Impunity and Its Discontents

This is the A-Rum checkpoint, a few miles outside of Jerusalem, where two reporters wait on the side of the road for a taxi back to the Old City. The family standing next to us borrows our cell phone; their cab is late. Jehad, the photographer, is making faces at their youngest, who clings coyly to her beleaguered father's pantleg and plays along.

The Israeli army jeep with several soldiers pulls up to the corner where we all stand, and Teenage Soldier 1 (I'll call him TS1) gets out of the passenger side and playfully tosses a soda can at the family. Then, still having fun, he tosses a concussion grenade in the same direction, prompting the father to grab his children and run. The Voice reporters, unused to dodging explosives, stare dumbly at the smoking orange cylinder a few feet away, and then it blows up. Concussion grenades can break bones. Everyone gets off easy this time, slightly disoriented and temporarily deaf.

But TS1 is not done. He hops back into the jeep, and the soldiers tear off for 100 feet to the concrete blocks that mark the checkpoint proper, where a Palestinian van waits for permission to pass. TS2, sporting the same peroxide-blond coif as his partner, asks the driver a question, and then the two soldiers charge over to the passenger side, pull out a Palestinian teenager, and while TS1 steadies the lethal end of his M16 an inch from the boy's nose, TS2 kicks the shit out of him with his boot. I look at Jehad, whose usual thirst for bang-bang has fled; his camera stays in his bag, and he whispers, "They're going to shoot him." But they don't shoot him, instead hauling him off, shackled, blindfolded, and surely bruised, to the waiting jeep.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson is available 24 hours to journalists, which is a real help. A pleasant woman answers the phone, and I ask her about the incident at the A-Rum checkpoint.

"I don't know about this," she confesses. "But probably this boy was carrying a bag?" I'm not sure, I reply, thinking that I usually carry a bag. Does she carry a bag? But we're getting nowhere, and another genial spokesperson finally suggests that I call the prime minister's office for more information.

The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem has tracked Israel's investigations into abuse by its soldiers from the start of the current intifada in October 2000 through the beginning of May. The group reports that of the 125 cases opened, 12 criminal indictments have been handed down, and eight cases have prompted disciplinary proceedings. Three of the indictments were for "firing offenses (one killing and two injuries)," but the guilty soldiers have yet to be sentenced. Another three were related to "violence and brutality," and concerned an incident in which soldiers detained two taxis, severely beat the male Palestinian occupants, and then ordered the Palestinians to beat each other.

"When you talk about statistics, the numbers of investigations that were opened compared to the number that should be investigated is amazingly low," says Lior Yavne of B'Tselem. "Up until April 1, only 12 death cases were opened, from the several hundred civilians killed during the intifada."

An investigation last December by the Los Angeles Times into abuses by the IDF came to similar conclusions, finding that killings by the army are given "cursory, on-site review, and, if any fault is found, chalked up to justifiable error or the fog of war. Fuller inquiry is seldom pursued." Both studies cite Israel's contention that they are engaged in an "armed conflict short of war" as at least partially responsible for the greater impunity its soldiers seem to display. The conflict is "short" of war because the Palestinians do not have an army.

Of course, the incident at the A-Rum checkpoint is a minor one compared to most Palestinian tales of abuse. One Palestinian woman tells me that four Israeli soldiers beat her one day for "mouthing off." Although she is an Israeli citizen, she has not reported the incident, and cannot really explain why. Many who have heard victims' testimonies say this is commonplace, as Palestinians who possess either Israeli citizenship or the coveted identification cards that actually allow them to work keep quiet for fear these privileges will be taken away.

In search of more bang-bang, we decide to travel to Bethlehem, which is officially closed for IDF operations. We find a way through neighboring Beit Jala, and travel a whole 200 meters before our taxi driver stops and points to an Israeli jeep. This is a "targeted operation": IDF soldiers going house to house to grab the men they want. The neighborhood is watching the whole thing from balconies—this part of Beit Jala has missed most of the latest action. For the next five hours, we sit in the bushes and watch as the Israelis blow up doors, shoot up houses, and arrest people.

To make sure no one misses the fun, the army rounds up some 30 Palestinians who live in or near the houses they've targeted, and make them watch the show. But some of them are blindfolded, so they'll miss the best part—a sighting of what appears to be a real-life "human shield," not three weeks after the IDF declared that it was "absolutely forbidden" for its soldiers "to use civilians of any kind as a means of 'living shield' against gunfire or attacks by the Palestinian side, or as 'hostages.' " But there one is, a Palestinian man in his mid thirties, knocking on the door, his hands raised, with soldiers cowering behind him.

The IDF spokesman takes a couple of days to comment on our pictures of the Beit Jala incursion, but does call back, good-natured as always. Captain Jacob Dallal thinks the real issue is terminology. "I reject the use of the term 'human shield,' " he says, steering me to the preferred "guides for informational purposes". He points out that the operations we witnessed netted the taxi driver of the Rishon Letzion bombings, and says that the use of civilians to grab suspected terrorists "is reasonable."

"We're living under terrible circumstances here," Dallal says, casually. "What do you want?"

Moshe Nissim's easygoing demeanor earned him the nickname "Kurdi Bear." Last month, Nissim, an army reservist, gave an interview to the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronoth, in which he recalled his experience operating a bulldozer in the Jenin refugee camp. He told the paper that after placing the flag of his soccer team, Beitar, atop his American-made Caterpillar D9 bulldozer, he started flattening houses. "When they told me to destroy a house, I took advantage of it and ruined a few more . . . the soldiers warned with a speaker, that the tenants must leave before I come in, but I did not give anyone a chance . . . others may have been more restrained. Or they say they have. Don't believe their stories."

For those unfamiliar with the D9, it is a wonder to behold, sort of the Great White of bulldozers. Manufactured by the Caterpillar company of Peoria, Illinois, it weighs over 50 tons without armor. "D9" is now a fixture in the growing American lexicon of Palestinian teenagers, along with words like "Apache," "Cobra," and "F-sittosh" (F-16). Usually, the Israeli army requires lengthy training before allowing soldiers to operate the D9. Moshe Nissim says he trained on the beast for only two hours.

Nissim says the army brass ordered the D9s out of the camp quickly, lest the international press get a look at them. "Jenin empowered me," says Nissim, who drank whiskey and munched on snacks in order to stay awake while he bulldozed. "I answered to no one."

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