The topic of war crimes is now firmly fixed on the national and military agenda, and cannot be removed anymore..
This week there was a public outcry about the death of Nidal Abu-Muhsein in Tubas village on the West Bank. The 19 years old youngster was taken from his home by the soldiers who had come to the village in order to arrest (or kill) his neighbor, the Hamas activist Nasser Jerar. Nidal was compelled to approach Nasser’s door and call on him to come out. Nasser, who must have been waiting for the soldiers, opened fire and killed him. Then a bulldozer was called in and to destroy the house, burying Nasser alive under its ruins.
The use of a local resident as a “human shield” is a war crime. That was confirmed, on live television, by a senior reserve officer, the former president of the highest military court. The Fourth Geneva Convention expressly forbids the use of “protected persons” (as the convention calls inhabitants of an occupied territory) for such purpose. This practice, like the practice of compelling Palestinian neighbors to tour buildings suspected of being booby-trapped, is similar to the killing of hostages in retaliation for resistance actions.
In the past, such a case would have aroused no reaction whatsoever. It belongs to the daily routine of the occupation. But in the wake of the new awareness concerning war crimes, (following the action of Gush Shalom, which, with no small risk to itself, broke the taboo that has hovered over this subject), a public debate started. It was disclosed that this is a widely-used method, which has even been given a regular military appellation: “neighbor practice”. Not long ago. the army promised the Supreme Court to give up the practice had no intention at all of fulfilling the promise.
On the same live TV program, a reserve brigadier-general who has served in the past as a deputy division commander in the occupied territories, said that this method has been used “thousands of times”. The scull-cap wearing general asserted that this was “moral”, since it saves the lives of soldiers. The assumption is that the Palestinian fighter would not open fire on an Arab neighbor, so that it would be possible to capture (or kill) him without taking risks.
(I mention the fact that he wore a scull-cap in order to stress a sad fact: when somebody appears in public to justify war crimes, it is invariably a religious person. This throws light é or darkness é on the mutation of the Jewish religion that has taken place in Israel.)
The army spokesmen masquerading as journalists announced proudly that Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader, was also captured with the help of the “neighbor practice”. (Thus making possible a show trial for him and turning him into a Palestinian Nelson Mandela.)
In order to justify his actions, the religious general argued that the “neighbor practice” is more humane than the alternative method: dropping a one-ton bomb on the house of the Hamas activist Salah Shehadeh, in a crowded residential neighborhood in Gaza, killing 17 neighbors, including nine children.
The dropping of that bomb was a war crime, too. One of these days it may lead the whole chain of command to The Hague é the Prime Minister, the Defense Minister, the Chief-of-Staff, the Commander of the Air Force and the anonymous pilot. According to a newspaper-report, this possibility has caused quite a stir in the Air Force, especially after some anonymous persons smeared the words “war criminal” on the cars of several officers.
These pilots and their comrades are angry. They are uttering all the trite slogans current in the streets: they only fulfill orders. They act according to the instructions of the elected political leadership. They defend the home. Also: they are excellent technicians. And, more importantly, they are loyal to their comrades.
One can envy them. According to the report, they entertain no moral qualms whatsoever. They have not listened to their colleague, Reserve Colonel Yig’al Shohat, the war hero shot down over Egypt, who has called upon the pilots to refuse precisely such orders. Obviously, they have not heard about the American pilot who had dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, who later sunk into a deep depression, became an alcoholic and died.
I am sure that the report does not give the whole picture. There are é there must be é pilots, who have become profoundly aware of the war crimes dilemma. I am sure that in all parts of the IDF there are officers and soldiers who are bothered by it. I hope that more and more of them will come to the conclusion that there is only one “neighbor practice” that will provide security for Israel and its citizens: a peace practice that will turn the Palestinian people into a good neighbor.
[The author has closely followed the career of Sharon for four decades. Over the years, he has written three extensive biographical essays about him, two (1973, 1981) with his cooperation.]