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Home » Soldiers »

Testimony - 'A kind of game'


 Rank:  -
 Unit:  Reserves
 Location:  Ramallah, West Bank
 Date:  2011
 Title:  "A kind of game"

A former Israeli soldier provides a testimony to Breaking the Silence in which he describes how the army suppresses Friday demonstrations in villages like An Nabi Saleh.

Soldier: “On Friday morning we went out to the village. My platoon had to occupy two houses. We split into two squads. One force took the roof of a house, and the other took another roof. The residents of these houses already know that their houses will be taken over on Friday because they have a good lookout position over the village. We were told that the person who lives in the house we took over, the father, is a Palestinian policeman. We got to the house. He asked: 'What do you want?’ At first he tried to resist a bit. 'Why are you entering my house? It’s my house.’ We said: ' You are familiar with the procedure, we have no choice, we have to go in. We stand here on your roof every Friday.’ So he said: 'Okay, go in.’ He resisted just a bit, he wanted to close the door upstairs first … And one soldier couldn’t hold back, of course, and saw this as resistance and immediately began to yell at him: 'Shut up, what are you doing?’, while the guy didn’t even intend to put up any resistance. He was really nice. I mean, he was very meek. He didn’t really have a choice anyway. We came in, five soldiers, and the mother of that Palestinian policeman tried to resist a bit, too, and yelled at us why we were going up, it was their house. Except for that soldier who yelled, we were relatively okay. We spoke nicely to them, we said: 'Listen, we didn’t come to mess up your house. Go ahead, lock up everything you need, finish, tell us and we’ll go upstairs.’ I mean, we treated them really well and as a result, except for that yelling in the beginning, they were alright.
“Then we climbed up to the roof. It was around 10:30-11 a.m., and on the other roof, at a distance of about 300 metres from us, we saw the other force. And then nothing happened. One soldier with a teargas canister launcher, and other soldiers without anything but stun grenades, are on the lookout. The heat was intense, it’s July, the roof baking in the sun, they get bored. Once in a while they enter the stairwell where there’s a bit of shade – smoke, drink, eat, and go back. But in the meantime nothing happens. Absolutely nothing for about an hour. We’re on that roof and nothing happens. Then at some point we see two people suddenly going behind some house. We don’t know what they’re going to do, what their deal is, but two people were spotted so this was a great opportunity for the soldier with the launcher to fire some teargas in their direction. Then you see how from the other roof also, our guys, and really the Border Policemen downstairs, begin to fire teargas every two minutes in some direction, because they spotted someone walking. This means, that on that Friday, if you were a Palestinian and you didn’t want to get hurt, you couldn’t walk around in your village street from 11 a.m. If you turned, that already makes you suspect and you’d be targeted with teargas or a stun grenade or something.”
“Then it starts – people run away from the gas and suddenly the Border Police see them running, so – oh, they’re running? Then they’re definitely suspect and so they, too, start firing gas. You look out from your rooftop and see this scene – from about three different posts teargas is being fired at a various targets in the village. Nothing massive, but it is still starting to rain gas. Around 1 p.m. we hear the Muezzin sounding the call to prayer for about 15 minutes, and after that we’re told over the radio: “Now the demonstration will begin.’ Usually after prayers they come out and then we really see the mosque, but we still can’t see its entrance, and then we hear people chanting on the megaphone, very weakly. I didn’t see the people. Later I watched this on video. You really see it’s nothing spectacular, maybe 20 people. Not some mass demo. 15-20 people. We couldn’t actually see the demonstration from our post, but I began to see that teargas was being fired at them from all directions.”
Interviewer: “Who was it, the other force?”
Soldier: “Mainly the Border Police. The demonstrators were advancing towards them on the road so the Border Police began to throw teargas and more teargas in that direction. And that’s it. We hear that the demonstration stopped.”
Interviewer: “How much teargas do you think was fired that day?”
Soldier: “A lot. Perhaps close to 100 rounds. Certainly many dozen, maybe over a hundred. But it’s important for me to mention one more thing: The atmosphere among the soldiers is … It’s like some kind of game. Before Nabi Saleh, everyone wants to arm themselves with as much ammo as possible, so they’ll have plenty to fire. It’s for kicks. You have lots of stun grenades, eventually there’s nothing you can do with one, you have to throw it, so they’re thrown for the sake of throwing at people who are not suspected of anything. And in the end, you tell your friend at the Friday night dinner table: 'Wow! I fired this much, you fired that much, I stopped this, you stopped that …’ I mean, it’s fun and games, elation, a chance for release and people just fire it all. That’s the experience.”
“Around 2 p.m. the company commander ordered us to go downstairs, and it’s time to patrol the village on foot. So we gathered at a kind of village square, where there’s a grocery as well, people were sitting there having refreshments, so the commander asked the grocer to close up and go away. He did, of course. Then lots of Palestinians started coming, but it was actually mainly internationals, Israeli anarchists and so on who started coming. They didn’t demonstrate, didn’t throw stones or yell or anything. They just came and stood there. We were about 10 soldiers, and then the battalion commander’s front command group arrived, too, one of the brigade officers came with a document declaring the place a 'closed military zone’, and we told them in Hebrew and English both: 'This is a closed military zone. Anyone who does not leave will be arrested.’ In fact there was no reason to arrest them, they were just standing there.”
Interview: “But if it’s a closed military zone you have to arrest them.”
Soldier: “But they did nothing. We stood there, even spoke with them a bit. At that moment, things broke up: some soldier tried to grab someone so he ran away. There were little things, you heard a shout and someone was running, but it’s no incitement, nothing like that. Until the demonstrators decided they would not budge, and a guy who was a reservist, in fact a settler, from the auxiliary company, an older man who was a volunteer reservist, around 50 something, began to go beserk, and became really violent. He lost it. He grabbed a women and threw them to the ground, grabbed press cameras and threw them in a sewer, broke them, and this was a real provocation. He touched some woman, and immediately guys jumped to protect her, so all the soldiers jumped them. Anyway, all hell broke loose just because of that one reservist who started it all because he came along and didn’t even wait. He was told he had to disperse them so he started hitting, kicking, and throwing anything that moved. Any Palestinian, anything. The press didn’t interest him, he simply went wild.”
Interviewer: “Really lashed out?”
Soldier: “Yes. Lashed out, seriously. At some point the battalion commander told some officer to take that wild soldier and keep him away from the area. Send him back to the company. 'I don’t want him here, don’t let him near.’ We also felt we overdid things. I noticed other soldiers were also feeling very uneasy. Because we were always being told this is exactly the kind of thing demonstrators are looking for, and here they got it from that beserk soldier. Later there was an inquiry, the company commander spoke and said: 'That guy was not from our company but it is important to mention that it’s an exceptional instance, and if it were one of my subordinates I’d throw him out of the company straight away. Keep that in mind …”
Interviewer: “How was this exceptional?”
Soldier: “He spoke about values, said this was out of line … Around 3-4 p.m. we began to get people out of the village, either by arrest or chasing away all the people who were not from the village itself. Anyone who was not a Palestinian had to leave. Then they began to hide in houses, so soldiers under command of our company commander began to search the houses. We reached a house, the commander asked to bring the owner out, we knew that about 20 anarchists had just entered it. He said: 'What do you want me to do, stop them from coming in?’ So the commander simply arrested the guy. Blindfolded and shackled him, took him into the jeep. Now this was the kind of arrest where the man is not taken to some detention facility because he wasn’t actually rioting or anything, he was simply taken to the 'Pillbox” Post and made to wait there until about 8 p.m. when everything was over and then he was returned to the village.”
Interviewer: “An older man?”
Soldier: “Yes, about 50 years old. We walked the village, didn’t see any more people out because they hid inside the houses, came back to the main square, here was this father there, the grocer. He was with his many children and children’s kids – they spoke fluent Hebrew. Many boys were standing there with him. One of them, around 17 years old, annoyed one of the company commander’s staff.”
Interviewer: “Why?”
Soldier: “Because he smiled or something, so immediately an order was given to arrest two of the sons.”
Interviewer: “Why?”
Soldier: “Because he smiled or something. First the father said, no, don’t arrest them. I’ll beat them up. They did nothing. Didn’t throw stones. So the commander said: 'No, he was provoking us. He provoked a soldier of mine.’ And we simply took them, blindfolded, shackled, into the jeep and to the pillbox where they were made to wait for hours … There was an Israeli press photographer who simply stood there. Wouldn’t leave. He was told: 'This is a military zone, everyone has to leave!’ I mean, leave how? They ran into houses. He wouldn’t, so the soldiers grabbed him by force, threw his camera on the ground, made him lie down, shackled him. He began to swear at them, he said: 'You’re Nazis …’ this and that. While he was shackled, he said: 'Just get my camera inside my bag.’ His bag was on his back. So some soldier came to put his camera inside his bag. It was returned to him without the film. He was all dust, and treated violently, forced to the ground and his head hit the ground, and he wouldn’t give up, continued to curse the soldiers, out of frustration, ideological badmouthing.”
Interviewer: “But you said that at some point you were told to remove everyone who didn’t belong to the village.”
Soldier: “Right, but we went around the houses and didn’t find them. We were playing cat-and-mouse for about an hour. Then we said: 'What, are we going to start a house-to-house search?’ So the commander said: 'Let’s go back to the central square, and if you see them outside, chase them, catch them.’ But we didn’t see those people. Outsider were only Palestinians because they knew we wouldn’t arrest them if they weren’t holding stones. So we reached some house, the commander wanted everyone out to make sure no anarchists were there. One soldier was sent in to make sure there were no internationals there, and that’s it … Around 5 p.m. we had nothing left to do in the village so the commander took our force to the nearest pillbox. He said: 'Wait here, if there’s anything happening you’ll be alerted, and if not, just wait in the pillbox.’ He said, take off your vests, make some coffee. In other words, there’s no assignment for you right now. As we went to the pillbox from the village, on foot, one of the soldiers already had ammo in his barrel and the safety catch was off, so there was nothing left to do but fire. Now, if you’re a smart soldier you fire at some open ground – those soldiers weren’t lacking. We went on and the whole time he kept saying: 'What should I do with this?’ So coming down from the village, there was no demonstration, nothing. There was this grocery and some kids hung around there, so when we passed them at some 200 meters away he decided to waste the ammo in the direction of those kids who weren’t connected to any incident. At the pillbox were the two detainees, and we had to watch them. They sat quietly. The soldiers did nothing, we just talked amongst ourselves, and occasionally one of us ate a peach and of course threw the pit at the detainee. And occasionally I’d see someone go over to them and step on their balls, stuff like that. Little things, not harsh violence, or …”
Interviewer: “Stepping on their balls? That doesn’t sound like nothing.”
Soldier: “Just lightly, to show him: 'I’m still here.’ Or if he moved a bit because the position he was sitting in was uncomfortable, then they’d yell at him: 'Hey, don’t move!’ and give him a little slap. But no violence, I mean not beating them up, or smashing their faces with rifle butts or anything. That’s it. Around 8 p.m. everyone came back from the village, and we were told to fold up. We asked the company commander over the radio what to do with the detainees, and were told that they would be released. And I really saw them being taken, without the blindfolds, free to walk back to the village.”