The IDF ombudsman’s annual report on abuse within the Israeli armed forces was published yesterday. It showed that 6,258 Israeli soldiers complained that they had been humiliated or insulted (usually by their commanders) during 2003. Fifty-five percent of the complaints were found to be justified.
The ombudsman found that in many cases commanders insulted, humiliated and threatened their subordinates. Some of the insults were racially-based, referring to the soldier’s skin color or ethnic origin; others were based on physical attributes, such as the case of one paramedic who complained that his commander called him "fat" and said "his jaws never stop working" and "apparently the meal didn't even tickle the edge of your fat belly." The medic’s commander admitted the offence.
Other abuses investigated by the ombudsman included one by new recruits who complained that they were allowed to watch television only during meals, and who were not allowed to drink coffee.
I am absolutely not posting this information to make fun of these complaints. In fact, I think it is laudable that the IDF takes complaints of bullying in its ranks seriously enough to investigate and publicly report it. It is particularly important to stamp out a culture of abuse in the military in a country like Israel, where military service is obligatory and long-term, and young people cannot easily avoid abuse by not joining the army. And also important, I think, to deter racism and dehumanizing behavior among Israeli soldiers in particular, seeing as they are going to spend much of their service policing an occupied population of another race.
This week, the Associated Press’ running count of Palestinians killed in the al-Aqsa intifada passed 3,000. With the addition of the eight people killed by the IDF in Zeitoun today, the exact total is 3,009. Tomorrow, that total will rise to 3,010, as one of the 14 Palestinians critically wounded in the incursion is an 11-year-old boy who tonight lies brain-dead and on life support in a Gaza hospital.
At the beginning of August 2003, the Israeli General Security Service (Shin Bet) reported that in the first three years of the intifada Israel had killed 551 “terrorists”, and that this number represented almost 25% of all Palestinians killed. The unspoken conclusion from those figures is of course that 75% of Palestinians killed are not terror suspects, even by Israel’s own reckoning, but civilians. For the Palestinian side, Dr Mustafa Barghouti of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees puts the proportion of civilian casualties slightly higher, at about 80%.
Palestinians, internationals, and some Israeli observers have maintained that civilian deaths are so high because Israeli soldiers shoot to kill in non life-threatening situations, and do so because they know they will not be held to account for their behavior by the IDF. The reason for this sense of impunity is that the IDF does not routinely investigate the deaths of Palestinian civilians that its soldiers kill, but leaves the decision whether to investigate in the hands of the local commander of the soldier responsible for the death.
The result of this incestuous relationship is that hardly any deaths of Palestinian civilians at the hands of the IDF are subject to formal investigation at all. In fact, in a petition submitted to the Israeli High Court in October 2003, the Israeli civil rights groups B'Tselem and ACRI, observed that 2,200 Palestinian civilians had been killed by the end of October 2003, but only 55 of those deaths had been investigated. (That’s about 3%).
And the 3% that was investigated included cases – like those of six-year-old Ahmad Abu Aziz and his brother Jamil (13), or Ahmed Abdul Rahman al Karini and Shaden Abu Hijla - which only warranted an inquiry because independent evidence (usually in the form of TV footage) showed that the account of the soldier or soldiers who carried out the killing was a lie, and the IDF was forced to reverse the decision of its local field commander and hold an investigation.
For the other 97% of cases, where there is no incriminating footage and no non-IDF eyewitnesses (or “only” Palestinian witnesses), there is no formal investigation. As in the case of Dalal al Sabagh, a 23-year-old mother of three who was hanging out laundry when she was shot through the neck from an Israeli sniper position in March 2004; the only inquiry into the circumstances of her death was the informal one carried out by Israeli journalist Gideon Levy.
I know it is important for the IDF to tackle racism in its ranks, and to stamp out bullying of new recruits when it occurs. But it is shockingly callous and insulting that the Israeli Army will hold an investigation and publicly issue a report when one of its soldiers calls a colleague "fat", but not when one of its soldiers shoots dead a woman hanging out her washing, nor in the cases of the other 2,500 or so Palestinian civilians killed without investigation by the IDF since October 2000.