The terminology used to be routine and clear: Whenever a unit of the Israel Defense Forces completed a mission – be it the aerial bombing of refugee camps in Lebanon, shelling terrorist headquarters in Syria or attacking missile sites in Egypt – the media would report that “our forces returned safely to their bases.”
The missions were part of a universal consensus and their success – they were always considered successful – was our collective success. The term “our forces” encapsulated the spirit of the time – the broad consensus, the concept of the IDF as “the people’s army,” the shared national pride and concern.
Rivers of blood have flowed since then – mostly for no good reason; and the attitude toward the IDF has become more cautious and suspicious. Not all its operations have been automatically sanctified, and Israeli society has become more skeptical. These are all positive developments; and their result – the term, “our forces,” was eliminated from the public agenda.
A capricious attempt some two years ago by the former director of Israel Radio, Amnon Nadav, to restore the glory of yesteryear by ordering radio announcers to use the term, “our forces,” in newscasts failed. The term did not catch on again, perhaps because it’s something of a problem to say: “Our forces killed three Palestinian children this morning.”
The fact that this archaic, nationalist term was thrown onto the refuse heap of history was a sign of the maturity of Israeli society. In a country where large segments of the population – the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox, for example – do not serve in the army and do not identify with its operations, the use of the term, “our forces,” was inherently problematic, almost perverse. Newscasts on which it was used appeared to be propaganda.
However, the positive aspects of the removal of this heavy-handed term from our lives also has a certain negative element. If the IDF is no longer “our forces,” and its successes are not our successes, then, by the same token, its failures and crimes are no longer ours either.
When IDF soldiers prevent a woman in labor from getting to a hospital, forcing her to give birth at a checkpoint, in some cases losing the infant as a result, it’s easy enough to claim that these are not our forces and that this is not our policy – it’s no more than a one-time aberration. How would listeners react to a newscast on which they heard that “our forces” shot and wounded an Israeli at the separation fence? Who is to decide whether the forces that opened fire are more “our forces” than the demonstrators are?
When five basketball players – three Americans, a Lithuanian and a Croat, all playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv – win (or lose) in a European Cup game, we all say: “We won” (or “We lost”). Does Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Lithuanian player, Sarunas Jasikevicius, represent the Israeli collectivity more than the soldiers who prevented the pregnant woman from crossing the checkpoint? Does the Croat player, Nikola Vujcic, act in our name more than the neighbor’s son, the soldier who knocks down walls in the Casbah of Nablus?
The point is that it’s easy to identify with Maccabi Tel Aviv and its successes, whereas many Israelis would disclaim all responsibility for the actions of the soldiers at the checkpoints.
Maybe it would be a good thing to resuscitate the term “our forces,” if only to emphasize what has long since been blurred – the IDf continues to be the people’s army, and everything its soldiers do in the occupied territories, day in and day out, they do in the name of all of us. The soldier who stops a disabled man from crossing a checkpoint and the soldier who fires at the tires of a car whose driver spoke to him impolitely; the soldier driving the bulldozer that demolishes house after house and the soldier who kills a British photographer who had done nothing wrong; the soldier who is abrasively rude to Palestinians and the soldier who fires a bullet into the head of a boy who threw stones in the Qalandiyah refugee camp or climbed onto a tank in Jenin; the soldier who abuses students on their way to the university and the soldier who examines people’s x-rays to decide whether to allow them to travel to the hospital; the soldier who deliberately sends clouds of smoke into the homes of Palestinians and the soldier who imprisons a family in one room for days at a time – all of them are our forces. And the soldiers who shoot at Israeli demonstrators at the separation fence are also doing it in our name.
No Israeli can skirt his responsibility for the acts of the IDF in the territories – acts that have long since ceased to be aberrations, but are instead the fruits of consistent and systematic policy. “Detail,” the impressive new video work by filmmaker Avi Mugrabi, documents how anonymous soldiers sitting in a scary-looking jeep abuse a woman who is carrying a small child in her arms and is trying to cross a checkpoint east of Nablus. Her husband, who pleads with the soldiers and tells them that his wife is bleeding, is turned away with coarse language too. For three hours, the woman is made to stand in the blazing sun, the child in her arms, her face pale, while the soldiers speak to her from the jeep using a loudspeaker, as though they were dealing with an animal herd. This scene, which is played out daily, is also done in our name.
The optimists among the human rights activists in Israel believe that the day will come when those who are responsible for Israel’s brutal behavior in the territories will be brought to justice. Whether it will take the form of a South Africa-style “truth and reconciliation committee” or a trial before an international court, those who have abused a defenseless civilian population for so many years will be brought to account, the optimists insist.
But even if this vision is realized, no one will be able to escape the collective responsibility. In our silence, in our indifference and in the overwhelming fact that it’s all being done in our name, we are all soldiers at checkpoints.