'I was busier protecting the Arabs from the settlers rather than settlers from the Arabs'

October 20, 2011
Sarah Benton

Soldiers’ testimonies from Hebron

Breaking the Silence
October 2011

Despite the absence of any significant security events between 2008-2010, the reality portrayed in the booklet is characterized by ongoing severe restrictions placed on Palestinian vehicular and pedestrian traffic in what was once the bustling center of the second largest Palestinian city in the West Bank; frequent and repetitive  “mapping” missions carried out in the homes of Palestinian residents of the Old City; frequent arrest and confiscation missions deep into the Palestinian-controlled sector of Hebron; and regular settler violence, including both physical and verbal abuse of the Palestinians who live near the Jewish settlement. The soldiers who testify in the booklet repeatedly describe their helplessness to combat this violence. “The job of the army is to project theJews…If a Jew did anything wrong, we are not authorized to detain him. If we comment, it’s merely a recommendation, and it’s not our job there.”

Testimony no. 1, 2008

There’s nothing we can do about it
Another event I remember well took place while I stood guard at the post on a Saturday and it was…It’s exactly at the point where Jews and Arabs travel along the same road. An Arab woman came from one direction. A young Jew – I’m not even sure he was from Hebron – with those side curls and skullcap and all, comes along and spits in her face. And this was all during the period when we weren’t allowed to do anything. I yelled at him: “What are you doing? What do you think you’re doing?” And he says, of course: “You’ll see, you’ll find out.” She proceeded to the Cave of the Patriarchs. He also went in the same direction. I reported it to the Border Police, of course, because they have more authority than we do with civilians, but nothing happened. I wasn’t even allowed to touch the kid, not detain him, nothing.

What are you allowed to do?
Basically I could detain him, but what does that mean? If I say “Stop!” and he continues walking? He walked right on.

Did you speak about this with your officers?
I did.

And what did they say?
There’s nothing we can do about it. At some point we were given a real okay to detain them. To really detain them.

To catch them?
Yes. If I could have back then, I would have. I was so annoyed. I couldn’t understand how a person could do this. It’s unreal.

When you did have permission to detain them, were there such cases?
I didn’t myself do it but I heard of some. When I was in the war-room I did once call an officer to go out to a site.

To a place where soldiers detained civilians?
One of them. At the 4-5 army post. There was some incident. A settler kicked the mute woman’s child. Ever heard about the mute woman? There’s this mute woman at 4-5, she can’t speak. Her son Ahmad was this mischievous child. When a settler walked by he’d go: “Fuck you…” Of course to… Then the settler kicked him, so he [the settler] was detained.

Didn’t the police show up?
What could they do about it?

* * *
Testimony no. 2, 2010
He went ahead and did what he did
The front command, the company commander… they were always talking about how they would beat up Palestinians for fun, the whole time. Both on their patrols and… It was a constant, but there was one story that became ‘the main event’ for me on the ground… One day we were alerted. An announcement came through on the loudspeakers: “Front command group to David [army jeep]!” We all jumped up, began to load up gear, the medic and I were there, preparing, and the company commander opened his office door, came out and said: “Get out of here, only *** and me are going.” He told me to take down the gear and go as I was. He wasn’t wearing his [bulletproof] vest or anything, just his weapon and uniform. We drove to “Pharmacy”, the checkpoint there. There were two, three children there who wouldn’t go through the metal detector. We stopped, the commander got off, took a kid inside the alley.

One of the kids who wouldn’t go through the metal detector?
Yes. And then he [the commander] went ahead and did what he did.

What was that?
There was… I recall – it’s etched in my mind like a movie – he faced the kid, the kid was close to the wall, he stood facing him, looked at him for a second, and then choked him with the… held him this way with his elbow.

Against the wall?
Choked him against the wall. Then the kid went berserk, the commander was yelling at him the whole time, screaming and screaming at him in Hebrew, not in Arabic. Then he let go, the kid raised his hands to wipe his tears, and the commander went boom! so the kid lowered his hands to stop rubbing his eyes. He left them hanging at the sides of his body. Then the slapping started. Slap, slap, slap, slap… Incessant hitting, and constant yelling. Then the kid began to really scream out, it sounded scary so people started to come out and gather around the checkpoint, peeking into the alley, and I remember the commander coming out and telling them: “Everything’s fine.” Then he yelled at the kid: “Stay here, don’t go anywhere!” He came out, told them everything was fine, called the squad commander at the checkpoint, and stood facing the kid, saying: “They have to be treated in such-and-such a way.” Then he gave the kid another two slaps and let him go. It was an insane thing. I remember sitting in the vehicle, watching this and thinking: “I waited for this situation for three years. From the moment I enlisted. I enlisted in order to stop such things, and here I am doing nothing, choosing to do nothing. Am I okay with this?” And I remember answering myself: “Yes, I’m fine with this. He’s hitting an Arab and I’m doing nothing about it.” I was really aware of the fact that I wasn’t doing anything because I was really scared of that company commander. What? Should I jump off the jeep and tell him he should stop, that what he was doing was stupid?

How old was the kid?
A teenager. Not 18. Like 13, 14, 15 years old.

And how long did this go on?
The hitting? I don’t remember.

10 minutes? An hour?
It wasn’t… Something like 10 minutes of hitting. Then he called the squad commander in.

The squad commander at the checkpoint?

10, 15 minutes. Then he got in the jeep and rode off.

And tell me, did you happen to speak about this with anyone, with another officer, even with friends?
I remember when we came back to our post, everyone disembarked and I was … I got off, went into my room where the whole platoon was, and said: “Listen, you wouldn’t believe what a crazy thing just happened, he [the commander] just started hitting.” That’s it.

Didn’t they say anything?
The point is, me and the deputy company commander were on really good terms, I spoke with him about it after he was discharged, and after I’d been transferred to the brigade training base. I told him about it and he said, already as a civilian: “Why didn’t you tell me? You know we would have done something about it. You know we would never have let that pass.” That’s the way it is.
* * *

Testimony no. 3, 2008
They’re supposed to feel totally safe

Describe Shuhada Street for me, the main drag.
First of all, visualize walking up from the Cave of the Patriarchs, nearly all along – first you’ve got the large cemetery on your left, and further up the small cemetery, also on your left. On your right, almost at the end, you’ve got Palestinian homes, covered with chicken wire that prevents them from coming out, and, on the other hand, prevents us from going in. Further up, there’s our outpost and after that you arrive at the Beit Hadassah compound. In the middle there’s Gross Square, with a sort of large pillbox army post in the middle. That’s the visual description. Of course, it’s not a bustling street, there is only the occasional vehicle or two, occasional pedestrians but never Palestinians. I’ll make this more broad and say that apparently also never Arabs, for fear that they’re actually Palestinians.

Are there people still living in houses on this street?
Yes, but there’s only an exit in the direction of the Casbah, and even there, on the doors there’s graffiti that shows the Star of David or says “Death to Arabs” and things like that. But those doors are no longer in use. Some of them used to be shops, others entrances to houses that are now blocked. That’s it. Only Jews can go on that street. There’s no chance. It’s only on extremely rare occasions or in cases that actually shouldn’t have happened, that Palestinians end up there. They don’t go past 4-5 Post, no way. That’s it. It’s a Jews-only road, and they’re supposed to feel totally safe there. I don’t think there’s much more to add, but it’s problematic because even in the part which is supposed to be used by both Jews and Arabs, in actuality that section is divided by these iron barriers designating the part of the road that Palestinians are supposed to go on, ridiculously narrow compared to the part where the Jews can go. That’s it, that’s the road.
* * *

Testimony no .4, 2008-2010
A kid at the briefings

In your time out there, did the settlers living inside the base enter through the same gate [as the soldiers]?
Yes. One of the problems was that a third, fourth grader would always be standing around during our briefings, with a [bulletproof] vest and a toy gun. You should see this some time. Every single day. He comes to the briefings all ready, with a vest, knee-guards, wearing a huge helmet, stuff the army gave him, and a toy gun, standing there with all the soldiers. He knows everything by heart.

So children hang out inside the army base?

That’s it. I suppose that… Yes, they hang out there. Not all the time, but yes. They do pass through. If we’re playing volleyball and one of them happens to come along, he joins the game. The Chabad people, too, for them it’s like South America [where they do religious outreach]. Soldiers come back from their shift, totally dead, finished. And these guys come in: “What’s up, bro’? How are you?” and then, “Why don’t you come in, read something?” With former youth movement members [from secular backgrounds] it’s a bit more difficult, but I can see how it works, you know? It’s a freezing night, and along comes this Chabad guy with his guitar…
Testimony no. 52, 2008

Free reign
… I’ll tell you that within a very short time I began to feel that I was much busier protecting Arabs from the Jewish settlers than protecting Jewish settlers from the Arabs.

How is that manifested on the ground?
I don’t know what Hamas does inside Hebron, but whenever there was tension in the mixed neighborhoods, or mixed streets, I never witnessed a situation where Arabs harassed Jews. I mean, there was no violence on the part of Arabs, they didn’t harass the Jews. I think this was mainly out of fear. Because whoever was there before us handled them very roughly. The Jews, however, would really drive the Arabs crazy. They’d throw diapers full of shit into their gardens, throw their garbage into their yards. If an Arab kid was walking in the street and ran into three Jewish kids, they would beat him up or just harass him and all. There were lots of such harassments. Annoying things, like some religious neighbor lady comes to us saying she saw her son’s toy tractor down in the garden of her Arab neighbors, they stole it. Go figure.

The company commander hears this: “What do we do? Go in.” So we go into the Arab woman’s home to retrieve the tractor, the stupidest thing. And you know, suddenly this group of soldiers – say we’re standing three, four soldiers outside – and the platoon commander enters the house with another soldier, begins to argue – it’s so idiotic for the army to be dealing with this to begin with, he starts to tell this Arab mother that her little son’s tractor actually belongs to the Jewish woman. I don’t even know, it’s hard to believe. There’s no reason for an army to intervene in a dispute between neighbors.

How did it end? Did you take the tractor? Bring it to the Jewish woman?
Something vaguely tells me yes, but I don’t remember how it got out of there. At the moment the platoon commander listened to the company commander but I remember him feeling awkward as well, just as we did. There was an argument. Or, once we were standing guard at night and this young Jewish religious woman from the neighborhood showed up. Next to the Tel Rumeida army post there’s a building, we were standing close by and she said that on her way down Arabs bothered her, and that next to the post she was bothered again and it was one o’clock at night, so she wants us to call the police. We deliberated what to do and asked: “Are you sure?” because we knew that sometimes the girls say they were being harassed. Finally we did summon the police, they didn’t make a big deal out of this, talked with the Arabs a bit and left. It was nice because it was our last month there and from then on she would sit with us on our guard shifts and we got to talking. Differences create interest, it was good.

Was she young?
Yes, a year or two younger than me. It was funny because four months earlier on a Friday night – the settler families would invite the soldiers over for Sabbath dinner – I didn’t yet know her at the time but we were guests at her family’s dinner, myself and another friend.

Is it a tradition that at some point the soldiers are invited to homes of the Jewish settlers?

It works out so that two to three Sabbaths are spent at the post, and one Sabbath we get home leave. So nearly every Sabbath you’re invited, the platoon commander comes around and asks: “These and these families are inviting, who would like to go?” If it’s not while you’re asleep or on duty, why not go and have a decent dinner rather than eat at the post? So we sat there and things came up for discussion like the fact that we’re leftists and about the Rabin assassination. It was interesting. Their views are tough but it was fun.

Were you told what to do when you see them throwing a diaper into a Palestinian yard or their children assaulting a Palestinian?
Listen, we always try to separate them, calm them down, keep things calm. What do you do when you see someone throwing something like that? You can tell them: “Guys, this is out of line. You’re not going to enter the yard and pick up that diaper, and you’re not going to tell them to go in and pick it up. I think our conscience and our morals really kept us in one piece out there. We said to them: “Guys, this is not right.”

I think that the settlers in Hebron know that when the Nahal Brigade is around they Can’t create as many disturbances. The Jews there know they have less freedom of that sort because the Nahal soldiers are less violent and more left-wing and when Golani infantry are around they have more free reign…

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