The Clip That Could Convince Centrist Israelis: Occupation Duty Is Hell

Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Shutterstock

An Israeli soldier searches the car of a Palestinian man at a military checkpoint in the West Bank town of Bethlehem

The video clip is low resolution, blurry. Two soldiers stand with their backs to the cellphone camera in the landscape of a Palestinian village—concrete fences dividing yards with low fruit trees.

Two teenage girls, kefiyyehs around their necks, approach. The one with a mane of light curly hair grabs at one soldier's arm, shouts in Arabic, “Get out of here! C'mon, go! Get out!” She turns to the other soldier and gives him a hard push, then returns to the first, shouting louder.

He waves his hand in the air, not touching her, as if about to flick away an irritation and then changing his mind. The hand deliberately drops back to his side. He tries to keep his head turned from her, his eyes focused elsewhere.

She shouts louder, slaps him, kicks him. An older woman, hair covered in a black scarf, enters the frame, joins in pushing the two men in olive drab. The soldiers don't speak, in Arabic or Hebrew. They don't grab the girl, struggle with her, arrest her. A step or two at a time, they withdraw.

So ends yet another amateur video clip in the endless occupation genre of Israeli soldiers versus Palestinian civilians. But this one, shot during the weekly Friday confrontation between troops and young protesters at the West Bank village of Nabi Salih, doesn't fit the rules of the genre. The clips—at least those that get circulated afterward—normally catch soldiers reacting violently: arresting a 12-year-old, or beating someone already handcuffed, or worse. Here the protestors failed to provoke martyrdom, or even get a black eye.

So when it began showing up in the Israeli media earlier this week, one would have expected Israelis to hail the soldiers as solid proof: We are the most moral army in the world.

The reaction, however, was decidedly mixed. The senior military correspondent for Israel's Channel 10 tweeted the story with the comment, “Intolerable footage. We've castrated them.” The “we” could have been Israeli society, or perhaps the guild of newspeople with cameras. The implication was that Israeli soldiers are too bound by overly strict rules, or too afraid of being caught in the act, to behave like real men. Right-wing Knesset Member Bezalel Smotrich asserted that the clip would “erode Israeli deterrence ... in Iran and among all our other enemies.” An army unwilling to handcuff 16-year-olds, in other words, couldn't possibly deal with a real military threat.

On the other hand, the mass-circulation daily Yediot Ahronot spread stills from the clip across its tabloid front page the next morning with the headline, “The Power of Restraint.” The next two pages were ambivalent commentary, from which one which sentence stood out: Politicians and generals make the decisions, but “it's the 18- and 19-year-old [soldiers] who maintain the Israeli presence” in the West Bank. That is: If you don't like the pictures, ask why we've sent our kids to serve there.

This is pretty much the question that Israeli human rights groups have tried to raise for years—among other ways, with reports and photos of the violent confrontations between soldiers and Palestinian civilians. The veterans group Breaking the Silence has demanded, with their own testimony about their service, that the public consider the moral cost of the occupation to the army and individual soldiers.

Most of the public doesn't seem to pay attention. So why does a clip in which soldiers show restraint make a bigger impact?

The answer comes from the borderland of politics and psychology. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank is a policy that creates a long-term, low-level conflict. In a democracy, maintaining a policy depends on voters' sense of its costs and benefits. For some voters, the cost is too high if we're doing too much harm to the other side. For some voters, the cost only becomes excessive when it's something happening to us: in casualties, or in assigning an impossible job to our soldiers.

Democratic governments involved in wars of questionable value try to limit the flow of information to the public. Logically, the presence of a camera in every phone should make that impossible.

But the harshest clips, like the harshest testimony, provoke defensiveness. Alas, Israelis are perfectly normal in this regard. Lots of them don't want to think of their soldiers—which is to say, our sons and daughters—as acting cruelly. They screen out the worst footage. They never click on it. They get angry at soldiers who tell stories about what it's like in the alternative moral universe of occupation.

The clip from Nabi Salih leaves a great deal out of its narrow frame: for instance, the fact that the neighboring settlement of Halamish was built on Palestinian land seized over 40 years ago under the pretense of military necessity, or that the weekly protests and disturbances are a response to settlers taking illegal possession of springs belonging to Nabi Salih, or that a cousin of the girl kicking the soldier was severely wounded earlier that day, reportedly when a soldier fired a rubber-coated bullet in his face. Nor could it include the subsequent arrest of the girl.

The clip shows only the orphaned incident of the girls and the self-controlled soldiers. And yet, it seems, what's in the frame frees at least some middle-of-the-road Israelis from getting defensive. It shows soldiers who aren't defending the country against foreign armies or against terrorists. Instead, they're in the absurd situation of facing off with an unarmed angry teenager. If they react, it's bad, and if they don't react, someone will say they've been castrated.

It might just get across the message, to a few more Israelis or even many, that the occupation is not worth the price it exacts from the souls of our young people. 

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