Israeli Corporal Imprisoned for Publicly Saying the Occupation of Gaza Corrupts Israel*
By Alexander Reed Kelly
Israeli Cpl. Shachar Berrin was sentenced to a week in prison on the charge of participating “in a political meeting, while in uniform, in the presence of the media.” The army’s history of punishing soldiers’ public statements suggests that what he said, “not just the public venue, is what upset someone influential.”
Gershom Gorenberg writes at The American Prospect that the charge was inaccurate:
He was in uniform, and TV cameras were recording. But it wasn’t a political meeting. And judging from circumstances, the real reasons for his quick trial and sentence were the presence of right-wing activists and what he said about serving in the West Bank in daily interaction with Palestinians.
“When soldiers, when we, are conditioned and persuaded on a daily basis to subjugate and humiliate people… I think that seeps in,” he said,
“and I think that when the soldiers go home, when they go inside Israel… they bring that back with them.”
Berrin made his remarks after one of the debaters present cited a U.N. report, based on polling data that rates Israel as the 11th-happiest country in the world. When a microphone was passed to the audience, Berrin said:
“I propose that what makes a country good isn’t whether a country is happy or not; it’s the ethics and morality of a country.” He then spoke about what occupation duty does to soldiers and gave examples of what he’d seen.
Gorenberg writes that the debater who cited the poll “went into talk-show rage mode”:
“I think the guy is lying,” he said, as he shouted down [the host]. Someone there reported the incident to the army. The fact that Shachar was wearing a skullcap as well as a uniform may have amplified that anonymous person’s anger: The [political] right assumes that Orthodox Jews are all on their side, and the local media, comfortable with cliches, usually protects that assumption. Shachar created cognitive dissonance, which can produce fury.
The Israeli army’s application of the policy that landed Berrin in jail is evidently inconsistent. Last summer his brother informed an army ombudsman that a soldier had posted on Facebook a photo showing a box of bullets labeled, “A gift for Ramadan.” A bullet on top bore the name “Haniyeh,” which refers to Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas regime in Gaza. The ombudsman replied that the proper authorities had been informed, but the picture is still up.
“It would have been reasonable to conclude that the army isn’t quick to restrict public political statements by soldiers,” Gorenberg writes.
“It seems that what Shachar said, not just the public venue, is what upset someone influential. It can’t be that Facebook is less public; Facebook is Israeli politicians’ favourite means of broadcasting their words.”
The capacity for many Israelis to forget about the occupation and the Palestinians worsens the country’s troubles. This forgetting has been aided by a revision of military policy that has changed the composition of the armed forces.
“For most of Israel’s history,” Gorenberg writes, reservists told the public about what happened on the battlefield and in the barracks:
The army had a small core of full-time soldiers. But most men in Israel served in the reserves into their 50s, each year spending a month or more in uniform and subject to emergency call-ups. When they saw how the army managed things, they could compare it to how other organizations are managed, and when they saw Arab kids, they sometimes thought of their own children. Then they took off their uniforms and were civilians again.
Reservists set off the political upheaval after the 1973 Yom Kippur War that drove Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan from power. They knew the full cost of Meir and Dayan’s complacency and hubris before the war. In 1978, 300 reserve officers and soldiers signed a letter to Prime Minister Menachem Begin demanding that he agree to give up land to reach peace with Egypt. That letter gave birth to the Peace Now movement. Political scientist Yagil Levy argues that when the first Palestinian uprising erupted in 1987, Chief of Staff Gen. Dan Shomron insisted that the solution was political, not military, in part to reduce dissatisfaction among reservists. That stance paved the way, Levy writes, to the Oslo Accords.
But since the 1990s, the role of the reserves has shrunk. Fewer Israelis do reserve duty; they serve fewer days and are discharged at an earlier age. They’re less needed: A growing population provides more draftees for full-time service, while a more technological army depends less on brute numbers.
The existence of fewer citizen-soldiers means that fewer Israelis know first- or secondhand what the army is doing. The change “has made it possible for more Israelis to treat the occupation as if it were in another universe.”
Ironically, Gorenberg writes, the army’s “hasty” response gave Berrin and his message the media attention his detractors would rather he not get.