Israel’s military chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, facing an unprecedented wave of criticism over his soldiers’ conduct and morals, did something last week that is also almost unprecedented, at least for him: He admitted that an army investigation into a controversial matter was faulty. “Officers and servicemen have lied to General Shmuel Zakai, who conducted the investigation of the death of 13-year-old Aiman al-Hams,” Ya’alon admitted in a statement. “This cannot and will not be tolerated.”
It is not yet clear what Ya’alon intends to do about the case, or indeed what he can do. After four years of fighting in densely populated areas against an evasive and ruthless foe, some of the army’s methods are beginning to catch up with it, showing their unmistakably corrosive effect on Israel’s traditional code of military ethics.
The Aiman al-Hams story was the first in a series of military incidents that have caused a public uproar in recent weeks. Al-Hams, a 13-year-old schoolgirl, was shot to death near Rafah by soldiers of the Givati Brigade. Her case became a cause celebre because of the claim, documented on a soldier’s videotape, that the unit commander, publicly identified only as Captain R., made sure the girl was dead by firing a burst point-blank into her body. The incident caused an outcry after the captain was cleared by a military hearing last month, in a proceeding that Ya’alon later admitted was flawed.
The al-Hams uproar was followed by several other incidents, all of them documented on film and tape. In one of the most gruesome, the daily Yediot Aharonot published photographs of Israeli soldiers mutilating and desecrating the dead bodies of Palestinians, in one case posing next to a dead man’s head with a cigarette jauntily propped in the mouth.
The greatest outcry, however, followed a photograph of a Palestinian with a violin case who was forced by soliders at a roadblock to remove the violin and serenade them. The photo appeared in the daily Ha’aretz and prompted comparisons to images of Jews in the Holocaust. Later claims by the army that the Palestinian was not, in fact, forced to play but began to do so after the soldiers asked him to open the violin case, were met with skepticism. Once the army’s chief of staff admits his men lie when questioned, it is not surprising that the army has a hard time convincing everybody that it is telling the truth in another case.
“The Violin Will Win,” wrote novelist and columnist Meir Shalev in a fiery column, which appeared on the cover of the weekly political supplement of Yediot Aharonot, perhaps the most visible page in Israeli journalism. Shalev, like others, made no secret of the memories the photo brought him: “We were there, on the other side,” he wrote, and no Israeli could fail to understand what he was referring to.
Some of the criticism was in fact misguided, rooted at times in words and perceptions rather than facts. In the al-Hams case, the inflammatory words were “confirming the kill,” the phrase used by soldiers to explain why Captain R. fired the additional burst into the girl’s body. Despite the army’s claim that it uses no such term, Captain R. was clearly heard over his unit’s radio, in a recording obtained and broadcasted by Channel 2, saying just that: “I confirmed the kill.”
It is a practice taught to every soldier: to make sure that a downed enemy presents no further danger and will not pop up afterward to shoot the troops from behind. And indeed, for many Israelis in and out of uniform, the “kill confirmation” debate obscured a more critical question: Why was al-Hams, carrying a school bag and visibly unarmed, perceived to be a danger by the troops and shot at in the first place?
The answer can only be found in the current mental state of many of Israeli soldiers, especially in Gaza. Today’s troops, unlike past generations of Israeli soldiers, have spent their entire military service in an active combat zone, fighting a war that lasts not six days or three weeks but four years. Constantly on patrol in hostile residential zones, they have been taught to treat every Palestinian as a possible terrorist. Their bases and compounds are surrounded by so-called Special Security Zones — vast areas, razed and flattened by army bulldozers, which become de-facto killing zones for any Palestinian, armed or unarmed, who enters them.
Adding to the soldiers’ unsettled state of mind is the fact that the army’s rules of engagement have changed several times since the outbreak of the intifada. The many cases of civilian casualties — hundreds of them, even by the most conservative account — have resulted in very few military police investigations and even fewer courts martial. Soldiers have testified, for example, that during the three-week incursion into Rafah last spring known as Operation Rainbow Cloud, they were given instructions such as: “If an Arab stands on a roof in the middle of the night, he isn’t doing it innocently. You may fire on him.”
Ya’alon is a person who believes in being right. When he was deputy chief of staff, he hung on his office wall a poem by Natan Alterman, the epic poet of Israel’s founding generation, which proclaimed that the devil’s only way of beating Israel is to confuse its people and make them forget that they are right. The scholarly, introspective Ya’alon has been known for years to believe firmly in that image of Israeli rectitude, convinced that it is possible to fight a bitter, existential war and still to keep one’s purity and uphold the integrity of the traditional military code of military ethics. The events of the past few weeks, and the public reaction to them, appear to have begun to show the chief of staff that this may no longer be possible.