Former Israeli soldier Eden Abergil still says she doesn't know what was wrong with posting photos of her posing with bound and blindfolded Palestinian prisoners on her Facebook page. But the incident – which has dominated Israeli and Palestinian news coverage this week – is a reminder of how hard it is getting for the world's armies to control the flow of images and information in an era of Youtube, WikiLeaks, and digital cameras.
As such things go, this is an embarrassing incident, but fairly minor. The 2004 leak of soldiers photos that documented a culture of torture at the US military's Abu Ghraib detention facility in Iraq fueled global outrage, undermined US efforts there, and ended in prosecutions for some of the enlisted soldiers involved.
Last month, a group of Israeli soldiers on patrol in Hebron – a divided West Bank city where 1,000 Jewish settlers are protected from about 150,000 Palestinian inhabitants by tight restraints on their movement – filmed themselves breaking out into a dance routine while on patrol and posted it to YouTube. The particular street is one with a concentration of settlers and along which the front doors of some of the Palestinian homes had been welded shut by the The Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
In March, an Israeli soldier posted a status update on Facebook disclosing the location and time of a planned raid on a Palestinian village, which led to the operation being canceled and a court-martial for the young soldier. The US military, worried that blogging, Facebooking, and tweeting soldiers can compromise "operational security" has strict rules on what can be posted, and when, by soldiers in the field.
Ms. Abergil, who has been out of uniform for a year, posted the pictures to her Facebook page over the weekend, and they were publicized by bloggers and Israeli media by Monday. She told Israeli Army Radio on Tuesday: "I ask the media – when you take pictures of handcuffed prisoners for TV, do you ask for their permission? Do these Arab men agree to it? I really do not understand what is wrong."
An IDF spokesman told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that "on the face of it, the behavior exhibited by the soldier is base and crude."
The IDF has strict rules against such pictures, though no longer has the power to enforce them over Abergil, since she's out of the service. The US and many other militaries have similar rules. The Third Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war, says in part: "Prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity."
The last part of that sentence has been widely interpreted as meaning that pictures of detainees are off limits. The US military has used it to prevent pictures being taken at the Guantanamo tribunals, and the Bush administration argued that the release of the original Abu Ghraib torture photos should be illegal on that basis, though US courts later found that the release of photos was fine, so long as the identities of the detainees were redacted and the purpose of the release was not to humiliate.
The US investigation of torture at Abu Ghraib uncovered more photos of soldiers posing with hooded prisoners, some pointing weapons at the detainees heads, others showing prisoners placed in humiliating or stress positions. Those additional photos have not been released, but the Justice Department has described them in court documents. The Obama administration has prevented the release of such photos, both on Geneva Convention grounds and on the argument that they would endanger US personnel.