What’s it like to be a woman serving in the Israeli occupation force in the West Bank? Is a woman’s experience as an occupier any different than a man’s? Yes indeed, say some women who have just broken their silence and offered a glimpse into the grim reality of the occupation.
“A female combat soldier needs to prove more,” one explains. “A female soldier who beats up others is a serious fighter…When I arrived there was another female [who] was there before me…Everyone spoke of how impressive she is because she humiliates Arabs without any problem. That was the indicator. You have to see her, the way she humiliates, the way she slaps them, wow, she really slapped that guy.”
This “impressive” woman is not a rare exception. “We discovered that the girls try to be even more violent and brutal than the boys, just to become one of the guys,” says Dana Golan, director of Breaking the Silence, the Israeli organization that has just released a report with testimony from some 50 Israeli women who are veterans of the occupation.
The report “indicates how violence was deeply rooted in the daily routine,” according to an article in Yediot Aharonot, one of Israel’s most widely-read newspapers, full of disturbing quotes from the women. One who served at the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza explained that “there was a procedure in which before you release a Palestinian back into the Strip – you take him inside the tent and beat him. … together with the commanders.”
For Israelis who care to pay attention, another revelation of routine violence, sanctioned and sometimes even led by officers, hardly comes as news. Breaking the Silence has been offering the Israeli public such eyewitness testimony from Israeli soldiers since 2004. What is news is the first insight into the distinctive experience of women:
“The female soldiers repeatedly mention the particular difficulties they had as women, who had to prove that to were ‘fighters’ in the midst of the goading male soldiers on the one hand, and the Palestinians, who have a hard time handling women in uniform on the other hand.”
One woman recalled an incident several years ago when a Palestinian man laughed at her, because (or so she thought) she was a woman in uniform. She had to “salvage her self-respect,” she says. So she moved close to the man, “as if I was about to kiss him. I told him, ‘Come, come, what are you afraid of? Come to me!’ And I hit him in the balls. I told him, ‘Why aren’t you laughing?’ He was in shock, and then he realized … not to laugh.”
“It shouldn’t reach such a situation,” the woman says now. “The system is deeply flawed. The entire administration, the way things are run, it’s not right.”
Palestinian women have a distinctive experience, too. “Was there also abuse of women?”, an interviewer asked. “Yes,” a woman soldier replied. “Slaps, that kind of thing. Mainly slaps. … It was mainly the female combat soldiers who beat people. … But also men, they had no problem slapping a woman around. If she screamed, they’d say, ‘Shut it,’ with another slap. A routine of violence. There were also those who didn’t take part, but everyone knew it happened.”
Sometimes, as the Breaking the Silence report indicates, the level of brutality grows beyond comprehension: a five year old child beaten; a nine year old who “posed no danger” shot to death; another child with both arms and both legs intentionally broken. The Yediot Aharonoth article offers a series of such horrifying incidents. When the full report is available on the Breaking the Silence website, it will be surely include even more heart-breaking tales.
Each soldier, male or female, is responsible for their own individual actions, of course. But this report raises disturbing questions about the society that requires them to serve in the military and then sends them on such a brutalizing mission, one that dehumanizes the perpetrators as well as their victims.
Most disturbing, perhaps, is their common explanation for the violence the inflict: The soldiers’ daily routine in the Occupied Territories “is boring, so we’d create some action. We’d get on the radio, and say they threw stones at us, then someone would be arrested, they’d start investigating him… There was a policewoman, she was bored, so okay, she said they threw stones at her. They asked her who threw them. ‘I don’t know, two in grey shirts, I didn’t manage to see them.’ They catch two guys with grey shirts… beat them. Is it them? ‘No, I don’t think so.’ Okay, a whole incident, people get beaten up. Nothing happened that day.”
Another woman, describing a common ritual of humiliating and beating Palestinians at checkpoints, agreed: “It could go on for hours, depending on how bored they are. A shift is eight hours long, the times must be passed somehow.”
The boredom is not a gendered experience. I heard exactly the same thing last year from a young Israeli man, now actively working to oppose the occupation. When he manned a checkpoint, at the tender age of 18, he would start each day intent on treating Palestinians humanely, he said. But as the hours went on — as the boredom, the occasional inevitable conflicts, and often the oppressive heat, grew — he would become more irritable, more violent, more likely to abuse his power.
Boredom and its minor irritations can easily lead young people, many of them still teenagers, to commit senseless violence. We see it happening in civilian life in most every nation, far too often. But when we see it we call it anti-social and dysfunctional, a problem to be addressed by society. We assume that society at large has a different norm, a more constructive way of dealing with boredom, which should be taught to the misbehaving youth.
Perhaps antisocial violence, wherever it occurs, is always a symptom of a whole society’s dysfunction. But in this case the connection between individual and society is especially obvious and glaring. The antisocial Israeli youth are wearing their nation’s uniform, acting (sometimes under orders) in the name of “national security,” often praised for their violent behavior, and virtually never disciplined no matter how far they go.
They’ve grown up in a Jewish society that tends to treat Palestinians (not always, but far too often) as inherently dangerous, evil, inferior, and deserving whatever harm comes to them. It’s hardly surprising that many of them would so easily cross the moral line into the realm of inhumanity.
Yet they’ve also grown up in a society that teaches them basic moral standards that should apply to all people. Most of the women interviewed in the report say they knew that what they were seeing, and sometimes doing, was wrong. But very few lodged any complaints, fearing the consequences if they spoke up. “I have to make a switch in my head and keep hating the Arabs and justify the Jews,” one explained.
Now, these women, like their male colleagues, must live with the consequences of participating in a brutal occupation that many realize is a terrible moral, as well as political, mistake. Jewish Israeli society must live with the consequences of putting its young people into such an agonizing situation, where moral contradiction is an everyday fact of life. Worst of all, Palestinian society must go on paying the price for Israel’s failure to bring its reality in line with its proclaimed principles.