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The IDF’s First Digital Rebellion

Israeli soldiers support a comrade punished for pointing a gun at a Palestinian teen / Facebook

(Haaretz) — The almost routine clip of a violent clash between a soldier and Palestinians in Hebron that took the Internet by storm recently reveals much about the IDF’s procedure in the West Bank in the era of social networks.

On the one hand, a considerable number of incidents of the kind that weren’t documented in the past are now photographed and published. On the other, the soldiers − who hadn’t taken any part in the debate in the past − now express their opinion blatantly on the net, siding with the soldier who got into trouble.

The Jewish settlement in the heart of Hebron is the most documented place in the territories. A few years ago B’Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, as well as other human right and leftist organizations, distributed video cameras to Palestinian residents for documenting the soldiers’ and settlers’ violent acts. Beit Hadassah’s close, bad neighborhood with Tel Rumeida provides fertile ground for incidents worth filming − from brutal acts of violence to futile arguments over raising a Palestinian flag.

The army carefully prepares every battalion posted in the city for similar events. Soldiers are trained in simulated events, with soldiers playing Palestinians and settlers. They are even warned of the damage a hand blocking a camera lens can do to the army’s image. Yet every battalion falls into the same media pitfalls.

In this case, a Nahal Brigade soldier was video-taped fighting with a number of young Palestinians. One of the youngsters provoked the soldier and put his hand on him. The soldier told him: “You’d better not do that again.” A clash evolved and when another Palestinian approached, the soldier cocked his gun, pointed it at them and tried to kick one of them. Then he turned to the Palestinian photographer, swore at him and threatened him: “Turn off the camera, I’ll stick a bullet in your head you son of a bitch.”

In the background other Palestinians and settlers are seen, including a girl who tried to stop the camera’s action.

An erroneous report that the soldier had been dismissed from his post and sent to jail for his conduct raised an Internet uproar. Later the IDF spokesman made it clear that the incident with the Palestinians was filmed several hours after the soldier had already been put on disciplinary trial for other, unconnected, violent offenses. Apparently, he had attacked a company commander and a squad commander with brass knuckles and his battalion commander sent him to jail for this.

The incident with the Palestinians is still being investigated and the military authorities have not come to a decision yet. The IDF spokesman said Wednesday that the soldier’s conduct toward the Palestinians “is irregular and not in keeping with what is expected of him.” The spokesman said “his incarceration took place following violence toward his soldiers without any connection to the clip. The violent incidents in the Nahal Brigade are dealt with severely and are not in keeping with the IDF’s values.”

But these clarifications did not stop the soldiers’ protest. Hundreds of soldiers posted pictures of themselves with posters saying “I too am with David Hanahlawi [Hebrew slang for a Nahal soldier]” on the News 0404 portal and the social networks.

The sympathy for the soldier was such that even a picture with a poster saying “Golani is with the Nahlawi” was posted. A Facebook page dedicated to supporting the soldier got tens of thousands of likes in 24 hours. Soldiers said the soldier was in a dangerous situation in a clash with Palestinians and “preserved the IDF’s deterrence.”

Most of soldiers, from infantry brigades and other units, took care to hide their faces in the photographs.

The soldier’s conduct, as shown on the clip, is not irregular among soldiers in the territories. Perhaps cocking the gun could be justified, if he genuinely felt threatened. What embarrassed the army more was the rude language and threats that were recorded.

But the affair, which was widely covered by the media especially Wednesday, reflects something else. In this era there are almost no barriers between the soldier in the field and the expression of his opinions online. If once a soldier depended on a token for the public telephone and later needed his mother to call Israel Radio military correspondent Carmela Menashe, today it’s all a click away on the smartphone.

Many soldiers are skilled enough to hide their identity, thus preventing the army from punishing them for making public statements breaching IDF regulations. This is a whole new ball park, whose rules the IDF is just beginning to learn. Meanwhile, it seems the soldiers are a few steps ahead of their commanders.

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