Donald Macintyre reports:
For anyone who has covered Israel, the West Bank and Gaza over the past few years, reading Occupation of the Territories, the new book from the Israeli ex-soldiers organisation Breaking the Silence, can be an eerily evocative experience.
A conscript from the Givati Brigade, for example, describes how troops in the company operating next to his inside Gaza during 2008 had talked about an event earlier in the day. After knocking on the door of a Palestinian house and receiving no immediate answer, they had placed a “fox” – military slang for explosives used to break through doors and walls – outside the front door. At that very moment, the woman of the house had reached the door to open it. “Her limbs were smeared on the wall and it wasn’t on purpose,” the soldier recalls. “And then her kids came and saw her. I heard it during dinner after the operation, someone said it was funny, and they cracked up from the situation that the kids saw their mother smeared on the wall…”
A second-hand story, of course; one without names, dates or supporting detail. Except that it stirred a memory I had of reporting the death of a Palestinian UN schoolteacher east of Khan Younis. Wafer Shaker al-Daghma was killed when the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) commandeered her house during an incursion in May 2008. Her husband had been out at the time. When we came to the house five days later, another incursion was under way and we could hear, uncomfortably close, the gunfire from Israeli armoured military vehicles while Majdi al-Daghma described his wife’s death at the age of 34. When she realised troops were nearby, she’d ordered ‘ the children, Samira, 13, Roba, four, and Qusay, two, into the bedroom, put on a headscarf and prepared to open the door. “Samira heard a loud explosion and there was a lot of smoke,” he explained. “She looked for her mother but couldn’t see her.”
It was surely the same incident. You have to assume that the laughter alluded to by the conscript was a nervous reaction, a manifestation of delayed shock from the soldiers. They had, after all, had the presence of mind to cover Mrs al-Daghma’s mutilated body with a carpet, and to keep the children confined to the bedroom for the five hours they had remained in the house. Samira said she had asked one of them, “Where is my mother?” but had not understood his reply in Hebrew. She explained how, when the soldiers finally left after nightfall, “There were still tanks outside our house… I tried to call my father on my mother’s Jawwal [mobile phone] but there was no line. I lifted the carpet and saw a bit of my mother’s clothes. She was not moving. I did not see her head.”
The point of this is not just that the soldier’s story is shocking, but that it is so apparently corroborated. Especially given that the conscript’s short account – unlike many others in the book, some every bit as disquieting – is based on hearsay, it is powerfully suggestive of the testimonies’ authenticity as a portrait of a 43-year-old occupation. These testimonies, checked and cross-checked, of young Israeli men and women struggling to come to terms, sometimes years after the event, with their military service in the West Bank and Gaza, add up to an unprecedented inside account, as the book’s introduction puts it, of “the principles and consequences of Israeli policy in the [Palestinian] territories”.