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Israeli Military Tarnished by Accusations of Harassment


The Israeli military says accusations of harassment by Israeli soldiers of a Palestinian musician at a West Bank checkpoint last month are not true. The story that a man was purposely humiliated by soldiers who forced him to play his violin while other Palestinians were made to wait, raised a furor in Israel. The incident is the most recent of a series of allegations of ethical misconduct by the military that has many Israelis questioning one of their most revered institutions.

The images showed a young Palestinian man standing at a checkpoint playing his violin while an Israeli soldier reviewed his documents.

The video recorded by a member of the Israeli human-rights group Machsom Watch, was carried on Israeli television and still photos of the episode made the front pages of major newspapers.

For many Israelis it recalled something more than insensitivity and simple harassment, it brought to mind terrible images from the past when Jews were forced to play as their Nazi captors carried out their genocide in Europe's gruesome concentration camps during WWII.

The incident at the Beit Iba checkpoint near the West Bank town of Nablus drew a quick response from the military. It said the young Palestinian was asked to take his violin out of its case to make sure there were no explosives. While the military did not say whether the soldiers had made the young man play, they acknowledged what a spokesman called a lack of sensitivity among the soldiers involved.

The military has since concluded its investigation into the incident and says the accusations that the young violinist was forced to play are not true, as spokesman Captain Jacob Dallal explains.

"The soldiers gave the following version of events, namely that they asked the Palestinian to open his violin case and that is something very legitimate, and he of his own volition then began to play and then a few moments later an officer came up to him and asked him to stop," he said. "What is significant is that the women from Machsom Watch say that they at no time heard any soldiers ask the Palestinian to play the violin."

But the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported last week that the violinist, Wissam Tayem, tells a different story. "The soldier asked me what I had in the case. I answered, 'a violin.' After I opened the case, a soldier ordered me to play a sad song, and I did so."

What happened at the Beit Iba checkpoint that day will no doubt be argued for some time. But Machsom Watch spokeswoman, Adi Dagan, says the core issue goes beyond this event and is really about the fact that such military roadblocks exist throughout the Palestinian territories.

"These checkpoints should be removed - the ones that are inside the West Bank, not between the West Bank and Israel. They should be removed because they are collective punishment for all 2.3 million Palestinians that live in the West Bank," he said. "Again, the problem is not checking, to check people if they have bombs or things like that. The thing is that Palestinians have to present their identification and if they are in a certain age they cannot cross the checkpoint, they cannot move from place to place. So, this is an ongoing sort of abuse and violation of human rights."

There have been several recent accusations of ethical misconduct by the military.

Last month, military prosecutors issued a five-count indictment against an officer charged with repeatedly shooting the body of a 13-year old Palestinian girl to make sure she was dead. It is an illegal practice known among the military as verifying the kill. Israeli television has shown video of the incident at a military observation post near Rafah in the Gaza Strip.

Army Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon told the Ma'ariv newspaper the TV account was neither complete nor accurate. He said the reports failed to mention that there were warnings of planned terrorist infiltrations at the time and that children often serve as bait to lure soldiers into positions from which they can be attacked.

Israeli media also published a photo showing soldiers posing with the body of a dead Palestinian. The army is investigating that incident.

Military spokesman, Captain Dallal says the military will not tolerate such misbehavior.

"The Chief of Staff has been very clear that there will be no tolerance for actions which are immoral or unethical and we will pursue them, each incident one at a time, until we get to the bottom of it," added Captain Dallal.

Anat Biletzki is professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University and also serves as chairperson for the Israeli human-rights group Betselem. She says the recent allegations against the military received much attention, but she says they are not isolated incidents.

"We have hundreds of cases of misconduct by soldiers at the checkpoints or in Palestinian homes," she noted. "We put up a complaint to the army authorities every time we get one of these reports. Out of the hundreds that we have put in there have been 13, I think, investigations and two or three indictments. I mean those are terrible numbers."

It is not only human-rights organizations that document the military's behavior in the Palestinian territories. Last June a photo gallery in Tel Aviv presented an exhibit put together by more than 80 soldiers who had served in the West Bank city of Hebron. The exhibit was called Breaking the Silence and included testimonials of soldiers who said they harassed Palestinian civilians, including children.

Allegations of military misconduct would be of concern to any society, but especially so for Israelis. Nearly every Israeli man and woman has served or will serve in the military and Professor Biletzki says that means that the military forces are a reflection of society.

"There is not one family that does not have people serving in the army," she adds. "So, in that sense it is an army of the people, which has always prided itself on being moral and clean. What has happened with this Intifada, people have realized that it is no longer a moral army. The interesting thing is how Israelis are treating this. They are suddenly realizing that this is where we have come to."

And she says many Israelis do not like what they see.

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