Hebron: Of Course There Are Questions
December 16, 1998
"Of Course There are Questions...."
by Mark Frey
I am tired of talking to soldiers.
When I first started working in Hebron I enjoyed it; these 18 to 21-year-olds
often describe in unadulterated words the reality of power and domination in
the Occupation. And after standing at checkpoints for 8 hours a day, 6 days a
week, some soldiers are really ready to talk.
But after living here for almost two years, the conversations and questions
from these young guys tend to repeat themselves: "Who are you? Why are you
here? We are warriors! We are only following orders! We don't want to be
here! We don't have any choice!"
Our responses also tend to repeat. Occasionally, however, there are soldiers,
usually older reservists, who offer a more thoughtful commentary on the
Occupation and their role in it.
A few weeks ago we were at al-Khader village just south of Bethlehem where the
day before Israeli bulldozers had been cutting a swath through grape vineyards
and terraces to make way for a bypass road for Efrat settlement.
Clashes had broken out when the villagers and land owners began throwing rocks
at the construction crew. Israeli soldiers responded with the usual tear gas
and rubber bullets.
The footage of the violence made the evening news, so we were present the day
after in case the bulldozers came back. They didn't, but we had a chance to
talk with the four soldiers in a lone jeep on the ridge-top who were watching
the collection of villagers, activists and journalists below.
One of us asked, "Don't you ever have questions about what you are doing?"
One soldier, clearly an older reservist, said quickly but quietly, "Of course
there are questions...." I talked at some length to this guy as we sat on
the rocks not far from the village garbage dump. He is a father, and has at
least two young kids. I asked open-ended questions, to elicit rather than to
confront. He said he believed in a strong country, that Israel is threatened
on all sides by hostile Arabs. He didn't think that the Occupation would
end, that it would always continue in some form. But he was serving to help
create something better for his children.
He said he had been at al-Khader the day before and had been shooting at the
rock-throwers and that he'd seen himself on TV that night. He said it was
hard to watch himself chase after the little children with his M-16, to hit
them; I had the impression he was thinking about his own kids.
Last week we had another good conversation. In front of Beit Hadassah
settlement here in Hebron, for the past few weeks soldiers have not allowed
Palestinians to walk the 25 meters in front of the settlement. One soldier
explained their orders: "Jews and tourists are allowed, Arabs are not."
On this particular day, a young mother holding a baby in one arm and the
hand of her young son in the other was turned
back and told to use the slippery, uneven staircase that goes up and around.
She argued with the soldiers. We argued with the soldiers. In the end we all
went the long way around. (Although we CPTers would have been allowed to
pass, it felt more appropriate to walk with the woman and her children.)
A young soldier at the end checkpoint called us over to give us some
"constructive criticism." He had seen the encounter just meters away and told
us, "You shouldn't argue with soldiers. When you argue with us, it just makes
us madder and then maybe we'll be more mean to you or to the Arabs."
We asked, "Don't you think this restriction is stupid? Look how short the
way is!" Soldier: "Yes. I agree. But we have our orders. We have to do it."
CPTers: "Can't you talk to someone above you?" Soldier: "No. We just do our
The soldier went on: "A lot of what happens here is dumb. I've been here for
over 9 months and I'm leaving next week, in part because I hate it here. Do
you know what will happen here in May next year?"
He was talking about Chairman Arafat's on-again/off-again threat to
unilaterally declare a Palestinian state in May of 1999. "War will happen,
and I'm not going to be here when it does. I'm not going to get killed for
someone else's [pointing to the settlement] ideology. Every soldier has a
part in them that knows what they are doing is wrong, and when you argue with
them, they feel that part and they get more mad and then they don't listen to
you. You shouldn't argue with soldiers."
We thanked him for the feedback.
The soldiers at both al-Khader and near the Hebron settlement
expressed some measure of genuine remorse for their role: they had
"questions." I was glad for the "questions," but I wondered to what degree I
was seeing the "shoot and cry" syndrome. Jewish-American activist Deena
Hurwitz describes it this way: "The Israeli democratic impulse
obscures the militarism.... It brings out what in Israel is called the "shoot
and cry" syndrome, made famous in a satirical sang by rock star Si Haman.
"Militarism and brutality become acceptable when they are accompanied by
remorse on the part of those who nonetheless correctly do their duty."
(_Walking the Red Line: Israelis in Search of Justice for Palestine_, ed.
Hurwitz, pp. 11, 1992, New Society Publishers).