A conversation with Eyal Hareuveni, the author of our latest report, on the meaning of “the spirit of command” and why every IDF veteran knows how to aim his rifle, but has no idea how to deal with rioting settlers.

We recently published our “Standing Idly By” report, which deals with the phenomenon of soldiers who stand aside and refrain from enforcing the law on Israeli civilians who use violence against Palestinians or their property. The report includes a detailed historical review of the phenomenon, as well as testimonies by soldiers given to Breaking the Silence and documentation of the reality on the ground, which reveal the soldiers’ lack of understanding of their duty to protect Palestinians while the latter are harmed by Israeli nationals. This, according to the report, stems inter alia from a lack of clear orders – not to mention the IDF’s lack of response to the phenomenon. I met with the report’s author, Eyal Hareuveni from Yesh Din’s research department, for a short conversation.

What is unique about the phenomenon of standing idly by phenomenon? Why should it interest the public?

It is unique because it symbolizes the depth of the army’s misunderstanding of its obligations—as well as the obligations of its—soldiers as an occupying force. In fact, the army denies the essence of the occupation by standing idly by.

What do you mean by “denies?”

The duty of an occupying force—its basic duty according to international law and innumerable HCJ rulings—as well as the basic duty of the military commander, is to maintain public law and order. When it avoids doing so and tries to create, by action or inaction, a situation by which it avoids enforcing the law and leaves a vaccuum, it puts the area in a sort of “wild west” situation.

This phenomenon can be seen all through the West Bank, and has been going on for very long. It began in the early days of the settlement in Hebron. A year after there was a government resolution calling on the settlers to obey the law, but not ordering the soldiers to enforce it.

If you told a soldier what you just told me, about his duty as a representative of the military commander, he would think you were speaking Chinese.

He is well aware of what I say regarding the Palestinian population: he knows his duties, his authority, and the range of tools he may use on the Palestinian population. Soldiers are empowered to use the same policing authority against the Israeli population that they have used against Palestinians for the past 48 years. The soldiers only lack a very essential understanding that what they do vis-à-vis Palestinians, they need to carry out with Israelis as well.

As far as the army is concerned, when it comes to enforcing the law on Israeli civilians, these are the same military orders. When it comes to the court, however, there is a difference: military law applies to the Palestinians, Israeli law applies to Israeli nationals. But at the enforcement level, as far as the army is concerned, these are the same orders, the very same military acts.

Yet soldiers don’t enforce them.

Except in very rare cases.

Reading the Breaking the Silence testimonies in the report, it seems very few soldiers knew they had such powers.

One officer said he knew he had them, and there were a few soldiers who knew they had the power but said they didn’t have the tools to enforce them. This isn’t a scientific survey, but if the soldiers who speak to Breaking the Silence don’t know what their powers are, it is reasonable to assume that there is a much greater number of soldiers don’t know them.

Where is the army’s instruction apparatus?

That is part of the criticism in the report. Declaratively, the army and the Ministry of Defense speak very clearly: “We enforce the law, we shall enforce the law on lawless settlers.” But the army, as part of a policy that has lasted since the early 1980s—when the phenomenon was identified and its documentation began—refuses to draw the necessary conclusions.

When did the IDF finally enact procedures? Was it only after we asked them about the issue?

The army is an aggressive body; it only acts when it is forced to act. The first step was taken in the wake of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel’s (ACRI) petition about the olive harvest (Hebrew). We cannot claim ownership for the army’s new procedure; it may be that long staff work had at long last matured just as we presented them with our questions regarding the lack of a procedure. But we do not know of any procedures that existed prior to our questions. There was a commander’s note, but according to the testimonies of the soldiers to Breaking the Silence, no one was familiar with it.

According to the IDF Spokesman, soldiers receive a one-time instruction before operational activity. They get the information via bullet points, including the prohibition on standing aside in cases of Israeli violence against Palestinians. We do not know how the procedure is passed on. It is clear to us, however, even from the IDF Spokesman response, that it is not readily available, unlike the ROE or the Suspect Detaining Procedure. This procedure seems to us insufficient and improper.

How many soldiers did the IDF put on trial for standing by?

We know of one case from the First Intifada—not for standing by but for other offences, since standing by is not defined as a military offense. Another soldier was disciplined following information sent by Yesh Din. We do not know of any soldier who was criminally charged for it.

The term “Spirit of Command” is often mentioned in the report. Can you break down this concept for us?

It has several aspects. First, the commanders realize it is not in their interest to oppose the settlements—that this is not beneficial to their military career. Gen. Amram Mizna, who was in charge of the Central Command, as well as Brigadier Ilan Paz, who served as Chief of the Civil Administration, were both deemed enemies by the settlement establishment. Paz explicitly said they acted against him.

A second aspect, which is much more serious and can be seen in the Break the Silence testimonies, is that soldiers understand that even if they can do something against settlers, it isn’t in their interest. They don’t have the backup, they don’t have the tools, their commanders ask: “why do want to enflame the settlers.”

So on the one hand we have the procedures, which the soldier is unfamiliar with. On the other hand, we have the “Spirit of Command,” which he knows intimately. Would it be fair to regard the procedures as a form of whitewashing?

Every instruction a soldier receives has an obligatory side. This is done so that the army can say it has instructed soldiers whose duty it is to maintain the peace and enforce the law; this includes mentioning the prohibition on standing by. It is a one-time instruction, which includes no written materials. The IDF Spokesman claims this is more efficient; we say that because this is a very complicated issue, which is still foreign to most soldiers and unknown to the military for years, it needs to be defined much more clearly and be more accessible to every soldier.

For instance, I am certain that even though it has been many years since you finished your military service, you know precisely at what angle to raise your rifle during a Suspect Detaining Procedure.

60 degrees, obviously.

Precisely. Every soldier can recite the Suspect Detaining Procedure for you. They know it by heart.

However, the soldier won’t know the limits of his authority when it comes to Israeli nationals. How long is he allowed to detain an Israeli national for? Where can he detain him? Would he know how to secure a scene so that evidence may be collected? Does a soldier know that he must provide the police with a testimony about violations he witnessed, that it is not up to his discretion or personal wishes? All this cannot be explained in a two-hour, or even a four-hour, briefing.

If the army truly wanted to draw conclusions from its behavior over the years, it would not only secure crime scenes and detain suspects—it would also hold debriefings on the incident, so as to improve its practice in similar future incidents. And as far as we know, no such debriefings have been held, even though this phenomenon has been going on for years. It is not something new.

Isn’t the military, in its determination not to deal with settler violence, a reflection of Israeli society?

Of course the army is a reflection of society, but the army—unlike the state, which has several authorities and bodies—is standing in the shoes of the sovereign. It is in the military commander’s authority, if only for his own utilitarian interests of preventing such incidents, to issue orders and set down procedures. It does not need the approval of other bodies. This is his authority, his duty, which according to the Supreme Court is enshrined in innumerable rulings. He has no excuses for not doing so.

Unlike Israel proper, where violence wears many disguises and comes in various forms, the violence we identify in the West Bank is mostly instrumental, particularly in the last few years: it is intended to push Palestinians away off their lands, or from a certain public area in Hebron, to take it over and dispossess—in the long term—Palestinians of their property, particularly their agricultural land. Violence in the friction areas (Yizhar, Shiloh Valley, etc.)

is intended to make the Palestinians disappear, and this isn’t a particularly new or innovative pattern – everyone knows this.

Even the lowly soldier on the ground?

It is known to any military officer who hasn’t spent the last few years on Mars.

Preventing this kind of harassment doesn’t even require the military to make a major efforts. Yet, when the army refrains from taking action, it puts itself in a much more political position than it prefers—as a professional army, as a people’s army.

The situation itself seems as if it inherently leads to a violation of international law. You either protect the settlers or the Palestinians. And since the settlers belong to the same ethnic group, the soldiers’ default is to protect them rather than the people they are suppose to protect as “protected persons.”

In a situation in which the soldiers know their duty and are trained to carry it out, there could be a chance that this will change. I do not think we will reach an optimal stage while the settlements last, but this is the eternal question human rights organizations face: do you announce the sweeping conclusion that will heal the world, ie. “remove the settlements,” and thereby say something that has no chance of actually taking place – or do you write down less sweeping recommendations, that have a chance of bringing some relief to the existing situation.

 Photo: Activestills, South Hebron Hills 22.9.2012.