A rare visitor called on Israeli society recently, and we almost didn’t notice. The visit occurred last month during the trial of an Israeli army officer who was charged with beating a Palestinian he was “questioning” in the West Bank village of Qadoum. The officer’s attorneys asked his brigade commander to testify in his defense, and the commander agreed. And as the commander proceeded to defend this officer and his right to beat Palestinians, the more sharp-eyed observers noticed that someone who has long been declared persona non grata by the Israeli military had slipped into the courtroom: the truth.
Colonel Itai Virob, a brigade commander in charge of hundreds of soldiers who spend their service facing a civilian population in the occupied territories, laid out his credo at the very beginning of his testimony. To his credit, he was sharp and clear and did not hide behind convoluted wording: “I think,” he said, “that the need to use violence in this sort of questioning is certainly reasonable.”
The use of violence is reasonable. The shirtsleeve of the truth about our army’s attitude toward the Palestinian population in the occupied territories peeked out from under Virob’s uniform. Under the cover of his colonel’s insignia, the truth managed to cross the separation fence, the seam zone and the Green Line until it landed in the military courthouse in Jaffa.
Then the truth went on and flowed uncontrollably out of Virob’s throat, without the perjuring mediation of the army spokesperson or military attorneys. The army’s practices were revealed layer by layer: Storming into a Palestinian village in jeeps, throwing stun grenades or bursting into houses — in order to “disturb the balance of the neighborhood, village or place” — is justified as a “disruption operation.” Discussing pressure methods, Virob acknowledged that “the vast majority is employed against uninvolved people.”
Virob’s testimony oozed with machismo. It seemed to say: This air-conditioned courtroom is not the place to judge the actions of our soldiers who are risking their lives. Virob could have been cast as Jack Nicholson’s tough American colonel character from the movie “A Few Good Men,” who is sure that pencil-pushing prosecutor Tom Cruise is not going to teach him when using violence is acceptable and when it is not.
“Is slapping the heads of Palestinians allowed or not?” the prosecutor asked, and Virob spilled the occupation’s contaminated truth: “A slap, sometimes a punch to the scruff of the neck or the chest, sometimes a knee jab or strangulation to calm somebody down is reasonable.” Exactly what human rights organizations have been reporting for years, exactly what thousands of physically and psychologically injured Palestinians have been crying out, exactly what defense ministers and chiefs of staff and military lawyers and senior officers have been denying dismissively, all singing the “most moral army in the world” anthem like a mantra.
The ugly, stinking, foul truth — an unwelcome tourist in the State of Israel — was straightforwardly spoken by the highest officer on the ground who is charged with educating his soldiers about what is permissible and impermissible. And the truth is that our soldiers are too often taught to treat Palestinians as sub-humans, with whom they should communicate by “slaps” and “punches” and “knee jabs,” as a species that must be trained by roaring jeeps that “disrupt the balance” of their lives. That is the new teaching of Israel.
In response to his testimony, Virob did receive a reprimand from the higher-ups. Inside his file was placed a “commander’s note.” A soldier who is insolent to his commander is grounded for the weekend. An officer who smokes a joint on leave is removed from his command. Virob claims it is okay to hit Palestinians and throw stun grenades to “disrupt” the life of the village, and he received a “commander’s note.” This reaction can only be understood by young soldiers as a wink.
Colonel Virob gave his 18-year-old soldiers the powers that the Israeli High Court of Justice took away from the General Security Service — to physically abuse innocent Palestinians in order to obtain information. And the sky didn’t fall, and the nation that gave humanity the “Golden Rule” did not ask God’s forgiveness. The Jewish people are still waiting for Tom Cruise’s cross-examination, and until he comes and the policeman stationed in the court is ordered to arrest Virob, what Nicholson said to Cruise applies to us: “You can’t handle the truth.”
Michael Sfard is legal adviser to Yesh Din: Volunteers for Human Rights.