Despite declaring an "all-out war" on suicide, the Israeli army saw the epidemic rise in 2010
On Israel’s Memorial Day observances for “fallen soldiers and victims of terror attacks,” the Defense Ministry’s commemoration unit claimed that 183 Israelis “were killed in the line of duty or in terror attacks since last year’s Remembrance Day,” according to YNet. The number appears to represent a wild exaggeration that is inconsistent with past statistics documenting the number of Israeli soldiers killed annually in combat operations versus those who died by suicide or in accidents. In recent years, suicide has been either the leading cause or among the leading causes of deaths in the Israeli army.
While I was having lunch in Tel Aviv last summer with my friend Ruth Hiller, a founder of the Israeli anti-militarization group New Profile, she told me that around 50 percent of Israelis buried in military cemeteries had died through suicide, accidents or fratricide. I asked my roommate at the time, Yossi David, a left-wing Israeli blogger who had served in occupied Hebron, if Hiller’s figures were accurate. “All I know is that there were two suicides a month in my unit during training,” David said. “It happened all the time.”
In 1989, the Israeli army’s personnel department put the rate of suicides at 35 a year. By 2003, during the height of the Second Intifada, 43 Israeli soldiers died by suicide, making it the leading cause of death in the army. By 2010, suicide was on the rise again. During the first seven months of the year, 19 soldiers had killed themselves, a ten percent spike from the previous year. That number exceeded the number of deaths that occurred that year in combat operations.
In 2008, an Israeli border policeman committed suicide in front of French Prime Minister Nicholas Sarkozy. A young soldier shot himself last year after learning that his friend had committed suicide moments before. The phenomenon continues to plague the Israeli army despite Brigadier General Avi Zamir’s pledge in 2005 to “wage an all-out war on suicide by soldiers.”
The suicide rate has been particularly high among Ethiopian members of the Israeli army. By 1997, six years after an airlift brought the second wave of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, Ethiopian soldiers accounted for 10 percent of army suicides — but comprised only four tenths of a percent of the army. Racism was a key factor in the epidemic. One soldier’s suicide note read: “Every morning when I get to the base, six soldiers are waiting for me who clap their hands and yell, `The kushi [black] is here.'”
During Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s last major combat operation, the army suffered its largest loss of life in an accidental incident of fratricide, when a tank shell killed three members of the Golani Brigade. This year, several Israeli troops died at the Gaza border when their comrades accidentally rained mortars down on their position.
40 Israeli prison guard cadets died weeks before in the Carmel Wildfire when their bus was trapped in the flames. The cadets presumably comprised the majority of the 70 “soldiers and civilians” whom the Israeli Army spokesman claimed (via Twitter) were “killed in operational duty and terror attacks since last Memorial Day.”
When I met Bassem Tamimi at his home in the occupied West Bank village of Nabi Saleh this January, his eyes were bloodshot and sunken, signs of the innumerable sleepless nights he had spent waiting for Israeli soldiers to take him to prison. As soon as two children were seized from the village in the middle of the night and subjected to harsh interrogations that yielded an unbelievable array of “confessions,” the 44-year-old Tamimi’s arrest became inevitable. On 25 March, the army finally came, dragging him away to Ofer military prison, a Guantanamo-like West Bank facility where he had previously been held for a 12-month term for the vaguely defined crime of “incitement.” His trial before a military court that convicts more than 99 percent of Palestinians brought before it is scheduled to begin on 8 May.
Like nearly all of his neighbors, Tamimi has spent extended time in Israeli detention facilities and endured brutal treatment there. In 1993, he was arrested on suspicion of having murdered an Israeli settler in Beit El. Tamimi was severely tortured for weeks by the Israeli Shin Bet in order to extract a confession from him. Tamimi said that during the torture he was dropped from a high ceiling onto a concrete floor and woke up a week later in an Israeli hospital. In the end, he was cleared of all charges.
With his wife, Nariman, and his brother, Naji, Tamimi has been at the center of Nabi Saleh’s popular resistance against the occupation since its inception in 2009. The village’s unarmed struggle has brought hundreds of Israelis and international activists to participate each Friday in boisterous and theatrical demonstrations that invariably encounter harsh Israeli violence, including the use of live ammunition against children. While other villages involved in the popular struggle have seen their ranks winnowed out by a harsh regime of repression and imprisonment, Nabi Saleh’s protests continue unabated, irking the army and frustrating the settlers of Halamish, who intend to expand their illegal colony further onto Nabi Saleh’s land.
Tamimi and I spoke amid the din of a stream of visitors parading in and out of his living room, from international activists living in the village to local children to a group of adolescent boys from the nearby town of Qurawa, who told me they came to spend time with Tamimi and his family “because this is what the Palestinian struggle is about.” Tamimi is a high school teacher in Ramallah and his professorial nature is immediately apparent. As soon as I arrived at his front door for what I thought would be a casual visit, he sat me down for an hour-long lesson on the history, attitudes and strategy that inform the brand of popular struggle he and his neighbors had devised during weekly meetings at the village cultural center.
Our discussion stretched from the origins of Nabi Saleh’s resistance in 1967 to the Oslo Accords, when the village was sectioned into two administrative areas (Areas B and C), leaving all residents of the Israeli-controlled portion (Area C) vulnerable to home demolition and arbitrary arrests. Tamimi insisted to me that Nabi Saleh’s residents are not only campaigning to halt the expropriation of their land, they seek to spread the unarmed revolt across all of occupied Palestine. “The reason the army wants to break our model [of resistance] is because we are offering the basis for the third intifada,” Tamimi said.
I put this question to my friend Said Amireh, a 19-year-old resident of the occupied West Bank town of Ni’lin. He said he’d like to see her perform in Tel Aviv, but he can’t. Why? Because his town is imprisoned behind the Israeli segregation wall. Meanwhile, the residents of the illegal Jews-only settlement of Hashmonaim who live just meters away, on the other side of the wall, travel to and from Tel Aviv on special bypass roads, and have annexed thousands of dunams of Ni’lin’s land.
Said is a participant in Ni’lin’s weekly unarmed demonstrations against the wall (see what it’s like here). Since the town rose up, the Israeli army has killed four of its residents, while injuring and jailing hundreds of others. Said was jailed for four and half months, then had to drop out of school and go to work when his father, Ibrahim, was imprisoned under specious charges of “incitement.” I attended one of Ibrahim’s trials in the Israeli military court at Ofer, and watched a military prosecutor and military judge railroad him despite scant evidence that he had committed any crime beyond organizing unarmed resistance against his dispossession.
“When I try to work my land,” Ibrahim Amireh said at the conclusion of the trial, “the Occupation comes and takes it away. When I try to resist them taking it away, the Occupation arrests me and puts me in jail. What else can I do?”
The South African Artists Against Apartheid has issued a letter to Macy Gray demanding that she take into account the voices of people living under occupation like Said and reconsider her trip to Tel Aviv:
We are writing to you to encourage you to reconsider performing in Israel. You might wonder what purpose refusing to perform in Israel (in line with the cultural boycott call) might serve? As a people whose parents and grandparents suffered under (and resisted) Apartheid in South Africa, our history is testament to the value and legitimacy that the international boycott had in bringing to an end the Apartheid regime in our country. When artists and sportspeople began refusing to perform in South Africa, the world’s eyes turned to the injustices that were happening here to people of colour. This then created a wave of pressure on politicians and world leaders representing their constituencies, to insist on a regime-change – this contributed to a free, democratic and non-racial South Africa.
Inspired by the boycott of Apartheid South Africa, Palestinians have called for a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign of Israel. As you are aware, this call has been actively supported by some Israelis as well. The aim of the campaign is not to target Israeli civilians, but to draw attention to the unjust acts that the Israeli state commits on a daily basis in their name.
The belief that cultural activities are “apolitical” is simply a myth. Artists have greater followings than politicians do; millions of people admire them and look to them as role models. They have a moral obligation to stand up against injustice all over the world. By performing in a country whose government systematically makes life unbearable for a targeted group of people is to ignore all sense of justice and morality and creates the impression that “it’s none of my business, I’m just here to entertain”…
Tamir Kafri, Ben Gurion University campus coordinator for Im Tirtzu
Fresh off a campaign of nationwide intimidation against the New Israel Fund, countless damagingpersonalattacks against leftists and professors condemned as insufficiently Zionist, and an endorsement from Israeli Education Minister Gideon Saar, the self-proclaimed “moderate” student group Im Tirtzu gathered for a night of celebration. The venue was “Theodore,” a swanky bar in the wealthy Tel Aviv suburb of Herzilya named for the man who Im Tirtzu claims as the inspiration for its “Second Zionist Revolution:” Theodore Herzl. The evening’s agenda: to fire up the troops for the upcoming boycott targeting Ben Gurion University’s supposedly anti-Zionist faculty.
At the door of the bar stood a glowering young man munching on a slice of pizza. He was Erez Tadmor, Im Tirtzu’s director of media relations. Tadmor approached us and asked who we were. We described ourselves as clueless Jewish American tourists who were simply curious about his student group. “We just heard there was some kind of party here,” we said in English.
Without bothering to introduce himself, Tadmor discussed his man-size persecution complex. “At Hebrew University I did so much damage to the professors I can’t even walk around freely on campus anymore,” he remarked. “Most of the academics here are anti-Israel and anti-Zionist. They have the audacity to say that Israel is an apartheid state, that we’re colonizers, that we kill kids. And so we are simply trying to defend our Zionist values against what they’re doing.”
Despite the subversive culture on campus, Tadmor was confident he would crush the evil-doers: “The elites are on the losing side. They only represent like 3 percent of the population who are radical leftist. But we have 70 to 80 percent of the people on our side.”
Im Tirtzu's Tamir Kafri, presumably performing in a production of "Rocky Horror"
Who is Tadmor? The scion of the only secular family in the fanatical Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, Tadmor now lives in the settlement of Efrat with his wife and two children. He made his name directing the student cell that fought the evacuation of the settlement Gush Katif, then turned his attention to assailing cultural critics of Israeli maximalism. “The [Oscar-nominated Israeli film] Waltz With Bashir is a vehicle to destroy Zionism,” Tadmor once declared. “The director should have made a film about Herzl in the place of this.”
In an interview with Maariv, a leading Israeli newspaper, Tadmor admitted to stealing small-scale explosives and ammunition magazines from the army during his service. Despite insisting that he needed the weapons for “personal security,” Tadmor was stripped of his rank and slapped with a 45-day prison sentence for “breaking the trust” of the army.
During Operation Cast Lead, Tadmor orchestrated a series of violent confrontations between Im Tirtzu activists and Palestinian Israeli students at Hebrew University. An Im Tirtzu banner warned the Arab students, “We will burn your villages and see you during our reserve duty.” Tadmor was implicated for physically attacking female students who called him a “Nazi.” The riots sparked by Tadmor and Im Tirtzu were only quelled when university administrators demanded the deployment of Border Police and special Yassam forces on campus.
After chatting with Tadmor, two Im Tirtzu activists approached us to discuss campus politics in the United States. One of them, a chubby, slouching young man with a crew cut, asked, “Have you ever read ‘The Professors’ by David Horowitz? Horowitz was a former leftist so he knows the truth about the left in your country.” With his failed “Academic Bill of Rights” campaign, which would have allowed conservative students to sue their professors, and his annual “Islamofascism Awareness Week,” the ex-Stalinist Horowitz seemed like a natural role model for Im Tirtzu’s McCarthyite missions.
Kafri targets the enemy
The other activist, Tamir Kafri, a bespectacled and chipper student with a long ponytail and newly budding facial hair, mentioned another American inspiration: “You should read the book, ‘Liberal Fascism,’” Tamir said, referring to neocon writer Jonah Goldberg’s screed linking American liberalism to Hitlerian fascists. “I’m not saying all liberals are fascists, but on campus here in Israel, the liberal professors really are.”
Tamir led us inside and perched beside us at the bar. As dozens of his comrades filed in, he ordered a pony size Goldstar and opened up about the struggle he was waging as coordinator of Im Tirtzu at Ben Gurion University.
Tamir dismissed the hundreds of thousands of donations pumped into Im Tirtzu’s coffers each year by the apocalyptic Christian Zionist preacher Pastor John Hagee, who has said the anti-Christ would be “half-Jewish, as Hitler was.” “Who cares about who takes the money?” Tamir said. “People should focus on the donors and not on us. Like this neo-Nazi American pastor [John Hagee]. He’s the idiot! He’s giving all his money to a bunch of ZIonist Jews in Israel!”
As the beer flowed, Tamir entertained us with his opinions on everything from Zionism to domestic violence.
Tamir on campus politics: “[The Israeli communist party] Hadash is a bunch of pro-Palestinian radicals. But we’ve worked with Meretz. We even have some members of Meretz in our movement. They are the sensible left. They’re Zionists, not radicals.”
On the left: “Radical leftists are like gunpowder. By itself it’s harmless but next to a gun it becomes violently dangerous.”
On the Palestinians: “Actually there is no such thing as a Palestinian. Really. You know, the idea of the Palestinians was invented in the 1970’s?”
On the Eden Abergil photos: “The pictures were just funny. Face it.”
On Zionism: “Zionism is about securing a Jewish state where human rights are unconditional for everyone, including Arabs, but civil rights are conditional, based on someone’s loyalty to the recognition of Israel as a Jewish, Zionist state… I even know a couple Muslim Zionists. Like my friend from the army, he was Druze and he went to jail because he beat his cousin so badly.” Why did he beat his cousin? “Because he said he shouldn’t be fighting for Israel.”
On feminism: “I’m a true feminist. If a woman hits me I’ll hit her back just as hard. That’s feminism!”
Kafri performs in Rocky Horror
While Tamir continued riffing beneath a thumping soundtrack of 70’s disco hits, we looked around the room and noticed an almost total absence of women. Indeed, the bartender seemed to be the only member of the female gender interacting with the dozens of Im Tirtzu activists hunched over the bar. “Were any women invited your party?” we asked our new friend. “Because this is starting to look like the mother of all sausage-fests.”
Tamir looked around nervously, then exclaimed, “People show up late in Israel because we have no last call.”
20 minutes later, a woman appeared. But she was just the wife of Tamir’s pal, a short, bookish-looking character, who greeted him with a hearty bear hug. “This guy acted with me in the Rocky Horror Picture Show,” Tamir said about his friend, referring to the 70’s era British drag-show that has become popular across Israel.
“I actually had to borrow a corset from my wife for the show!” the friend told us with a giggle.
Besides working as a genetic engineer at the Weissman Institute, Tamir’s friend was a front-line soldier in the Im Tirtzu struggle. He said he became enraged when he saw an art exhibition in the city of Holon that depicted Israeli army helicopters bombing civilians and soldiers humiliating Palestinians at checkpoints. He immediately called Im Tirtzu founder Ronen Shoval to complain. The next day, he was a full-fledged activist.
“If the army did this sort of thing, it would be okay, because the art would have been factual,” the friend remarked. “But the army doesn’t do that! I was in the infantry so I know.”
Despite his indignation, the friend was intent on talking about the Rocky Horror Picture Show production he and Tamir starred in. “You know what the play really was?” he said to Tamir. “It was a hook-up scene for geeks!” They burst into mischievous laughter, as though they were watching scrambled porn while their mother did laundry in the basement.
The Im Tirtzu theme song: “A weakling weighing 98 pounds, got sand in his face when kicked to the ground…”
Tamir related one of his favorite Rocky Horror-related conquests. “There was a radical leftist girl who acted with us in the play,” he recalled.
“She was so radical she thought Noam Chomsky was a fascist!” the friend interjected.
“Yeah, so anyway, I fucked her one night,” Tamir boasted. “And while I was fucking her, I said, ‘Oh you’re so against Israel, and the occupation is so evil. Okay!’ Then, as soon as I came, I pulled out and said, ‘Sorry, no orgasm for you!”
At this moment, as we glanced around the room full of twenty-something guys huddled around on couches, fiddling with their cellphones and exchanging jocular back-slaps, we gained a new understanding of Im Tirtzu’s essential function. The movement was not only a street-level proxy for rightist forces in the government. It also served as a social sanctuary for aimless young men unable to locate productive outlets for their pent-up post-army aggressions. Long sessions of Playstation and back issues of Maxim were simply not enough for the rejects of Israel’s warrior class. They needed a glorious battle — even if the targets were defenseless and marginalized. And so they have identified enemies in every faculty lounge and editorial page, hoping to quell their sense of isolation by defining themselves as heroic Zionists waging jihad against the “elitist” fringe. Their sensitivity to “anti-Zionist bias” is in fact a projection of their own psychological insecurity.
Im Tirtzu has been portrayed by critics as a fearsome gang of dangerous thugs, but in the more casual setting of the Theodore bar, we saw the movement for what it really was: a well-financed dork squad.
After Ronen Shoval gave a speech announcing the coming onslaught against Ben Gurion University — “My grandmother was so proud to see us on the front page of Ha’aretz!” he announced — we noticed two young women downing shots of liquor across the bar. We went over to meet them.
“Are you guys with Im Tirtzu?” we asked.
“You mean the disgusting fascists?” one of them snapped.
“We hate them!” the other one said.
After a long interview process that included the examination of our ID cards, they established that we were not members of the “fascist” crowd. Only then did they invite us to drink with them.
The women eventually apologized for vetting us, explaining that an Im Tirtzu member seated beside them at the bar had attempted to chat them up earlier in the evening.
One of the women grabbed the Im Tirtzu activist’s arm and shouted at him, “Are you ready to stop being a narrow-minded racist? Then you can talk to us.”
Eden Abergil during "the most beautiful time" of her life
Is there anything shocking about the Facebook photos showing the Israeli female soldier Eden Abergil posing in mocking positions next to bound and blindfolded Palestinian men? While her conduct was abominable, I did not find it especially distinct from the documented behavior of Israeli soldiers and Border Police in the Occupied Territories.
Below is a photo I took in Hebron in June before soldiers demanded that I stop shooting (I will release video from Hebron as soon as I get the chance). Scenes like these can be witnessed on any given day in the West Bank. Not only do they show the dehumanization that the Palestinian Morlocks are subjected to on an hourly basis, they depict the world where Abergil spent what she called “the most beautiful time of [her] life.” It is easy to see how young Israelis (or anyone) would be sapped of their humanity in such an environment.
In July, I waited inside the cafeteria of Israel’s Guantanamo-like Ofer Prison after watching Ibrahim Amira, a leader of the Ni’ilin popular committee, be sentenced by a kangaroo court to six months in prison for the trumped-up charge of “incitement” (he was accused of paying kids to throw rocks at the Israeli soldiers who invade their village at least every week, as if they needed encouragement). While I stood at the counter to order a coffee, I watched four female jailers gather around a laptop to check their Facebook pages. I wondered what their status updates looked like. If they wrote anything relating to their work, would their Facebook pages look different than Abergil’s? Of course not. Just take a trip to Eyal Niv’s blog and look at some of the photos other young Israelis are posting.
I took this photo in Hebron in June before soldiers ordered me to stop shooting. A Palestinian man was being near the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron.
You don’t have to go to the West Bank or into an Israeli prison to recognize that Abergil is a typical product of Israel’s comprehensively militarized society. Just watch the documentary, “To See When I’m Smiling.” In the film, which tells the soul-crushing stories of four young women conscripted into the Israeli Army, one of the characters recounts posing for a photo beside a dead Palestinian man who had an erection. She was smiling from ear to ear in the photo. However, at the end of the film, when she is compelled to look at the picture for the first time in two years, she does not recognize the monster who bears her image. Her contorted facial expression seems to ask, “Who was I?”
“To See When I’m Smiling” was produced by Breaking The Silence, a human rights group formed by ex-Israeli soldiers who collect testimonies from their peers. Incidentally, Breaking The Silence has published a 132-page booklet of testimonies by female soldiers (PDF here) who participated in acts at least as hideous as those depicted on Abergil’s Facebook page.
Here is Testimony 63, by a female sergeant from the Nahal Unit who served in Mevo Dotan:
I recall once, this was after we moved to Mevo Dotan, to the base there, some Palestinian was sitting on a chair and I passed by several times. Once I thought: Okay, why is he sitting here for an hour? I feel like spitting at him, at this Arab. And they tell me: Go one, spit at him. I don’t recall whether anyone did this before I did, but I remember spitting at him and feeling really, like at first I felt, wow, good for me, I just spat at some terrorist, that’s how I’d call them. And then I recall that afterwards I felt some thing here was not right.
Not too human. I mean, it sounds cool and all, but no, it’s not right.
You thought about later, or during the act?
Later. At the time you felt real cool.
Even when everyone was watching, you felt real cool.
Yes, and then sometimes you get to thinking, especially say on Holocaust Memorial Day, suddenly you’re thinking, hey, these thing were done to us, it’s a human being after all. Eventually as things turned out he was no terrorist anyway, it was a kid who’d hung around too long near the base, so he was caught or something.
Blindfolded and all?
Yes. I think that at some point no one even stood watch over him.
The female sergeant recalled the Holocaust when she reflected on her actions. If you are raised in a Jewish home, it is difficult not to see the ravages of the occupation in the light of the Holocaust, regardless of whether you know that the Israeli army’s violence bears little comparison to the exterminationism of the Nazis. Just as when I watched “To See When I’m Smiling,” Abergil’s photos made me think of Costa Gavras’ haunting Holocaust film, “Music Box.” If you have seen it, you will understand my reference. If not, rent it.
I also thought of the first stanza of “Vision,” a poem by the Palestinian writer Muhammad al-Qaisi. The poem reminded me not only of the Abergil’s public unmasking, but also of the many Israelis who told me about their experiences in the army as though they were describing some morally debased person they had never met: