Two months after the cease-fire that ended the recent fighting in Gaza, Israel finds itself bombarded with war crimes accusations. They come from a wide spectrum of critics, but none has drawn a more emotional reaction in Israel than the graphic descriptions by a group of Israeli combat troops of abuses they saw during the war.
As widely reported, the soldiers’ accounts — including wanton vandalism and two alleged killings of civilians — emerged during a private discussion February 13 at a pre-military academy in the Galilee, named after Yitzhak Rabin. The academy’s director, Dany Zamir, is reported to have transcribed the alarming stories and sent them to army headquarters, where they were treated dismissively. Zamir then published the transcript in the academy’s newsletter, which ended up in the hands of two senior military correspondents: Amos Harel of the left-leaning Haaretz, and Ofer Shelah (a former Forward correspondent) of the right-leaning Ma’ariv. Their reports, published March 19, spawned a worldwide blizzard of breathless news coverage of alleged Israeli brutality — and furious denials that Israelis would do such things.
That much is common knowledge. Less familiar are the quiet discussions among some army insiders and close observers — reserve officers, military correspondents, politicians — who insist the abuse reports are substantially true and think they know the reasons for the abuse. One key reason, many say, is the “special character” of the infantry units that carried the brunt of the fighting in Gaza: the Golani and Givati brigades. They talk about the units’ religious character — the high proportion in these brigades, especially Golani, of militant reli-gious nationalists motivated by a messianic sense of mission to save the Land of Israel.
“Golani has a great many religious soldiers, and many of them are Jewish fundamentalists,” said former Knesset member Avshalom Vilan, a Meretz party leader who served with Benjamin Netanyahu in the commandos and remains close to him. “It’s important not to generalize — I’m talking about a minority among religious soldiers. But there is a phenomenon of officers from a certain group of fundamentalist yeshivas and academies who are trying to change the basic values of the army.”
It’s widely believed in the senior ranks and reserves, Vilan said, that these “fundamentalist” soldiers, many of whom serve in special religious platoons with their own religious officers, were the source of much of the abuse. “I’m not talking about the woman who turned left instead of right and got shot,” he said, referring to one of the allegations highlighted by Zamir. “Those things are terrible, but they happen in every war. I’m talking abusive attitudes — soldiers trashing Arab homes, threatening women and children, that sort of thing. That’s something new, and it doesn’t appear magically out of nowhere.”
Ironically, critics of the complaining soldiers make a case that is almost a precise mirror image of Vilan’s: They blame the abuse claims and the resulting furor on a small group of leftist soldiers, products of kibbutzim and a left-wing, kibbutz-sponsored pre-military academy, all intent on undermining Israeli morale. Caroline Glick, a staunchly conservative commentator with The Jerusalem Post, laid out this argument in her March 23 column.
“The Yitzhak Rabin pre-military academy in Jaffa” — actually it’s in Tivon, near Haifa, some three hours north of Jaffa — “is run by the kibbutz movement,” Glick wrote. “It is the only pre-military academy that is openly and avowedly leftist.
“In its year-long program,” she wrote, “Rabin academy cadets are subjected to post-Zionist political philosophy that according to sources familiar with the institution indoctrinates them to believe that Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state.”
Other critics struck similar tones as the soldiers’ story continued to generate headlines, using the word “leftist” in every other sentence and questioning the loyalty of kibbutzniks.
The campaign to delegitimize the soldiers and their claims was helped considerably by reports in much of the foreign press that the story had been unearthed and publicized by Haaretz, Israel’s most vehemently anti-settlement daily paper. It was not, of course; the original story appeared simultaneously in Haaretz and the center-right Ma’ariv.
But that fact disappeared from the story almost immediately, because most foreign correspondents never look at Ma’ariv, but rather get their Israel news from Haaretz, which has a good English Web site. Ma’ariv, meanwhile, has no English translation and not much news on its Web site.
Once the right-wing paper disappeared from the story, critics were free to bash the soldiers’ complaints as “ultra-leftist” and “witch-hunt territory,” in the words of conservative British columnist Melanie Phillips — in a blog post she called, tellingly, “The Ha’aretz Blood Libel.”
What’s odd is that the critics didn’t really have to work that hard. They had — or appeared to have — a trump card. A day after the story first broke, the army announced that the two soldiers who claimed to have seen cold-blooded killings had been called in to their commanding officers and had confessed that they hadn’t been present and were repeating rumors.
“There is no evidence,” Phillips emphasizes in her blog post. “Just innuendo, rumors and hearsay.”
On the other hand, several critics, including Glick, criticized Zamir for refusing to identify the speakers in his transcript, all of whom were given pseudonyms. It’s not clear, therefore, just who was summoned to recant. Nor has either soldier appeared in public to confirm the army’s statement that he recanted.
Religious soldiers — modern Orthodox Zionists — have been part and parcel of the Israeli military since before the state was founded. In recent years, growing numbers have gone into special units in which they divide their time between active duty and studying in special military yeshivas. There are about 40 of these Hesder (“arrangement”) yeshivas today, with about 1,200 soldiers at a time on active duty. Most serve in separate religious platoons with religious commanders, most often in the Golani Brigade.
A smaller number of religious soldiers come through pre-military academies, which allow high school graduates to defer induction for a year of study, social service and military training. There are 17 academies; most are yeshivas.
During the 1970s, religious soldiers were emerging as a leading force in the army. Admired for their dedication and fighting spirit, they were entering elite combat units in disproportionate numbers. Many observers said that this arose from the Orthodox community’s new sense of mission as leaders of the settlement movement. “They basically took the place of the kibbutzniks as the leading edge,” said Alex Fishman, chief military correspondent of Yediot Aharonot.
But relations began growing tense around 2001. Under pressure from the Bush administration, soldiers were periodically dispatched to dismantle illegal settlement outposts. Often they were met with violence. Settler leaders said that the State of Israel was losing its legitimacy by betraying the Land of Israel. Younger settlers increasingly turned to the anti-Arab, anti-democratic views of the late rabbi Meir Kahane.
In 2005, when the army was deployed to help evacuate settlements from Gaza, West Bank settlers were in open rebellion. Several Hesder rabbis called on soldiers to disobey orders. Only a handful did, but for the army brass it was a turning point. Two years later, in 2007, the army decided to dissolve the separate Hesder units and integrate their soldiers into regular units. “They were considered too homogenous,” Fishman said. “In a crisis, it wasn’t clear if they would follow their rabbis or their commanders.”
Under furious pressure, Defense Minister Ehud Barak rescinded the order three days later.
In October 2008, two months before the Gaza campaign, Fishman reported in Yediot that the general staff was alarmed at the growing proportion of religious soldiers in the combat infantry brigades. Orthodox Jews make up about 18% of Israel’s population, but a study showed that Orthodox soldiers made up 30% of students in the infantry’s officers’ training program.
Now, some of them appear to be a sub-rosa part of the unfolding story of the ethical standards upheld by the military, which Israelis praise routinely as “the most moral army in the world.”
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).