More Israelis Cringe at Service in Military
Video-taped beating, fewer external threats create rising dissent
JERUSALEM — Sergio Yahni began to sour on service in the Israeli Army the day he watched members of Israel's client militia, the South Lebanese Army, snuff out cigarettes on captured men. When Mr. Yahni, then an Israeli conscript, asked his commander to stop the torture, the answer was curt: "It's none of your business."
Now Yahni refuses to serve anywhere over the Green Line, Israel's pre-1967 border. As punishment, he's already served three stints in jail.
The ranks of conscientious objectors like him are growing, and morale in the Israeli Army may be slipping. In the wake of a widely televised tape of two Israeli border policemen beating Palestinians found illegally crossing into Israel, many soldiers are talking openly about the abuse that they have seen that turns them off from serving.
"For me, it's a political struggle against the occupation, which I'm not ready to be part of," says Yahni, a young peace activist. "This operation of being oppressive to another people - it prevents anyone from having a normal life."
The amateur video footage of Arab laborers being kicked, slapped, kneed in the stomach, and forced to do pushups were seen by Palestinians as evidence of their claims that, outside their self-rule enclaves, they are subject to regular harassment and assault by Israelis in uniform. And in Israel, the tape acted as a Rodney King-style awakening, shaking the nation as did the Los Angeles beating of the black motorist by white police officers in 1991. Read a headline in the nation's biggest newspaper: "They Went Over the Line."
Top Israeli political figures condemned the beatings, and the two border guards have been charged with aggravated assault and abuse of authority.
"People who behave like that are not fit to be in our security forces," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But such behavior has been increasing, police commanders say. Maj. Gen. Yisrael Sadan, the head of the paramilitary border police, told parliament that the incident was not an isolated one, but one that happened to be caught on film. Abuse complaints against the border police so far this year number 237.
The shock that some Israelis exhibited betrayed the extent to which many of their lives are detached from the Palestinian experience with Israeli soldiers. The beating case also highlighted the factions and subgroups in the Israeli Defense Forces, in which almost all citizens serve for two years. The quintessential Israeli institution has gained an unwanted reputation of having become more politicized, with its top posts filled by left-leaning generals, and more hard-line types serving in less elite divisions with tough reputations - such as the border police.
The kind of behavior on the tapes was what made Yahni draw the line. He recently joined a petition of reservists who refuse to serve in the occupied territories, which the Palestinians hope to have as their future state. Signatories included such prominent names as the son of right-wing Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert.
While Yahni makes a point of showing up when expected, if only to be put in jail, others do not. Some reports show that less than 30 percent of reservists have come to their bases when summoned for their one-month-per-year duty. Reservists freely tell stories about feigning illness and asking Army officials to lower their profile, a measure of mental and physical fitness considered key to active duty and advancement.
Brig. Gen. Oded Ben-Ami says that the problem has its roots in changes in Israeli society, which has become less focused on nation-building. He faults universities and companies for encouraging the absenteeism from military service and being less accommodating about losing students and employees. "Since there is no more threat to the very existence of Israel, the individual is looking out for himself. This is a problem. We still have a security job to do."
Among the incoming recruits, there is a noted decline in the desire to serve in combat units. A war of attrition along Israel's Lebanese border, which sends teenage Israeli soldiers home in body bags, makes few young people anxious to be sent there.
Worried Army officials have started new programs aimed at boosting morale and encouraging high schoolers to volunteer for fighting battalions after graduation.
"These are signs of what has happened to Israeli society," adds General Ben-Ami. "This is the generation of the open mouth and open mind."
With their varying levels of pride, most young Israelis would not dare shirk Army service for fear of stigmatization. But some who reject their government's policy say they serve anyway, so that they might be a voice of moderation in their unit.
"I'd rather it be me on duty than just these kids who indiscriminately hit Arabs," said Jacob B., a reservist who had a fellow soldier court-martialed for abusing Palestinians.
"I worked with one guy, both of his parents were professors, and he would would slap and beat every Arab we caught sneaking into Israel," he says. Jacob once tried to persuade his unit to let a Palestinian from the Hebron area go free.
When an Islamic militant from the same area committed a bus bombing the next week, killing four Israelis, the unit scoffed at him, saying, "See, you Arab-lover, see what you get for letting them go."
General Sadan says brutality in the division is on the rise, citing the soldiers' frustration with enforcing closure, or restrictions on Palestinian travel. In an attempt to sensitize the troops, he ordered copies of the film distributed throughout the Army and police corps to be used as a lesson of bad behavior.
To some Palestinians, the latest wave of Israeli self-examination set off by the taped beating may not amount to much. For them, the news falls into line with other current events that they feel show the real attitude towards Palestinians: An Israeli military court last week imposed a symbolic fine of one agora - a third of a cent - on Israeli soldiers who shot and killed a Palestinian at a West Bank roadblock in 1993.
A week earlier, Israel's high court ruled that the Shin Bet secret police could use "physical pressure" while interrogating Arabs if they were believed to have information about imminent suicide bombings.
And if the taped beating incident is to be compared to the Rodney King beating, the reactions should have come more sharply from Palestinians than from Israelis. The lack of response shows that Palestinians have come to expect that sort of treatment, says human rights activist Bassam Eid.
"Why are the Israelis so excited? Why didn't I see the pictures shown on Israeli TV on Palestinian TV, too? It shows that Palestinians think it's common and they wouldn't think to give attention to such an incident," says Mr. Eid.
"I think that such acts are committed every day," he adds. "The question is, which kind of clear measures will be taken to control this organization. Two or three days from now, everything will be quiet, and who knows how many be more will be beaten."