"I Punched an Arab in the Face"
21 November 2003
An Israeli soldier writes a book about how he and his buddies -- normal, middle-class Israelis -- became sadistic animals at checkpoints, even during the relative quiet of 1996-99, and how he came to see Israeli society as "two generations of criminals."
Staff Sergeant (res.) Liran Ron Furer cannot just routinely get on with his life anymore. He is haunted by images from his three years of military service in Gaza, and the thought that this could be a syndrome afflicting everyone who serves at checkpoints gives him no respite. On the verge of completing his studies in the design program at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, he decided to drop everything and devote all his time to the book he wanted to write. The major publishers he brought it to declined to publish it. The publisher that finally accepted it (Gevanim) says that the Steimatzky bookstore chain refuses to distribute it. But Furer is determined to bring his book to the public's attention.
"You can adopt the most hard-line political positions, but no parent would agree to his son becoming a thief, a criminal or a violent person," says Furer. "The problem is that it's never presented this way. The boy himself doesn't portray himself this way to his family when he returns from the territories. On the contrary - he is received as a hero, as someone who is doing the important work of being a soldier. No one can be indifferent to the fact that there are many families in which, in a certain sense, there are already two generations of criminals. The father went through it and now the son is going through it and no one talks about it around the dinner table."
Furer is certain that what happened to him is not at all unique. Here he was - a creative, sensitive graduate of the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, who became an animal at the checkpoint, a violent sadist who beat up Palestinians because they didn't show him the proper courtesy, who shot out tires of cars because their owners were playing the radio too loud, who abused a retarded teenage boy lying handcuffed on the floor of the Jeep, just because he had to take his anger out somehow.
"Checkpoint Syndrome" (also the title of his book), gradually transforms every soldier into an animal, he maintains, regardless of whatever values he brings with him from home. No one can escape its taint. In a place where nearly everything is permissible and violence is perceived as normative behavior, each soldier tests his own limits of violence impulsiveness on his victims - the Palestinians.
His book is not easy reading. Written in terse, fierce prose, in the blunt and coarse language of soldiers, he reconstructs scenes from the years in which he served in Gaza (1996-1999), years that, one must remember, were relatively quiet. He describes how he and his comrades forced some Palestinians to sing "Elinor" - "It was really something to see these Arabs singing a Zohar Argov song, like in a movie"; the emotions the Palestinians aroused in him - "Sometimes these Arabs really disgust me, especially those that try to toady up to us - the older ones, who come to the checkpoint with this smile on their faces"; the reactions they spurred - "If they really annoy us, we find away to keep them stuck at the checkpoint for a few hours. They lose a whole day of work because of it sometimes, but that's the only way they learn."
He described how they would order children to clean the checkpoint before inspection time; how a soldier named Shahar invented a game: "He checks someone's identity card, and instead of handing it back to him, just tosses it in the air. He got a kick out of seeing the Arab have to get out of his car to pick up his identity card ... It's a game for him and he can pass a whole shift this way"; how they humiliated a dwarf who came to the checkpoint every day on his wagon: "They forced him to have his picture taken on the horse, hit him and degraded him for a good half hour and let him go only when cars arrived at the checkpoint. The poor guy, he really didn't deserve it"; how they had a souvenir picture taken with bloodied, bound Arabs whom they'd beaten up; how Shahar pissed on the head of an Arab because the man had the nerve to smile at a soldier; how Dado forced an Arab to stand on four legs and bark like a dog; and how they stole prayer beads and cigarettes - "Miro wanted them to give him their cigarettes, the Arabs didn't want to give so Miro broke someone's hand, and Boaz slashed their tires."
The most chilling of all the personal confessions: "I ran toward them and punched an Arab right in the face. I'd never punched anyone that way. He collapsed on the road. The officers said that we had to search him for his papers. We pulled his hands behind his back and I bound them with plastic handcuffs. Then we blindfolded him so he wouldn't see what was in the Jeep. I picked him up from the road. Blood was trickling from his lip onto his chin. I led him up behind the Jeep and threw him in, his knees banged against the trunk and he landed inside. We sat in the back, stepping on the Arab ... Our Arab lay there pretty quietly, just crying softly to himself. His face was right on my flak jacket and he was bleeding and making a kind of puddle of blood and saliva, and it disgusted and angered me, so I grabbed him by the hair and turned his head to the side. He cried out loud and to get him to stop, we stepped harder and harder on his back. That quieted him down for a while and then he started up again. We concluded that he was either retarded or crazy.
"The company commander informed us over the radio that we had to bring him to the base. `Good work, tigers,' he said, teasing us. All the other soldiers were waiting there to see what we'd caught. When we came in with the Jeep, they whistled and applauded wildly. We put the Arab next to the guard. He didn't stop crying and someone who understood Arabic said that his hands were hurting from the handcuffs. One of the soldiers went up to him and kicked him in the stomach. The Arab doubled over and grunted, and we all laughed. It was funny ... I kicked him really hard in the ass and he flew forward just as I'd expected. They shouted that I was a totally crazy, and they laughed ... and I felt happy. Our Arab was just a 16-year-old mentally retarded boy."
In his sister's rooftop Tel Aviv apartment, where he is living now, Furer, 26, comes across as a thoughtful, intelligent young man. He grew up in Givatayim, after his parents immigrated from the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Before Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, his mother was a right-wing activist, but he says that their home was not political. He wanted to be in a combat unit in the army, and served in two elite infantry units. He did his entire army service in the Gaza Strip.
After the army, he traveled to India, like so many others. "Now I was free. The crazy energies of Goa and the chakras opened my mind ... You stuck me in this stinking Gaza and before that you brainwashed me with your rifles and your marches, you turned me into a dishrag that didn't think anymore," he wrote from Goa. But it was only afterward, when he was studying at Bezalel, that the experiences from his army service really began to affect him.
"I came to realize that there was an unchanging pattern here," he says. "It was the same in the first intifada, in the period that I was serving, which was quiet, and in the second intifada. It's become a permanent reality. I started to feel very uncomfortable with the fact that such a loaded subject was hardly mentioned at all in public. People listened to the victim and they listened to the politicians, but this voice that says: I did this, we did things that were wrong - crimes, actually - that's a voice I didn't hear. The reason it wasn't being heard was a combination of repression - just as I repressed it and ignored it - and of deep feelings of guilt.
"As soon as you get away from army service, the political and media reality around you is not ready to hear this voice. I remember that I was surprised that no soldier had gone public with this yet. It all somehow dissolved in the debate about the legitimacy of settlement in the territories, about the occupation - for or against - and nothing connected to the routine of maintaining the occupation appeared in the media or in art."
Not an individual case
Furer is out to prove that this is a syndrome and not a collection of isolated, individual cases. That's why he deleted a lot of personal details from the original manuscript, in order to underscore the general nature of what he describes. "During my army service, I believed that I was atypical, because I came from a background of art and creativity. I was considered a moderate soldier - but I fell into the same trap that most soldiers fall into. I was carried away by the possibility of acting in the most primal and impulsive manner, without fear of punishment and without oversight. You're tense about it at first, but as you get more comfortable at the checkpoint over time, the behavior becomes more natural. People gradually test the limits of their behavior toward the Palestinians. It gradually becomes coarser and coarser.
"The more confident I became with the situation, as soon as we reached the conclusion - each one at his own stage - that we are the rulers, we are the strong ones, and when we felt our power, each one started to stretch the limits more and more, in accordance with his personality. As soon as serving at the checkpoint became routine, all kinds of deviant behavior became normal. It started with `souvenir collecting': We'd confiscate prayer beads and then it was cigarettes and it didn't stop. It became normative behavior.
"After that came the power games. We got the message from above that we were to project seriousness and deterrence to the Arabs. Physical violence also became normative. We felt free to punish any Palestinian who didn't follow the `proper code of behavior' at the checkpoint. Anyone we thought wasn't polite enough to us or tried to act smart - was severely punished. It was deliberate harassment on the most trivial pretexts.
"During my army service, there wasn't a single incident that made us understand, or made our commanders interfere. No one talked about what was permitted and what was not. It was all a matter of routine. In retrospect, the biggest source of guilt feelings for me didn't happen at the checkpoint, but by the Gush Katif fence, when we caught the retarded boy. I demonstrated the most extreme behavior. It was a chance for me to catch one - the closest thing to catching a terrorist, a chance to vent all the pressure and impulses that had built up in all of us. To lash out the way we wanted to. We were used to giving slaps, to handcuffing, to a little kicking, a little beating, and here was a situation in which it was justified to let go entirely. Also, the officer who was with us was himself very violent. We gave the kid a real beating and as soon as we got to the post, I remember having a great feeling of pride, that I'd been treated like someone strong. They said, `What a nut you are, how crazy you are,' which was basically like saying, `How strong you are.'
"At the checkpoint, young people have the chance to be masters and using force and violence becomes legitimate - and this is a much more basic impulse than the political views or values that you bring from home. As soon as using force is given legitimacy, and even rewarded, the tendency is to take it as far as it can go, to exploit it much as possible. To satisfy these impulses beyond what the situation requires. Today, I'd call it sadistic impulses ...
"We weren't criminals or especially violent people. We were a group of good boys, a relatively `high-quality' group, and for all of us - and we still talk about this sometimes - the checkpoint became a place to test our personal limits. How tough, how callous, how crazy we could be - and we thought of that in the positive sense. Something about the situation - being in a godforsaken place, far from home, far from oversight - made it justified ... The line of what is forbidden was never precisely drawn. No one was ever punished and they just let us continue.
"Today, I feel confident saying that even the most senior ranks - the brigade commander, the battalion commander - are aware of the power that soldiers have in this situation and what they do with it. How could a commander not be aware of it when the more crazy and tough his soldiers are, the quieter his sector is? The more complex picture of the long-term effects of this violent behavior is something you only become conscious of when you get away from the checkpoint.
"Today it's clear to me that that boy whose father we humiliated for the flimsiest of reasons will grow up to hate anyone who represents what was done to his father. I definitely have an understanding of their motives now. We are cruelty, we are power. I'm sure that their response is affected by elements related to their society - a disregard for human life and a readiness to sacrifice lives - but the basic desire to resist, the hatred itself, the fear - I feel are completely justified and legitimate, even if it's risky to say so.
"It's impossible to be in such an emotional state and to go back home on leave and detach yourself from it. I was very insensitive to the feelings of my girlfriend at the time. I was an animal, even when I was on leave. It also sticks with you after your service. I saw the remnants of the syndrome in India - something about being in the Third World, among dark-skinned people, brings out the worst of the `ugly Israeli,' which is as Israeli as it gets. Or the way you react to a smile: When Palestinians would smile at me at the checkpoint, I got tense and construed it as defiance, as chutzpah. When someone smiled at me in India, I immediately went on the defensive.
"I was an average soldier," he says. "I was the joker of the group. Now I see that I was often the one to take the lead in violent situations. I often was the one who gave the slap. I'm the one who came up with all kinds of ideas like letting the air out of tires. It sounds twisted now, but we really admired anyone who could beat up some guy who supposedly had it coming. The officer we admired most was the officer who fired his weapon at every opportunity. Out of everyone I've spoken to, I've been left with the most guilt feelings ... A friend from the army read the book and said that I'm right, that we did bad things, but we were kids. And he said that it's a shame that I took it too hard."
"Our greatest admiration must go to those brave Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve beyond the 1967 borders... These soldiers, who are Jews, take seriously the principle put forward at the Nuremberg trials in 1945-46: namely, that a solder is not obliged to obey unjust orders -- indeed, one has an obligation to disobey them."
- Susan Sontag, novelist, essayist and playwright, about Israeli Refuseniks