On the surface, the Israeli army’s Facebook Intifada is a very 21st-century crisis.
A soldier on patrol cocks his weapon at a Palestinian youth, apparently violating the army’s rules of engagement. Other Palestinians film the encounter and upload it to YouTube, exposing the soldier to possible discipline. The soldier’s friends launch a Facebook page in solidarity. By week’s end they’ve gathered nearly 130,000 “likes” — equivalent to four Knesset seats.
The military dilemmas are painfully obvious. How, the soldier’s supporters ask, can troops maintain authority as the governing force in the territories when their hands are tied and Palestinians film every misstep — even provoke confrontation to post on the Web? The generals counter: How can the army maintain discipline when recruits with smartphones can mobilize mass protests against their commanders without ever showing their faces?
But while the army’s struggle with the Internet Age has drawn worldwide attention, the incident is forcing anguished debate over another set of questions — several sets, actually — that were previously spoken in whispers or shoved to the margins.
One set involves the experience of Israel’s enlisted soldiers, mostly teenagers, tasked with keeping order on the streets of the West Bank. The job puts them in daily contact with an increasingly hostile Palestinian population. The Facebook rebellion exposed a broad sense in the ranks that they’re not given tools to do the job, that their officers don’t understand the challenges, don’t listen and don’t provide answers.
Another set of questions involves worries within the General Staff about the changing character of the youngsters entering the military. One segment of the population is becoming more individualistic, less patriotic, less respectful of authority. Another, faster-growing segment is becoming more nationalistic, more religiously traditional, less open to the Western, universalist values on which Israel’s vaunted military code of ethics is based — and less deferential to the officers’ corps that preaches the code.
These worries have been discussed in the senior command for a decade, prompted several classified reports, and occasionally been described by retired officers in interviews, usually anonymously. Since the current crisis erupted April 27 the top brass has indicated, in broad hints and off-the-record interviews, that they think the ferment at least partly reflects the generational change.
The troops’ concerns have drawn the most attention. This is, after all, Israel’s first full-scale — if mostly virtual — soldiers’ rebellion. It began Sunday, April 27, when the soldier, then known only as David Ha-Nachlawi — soldiers’ slang for a member of the Nachal Infantry Brigade — was seen on video in the now-iconic altercation.
Soldiers say such confrontations occur daily throughout the West Bank: Arab youths taunt them, belly up to them, hands held behind to avoid contact, aiming solely to humiliate. They’re often filmed by friends on cameras distributed by human rights groups, hoping to catch troops either fleeing or overreacting and thus create a scandal.
The soldier, since identified as David Adamov, 19, says there were more Palestinian youths than are seen on camera, gathering rocks and threatening him. He cocked his rifle, aimed at the teen closest to him and shouted in Hebrew to back off and stop filming. Regulations forbid cocking a weapon except when facing direct threat to life. Soldiers are instructed to walk away and rejoin their unit. It’s an open secret that weapons are cocked dozens of times daily.
Shortly after the video hit YouTube, rumors spread that Adamov had been sentenced to 20 days in the brig. Ma’ariv reported he was sentenced for the altercation. The army said no, he’d been jailed for previously assaulting his officers. But by then, Tuesday, the Facebook protest had begun, titled “We are all David Ha-Nachlawi.” It rapidly swelled beyond anything Israel had ever seen. By Wednesday it had 70,000 “likes.”
The rebellion quickly won public support from left and right. All agreed the young recruits were in an impossible situation: They’re trained for combat, then thrown into a policing role. Conservatives demanded the rules be eased to allow greater force in hostile confrontations. Liberals said they shouldn’t be there at all, that Israel should leave the West Bank. Soldiers complained, on line and in anonymous interviews, that their officers don’t understand them and don’t listen.
Politicians jumped in, mostly from the right, led by economy minister Naftali Bennett and members of his Jewish Home party. They declared they would have acted as David did and the army should give troops freer rein. Officers grumbled that the politicians were undermining them. Some said the uprising was being exploited by “right-wing elements for their own purposes.”
Thursday morning the General Staff met. Chief of Staff Benny Gantz was quoted saying Facebook is “not a command tool. It is here and is a fact, but it does not replace or even parallel officers speaking with their troops.”
At the same time, Gantz said, the event “raises issues of ethics in the army which must be dealt with at every level.” As he spoke the army’s chief education officer circulated a memo to field officers, outlining rules for soldiers’ use of social networks: dignified behavior, respect for “the other,” appropriate public representation of the Israeli military; preserving human dignity; avoiding unauthorized political or military comment; respecting the chain of command; and protecting classified information.
Three points, respect for the other, preserving human dignity and appropriate public representation of the military, refer directly to the code of ethics. It calls for minimum necessary use of force and maximum protection of civilians. Israeli spokesmen often boast of Israeli troops’ high ethical standards, even putting themselves in harm’s way to avoid harming civilians.
But several recent investigations have found the code is fraying. A 2012 report by the State Comptroller, the government’s top watchdog, found that company commanders, responsible for educating their units, commonly decide they’re unequipped and invite rabbis in to teach. The rabbis, usually from Chabad or pro-settler organizations, often teach an ethic at odds with the military code. Lessons and pamphlets reported to the General Staff have instructed soldiers to “show no mercy,” to view civilians as “not innocent,” to “ignore foreign doctrines” and remember they’re fighting a holy war for sacred land.
The weakening of the code is exacerbated by a separate trend, described in repeated internal army studies, of settlers and their religious-nationalist allies forming a steadily growing proportion of the junior officer corps. Increasingly, it’s said, company commanders are not just unable but unwilling to teach the code.
The result, analysts inside and outside the military have warned, is a sense in the ranks that the rules of engagement handed down from the General Staff put them at risk and coddle the enemy to please European liberals. Just as the rabbis teach.
Israel’s military may be confronting a new challenge in digital media, but the media carry an old message: the struggle for Israel’s soul.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at email@example.com
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).