Gill Cohen – Haaretz December 16, 2011
Recent attacks by right-wing extremists on Israel Defense Forces soldiers in the West Bank are just one manifestation of the violence to which many have been subjected during their service in recent years. Both regular and reserve soldiers, including junior officers, spoke about the complicated situation they find themselves in: having to protect the settlers while at the same time being attacked by them.
“Our purpose there is to protect the Jews, but they generate many of the problems. It’s very confusing,” said Nadav Bigelman, a combat soldier who was discharged last year.
“You understand pretty quickly what is going on, but it’s not so clear what you are supposed to do about it,” he said. “We never received an order telling us what to do when a Jewish boy throws stones at a Palestinian. Are we allowed to detain him or not? There’s a gap between the battalion commander’s instructions and what happens on the ground.
“It’s the same people who bring you cake when you’re on guard at 2 A.M.,” he added. “What, are you going to arrest their kid when he throws stones the next day?”
As Haaretz reported on Thursday, the “new instructions” the prime minister issued this week to deal with Jewish rioters in the West Bank had for the most part already been in force on paper. But authority to act in principle does not always translate into clear orders out in the field. What counts there are the personal relations between settler leaders and IDF commanders.
A reservist platoon commander who served in the South Hebron Hills about three months ago said he had discussed the possibility of friction between settlers and Palestinians with his commanders beforehand. But nothing prepared him for the confrontation at the Mitzpeh Eshtamoa outpost, where settlers and Palestinians were in a face-off over grazing ground.
“We stood as a buffer between the Palestinian shepherds and the settlers and they [the settlers] started arguing with us,” he related. “They said awful things to me: ‘[Ariel] Sharon evacuated Gaza, he got what was coming to him, don’t worry, God will see to you too. Why do you come for reserve duty? You’re a disgrace as soldiers.’ They ranted and raved. We didn’t know what to do, we were in shock. We thought the problem would be with the Palestinians, but the problem is with the Jews.
“There were 15 settlers swearing at us, not three. This is an entire community whose agenda is to treat soldiers like that. Even the chief security officer told us, ‘listen, that’s the way it is. In a few days they’ll puncture my car tires.’
“These guys [the settlers] are out of control. I guard them, I’m responsible for protecting them and I know one day they’ll sabotage my car. That’s what is going on here,” the reservist concluded.
A junior officer serving in the West Bank now said “the clashes with [settlers] are mainly at the checkpoints. They come to the checkpoints a lot and it’s beneath their dignity to wait like others, so they break through and drive on. Not many harass us, but when the moment comes to inspect them, they humiliate us. They don’t understand we’re doing security work. They’re not all like that, but the clashes with Jews at checkpoints are much worse than they are with Palestinians.”
The situation in the West Bank has turned upside down, he said. “We used to have a code for Palestinians throwing stones. Today it’s been reversed to indicate Jews are throwing stones at Palestinians.”
Bigelman, today a researcher for the Breaking the Silence organization, served in Hebron in 2008. At the time he kept a “Hebron diary” documenting settlers’ violent activities, from stone throwing to cursing Palestinians, tourists and left-wing activists. One day a settler attacked his battalion commander during an argument and tore his epaulets off.
“That’s the clearest example,” Bigelman said. “Here is a man who is sacrificing his life for them. Suddenly they don’t like something he does, and that’s the way they react?
“And if it happens to your commander, what does it say about you? That you can’t do anything. You hate it. You hate being there. You know whom you’re protecting but you don’t understand why you have to pay such a price for it.”