Brutality brought to you by Zionist military service

The following article, which appeared in Israel’s right-wing paper Maariv, was translated by Keren Rubinstein and distributed by the Middle East News Service. The author is the editor of the arts and culture supplement:

With baton in hand: that’s us

Shai Lahav

The wide public debate about violence has ignored one of the most basic and self-evident causes for this blow: military service

I remember the first time I shattered someone’s bones with a baton. February 1988, Shati Refugee Camp in Gaza. As usual, we were in a rank laneway, chasing a boy who’d thrown stones at us. But unusually, we also caught him. And he paid for all the others.

I could tell you with satisfaction that I was one of the last soldiers who ran towards him to “teach him a lesson”. That I raised the baton only after I sensed my platoon commander’s fierce gaze. That I gave the weakest blows I could deliver. All true. But the fact is that a month later I was one of the first ones to hit. And I don’t really remember feeling bad about it. In fact, I didn’t feel anything.

There’s something amazing to me in the way that the wide public debate about violence has ignored one of the most basic and accepted causes for this blow. For over twenty years now, hundreds of thousands of Israeli men have been made to use physical force against civilians as part of their military service. They hit, curse, handcuff and humiliate. All according to orders. At the age of 21 they dispose of their kitbag at the reception base, but not of the evil genie that’s now been released from the bottle.

Because that is the nature of violence. The moment it can break free, only Aladdin – or Allah – can get it back. When you hand a baton over to an 18 year old kid, one who until that moment witnessed beatings only on “Starsky and Hutch”, and tell him that using it is not only legitimate but essential, you’ve opened up – for the rest of his life – the option of using violence as a way to solve problems. It probably won’t turn him to a serial killer, but it will increase the likelihood that he will serve the bastard who dared cut ahead of him in line, with a ringing slap to the face.

IDF platoon at a Peruvian market

Here’s a sample of my last claim. In 1995 I travelled through South America. Among the hordes of Israelis moving along the continent, one group, numbering 15 friends, stood out. It was called “the platoon”, and was indeed a genuine paratroopers’ unit, whose members flew to Argentina a second after their discharge. They took with them their commander, their discipline, and their memories from the Nablus Casbah.

One spring day, in a farmers market near the city of Cusco in Peru, I encountered them in action. They were haggling with the local vendors over the price of various souvenirs, ridiculously cheap in Israeli terms. At a certain point, one of them “caught” one of the hawkers telling a lie. Instinctively, he grabbed the Peruvian’s collar, pinning him to his own body, and started shouting in a tone I was quite familiar with.

As far as he was concerned, in that moment he was in the Territories, and the hawker was a Palestinian trouble maker. It took exactly a minute for all his fellow platoon members to pulverise most of the stalls, in a brief, efficient and spine-tingling display of violence. They were salt of the earth. Paratroopers, with their beautiful locks and looks. True to the stereotype, some of them were also kibbutz members. But their released genies turned them into animals.

I am not saying that the occupation is the only cause of violence in Israeli society. I’m also not claiming that this use of power, as part of military service, was always unjustified. After all, it was the Palestinian leadership that instigated an Israeli confrontation with their civilians. But nevertheless this is a central parameter in our society becoming violent .

Anyone wondering “what have we come to?” should recall 8 December 1987, the first day of the first Intifada, and be rewarded with a blunt and painful clue. Like an IDF baton.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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