This week is the second week of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Each year, when I see the news photos of the observances in Occupied Territories, I am reminded of an incident in 2002, when Jihad al-Natur - a Ramadan drummer who was singing and drumming to wake the faithful before sunrise - was killed by an IDF patrol that he ran into on the street in Nablus. You can never say that someone’s death is "just one of those things" of course, but when it happened it seemed to me that – unlike a lot of the IDF's killings of Palestinian civilians – I could at least understand how this one could come about. Foreign soldiers patrolling in a hostile environment, unexpectedly encounter someone on the street at night, maybe mistake his drum for something else, panic and mistakenly shoot him etc., etc.
Overall, I think the thing I felt more than anything was that it was just really sad that an Israeli patrol would come across a Ramadan drummer, and shoot him for being a "suspicious figure". Because the Ramadan drummer isn't some obscure, local practice that nobody could possibly have expected, but a widespread and established tradition, described for example here at the An-Najar University Web site:
What deserves to be mentioned is that during Ramadan there is a man who awakes people early in the morning, so people can have their meal before they start fasting. This man, the Musaharati, is one of the citizens who volunteers to wake people up using his nice voice and a drum. This gives Ramadan its special feel. People used to listen to the Musaharati singing traditional and religious songs while he walked alone in the streets of the old city of Nablus.Bearing in mind that the first Zionists settled in Palestine in 1882 and, whether they like it or not, they have now been living cheek-by-jowl with the Palestinian Arab population for more than one hundred years, it seemed a shame (and in a way symbolic of the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians) that those IDF soldiers didn't know what they were looking at when they came across a Palestinian singing and beating a drum in the streets of Nablus in the early morning of 27 November 2002. It seemed as if that ignorance had cost Jihad al-Natur his life, and that was sad.
But then last year, I read an apparently unrelated article - Shooting and Hitting - by Israeli journalist Shahr Ginossar for Yediot Ahronot. The article – and everybody who reads this post really should follow the link and read the whole thing – is about the IDF's open-fire regulations, and specifically about why the IDF ceased issuing written regulations at the beginning of the second intifada and has relied instead for the last six years on issuing verbal instructions to its soldiers as to when they may open fire on Palestinians.
To put it bluntly, the reason why – according to the soldiers testifying in the article - the IDF does not commit its open-fire orders to paper, is apparently that some of the orders are so blatantly illegal that any officer stupid enough to put his name to them would be inviting a prosecution for war crimes. One of the orders the soldiers describe is the shoot to kill order, when Israeli soldiers are instructed that any Palestinian they meet between certain hours of certain nights is automatically "sentenced to death". And this is not a few bad apples, or one rogue commander on his own personal crusade. This is a command that soldiers who served in different units and in various parts of the Occupied Territories say they received (and, sadly, obeyed).
Soldier K, who served in an armored unit in the Gaza Strip, testified:
We went out in a tank from the base after mortars were fired at the settlements and we drove on the Tancher Highway until we entered Deir al-Balah. On the radio the battalion commander announced the open-fire orders: every person we see on the street, shoot to kill. Without asking questions. I remember that when we went in, somebody was running there, unarmed, and right away we shot him without any particular reason until he was definitely dead. That is to say, he fell into the bushes and afterwards we emptied a great many bullets into him. In the company we were not excited about killing, but we were happy that there was action. We didn’t think in terms of right or not.And soldier A, a commander in a paratroopers’ unit, recalled that when he served in Jenin in the northern West Bank he received the same order, with the justification that “no innocent person has any reason to walk around on the street during the night hours.” Which made soldier A wonder, “in every big city there are people who walk on the street, even at three in the morning. So is it right to kill them from a distance?”
And then there is the testimony of soldier R, another paratroop commander, who recalled that when he was serving in Nablus:
There were many nights on which we received orders that whoever we see on the street between two and four in the morning is sentenced to death [“dino mavet”]. Those were the exact words.He describes how on one occasion:
We were in Nablus and we started to advance using the ‘worm’ procedure [Footnote] so as not to be exposed. The houses were adjacent and had shared walls. Blow a hole in a wall, pass through a house, blow a hole in a wall, pass through a house. We advanced slowly, until at the end we stopped and came across what is called a ‘controlling house.’And on another night:
One of the marksmen identified a man on the roof. Two roofs from us, a distance of up to seventy metres, at two in the morning, an unarmed man walking on the roof. I saw with my own eyes that the man was not armed. That was also what we reported on the radio. The company commander said ‘take him down.’ Just like that, on the radio, he made a decision and settled on that. You think about that, in the United States there is a death penalty, there are a thousand appeals and convictions and judges. Here a 26-year-old man, my company commander, gave the order from afar to kill him, and the sniper fired and killed him. The company commander defined him as a ‘lookout’.” But what is a ‘lookout’? How does he know what he is? He doesn’t know.
We entered the Old City in Nablus, and as usual the open-fire regulations were that every man walking on the street at night is sentenced to death…Soldiers in R's squad made up a song about their service in Nablus and the people they had killed there, including the man with the bread: "Another paediatrician and another baker / Got a bullet in the face from a paratroopers unit / All day we search houses and kill children....". One of their tours in Nablus was during Ramadan 2002, when Jihad al-Natur was shot, and soldier R recalls that, overall:
That night we took over a house in an excellent position, and about four in the morning the sharpshooters’ position identified a man walking with a bag. I saw him on Jami’at al-Kabir Street with the bag in his hand. I went down to report, and the sniper, a friend of mine, was on duty. I reported to the commander who reports to the company commander. The order was ‘take him down.’ And so a man fell, 70 metres from his house.”…
A soldier from the unit, who watched from the house opposite, continues. “Right away the jeep from the command post came, and the company commander got down and carried out a barbaric kill-verification just like that, with grenades, and he even sprayed the body with bullets. It’s a good thing that the IDF spokesman denies that there’s such a procedure. Then they went and checked what he had in the bag. What do you think was there? Bread. ”
My team killed six innocent people, or probably innocent… We would joke about it and give them code names: the baker, the woman, the child, the old man, the drummer. Some of them by mistake, but as I see it, they were simply executed on illegal orders....It makes you see the death of Jihad al-Natur in a whole new light, doesn't it?
The thing that strikes me about these testimonies is, as I said earlier, that this is not an isolated incident, but the routine, institutionalized killings of Palestinian civilians by the IDF. When you think of the number of people who must be involved in formulating and passing on these verbal orders down the chain of command, and the number of soldiers serving in the OPT receiving them and carrying them out, you know that this is not something that involves just a few people. This is something that a lot of Israelis are involved in, and even more must know about. Yet how many times have we heard Israelis repeat – apparently in all seriousness – that the IDF is “the most moral army in the world”, and that the only people it targets are “terrorists”?
I am not a psychologist, but I think that everyone who lives with the contradictions of Zionism condemns himself to protracted madness. It's impossible to live like this. It's impossible to live with such a tremendous wrong. It's impossible to live with such conflicting moral criteria. When I see not only the settlements and the occupation and the suppression, but now also the insane wall that the Israelis are trying to hide behind, I have to conclude that there is something very deep here in our attitude to the indigenous people of this land that drives us out of our minds…And these soldiers' testimonies remind me of that.
I’m not a psychologist either, but even I can see that the disconnect is profound between what Israelis say they do in the Occupied Territories and what they must know they are really doing there. It must take a special kind of denial to be able to knowingly kill unarmed civilians - bakers, women, children, old men, drummers, as the song put it - yet at the same time remain pathologically convinced that you are the eternal victim in the relationship with the Palestinians; to pass death sentences on random strangers for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but to be able to proclaim at the same time that all those civilians are dying because "Palestinians don’t love their children", or because "there was a terrorist hiding behind them"; to be able to joke about the fact that you're killing innocent Palestinians, yet to insist at the same time that Palestinians hate you not for what you do, but because of some innate failing in them or their religion.
That's quite a gap between what Israel does to the Palestinians, and what it tells itself and the rest of the world it does. You see the size of that disconnect, and it makes you realize there is something much more profoundly dysfunctional about the Israeli attitude to the Palestinians than a mere ignorance of their holiday customs.
Opening Photo: Palestinians invite Israeli border police officers to take a look at themselves in the mirror, during a protest against the construction of Israel's separation wall in the Palestinian village of Bilin, 23 Sept 2005. (AP Photo/Baz Ratner)
Footnote: This is what the "worm procedure" looks like from a Palestinian perspective. (Photo source).