Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist
Occupiers in another land, but hated all the same
The travails of American occupiers of Arab Iraq may not be so different from those of the Israeli occupiers of Arab Palestine. That is what I...
The travails of American occupiers of Arab Iraq may not be so different from those of the Israeli occupiers of Arab Palestine. That is what I thought while hearing the stories of Avichay Sharon and Noam Chayut.
Sharon, 24, and Chayut, 26, had been in the Israeli army. They were here recently to criticize what their army does, touring under the auspices of a group called Breaking the Silence. Of course they "had an agenda." Keep that in mind — but hear their story.
"It is very difficult to do this," said Sharon. "We love our country. We grew up in patriotic Zionist homes, thinking we would serve in the most moral army in the world." But the civilian notion of morality is difficult to apply to the job of a military occupier.
The occupiers are shot at. To protect themselves, they search for weapons. They have learned it is dangerous to approach a front door. Where houses are wall-to-wall, they pound or blast through the wall instead. This is a tactic proven to reduce casualties. "We invented it," said Chayut.
As a soldier, he commanded a squad in Jenin. Besides confiscating weapons, he said, "the order was to arrest every male between 16 and 50. You go to every house, handcuff and blindfold the men, put them in a truck and send them to Israel." Usually, he said, the men were beaten up, though "that was not in the order."
Sometimes the soldiers would commandeer a house, either leaving one room for the family or expelling them. "I could choose who will be the family sent outside for three weeks," Chayut said. He added, "I was 22 years old."
Every night there would be a search-and-arrest operation. "You stop feeling that these are people," Chayut said. "You can't sympathize. You break things. You break the walls, maybe you break the floor if you suspect there are weapons hidden there. I was in a small kid's room, tossing the things in the kid's knapsack. I saw the kid in the corner. He was six or seven years old. He was afraid of me. I saw fear and hatred in his eyes — and I realized I looked like a monster to him."
This was Chayut's moment of truth.
"Five minutes before, we had thrown that boy's father against the wall — his father, who is like a god to him. That is the essence of being an occupier."
None of what I'm describing is about killing. Killing is not the essence. It is the power to kill — which is the power to humiliate. These youths were humiliating men older than their fathers, and for any reason, or for none at all. They did it for a political reason, or because they were frustrated, or simply because they could.
They could take an armored personnel carrier and squash parked cars with it. And they did.
"Was it fun?" I asked Chayut.
"It is fun," he said.
Smashing cars was not a military necessity. Ripping out a decades-old olive orchard along a road in Gaza was, Sharon said, because it made the road secure. He recalled the Palestinian owners of that orchard — an old man, a middle-aged man and a boy — beholding the destruction of their family's asset. "I am the son of a farmer," he said. "I know what it means to have an orchard."
To all this I know the all-purpose reply: There is a war on. The occupier has to "suppress terrorism." The occupier has to take "security measures." Always the occupier has to "defend." Those are labels. From the perspective of far away they may be satisfying. From the perspective of these two soldiers, pushing the muzzles of their rifles at frightened fellow humans, they were false labels, heavy carpets thrown over inconvenient facts.
The facts, as they saw them, were that they were occupiers, they were hated, and they were doing things to make them hated more.
I asked Sharon his thoughts about Iraq.
"I am not an expert on Iraq," he said.
Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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