Posted by: Lister | October 21, 2007

Nufar Yishai-Karin and Military brutality

From the Guardian, about events during the first Intifada — after 1987.

The soldiers described dozens of incidents of extreme violence. One recalled an incident when a Palestinian was shot for no reason and left on the street. ‘We were in a weapons carrier when this guy, around 25, passed by in the street and, just like that, for no reason – he didn’t throw a stone, did nothing – bang, a bullet in the stomach, he shot him in the stomach and the guy is dying on the pavement and we keep going, apathetic. No one gave him a second look,’ he said.

[…] Yishai-Karin, in an interview with Haaretz, described how her research came out of her own experience as a soldier at an army base in Rafah in the Gaza Strip. She interviewed 18 ordinary soldiers and three officers whom she had served with in Gaza. The soldiers described how the violence was encouraged by some commanders. One soldier recalled: ‘After two months in Rafah, a [new] commanding officer arrived… So we do a first patrol with him. It’s 6am, Rafah is under curfew, there isn’t so much as a dog in the streets. Only a little boy of four playing in the sand. He is building a castle in his yard. He [the officer] suddenly starts running and we all run with him. He was from the combat engineers.

‘He grabbed the boy. I am a degenerate if I am not telling you the truth. He broke his hand here at the wrist, broke his leg here. And started to stomp on his stomach, three times, and left. We are all there, jaws dropping, looking at him in shock…

‘The next day I go out with him on another patrol, and the soldiers are already starting to do the same thing.”

Yishai-Karin concluded that the main reason for the soldiers’ violence was a lack of training. She found that the soldiers did not know what was expected of them and therefore were free to develop their own way of behaviour. The longer a unit was left in the field, the more violent it became. The Israeli soldiers, she concluded, had a level of violence which is universal across all nations and cultures. If they are allowed to operate in difficult circumstances, such as in Gaza and the West Bank, without training and proper supervision, the violence is bound to come out.

Nufar Yishai-Karin conducted the interviews as part of her master’s thesis in clinical psychology, according to Haaretz. She joined the IDF in 1989, and:

She requested a transfer to the Golani Brigade and was eventually persuaded to move to Ashbal Company, an armored infantry unit. For about 15 months she lived on a base in the southern Gaza Strip, not far from the former settlements of Rafah Yam and Pe’at Sadeh.

“I got to Gaza in the summer of 1990 and joined a unit that had begun service that February,” she recalls. “There were about 55 soldiers, including many staff people who had been transferred out of combat units. To be a service-conditions noncom was a type of social work. The mission was to assist soldiers with problems, which meant mainly listening to them. I used to talk to them during night duty, because they were the most communicative then.”

Immediately upon her arrival there was an incident that shook her. A few of the soldiers had arrived about a week before her “and had already managed to mess things up. They arrested someone and forgot him for three days in the shower. They told me about it and didn’t know how to deal with it.” Her thesis quotes one of the soldiers who was involved in the incident: “After they built showers with a generator, so we would have hot water all the time … the shower with the ‘geyser’ was abandoned and people decided that it would be like a detention cell. We brought some guy there and forgot him for three days … He was handcuffed and had a piece of flannel over his mouth, and he couldn’t talk, couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything. After three days, someone, I don’t remember who, happened to go by there and remembered.”

[…] The study included interviews with 18 soldiers and three officers who served with her in two armored infantry units. She knew most of them from her military service. She interviewed each of them personally in his home for a few hours and recorded the interviews; she still has the tapes. Her prior acquaintance with the soldiers led them to trust her implicitly, and they opened up fully, readily telling her about crimes they themselves had committed: murder and killing, breaking the bones of children, inflicting humiliation, destroying property, stealing.

[…] “There are two means the army adopts to steer the violence in war in appropriate directions,” she continues, “namely battle heritage and training. Those means were not utilized in the intifada. The two officers of conscience thought of it by themselves and introduced ‘intifada drills’ before going into action. If a soldier trains, he knows what is expected of him, so his behavior will fit the army’s norms and not caveman instincts.

“As for battle heritage, I brought that to the army from home. My dad told me about the [first] Lebanon War. He was the commander of a reconnaissance company. On one occasion a large number of angry Shi’ites gathered at the entrance to the base and the soldiers got uptight. My father and a few other soldiers daringly waded into the mob, talked to people and calmed them down. My father told me at the time that anyone who didn’t know Arabs and felt pressured by the event was liable to shoot them. That’s a story I heard as a girl, in 1983.

“After that, in the intifada, I saw time and again how pressure causes reactions that are more extreme and more violent. There was a company commander who used to get stressed and cause a big hullabaloo every time. What’s missing is battle heritage, like my dad’s story, in which courage is tested by your not resorting to fire. Battle heritage is something inbuilt, which is transmitted by the Education Corps, and it is lacking.”

Can you sum up the message of the study?

“The message might be too complex for a newspaper article. Freud talks about the destructive aggressive instinct. In a letter to Einstein in 1932, Freud wrote, ‘Musing on the atrocities recorded on history’s page, we feel that the ideal motive has often served as a camouflage for the lust of destruction.’ That has existed in everyone, in all languages and in all religions, across all the hundreds and thousands of years of history, and probably even before. There are some cultures that are more violent, yes, but violence appears in every culture. There are situations that provoke it and cause the violence to well up to the surface.

“There is nothing surprising about the reaction of the soldiers who were sent there,” Yishai-Karin continues. “In a situation of neglect, without supervision of the senior command, without genuine psychological research, without any examination, they operated on the basis of instincts and emotions. But despite everything that happened there, not a few soldiers acquitted themselves honorably, thanks to values, support from home, professionalism and self-restraint. Political opinions had no influence on behavior at all; political opinions changed in accordance with behavior, not vice versa.”

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