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The poisoned calculus (the army education of Yossi Gurvitz)

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In June 1988, the head of the yeshiva gathered all of the 12th graders in the auditorium and asked them to say which “Hesder yeshiva” they were going to after graduation. Most students rose and named a Hesder or military yeshiva. Some of the more elite students announced they were heading for a higher yeshiva.

When my turn came up, I rose and said simply: “IDF.”

“Come and see me afterwards.”

See, the options I had when I left the yeshiva, as they were explained to me, were three: One, join the National-Religious draft-dodging measure called Hesder Yeshivas. This means you are bound for 16 months of military service, less than half of what normal draftees do (36 months), in separate units with your buddies; but you are then obliged to loiter around in a yeshiva for 34 months. And I was determined not to see the inside of a yeshiva again.

Option B was studies in a higher yeshiva. See my response to Option A.

Option C was simply joining the army. (At the time, I did not know there was an Option D: refuse to serve. Though service refusal was a phenomenon since the First Lebanon War in 1982, the echoes of this movement were not strong enough to penetrate the yeshiva walls.)

As yeshiva students, we were under heavy pressure to use Option A, or at least Option B. C was out of the question. The reason the yeshiva preferred Option A was simple: an unknown ratio, but generally agreed to be between 25% and 33%, of National-Religious yeshiva students stop observing Jewish Orthodoxy within 10 years of leaving the yeshiva. Direct contact with other Israelis in the regular army was considered a major reason for this. So they tried to herd us towards the Hesder yeshivas.

Naturally, many people didn’t like the option. They either didn’t like spending more years in a yeshiva – we’re talking 18-years-olds, yes? – or sincerely felt they could contribute more in the regular army. Everyone believed, however, that if you refuse to serve in the Hesder, the yeshiva will fuck with your matriculation grades. So, many people registered in a Hesder yeshiva, and as soon as they matriculated and were out of the reach of the yeshiva, they informed the military they changed their minds and wanted a normal service.

The head of the yeshiva, Yossef Ba-Gad, was a laughable figure, much mocked by the students, and would in time become one of most spectacularly comic Members of Knesset; but he was the master of his domain.

“Why did you choose to go to the army?”

“I don’t see myself in a yeshiva.”

“There are rumors that you are moving around with people from RATZ [the forerunner of Meretz].”

I denied it. At the time, I was speaking the truth. I would join RATZ in a matter of weeks, though.

He tried to convince me. I was adamant.

“But what will be of the Torah?”

“I’m sure she’ll manage.”

They may have fucked with my matriculation grades, but frankly I have no way of knowing, since at this point I was so sick of the place, I was anything but a stellar student. I flunked math, but that was my own doing. I wanted to upgrade my history and English studies, but history wasn’t an option and the only higher class of English was reserved for native English speakers.

So, about two months later, on August 29, 1988, I was drafted. And strange as it may sound, I was actually glad to be drafted  It looked like a sort of salvation. I always had a weak spot for bucking the system, and was young and hotheaded (not so young anymore, still hotheaded).

In the BAKUM  (Selection and Orientation Base) I was picked out of the line of shocked would-be soldiers by the base’s rabbi, who tried to convince me to join the military rabbinate. Apparently he had a list of former yeshiva boys who decided to enlist and was pressuring them. I uncordially declined.

Then came basic training. Hell. Brutalization doesn’t begin to cover it. Suicidal thoughts. My platoon commander kicked me in the head during shooting range practice because I couldn’t hear him through the earplugs. Every time since then that I had to point a rifle afterwards at a target, I imagined it was his head on the target. This improved my sharpshooting skills, though I would later learn I was at my best when I simply closed my eyes and fired in the general direction of the target.

They taught us to steal. We couldn’t survive on what we were issued, were given tasks which we couldn’t accomplish – construct all sorts of silly stuff – without stealing from other units. This was encouraged with a smile. Remembering Plutarch’s Spartans, who also trained their young children to steal in order to survive, I realized this was pretty much how every army operates. They had to break your basic humanity, force you to shed your civilian inhibitions or you wouldn’t be able to point a rifle at a human being and shoot. They had to break your habit of thinking and replace it with unquestioned obedience, or you wouldn’t charge.

They wouldn’t allow us to see a doctor, until one of us had a heart attack on the third day. Then we saw a doctor in a hurry.

We had a swearing-in ceremony a few weeks later. While many of us shouted “I swear,” I and others shouted “I am breaking.” (The two sentences sound very similar in Hebrew).

Then, back to the BAKUM for reassignment. I learned my lesson and showed no initiative whatsoever. They assigned me to the BAKUM itself, and had me run a warehouse. I sharpened my stealing skills, as they were essential for the job. I signed for four flagpoles and every morning made the rounds and made certain nobody stole them during the night.

In November 1988, I was sent to a BATASH (“routine security”) duty: Guard the perimeter of a settlement, ‘Atatrot. At the time it was a small outpost of several low houses on top of a hill, unfenced; it was placed, with consummate tactical skill, between five Palestinian villages. If they wanted to kill us, well, there was very little we could do about it. Two of the villages had superior fire lines, and anyone with half-decent sharpshooting skills could take us out from 500 meters from above and we wouldn’t even see him. We had semi-malfunctioning Uzis, which I joked crossed the Alps with Hannibal and the common word was that the best use of them, when facing an enemy, would be throwing it at him, hoping this would cause the weapon to spontaneously discharge a burst, as it was wont to do.

But the place was hauntingly beautiful, nothing happened, and I passed the time learning to cook and reading Homer.

Naturally, at the time I did not know that merely guarding the place was a war crime.

Then, 15th November. Arafat stands at the Palestinian National Assembly, accepting the 1967 borders and the two states solution. Me and a friend embrace near the television: It’s over, it’s over. Surely it would be over?

Silly me.

Time passed. I managed to convince a doctor my poor eyesight prevented me from doing guard duty. 1989 came in. The First Intifada was on. Contrary to military orders, I was an active member of RATZ. Reports of acts of brutality came from all over. Young activists were agonizing about what to do. Again, as with anything to do with the army, there were three options:

  1. Do nothing. Get a job outside combat duty.
  2. Join a combat unit, but tune out. Do your duty, wait for the time to pass. It will. As conscript soldiers say, Od lo nolad ha’ben zona she’yachol la’atzor et hazman (the son of a bitch who can stop time is yet to be born.)
  3. Join a combat unit, and actively try to protect Palestinians.

A poet, Yonathan Geffen, wrote an op-ed outlining the three options, advocating fiercely for C. I was already in A., was bored out of my skull, didn’t think I was contributing anything to anyone and had more than two years to go until discharge. Why not C?

At about this time, Eyal, who studied with me at the yeshiva, wrote to me about the Civil Administration in Gaza: come and join us, we’re doing good work for the population, and you’re wasted in the BAKUM. We need good men. So I went to my unit commander, a former Paratrooper colonel who liked me, and told him I wanted to transfer to Gaza. He liked the idea of me doing something, and expedited the process.

Before transferring to Gaza, I took some due vacation time. When I returned, half my warehouse was stolen. The guy who kept it for me didn’t sign for the stuff, so he didn’t care so much. At least, I told myself, nobody stole the flagpoles.

There was no other choice. Much to the surprise of my direct officer, I volunteered for guard duty, ostensibly covering for a colleague who wanted to go home. I pulled some favors, and was assigned to the second guard shift in a godforsaken part of the base where I knew there was a laughingly-guarded tools warehouse. I went to my post with a wheelbarrow and a wirecutter. At about 01:00, I cut the lock from the warehouse, pulled all its tools into my wheelbarrow, hid the wheelbarrow, and when I was relieved  at 02:00, pushed the wheelbarrow into my own warehouse, and set about painting the tools with the paints of my unit.

Then I pulled a fast one. I went to the central warehouse at 13:00, when only mad dogs and Englishmen go out, and brought them a whole load of stuff I wanted to return. I signed the forms, and told them to give me the key and I will spare them the long slog up the hill where the tools were to be deposited. I made a wide detour and brought them back to my warehouse, came back to the main warehouse and returned them the key. Loads of IDF property vanished into thin air.

This still wasn’t enough to cover for the losses, and my staff sergeant disliked me, so I was sent to the colonel to be tried for loss of military materiel. This was my first military trial, and I was rather worried. He was on the phone with a general, Itzik Mordechai, speaking about the feast the general was supposed to receive upon taking command of Central Command.

“I’m here to be tried…” I said rather nervously, clutching the 630 form. He hushed me with a hand gesture. “Sure thing, Itzik, you’ll get it all. Everything for you, Itzik.” Then, hissing at me, “Are you willing to be tried by me?”

“What?”

“No problem, we already reserved the band… Are you willing to be tried by me?”

“Errr, yes?”

“How do you plead?”

“I admit to the facts but deny the accusation.” The basic mantra of every IDF soldier on trial.

“What happened precisely? Of course, Itzik, the canapes just as you like them…”

“I went on vacation and the guy who ran my warehouse did not…”

“I’ve heard enough. I hereby pronounce you not guilty.” He smiled. “Try to enjoy Gaza.”

Tens of thousands of NIS [shekels] in public funds just went up in smoke.

 

**********

Gaza. How to describe it? Crushing poverty, like nothing I’ve ever seen, before or after. Towns which are basically slums, and refugee camps, in place for 40 years, which are worse. Much worse. Hardly any infrastructure. A few months before my discharge, the Civil Administration erected the first traffic light in Khan Younis, and two drivers promptly crashed into one another. At our base in Dir El Balah, our running water was salty, just like those of the entire town; they were undrinkable and a truck would deliver fresh water every few days. In the meantime, we bought water from the snarky Shaweesh (officer body man), who had fulfilled such duties since the days of the Egyptian military regime, and was generally considered by the soldiers and junior officers to be an intelligence agent for someone – rumors swirled about which service. My money was on the Egyptians. He once shocked me by accurately mocking my voice, using various radio codes correctly, which meant he spent some time listening outside the war room or near one of the vehicle radios. The governor liked him, though, so he stayed.

Sealed road in Gaza, Jabalia refugee camp, 1988. Photo by Andrew Courtney. andrewcourtneyphotography.com

I was attached to the Dir El Balah Civil Administration District unit, and as I spoke not a word of Arabic, but was handy with radios, codes and such, became an Operation Sergeant (OS). That was a title, not a rank – I was still a private. I would run two shifts a day (12:00 to 18:00 and 24:00 to 06:00) and would then be replaced by a female OS. Our commander was a young second lieutenant, EK, very ambitious and very frustrated. EK wanted to do stuff, and needed to feel he was important; but junior Civil Administration officers were rather low on the power scale in the Strip, and anyway the army claimed most of the action for itself. As we’ll see later, EK’s craving for action would put us on a collision course.

The Civil Administration was once called the Military Administration and the name change fooled no one. We were supposed to present the carrots while the army was wielding the sticks, but our supplies of carrots was desperately low. We tried to run a town (Dir El Balah), a village (Zweideh), and several refugee camps (Dir El Balah RC, Bureij RC, Al Muazi RC, ans Nuseirath RC) as they were in a state of constant rebellion. We did so by trying to run the towns and RCs through a series of collaborators, many of them corrupt to the bone and who were sometimes targets of assassination attempts, some more successful than others.

The first night I met the mayor of Dir El Balah, I was in the jeep with EK and a reservist driver (most of our drivers were reservists, and spent just few weeks with us) when we arrived at what I could only think of as a plantation outside the city limits. It was August; the night was heavy and muggy; there was a very long fire trench, where various meats were sizzling, and fawning men were fanning the meat energetically. The mayor was slouched on a low couch, and his brother was slouched next to him. So were several other notables. Everyone was sucking on a hookah and laughing. We sat down, and were invited to tea and food; I accepted out of politeness. Everything felt off. EK did his business with the mayor, introduced me to him and his brother, we ate a bit and then we were off. They offered a hookah and I noticed EK’s glance, so I declined and said I didn’t smoke. As we climbed into the jeep, the driver whispered to: “Did you see their eyeballs? Whatever was in that hookah, it wasn’t tobacco.”

Israeli soldier seen through a window in Gaza. Jabalia refugee camp, 1988. Photo by Andrew Courtney. andrewcourtneyphotography.com

I went out on some patrols, to know what it’s all about. I walked into houses unannounced, combat soldiers leading the way. I saw how searches were conducted. I saw a reservist smash the steel butt of his Galil rifle through a transparent glass table, saying laughingly he was “searching for weapons.” I saw the mistreatment and low-level torture of old men, men, boys. The humiliation of parents, the fear and hatred of children. And I stood aside.

See, a poisonous calculus was working. You’re here. You’re a leftist. You’re here to prevent abuse. But if you expose yourself as a leftist too soon, they’ll hide the abuse from you and you won’t be able to prevent it. So you’d better keep your protest for the really tough cases, you know, like preventing a murder. There’s no point in reporting the routine beating up of cuffed and blindfolded prisoners in the entrance to the battalion command: Everyone saw it. The officers – mine and theirs – saw it, and nobody gave a damn. So obey your orders: Summon the bulldozers to destroy some houses as collective punishment. This isn’t murder, isn’t it? You know there were murders. You heard the whispered stories. Look aside, and wait for the right moment, the real thing.

I fucked it up, naturally. My only defense was that I was 19 with absolutely no legal or ethical training.

Many years later, I heard Philip Zimbardo on a TED talk. To make a long story short, he said – almost in tears – that we should train young people to know there will come a point, one and pivotal, in their lives, when they should say “no” to power. This is your moment to resist and do good: Seize it.

I dropped mine.

 

***********

September, 1990. Rosh Hashana. I’m on watch. I receive disjointed reports from the battalion observation point: An Israeli car is seen entering Bureij RC. 15 minutes later: Large crowd in Bureij. Ten minutes later: A vehicle is on fire in Bureij. Ten minutes later: Massive crowds are running away from Bureij.

I hurry up and bring the report, each time, to the duty officer, Major Hamoud, the Arab Affairs Advisor. I can see him thinking, trying to figure it out. When the report about the burning car reaches him, he dashes out, calls for his driver, screams for the gate to be opened, and storms off in a jeep. On the road, he radios everyone: Firefighters, ambulances, police.

Hamoud pieced together what happened, but he is too late. Two days later, we drive home. He in the driver’s seat, I behind him. His hair has all turned white. “I saw him, Yossi. I saw him. He was burning. I wanted to reach him, but the car was about to explode.” Less than a minute later, it did.

Amnon Pommerantz was a reservist. He got the first day of Rosh Hashana off, but was to report to battalion on the second. He made one wrong turn, and found himself not in Bureij Battalion Camp, but in Bureij Refugee Camp. Young men are gathering. Stones are thrown. Pommerantz panics, and tries to pull back; he hits a wagon with two children on it. The children are wounded. The crowd grows larger, as do the stones. He tries to move the vehicle forwards, loses control, and rams a mosque. The car can no longer move. He gets out of the vehicle, puts his gun on the grounds, and kneels, begs for mercy; the stones keep coming. He gets back into the vehicle, gets hit in the head and loses consciousness, slumped on the wheel. Three young men run to the nearby gas station. They come back with petrol. They douse the car and light it, with Pommerantz inside. Then the mob, realizing vengeance will come soon, disperses and tries to run away.

Hamoud is first on the scene. On the radio, pandemonium. The battalion commander screams at the company commander: Count all your men and see if anyone else is missing. The CC replies, voice cracking: Everyone is accounted for. We’re on a skeleton crew, since this is Rosh Hashana; Hamoud is in Bureij; no other officer is on the base (it will take hours for them to arrive, many live in the north); so it falls to Corporal Gurvitz to speak with the chief of UNRWA Middle East operations when he arrives, unannounced, at the base in late afternoon. I remember this to be a very bewildered conversation, both of us unsure of our spoken English, and me feeling completely out of my depth. This conversation should have happened at the colonel or brigadier level. He asked what we were planning to do in retaliation, and I told him I had no idea, which was true enough. At the time, nobody did.

Night shift. The Shin Bet worked fast. Someone was stupid enough to take pictures of the lynching, and they got them. The pictures identified the killers. They were not home. But the brother of one of them was.

At about 02:30, the Shin Bet regional coordinator arrives with some soldiers. He brings with him an old man and a young child. The child, about five or six, is handcuffed and blindfolded. The old man is not. He whispers to the child. The Shin Bet officer directs them to sit on the benches in our courtyard, tells me to take care of the child, and vanishes into his office, on the other side of the compound.

I have no idea what the child could want. I speak to the old man. He doesn’t speak Hebrew and I don’t speak any Arabic, but I think I understand his gestures: the child is hungry. I go to the kitchen and grab some tuna or sardines – fish, anyway – in tomato sauce. I go back down, kneel by the child, and slowly spoonfeed him. I am close enough to smell the urine on his trousers.

I don’t know for sure, but I have a very clear understanding of what happens here. The child is a hostage. His adolescent son of a bitch of a brother will either turn himself in, or the child will suffer. I would later learn, from the press – it still covered such things back then – that the Shin Bet officer threatened the parents he will send the child to a detention camp, where he will be raped by other prisoners, if his brother didn’t turn himself in.

The gate is twenty meters away. The Shin Bet officer is on the other side of the base, probably catching some sleep. I have a key to the gate. I have a wirecutter in the command room. I could cut the plastic handcuffs, take off the blindfold, lead the child and his caretaker to the gate, and set them free.

I do not. I concentrate on feeding the child and then giving him a drink. I tell myself there is no point; the child will be captured again soon enough. This is true, but it is irrelevant. I didn’t know it yet, but I had my moment of resistance and blew it off. I knew hostage-taking was horrid and brutalizing. I did my part in it anyway. I was given an order, and I did not resist. I was still looking for that great injustice to prevent, and couldn’t see it when it was looking me in the eye.

I end my shift and go to sleep. I give my colleague instructions about the child. When I wake up, he and his uncle are gone. The brother has turned himself in. The system of injustice worked. I did my minor share in helping it.

Jabalia refugee camp, 1988. Photo by Andrew Courtney. andrewcourtneyphotography.com

The next day Hamoud and I ride home. In the week I would be away, Israeli troops will demolish much of Bureij. Good and conscientious legal scholars pored over the plans, and decided this collective punishment was proportional. Naturally, they were promoted. Amnon Strashnov, the JAG who signed off the demolition plans, was to be appointed a district court judge.

A few months later, I feel I can’t take it any longer. EK has a goon squad now, and he’s trying to show the residents of Dir El Balah he’s the sheriff, or at least one of them. His goons and he physically assault Palestinians for no reason; one of the goons, on a night raid on a mosque, paints a Star of David on it. EK protects him from the legal heat.

One day, he and the goons bring in a Palestinian EK accuses of unlicensed construction in the Palestinian’s own house. They take him to their improvised interrogation room. A few minutes later, EK bursts into the command room, white as a shade: the interrogee has fainted. Get a doctor. I get a reservist doctor. He treats the Palestinian, and, I am told later, tells the goons how to beat a prisoner without leaving marks. I am in the command room, writing a report about the incident in the operations journal, intending to send it to headquarters. EK comes in, looks at what I am writing, and without a word takes out a box cutter and cuts off the page.

For all I’ve seen, this – the desecration of the sacred operation journal, an object of semi-veneration among Operation Sergeants – sends me over the edge. When I’m back home, I speak with Avi Oren of blessed memory, the local RATZ chairman, and ask for help. He informs me soldiers have the right to contact Members of Knesset directly and tell them anything, and suggests he will act as a conduit to Dedi Zucker, a RATZ MK. I agree, and write down a report about EK and his goons.

I don’t know it yet, but Zucker is working closely with the recently-founded B’Tselem. He turns my report to them, and then it somehow finds its way into Hadashot, a radical newspaper. The first I know of it, Samir – one of the few officers I actually esteemed – comes into the command room, laughing loudly, waves the paper at EK and says “Look, you’re famous now.”

It didn’t take them too long to find out the source. Not all that many leftists in the unit. That evening, EK confronts me. He rages, promises vengeance. I spend a long night, contemplating suicide or, even more demented, defecting to the local PLO branch – which doesn’t exist anymore, nor would they be willing to accept a desperate IDF defector, who in any case would not be able to find them as he doesn’t speak any Arabic.

Next morning, I am informed I will have a special meeting with the Chief of the Civil Administration in two days. He is a brigadier general. Crap. As I am worrying about this new development, EK orders me to follow him on one of his rides. This is strange, because he rarely asked me to.

We are four in the jeep: A reservist driver behind the wheel; EK on his right; me sitting directly behind EK; and to my left, one of the goons. We drive in silence. EK is seething. He tells the driver to drive to Dir El Balah RC, a rough place where a few weeks earlier Samir and I trashed his jeep (long story). After a few minutes’ ride in silence we arrive. EK orders the driver to halt, and turns to me. “Get out of the car.”

I didn’t move. Neither did anyone else. I think we were in shock.

“Get out of the car,” he repeats, “Go, join your Arab friends. You’re on their side, aren’t you? Go, see if they accept you!” I look him in the eye. He looks serious. Mad, but serious. I lean back, pull my rifle to me, move the safety to “single shot”, and cock it. I don’t aim it at EK, per se, but the gesture is unmistakable. And I can raise it and fire it, point-blank, faster than he can raise his.

(But would I?)

Long silence. Finally EK cracks. “Go back to the base,” he snarls at the driver. We ride in silence. Word spreads quickly. People come to shake my hand. At night, Raleb the governor calls me to his office.

“The command room would be unmanned.”

“Leave it. Nothing will happen.”

He cross-examines me: What happened with EK and his goons, what happened today in Dir El Balah RC. “Why didn’t you come to me earlier?”

I am in tears. “I didn’t know who to trust.”

“You should have trusted me. You were a fool not to. Tell me everything you know and you think I don’t know.”

I tell him. He nods, writes himself a little list. “I’ll protect you as best I can, but you have to be careful. Particularly with the general.”

The next day he summons EK to his office. I don’t know what was said there, but when EK comes back, he doesn’t look at me.

The next day is the meeting with the general at his office in the huge compound in Gaza. The general is very kind. He expresses concern that such events can take place under his command; he promises me amnesty if I will tell him all I know about abuses in Dir El Balah. I do. I think he is somewhat shocked. (They won’t keep the promise: a few months later, when the media noise died down, I was put on trial for leaking information. The deputy governor protested: You are going back on your word. I was sentenced to two weeks should I ever commit the same offense again.)

Soon afterwards, EK is promoted and moves out of Dir El Balah. Perhaps it was their way of getting him away from a position where he can persecute me. That still left a bitter taste.

For the rest of my service in Dir El Balah I am somewhat of an outcast. A few months later, my security clearance is stripped away. Later I would joke they demoted my clearance to “Assad”, but at the time it isn’t funny.

****************

Two more stories. It’s one of the nights of the First Gulf War. For once, I am not pulling a night shift. D. does. D. is a very contentious Operation Sergeants. We all make small mistakes; she doesn’t. Serious, dedicated, and somewhat humorless. The days are unusually tense. There is a long curfew, and while we generally announce curfews with “a curfew has been ordered, everyone should stay home,” now we add the line “anyone who leaves his house will be shot.”

D. receives a phone call late at night. The call is from a resident of the Muazi RC. His children are sick, they need their medicine, and he needs a permit to go out and buy the medicine. D. doesn’t speak Arabic. He doesn’t speak Hebrew. They try to speak in English, but while D.’s English is flawless, his is almost non-existent. D. gets frustrated and shouts at him. He slams down the phone.

As we later learn, the man sneaks out of his house, makes it to a pharmacy which is still open, gets the medicine and starts going back home. On the way back, he encounters a patrol, panics and tries to run. They gun him down.

Samir is our first officer on the scene. He sees a man lying crumpled, shattered medicine bottles around him. He asks the soldiers what happened, and they say the man tried to grab their weapons. Samir notes they can’t quite hide their smiles.

And the last one. It must be May or early June 1991. Night shift. A phone call from the brigade. Michal is on the line, my opposite number at the brigade. We often chat and laugh – nothing much happens at night. I pulled the usual prank on her when she was on her first shift. We never met, but in the strange world of disembodied voices in the night, we are sort of friends.

No jokes this time. She starts dictating in a strange, robotic voice. I take the note. There was a girl in Khan Younis who refused to wear the veil. The local Hamas cell warned her. She refused to heed the warning. Michal informs me that two hours earlier, a group of goons – presumably Hamas – broke into her home. Her father tried to protect her; they wounded him with an ax. Then Michal delivers a very slow, very clinical description of what they did to the girl. Let’s say the merciful part is she was no longer alive.

I copy my notes in a clean hand into the operations journal, then I go to the bathroom, vomit, and I wake my officer. “Take the shift, I can’t do it anymore.” He looks at me and asks no questions.

 

*************

Israeli soldiers in Gaza, Jabalia refugee camp, 1988. Photo by Andrew Courtney. andrewcourtneyphotography.com

I hate the Israeli army with a passion. I think it is the most corrupting element in Israeli society. That being said, I think my experience has made me a better fighter against the occupation. There is some paradox here: Those who served in the OPT better understand the occupation than those who don’t. Breaking the Silence, for instance, are particularly effective precisely because they’ve been there.

But the price is often high. Many, many good people believed, like me, they could change the occupation by serving there: Making it more humane, reporting abuses, changing the system. But, with few exceptions, when you put your body upon the gears, wheels and levers of this particular machine – The Green Beast, as I’ve grown to call it – it generally breaks you upon them. You don’t change the system; the system changes you or it spits you out. My advice to young men is to avoid the draft. They often tell me they will make a change, and I tell them about the young, handcuffed boy and the soldier who fed him but did not free him.

And I hope one day I will atone for that, but I don’t think I’m there yet. Strange enough, I want to go back. I spent two years in Dir El Balah. I want to talk to people. To say I’m sorry, I was young and stupid. To see the place and smell it again.

As I write those words, we are in the aftermath of yet another bloody “round”, as we’ve come to call them, with Gaza. We’ve killed some two dozen of them; Hamas killed four Israeli civilians. I loathe the sight of men with guns. I detest the blabbering fools in uniform.

I hope this will change, but I can’t see how. And I wonder if the Greeks weren’t right about this, as well: That hope is the most evil thing to man, the last of the evils unleashed by Pandora, the one who stayed closest to home.

Yossi Gurvitz
About Yossi Gurvitz

Yossi Gurvitz is a journalist and a blogger, and has covered the occupation extensively.

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20 Responses

  1. just
    just on May 23, 2019, 11:04 am

    Are you affiliated with Breaking the Silence, Yossi? How about B’Tselem? I do appreciate you sharing this even though it was mightily difficult to read, and I had to do it over the course of 1.5 hours. I am glad that you’ve found a new way forward, and I think I am not far off when I guess that you remain haunted.

    You write “I hate the Israeli army with a passion. I think it is the most corrupting element in Israeli society.” What about the violent settlers that have illegally seized Palestinian lands that are abetted by the IOF? They appear to work in concert, don’t they? I have so many more questions, and will continue to follow this thread.

  2. JLewisDickerson
    JLewisDickerson on May 23, 2019, 7:33 pm

    Thanks for this great read!

  3. lonely rico
    lonely rico on May 23, 2019, 8:40 pm

    “I hate the Israeli army with a passion. I think it is the most corrupting element in Israeli society.”

    There is one fundamental corrupting element in Israeli society – the ugly murderous zionist conquest and destruction of the land and people of Palestine.

    All else is diversion and illusion.

  4. Citizen
    Citizen on May 24, 2019, 1:18 am

    This was an intense read. I couldn’t help but compare it with my own army experience, when I was a combat engineer, age 18.

  5. RoHa
    RoHa on May 24, 2019, 3:44 am

    Painful to read, especially the section on Gaza.

    “We had semi-malfunctioning Uzis”

    I thought that Uzis were the wonder weapon. Some malfunction?

    “I passed the time learning to cook and reading Homer.”

    At lest two activities were worthwhile.

    • MHughes976
      MHughes976 on May 24, 2019, 1:14 pm

      The scene with the malfunctioning uzis suggests that the settlers and soldiers were hardly set on a lonely island in a raging sea of terrorism. But the glimpse of the people who induced your vomit and were presumed to be Hamas is terrifying. This was long ago: do you think Hamas is different now?

  6. Ossinev
    Ossinev on May 24, 2019, 9:49 am

    Yossi perhaps you should try and contact Zaq another “lone soldier” and have a chat.
    https://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Open-letter-from-a-lone-soldier-590425

    Whatever his divergence of your views on the occupation and the IDF treatment of Palestinians like you he appears to have emerged with a genuine self deprecating sense of humour.

    Loved the “Yid – life crisis”. His words. If I used the term there would ear shattering howls of “Anti- Semitism”.

    • Mooser
      Mooser on May 25, 2019, 1:56 pm

      “If I used the term…”

      I wish I had thought of it when we still had the boat.

  7. Mooser
    Mooser on May 24, 2019, 1:38 pm

    “I hate the Israeli army with a passion. I think it is the most corrupting element in Israeli society.” Yossi Gurvitz

    I wonder, did the Israeli army corrupt the military Rabbinate, or the other way round?

  8. jon s
    jon s on May 24, 2019, 5:02 pm

    Yossi Gurvitz’ recollections reminded me of my own service in the IDF and I note some similarities, some differences.

    I belong to an older generation, having served as a combat medic in the Yom Kippur War, the First Lebanese War and the First Intifada. I did three years regular service and twenty years in the reserves.

    I also encountered some incompetent and crazy officers and NCOs and had my brush with absurd military “trials “. I too, learned how to con the system ,like when I had to prepare an infirmary I was responsible for for inspection. In fairness, I also met excellent officers , whom I greatly admired.

    In combat units strong ties are formed between the men. Friendships were formed that still last today, so many years later. As to stealing: in our reserve unit you could leave your wallet open and in plain sight and no one would touch it .

    Unlike Yossi, I don’t hate the IDF. I did hate serving in the IDF. There’s a difference.

    Perhaps someday I’ll write something more extensive

  9. edwardm
    edwardm on May 24, 2019, 7:04 pm

    Reminds me of a song. Except that Yossi was fortunate enough to always have been human.

    Learning to kill is a matter of habit,
    the more you have done it the better you’re at it.
    It starts in the alleys of Sechem at night.
    The borderlines blur in the evening light.
    A rifle butt bangs on an old, rusty door,
    “Where is your father? Get down on the floor!’
    Soon it gets serious. A curfew’s declared.
    The city falls silent, there’s death in the air.
    Cocking his weapon with shaking fingers,
    grits his teeth as he’s hugging the trigger.
    Young blood rushes, his heart pounds.
    He knows it gets easier the next time around.
    They’re just objects and shadows, not women and men.
    Learning to kill is a natural thing.
    Learning to fear is a matter of habit,
    the more you have done it the better you’re at it.
    News from above reaches the street.
    There’s no hope of living, the end is so near.
    Tidings of terror, a raven’s crow:
    “Shutter your windows, lock up your homes!”
    “We’re just a handful, a tiny country
    surrounded by evil. They won’t let us be.”
    “They have hate in their hearts and in all that they bring.”
    Learning to fear is a natural thing
    Cruelty is a matter of habit,
    the more you have seen it the better you’re at it.
    Every boy has a tyrant’s desire.
    “Hands behind the head, legs spread wide!”
    These are times of danger, times of despair.
    No room for compassion, a soldier can’t care!
    Our neighbours are vermin; they’re used to the blood;
    how can they feel pain when they live in the mud!
    Through cruel routine a soldier is born.
    Ignorance soon turns to evil in war.
    Israel’s land is for Israel’s kin.
    Cruelty comes as a natural thing.
    Learning to love is a natural thing,
    it will find a way if you just let it in.
    It’ll be strange at first, but then you will see it,
    that learning to love is a matter of being
    Being human is a matter of habit,
    a few baby steps, then you get better at it.
    To be for one minute, just now, just recall
    the opposite side of the towering walls.
    But our hearts have hardened along with our skin.
    We live in a bubble and let no one else in.
    We’ll be staring in wonder as the angel falls,
    then being human will be a matter of course.
    https://youtu.be/nLesWYPkUqQ

  10. lvig
    lvig on May 25, 2019, 11:00 am

    You’re not there yet Yossi, not by a long chalk.

    You blow your cover in the penultimate paragraph where you write that “we” killed a “some two dozen of them” and then immediately juxtapose this with the “four Israeli civilians” who get the honor of being identified by affiliation, exact number, military non-status as well as the name of the perpetrator clearly spelled out.

    And then there’s the vomiting episode induced by what appears to hearsay evidence. Did you request hard evidence or was the description by your jokey phone buddy sufficient to make your gorge rise? You may be interested in a real horrific incident, documented, tried and unpunished.

    https://www.counterpunch.org/2003/11/13/voiding-the-palestinians/

  11. just
    just on May 26, 2019, 2:58 pm

    “Settler Seen Setting Fire to West Bank Fields Is a Soldier, Security Sources Confirm

    After the army blamed Palestinians for the blaze, it has come to light that one of the two Jewish settlers filmed setting fire to a West Bank field is an IDF soldier who was on leave at the time

    One of the two Jewish settlers caught on video setting West Bank fields on fire last Friday is an IDF soldier, Haaretz has learned.

    The army knows the identity of the settler, who was filmed by Israeli human rights nonprofit organization B’Tselem, and two security sources confirmed the details, saying that the soldier was on leave when the arson took place.

    According to the military, the Israel Police are expected to handle the incident. The police said that they have yet to arrest the soldier.

    Clashes broke out last Friday in the area between the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar and the nearby Palestinian villages of Burin, Urif and Asira al-Qibliya, with settlers and Palestinians accusing each other of setting farm fields on fire. On Thursday, the Israeli military admitted that Jewish settlers set the fire, changing its story after it originally blamed the arson on Palestinians.

    The Israel Defense Forces’ Spokesperson’s Unit confirmed that settlers, too, were responsbile for the blazes after B’Tselem published the video clip on Wednesday that shows that the settlers took part in igniting the fires.

    B’Tselem’s video shows that at least two settlers set fields on fire. Another video shows settlers at Yitzhar fields, lighting fires that quickly spread.

    Changing its version following the videos’ publication, the Israeli military stated that “several fires were set and quickly spread” in the West Bank, and that at the same time, “about 20 residents went down to the outskirts of the village of Asira al-Qibliya and began throwing stones.”

    On Saturday, dozens of extreme right-wing masked activists assaulted police near Yitzhar and threw stones and other objects at policemen and their van, puncturing the tires of two manned police vehicles.

    No one was arrested in this incident nor in the arsons or the other incidents.

    In another video taken by Palestinians during the confrontations, settlers are seen standing close to a home in a Palestinian village and throwing rocks at nearby houses. Four soldiers can be seen standing among the settlers and doing nothing to stop them.

    The IDF also said it put up a fence between Yitzhar and Urif after settlers assaulted villagers on April 13. In that incident, settlers were filmed throwing rocks at a vehicle driven by a Palestinian family. … the Border Police increased its presence in the area.”

    https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-settler-seen-setting-fire-to-west-bank-fields-is-a-soldier-security-sources-confirm-1.7286581?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

    Videos @ the link. No arrests… no punishment. Thank goodness for B’Tselem. The IOF and Israel knows only lies, violence, fences, and state- sponsored terror toward the Palestinians. Want to bet that this IOF’er is celebrated in his illegal community? His/her mommy and daddy must be sooo proud!

    • echinococcus
      echinococcus on May 27, 2019, 4:34 pm

      Just,

      Just a quick underline: due to the nature of the conscription and military service laws and regulations in the Zionist entity, every one of their Master-Race citizens (with the exception of special cases) can be assumed by default to be a soldier unless proved different.
      Those coming from the US, like “our” John S, are in fact direct American military help, as the US Gov officially recognizes their double citizenship with no sanction for serving under a foreign flag.

  12. just
    just on May 26, 2019, 3:29 pm

    Remember that Friedman and Kushner are involved with Yitzhar in their own special way!

    “Kushner Family’s Settlement Donations Alarm U.S. Jewish Groups

    ‘It’s alarming how many of Trump’s advisers on Israel have a long history of close personal and financial ties to some of the most extreme settlements.’ …

    … According to the report, published on Monday in Haaretz, the family of Jared Kushner, who is married to Ivanka Trump and is a trusted confidant of the president-elect, donated tens of thousands of dollars in recent years to projects in the settlements, including a small amount to one particularly radical yeshiva.

    “It’s alarming how many of President-elect Donald Trump’s advisers on Israel, including his son-in-law, have a long history of close personal and financial ties to the settlement movement and some of the most extreme settlements,” said J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami. J Street supports the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

    The report found that among organizations and institutions in the West Bank that receive funding from the Kushner family, the leading beneficiary is American Friends of Beit El Yeshiva. The president of American Friends of Beit El Yeshiva is David Friedman, Trump’s senior adviser on Israel affairs. Located in one of the more hardline, ideological settlements, Beit El Yeshiva received $20,000 from the Kushner family in 2013.

    “In recent years, the settlers have amassed power in Israel’s government, setting the country on a course toward a one-state nightmare and permanent occupation,” said Ben-Ami. “Americans who understand that Israel’s future, security, democracy and Jewish nature depend on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be deeply frightened to see the settlement movement’s friends here on the verge of doing the same in the American government.”

    T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights already filed a complaint in the past with the IRS about tax-exempt donations to the radical Od Yosef Chai yeshiva that received a small donation from the Kushner family. Located in the settlement of Yitzhar, Od Yosef Chai has served as a base for violent attacks against nearby Palestinian villages.

    “Donations to such an institution clearly violate IRS prohibitions on supporting terrorist groups or activities,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the executive director of T’ruah, which has been campaigning to deny ta-exempt status to philanthropic organizations that donate to projects in the settlements.

    “In light of the Trump administration’s suggestion that Jared Kushner may play an official diplomatic role in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Jacobs, “it is especially disturbing that his family’s foundation invests both in this extremist yeshiva, and more generally in the settlements constructed in violation of decades of U.S. policy and international law.” These, Jacobs said, “serve further to entrench the occupation that violates the human rights of Palestinians and threatens the security of Israelis.””

    article is from 12/2016: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-kushner-family-s-settlement-donations-alarm-u-s-jewish-groups-1.5470058

  13. Danaa
    Danaa on May 27, 2019, 7:38 pm

    this should be mandatory reading in all Jewish shuls in the US and other countries outside holey land.

    I could commiserate with the process of corrupting the spirit to better bend young people to accept the whims of power. Also with the idea that “hope is the last refuge of scoundrels”, expressed st the end.

    Yossi’s experiences are his own. We each have ours. My own rebellion as a young person was to refuse to bond. I just didn’t. kept an emotional distance from one and all – the nice and the less nice. I knew i was giving up on friendship, companionship, whatever. I didn’t yet know, when I was young, that I was also giving up memories of entire spans of time. Without emotional connection – good or bad – the memories don’t take hold. Now all I have are snippets, without a single face, or voice I can conjure up from my days of service in the IDF.

    Am proud to say I racked up one of the longest military complaint sheets ever (so I was told). Refused any rank they tried to give me. Snickered at suggestions I should consider becoming an officer (“an officer for what” I recall saying – “of a bunch of military female draftees working as secretaries and coffee servers and party planners? so i can better tell them to obey rules I thought were ludicrous and pointless in the first place?”).

    Then again, I served at an earlier time than Yossi. Before occupation went full bore. While many were still innocent and many more believed we really were the good guys. I saw not a single Arab during my service.

    I read Yossi’s account and am actually in awe of his commitment – so early in life – to be part of a moral stand. Though yes, I also read he didn’t think he did enough at all, and the way this left him morally and spiritually “scratched”. I wasn’t scratched that way because (1) the IDF was not yet a full-blown occupation army with all that entails, (2) I accepted the kind of existential loneliness that comes with refusing to bond, and (3) perhaps, even at 18 I already had a jaundiced view of life. Instead of uplifting yeshiva materials all I had were some existential writings, such as were translated by then to color my views of the human condition.

    Today, Yossi’s stories read so much more effective than mine. he suffered and agonized and reproached himself, and struggled. But he seems to have names (EK?) and faces and personalities which even now populate his past.

    I have none of that. Not one face recalled (perhaps when I look at old photos, I get a vague recollection. As in “who was that exactly? looks familiar”), and only a scattered collection of events, the precise unfolding of which has become material for stories, slightly altered and fictionalized as the need arises.

    OTOH, without hope, I have to say I also feel I gained some freedom. the freedom to move on, to move out, to start something new, from scratch, without having to bear the burden of being also spiritually scratched. Though when i read Yossi’s extremely affecting and disturbing accounts with so many details recalled, still, after so many years, then yes, I am a bit envious. And saddened for having tossed so many humans and human experiences overboard, leaving behind just a sanitized past. I wish could borrow the memory of an EK to dress up that abstract salad I am looking at. make it less bland. But perhaps not all choices were ours to make. I think mine probably were not. For too many of us choice is something we discover later in life, sometimes well after we had that fork in the road and realize we took one and not the other branch.

  14. Citizen
    Citizen on May 31, 2019, 11:17 am

    I wish to thank all former IDF soldiers who contributed here. Young soldiers, now old men, need to know this stuff.

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