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The Occupation’s New Witnesses

A new movie and book shed light on the effect of Israel’s military presence in the West Bank on its soldiers

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Jonathan Livny, Lieutenant Colonel (retired), Military Judge 1976-1999, as seen in The Law in These Parts, directed by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz. (Courtesy of Cinema Guild.)

This December will mark the 25th anniversary of the Intifada, the Palestinian uprising that redefined the simmering and prolonged conflict between Israel and the civilian population it had begun to administer after assuming control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967. Ours is a culture of commemoration, and an anniversary of this magnitude is likely to receive its share of pageantry and punditry. Amid all this, one hopes that two recent contributions by Israeli artists and activists, one a film and the other a book, do not get lost, as they provide a sober and somber account of how the Israel Defense Force—the core of Israeli society and still very much an unimpeachable institution for most Israelis—has changed to meet the needs of a growingly complex, and ultimately impossible, occupation.

The film, Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s The Law in These Parts, which opened this month in New York, addresses the creation and operation of the military-run legal system that, before the Oslo Accords and to a certain extent even thereafter, adjudicated every facet of life for millions of Palestinians. Unlike the legal dramas we usually see in movies and on TV, Alexandrowicz’s documentary is bereft of embellishments: His movie is nothing more than a series of interviews with the men who presided over the system from its inception onward; often he cites specific cases or asks his subjects to reflect on the finer points of their verdicts. A capable storyteller—his previous film, James’ Journey to Jerusalem, was a winning comedy about a young Ethiopian boy on a pilgrimage to Israel’s capital—Alexandrowicz flirts with widening his lens and letting a few touching stories drift in. But wisely, he resists the urge, keeping his film zealously focused. He cares about nothing but the occupation’s legal system and, to his credit, searches out the system’s smartest possible defenders. But what he gleans is a knot of confusions, obfuscations, and injustices.

In one interview, for example, Amnon Strashnov, the deputy military advocate general during the first Intifada, casually admits to having rewritten the law to allow the army to place anyone under “administrative arrest” for an indefinite period of time and without seeing a judge. When Alexandrowicz asks Strashnov to elaborate on this measure, and to comment on a legal system in which one man could do away entirely with habeas corpus, Strashnov shrugs his shoulders. “That’s not interesting,” he says. It is, of course, and with each interview, Alexandrowicz makes a more convincing case for his thesis: Unlike the progressive and celebrated justice system applied in Israel proper, the military tribunals governing the occupation are too often a perversion of justice, blindly willing to sacrifice everything on the altar of national security.

Col. Oded Pesensson makes this point, however inadvertently, with uncommon candor. One of the army’s most prolific and well-respected judges, he admits, when grilled by Alexandrowicz, that Palestinian detainees are frequently not allowed to see the accusations made against them. The accusations, Pesensson explains, were brought forth by intelligence sources recruited by the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, and to protect their sources, the Shin Bet’s agents would request that suspects be kept in the dark and given nothing more than a brief summary of their indictment. The only choice he had as a judge, the recently retired Pesensson sheepishly concedes, was whether or not to take the Shin Bet agent pursuing the case at his word and believe that the source was credible; almost always, Pesensson chose to believe.

Watching the movie, one is struck by a sense of systemic collapse, one that stems from the inability to reconcile the inherent tensions that arise from governing a civilian population and a swath of land that Israel will neither forgo nor formally annex. It’s a complication even the sharpest legal minds can’t resolve. As the film begins, one such expert, Dov Shefi, who headed the army’s International Law Branch between 1968 and 1973, is asked why the legal memorandum the army’s attorneys prepared before the 1967 war referred to any future territories seized in combat as “occupied territories,” while an updated memorandum, issued a few months after the army took hold of Gaza and the West Bank, changed the definition to the more ambiguous “held territories.” Shefi cannot answer.

And if men like him are unclear about the precise contours of the army’s engagement, ordinary soldiers are just rudderless, administering and carrying out policies whose sole function seems to be the strict discipline of the Palestinian population. That, at least, is the argument of Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies From the Occupied Territories, 2000-2010, a collection compiled by Breaking the Silence, an a group of Israeli activists dedicated to collecting first-person accounts of military wrongdoing by the men and women who committed them during their service in the IDF. In detail, these young soldiers depict their service as dotted with senseless harassment of Palestinian civilians; the book’s early pages are thick with needless nocturnal searches, careless destruction of property, and other instances of applying might for its own sake.

Just as troubling, the system they describe is one that seems to disregard the safety of the soldiers themselves. Take, for example, a young paratrooper, stationed near Nablus, whose commander instituted a ranking system based on kills; the more enemy combatants a soldier had slain, the more privileges he could claim. “That’s what pushed us, I believe,” the soldier—who, like all interviewed for the book, is not identified by name—said. “What we’d do was go out night after night, drawing fire, go into alleys we knew were dangerous. There were arrests, there were all kinds of arrests. But the high point of the night was drawing fire, creating a situation where they fired at us. There were ‘bad’ Arabs, the ones who didn’t shoot at us.”

The book has many more such moments of madness. And they are rendered even more heartbreaking by the fact that the men making these uneasy confessions are all exceedingly young and, often, emotionally unable to properly reflect on or coherently express the horrors they’ve seen (and, frequently, committed). Like Alexandrowicz’s subjects, they, too, are allowed to speak uninterrupted, but unlike the lawyers, the soldiers are frequently ineloquent, stuttering their mea culpas as they struggle to understand the point of their service. They’re told it is security, but they doubt it. They’re told they’re looking for weapons; those are rarely found, and the proper means for their discovery—like special dogs trained to sniff out ammunition—are rarely deployed. The point of the occupation, the dozens of soldiers interviewed in the book ultimately conclude, is to prolong the occupation.

Their voices, and Alexandrowicz’s, deserve to be heard. Rather than affirm or revile them as talking points in a never-ending and increasingly shrill political debate, those anxious about Israel’s future would do well to listen to these serious, calm, and pained testimonies from its front lines and consider the deep problems they decry.

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julis123 says:

Let’s talk cherry picking. I’m sure that there are soldiers who feel the way you describe. So what?. There are also many (myself included) who served in the territories who, will not enjoying it, certainly knew why we were there. Go stand on the hills near Kiryat Aryeh and look down on Gush Dan so close. Now think of the mortars and missiles fired from Gaza after we withdrew from there, and you’ll know exactly what we are doling in the West Bank.

Poupic says:

One very small detail never mentioned by the do gooders haters of Israel is that when John Glubb, the British operative who attempted to make Israel un livable by cutting it in half. He failed in that but got a land grab for Transjordan and the right to call himself Sir John Glubb for a great service for the crown of England. All the Jews who survived the onslaught were cleansed out of Judea, Samaria including the part of Jerusalem he tore off after a monstrous, medieval type of siege from the eternal capital of the Jewish nation. When Jordan attacked again in order to destroy Israel, it lost it’s land grab they now called “The West Bank” as if to say Jordan is on both side of the Jordan never thinking of giving this land grab to the Palestinians since that nation was not yet invented. Compare this to Judea and Samaria today, liberated by Israel. No Arab refugee has been cleansed out as Arab did in previously in Judea and Samaria and in all Arab lands. Then consider suicide bombing, knifing’s, Molotov cocktails on car and people, stoning, pot shots on school children… Expecting only Israel to accept Arab terror and not respond to it and talking about “The poor suffering Palestinians.” What causes supposedly normal people to have such a selected view of reality?

genelevit says:

“… the military tribunals governing the occupation are too often a perversion of justice, blindly willing to sacrifice everything on the altar of national security.” Let put it this way. USA, which is not under the same terrorist threat as Israel is, sacrificed even its own constitution “on the altar of national security”. I am talking about the blatant violation of the forth amendment at the checkpoints in all USA airports. And no one minds this, including Mr. Leibovitz. However he minds a lot when it effects not his but someone’s else safety. Why he should care about someone’s else life, particularly if that someone else is not Arab but Jew?

whatnot says:

so in response to the UN vote, Israel is to build 3,000 new homes in settlements. add to that those three pathetic denials below, and you got the whole picture. dig your own hole.

Rich Ross says:

‘Occupation’ and ‘settlers’ are two words concocted by the Left and the Islamists in their ongoing campaign to weaken and de-legitamize Israel. They have no relationship to the reality of Israel’s conflict with the arabs and should never be used by anyone. Of course the most ridiculous buzz word which has become the label of choice for the Israel-haters is ‘apartheid.’ We should always be conscious of language as a tool to accomplish objectives.

With friends like you, Mr Leibovitz…

I thought the “breaking the silence” group had been largely discredited, particularly by other soldiers. As to military governance, it’s not supposed to be nice. Ask the Germans after WWII – the idea is to get people to negotiate an end to it. Not bitch about how nasty it was. What would you say to Abe Lincoln – does that make him a fascist because he did the same thing?

gabriel says:

Many people do mind this, and I’m quite certain if you asked Mr. Leibovitz that he does to.

genelevit says:

If he does then please point me to the article in which he at least once mentioned the violation of the 4th amendment for the sake of safety. Do you know how many times in his articles he accused Israel of violating “international law” for the same reason?

gabriel says:

He doesn’t need to: the article isn’t about the 4th amendment or about the arguments that have been made as to why the law has been distorted for safety purposes, it’s about 2 documents that bring up issues he thinks are relevant. I agree with him.

The article misses a most telling comment by one of the interviewees that the military justice system was specifically designed _not_ to be Israeli law, because the extension of Israeli law to the held (previously ‘liberated’, never ‘occupied’) territories was de facto annexation, and that was not the goal.

I’m simply amazed by the comments on this site (which, thankfully, are not reflected on the fb threads, perhaps because here, most people don’t reveal their identity). I live in Israel, with citizenship, in the Negev. The daily effects of the occupation on Palestinians, who have been under occupation for nearly a half a century, are terrible and often entirely unrelated to security, but readers here don’t want to see or hear. And I will be called all kinds of names by commenters using the online name of dead survivors, and I’ll be told to leave Israel if I think it’s such an awful place for caring enough about Israel to say: wake up. Amos Oz, who loves this country and has given a lot more of himself to it than any of us, just dedicated a big literary award he received to Breaking The Silence because they are one of the most important groups working for the moral core of Israel. The next time you’re here, take a tour with them–they’re israeli after all–in Hebron. what do you have to lose? What are you afraid to know?

they are not ‘bitching’; they are heartbroken.

quite the opposite. with us or against us is not working, Miles. It is why everyone is against us. If we took some responsibility for ourselves, we’d get the support we crave.

julis123 says:

“breaking the silence” has been discredited. When actually contacted the soldiers supposedly interviewed denied that they ever said the words attributed to them. I suggest that you check out who finances “Breaking the Silence”. I’ll give you a hint, groups from outside of Israel who are no friends of Israel. There is no silence to break. Tens of soldiers have served in Judea and Samaria and know exactly what goes on there. It’s an occupation. Its not nice. What’s the big revelation here? The Palestinians have been offered a state multiple times and have refused it, so I guess the occupation is not so bad.

that is a load of hogwash, though I trust you believe it (and have been fed the hogwash). Breaking the Silence walks their talk, in person, doing the opposite of denying their words. You can meet them yourself. and they are funded in part by Amos Oz, as I said. If you count people with liberal politics as enemies of israel, then I do not respect where you’re coming from, and neither do the many liberal israelis. we may no longer have leaders, but we exist in greater numbers than you may think.

julis123 says:

They are mainly funded by outside countries, non of whom are known for their friendliness to Israel. Here is where their funding comes from: “the British Embassy in Tel Aviv gave the organization NIS 226,589 (c €40,000); the Dutch Embassy donated €19,999; and the European Union gave €43,514.[8]
In addition, during 2008, Spain is reported to have provided tens of
thousands of euros to fund patrols run by Breaking the Silence in Hebron”

i dont’ see how those funding sources delegitimize Breaking the Silence; they aren’t even controversial organizations; they are countries whose politics on Israel are different than yours. Also, Breaking the Silence videotapes their testimonies, so it would be difficult to say that those IDF soldiers didn’t say what they said. The Israeli government is very good at trying to delegitimize groups that threaten their party line by putting them on watchdog lists, which they know a majority of americans will accept as gospel. Have you listened to the testimonies yourself? They have a website. They are speaking from their heart, out of love for the country.

There are wonderful, honest, good people all over this earth who all want the same thing: to live in peace and prosper. Yet insane governmental/religious/radical “leaders’ coerce and brainwash citizens into hating and killing under the guises of faith, family, democracy, duty, god, country – blah, blah, and blah.
Behind all of the misery and suffering is greed and profit propagandized and packaged as patriotic or religious lies.
None of this will ever stop until those wonderful, honest, good people stop participating in their own delusion and destruction.

Joseph Kay says:

Can the defenders of the IDF’s right to do as it pleases and of the Israeli governments policies, who are perhaps writing from the comfort of their American homes, please spend some time in the West Bank? I have, as an officer in an elite combat unit, and the film as well as groups like Breaking the Silence, are accurate in the picture they present. Like all occupations,
the Chinese in Tibet, the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Russians in Chechnya,
the French in Algeria, it engages in collective punishments, murder of civilians, and is damaging to the soldiers as well.

Also, can you please refrain from insults and attacks and actually try to have a dialogue?

Joseph Kay says:

Ayla,
Thank you for your words about the need for justice for all and for presenting your views in a clear and respectful manner. I too have been attacked on this site by people, sometimes describing themselves as religious, who think they have a direct line to God, but who have forgotten that we were all created in a divine (and human) image and that the first humans were not Jews or Muslims but born of the Adam and Chava (or Lucy?) Keep up your good work.

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The Occupation’s New Witnesses

A new movie and book shed light on the effect of Israel’s military presence in the West Bank on its soldiers

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