unbecoming. They ordered the indictment of both officer and soldier on a far more serious criminal charge, in order to make it clear to all military personnel that mistreating a prisoner “is contrary to the spirit of the state and the army”.

After such a slap in the face, any decent person would have resigned in shame. But not Mendelblit. The bearded and kippa-wearing brigadier is a personal friend of the Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, and is expecting promotion to Major General at any moment.

Recently, the Advocate General refused to indict a senior officer who asserted in court, while testifying on behalf of a subordinate, that it is right to abuse Palestinians physically.

Ashkenazi owes a lot to his Advocate General, and for other reasons. Mendelblit has made a huge effort to cover up war crimes committed during the recent Gaza War, from Ashkenazi’s war plan itself to the crimes of individual soldiers. Nobody has been put on trial, nobody even seriously investigated.

* * *

ON THE day the Supreme Court decision concerning Mendelblit was published, another brigadier also made the headlines. Curiously enough, his first name is also Avichai (not a very common name), he is also bearded and wears a kippa.

In a speech before religious female soldiers, the Chief Rabbi of the army, Brigadier Avichai Rontzky, expressed the opinion that the army service of women is forbidden by the Jewish religion.

Since every Jewish young woman in Israel is bound by law to serve for two years, and women perform many essential jobs in the army, this was a seditious statement. But nobody was really surprised by this Rabbi.

Rontzky was chosen for this post by the former Chief of Staff, Dan Halutz. He knew what he was doing.

The Rabbi was not born into a religious family. Indeed, he was quite “secular”, a member of an elite army unit, when he saw the light and was “reborn”. Like many of this kind, he did not stop halfway but went to the furthest extreme, becoming a settler and setting up a Yeshiva (religious seminary) in one of the most fanatical settlements.

Rontzky is a man in the spirit of the person who appointed him. It will be remembered that, when asked what he felt when dropping a one-ton bomb on a residential area, Air Force General Halutz answered: “a slight bump on the wing”. In a discussion about whether to treat a wounded Palestinian on the Shabbat, Rontzky wrote that “the life of a goy is certainly valuable…but the Shabbat is more important.” Meaning: a dying goy should not be treated on Shabbat. Later he retracted. (In modern colloquial Hebrew, a goy is a non-Jew. The term has distinctly derogatory connotations.)

The Israeli army has something that is called the “Ethical Code”. True, the spiritual father of the Code, Professor Asa Kasher, did defend the atrocities of the “Molten Lead” operation, but Rontzky went much further: he stated unequivocally that “When there is a clash between…the Ethical Code and the Halakha (religious law), certainly the Halakha must be followed.”

In a publication distributed by him, it was said that “the Bible prohibits us from giving up even one millimeter of Eretz Israel”. In other words, the Chief Rabbi of the army, a Brigadier of the IDF, asserts that the official policy of the Israeli government – from Ariel Sharon’s “Separation” to the recent speech by Binyamin Netanyahu on a “demilitarized Palestinian State” – is a mortal sin.

But the peak was reached in a brochure that the army rabbinate distributed to soldiers during the Gaza War: “Exercising mercy towards a cruel enemy means being cruel towards innocent and honest soldiers. In war as in war.”

That was a clear incitement to brutality. It can be seen as a call for acts that constitute war crimes – the very same acts that his colleague, the Military Advocate General, has done everything possible to cover up.

* * *

NEITHER OF the two bearded brigadiers would have remained in office for a single day had they not enjoyed the full support of the Chief of Staff. The army is a hierarchical institution, and full responsibility for everything that happens falls squarely and entirely on the Chief.

Unlike his predecessors, Gaby Ashkenazi does not show off and does not speak in public frequently. If he has political ambitions, he is hiding them well. But during his term in office, the army has assumed a certain character, which is perfectly represented by these two officers.

This did not start, of course, with Ashkenazi. He is continuing – and perhaps intensifying – a tendency that started long ago, and that has been changing the Israeli army beyond recognition.

The founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, famously wrote in his book “Der Judenstaat”, the founding document of the movement: “We shall know how to keep our clerics in the temples, as we shall know how to keep our regular army in the barracks…they will not be allowed to interfere in the affairs of the state.”

Now the very opposite is happening: the rabbis have penetrated the army, the army officers come from the synagogues.

The hard core of the fanatical settlers, which is almost entirely composed of religious people (many of whom are “reborn Jews”) decided long ago to gain control of the army from within. In a systematic campaign, which is in full swing, they penetrate the officers’ corps from below – from the junior ranks to the middle to the senior ones. One can see their success in statistics: from year to year the number of kippa-wearing officers is growing.

When the Israeli army came into being, the officers’ corps was full of kibbutz members. Not only were kibbutzniks considered the elite of the new Hebrew society, which was based on values of morality and culture, and not only were they the first to volunteer for every national task, but there were also inbuilt “technical” reasons.

The nucleus of the army came from the pre-state Palmach. The Palmach companies constituted a fully-mobilized regular army, part of the underground military organization, the Haganah. They could exist and operate freely only in the kibbutzim, where their identity could be camouflaged. As a result, almost all the outstanding commanders in the 1948 war were from the Palmach, kibbutz members or close to them.

These did everything to imbue the new Defense Forces with the spirit of a pioneering, moral and humanist citizens army, the very opposite of an occupation army. True, the reality was always different, but the ideal was important as an aim to strive for. As I showed in my 1950 book, “The Other Side of the Coin”, our “purity of arms” has always been a myth. But the aspiration to be an army with humanist values was important. Atrocities were hidden or denied, because they were considered shameful and dishonoring our camp.

Nothing has remained of all this, except phrases. Since the beginning of the occupation in 1967, the character of the army has changed completely. The army that was founded in order to protect the state from external dangers has become an army of occupation, whose task is to oppress another people, crush their resistance, expropriate land, protect land robbers called settlers, man roadblocks, humiliate human beings every day. Of course, it is not the army alone that has changed, but also the state that gives the army its orders as well as its ongoing brainwashing.

In such an army, a process of natural selection takes place. People of discrimination, with a high moral standard, who detest such actions, leave sooner or later. Their place is taken by other types, people of different values or no values at all, “professional soldiers” who “just follow orders”.

Of course, one must beware of generalizing. In today’s army there are not a few people who believe that they are fulfilling a mission, for whom the Ethical Code is more than just a compilation of sanctimonious phrases. These people are disgusted by what they see. From time to time we hear their protests and see their disclosures. However, it is not they who set the tone, but types like Rontzky and Mendelblit.

* * *

THAT SHOULD worry us very much. We cannot treat the army as if it was a foreign realm that does not concern us. We cannot tell ourselves: “we don’t want to have anything to do with the army of a Moshe Ya’alon, a Shaul Mofaz, a Dan Halutz or a Gabi Ashkenazi.” We cannot turn our back on the problem. We must face it, because it is our problem.

The state needs an army. Even after achieving peace, we shall need a strong and effective army in order to protect the state until peace strikes deep roots and we can set up a regional body along the lines of the European Union, perhaps.

The army is us. Its character has an impact on all our lives, on the life of our state itself. It has already been said: “Israel is not a banana republic. It is a republic that slips on bananas.” And what bananas!

Ref: Counterpunch

Time to believe Gaza war crimes allegations

Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi has difficulty believing the soldiers’ testimonies that they intentionally harmed Palestinian civilians, because the Israel Defense Forces is a moral army, he said on Sunday.

On the other hand, he believes the soldiers because they “have no reason to lie.” Then again, Ashkenazi is convinced that if what they said is true, these are isolated incidents.

Ashkenazi reacted like most Israelis – as though the reports, including those in Haaretz and Maariv, were the first about the Gaza offensive that were issued by someone other than the military spokesman or the military reporters, who rely on him for their information.
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But ample information was available from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports, based on statements collected from hundreds of people in the Gaza Strip in January and February.

Ashkenazi, like other Israelis, could have read the Red Cross’ protest during the offensive, that the IDF prevented medical teams from reaching wounded Palestinians by shooting at them. He or his aides could have gone to the Web site set up by Israeli human rights organizations, which was full of reports and testimonies.

His aides, had they wanted to, could have found the many questions foreign reporters sent to the IDF spokesman, seeking Ashkenazi’s comments before they filed their stories. They had details about families killed by IDF shells and bombs in their homes, about the lethal white phosphorus shells and about the shooting of civilians waving white flags. The had cataloged the massive destruction of plants, orchards, fields, cowsheds and apartment buildings. Much evidence of these outrages was also published inside Haaretz.

The IDF’s legal advisers must have read it all. Including, perhaps, that judges who participated in investigation committees into crimes in Darfur, the former Yugoslavia and East Timor want to set up a similar international committee to investigate “all the parties” in the IDF offensive on Gaza. These people have concluded that the events go beyond isolated incidents and that the problem is not only in the soldiers’ conduct, but the instructions from the senior military ranks and the ministers in charge.

It’s hard to believe that the chief of staff, defense minister and their aides haven’t read at least some reports that were not issued by the IDF. But even if they did, why should they let on? After all, they are the ones who gave the orders.

Ashkenazi chose to look surprised, as though he were an ordinary Israeli citizen disregarding reports from parties other than the IDF, because they were based on Palestinian testimonies. Most Israelis “know” Palestinians lie, so their statements should not be taken seriously.

ReF: Haaretz

Israel shaken by troops’ tales of brutality + Israeli Soldiers Speak Out

A study by an Israeli psychologist into the violent behaviour of the country’s soldiers is provoking bitter controversy and has awakened urgent questions about the way the army conducts itself in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.Nufar Yishai-Karin, a clinical psychologist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, interviewed 21 Israeli soldiers and heard confessions of frequent brutal assaults against Palestinians, aggravated by poor training and discipline. In her recently published report, co-authored by Professor Yoel Elizur, Yishai-Karin details a series of violent incidents, including the beating of a four-year-old boy by an officer.The report, although dealing with the experience of soldiers in the 1990s, has triggered an impassioned debate in Israel, where it was published in an abbreviated form in the newspaper Ha’aretz last month. According to Yishai Karin: “At one point or another of their service, the majority of the interviewees enjoyed violence. They enjoyed the violence because it broke the routine and they liked the destruction and the chaos. They also enjoyed the feeling of power in the violence and the sense of danger.”In the words of one soldier: “The truth? When there is chaos, I like it. That’s when I enjoy it. It’s like a drug. If I don’t go into Rafah, and if there isn’t some kind of riot once in some weeks, I go nuts.”Another explained: “The most important thing is that it removes the burden of the law from you. You feel that you are the law. You are the law. You are the one who decides… As though from the moment you leave the place that is called Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] and go through the Erez checkpoint into the Gaza Strip, you are the law. You are God.”The soldiers described dozens of incidents of extreme violence. One recalled an incident when a Palestinian was shot for no reason and left on the street. “We were in a weapons carrier when this guy, around 25, passed by in the street and, just like that, for no reason — he didn’t throw a stone, did nothing — bang, a bullet in the stomach, he shot him in the stomach and the guy is dying on the pavement and we keep going, apathetic. No one gave him a second look,” he said.

The soldiers developed a mentality in which they would use physical violence to deter Palestinians from abusing them. One described beating women. “With women I have no problem. With women, one threw a clog at me and I kicked her here [pointing to the crotch], I broke everything there. She can’t have children. Next time she won’t throw clogs at me. When one of them [a woman] spat at me, I gave her the rifle butt in the face. She doesn’t have what to spit with any more.”

Yishai-Karin found that the soldiers were exposed to violence against Palestinians from as early as their first weeks of basic training. On one occasion, the soldiers were escorting some arrested Palestinians. The arrested men were made to sit on the floor of the bus. They had been taken from their beds and were barely clothed, even though the temperature was below zero. The new recruits trampled on the Palestinians and then proceeded to beat them for the whole of the journey. They opened the bus windows and poured water on the arrested men.

The disclosure of the report in the Israeli media has occasioned a remarkable response. In letters responding to the recollections, writers have focused on both the present and past experience of Israeli soldiers to ask troubling questions that have probed the legitimacy of the actions of the Israeli Defence Forces.

The study and the reactions to it have marked a sharp change in the way Israelis regard their period of military service — particularly in the occupied territories — which has been reflected in the increasing levels of conscientious objection and draft-dodging.

The debate has contrasted sharply with an Israeli army where new recruits are taught that they are joining “the most ethical army in the world” — a refrain that is echoed throughout Israeli society. In its doctrine, published on its website, the Israeli army emphasises human dignity. “The Israeli army and its soldiers are obligated to protect human dignity. Every human being is of value regardless of his or her origin, religion, nationality, gender, status or position.”

However, the Israeli army, like other armies, has found it difficult to maintain these values beyond the classroom. The first intifada, which began in 1987, before the wave of suicide bombings, was markedly different to the violence of the second intifada, and its main events were popular demonstrations with stone-throwing.

Yishai-Karin, in an interview with Ha’aretz, described how her research came out of her own experience as a soldier at an army base in Rafah in the Gaza Strip. She interviewed 18 ordinary soldiers and three officers whom she had served with in Gaza. The soldiers described how the violence was encouraged by some commanders. One soldier recalled: “After two months in Rafah, a [new] commanding officer arrived … So we do a first patrol with him. It’s 6am, Rafah is under curfew, there isn’t so much as a dog in the streets. Only a little boy of four playing in the sand. He is building a castle in his yard. He [the officer] suddenly starts running and we all run with him. He was from the combat engineers.

“He grabbed the boy. I am a degenerate if I am not telling you the truth. He broke his hand here at the wrist, broke his leg here. And started to stomp on his stomach, three times, and left. We are all there, jaws dropping, looking at him in shock…

“The next day I go out with him on another patrol, and the soldiers are already starting to do the same thing.”

Yishai-Karin concluded that the main reason for the soldiers’ violence was a lack of training. She found that the soldiers did not know what was expected of them and therefore were free to develop their own way of behaviour. The longer a unit was left in the field, the more violent it became. The Israeli soldiers, she concluded, had a level of violence which is universal across all nations and cultures. If they are allowed to operate in difficult circumstances, such as in Gaza and the West Bank, without training and proper supervision, the violence is bound to come out.

A spokesperson for the Israeli army said that, if a soldier deviates from the army’s norms, they could be investigated by the military police or face criminal investigation.

She said: “It should be noted that since the events described in Nufar Yishai-Karin’s research the number of ethical violations by IDF soldiers involving the Palestinian population has consistently dropped. This trend has continued in the last few years.” –

Ref: Mail & Guardian

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