This article is published in Mondoweiss.
The Israeli government is imprisoning Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier Shachar Berrin for criticizing its illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories.
In the Q&A session during the public filming of a television program, the 19-year-old soldier spoke about the widespread racism he has seen among Israeli occupation forces. He recalled an incident in which an Israeli soldier told fellow IDF troops to stop harassing Christian tourists because “come on, they are people, not Palestinians.”
Haaretz reports that Berrin was charged with “taking part in a political meeting and in an interview the media, without permission from the army.” Author Gideon Levy notes, however, that “Berrin did not take part in any sort of ‘political meeting,’ nor did he give an interview.”
Rather, Berrin was a member of the audience in Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim conference center during the public filming of a segment of the German TV program “The New Arab Debates.” The premise of the debate was “The occupation is destroying Israel,” and it pitted right-wing businessman Dani Dayan, a pro-settler activist who opposes Palestinian statehood and, in the segment, refers to Israel’s annexation of the Palestinian territories—which every leading international legal institution, including the International Court of Justice, UN Security Council, UN General Assembly, and more, deems illegal—as “the so-called occupation,” against Uri Zaki, a human rights activist and member of Israel’s left-wing Meretz party.
Berrin’s comments can be seen from 42:58 to 44:08 in the following Deutsche Welle (DW) video
When the program asked for questions from the audience, the young man, who was wearing his IDF uniform, stood up and said the following, in English
My name is Shachar Berrin and my question is for Dani Dayan. It was mentioned that Israel is the 11th happiest country in the world. Other organizations and institutions put it at the mid-30s or different statistics, but it doesn’t matter. I propose that what makes a country good isn’t whether it is happy or not, it’s about the ethics and morality of the country.
When soldiers, when we, are conditioned and persuaded on a daily basis to subjugate and humiliate people and consider other human beings as less than human, I think that seeps in, and I think the soldiers, when they go home … they bring that back with them.
Former BBC journalist Tim Sebastian, who was moderating the debate, inquired if Berrin was speaking “from personal experience.” Berrin replied
Sure. Definitely. Just the other week, when some border police soldiers were rough with some Christian tourists, another soldier of mine, a colleague, said she couldn’t believe what they were doing: ‘Come on, they are people, not Palestinians.’ And that, I think, resonates throughout much of the soldiers in the occupied territories.
I personally serve in the Jordan Valley, and we can see it every day how soldiers talk about what they’re doing, how they act, how they look at these people not as other human beings, not as someone who is equal, but as someone who is less than them.
And to think that, oh no, we can just leave that racism there, we can leave that xenophobia, they will only be racist, they will only humiliate Palestinians, of course not. What this motion [“The occupation is destroying Israel”] is is how it will affect Israel. They will bring it back to Israel.
A few weeks ago there was a border police soldier who was caught on camera beating up an Ethiopian Israeli in uniform. To say that we can just leave this all behind, is nonsense I think. I think that once you are conditioned to think something, you bring it back with you and that it deeply affects Israeli society and causes it, as our president says, to be more racist.
Dayan and the audience immediately accused Berrin, who was born in Israel, of being a liar and a “jobnik” (a derogatory Hebrew word for a noncombat Israeli soldier). Host Tim Sebastian asked “You think he’s lying? On the basis of what? Because you don’t like it?” Dayan replied “I challenge him to bring one example in which a [commanding officer] gave him an order to treat Palestinians inhumanely.” Sebastian said “You’ve never seen the reports from [the Israeli veterans organization] Breaking the Silence?” Dayan appealed to conspiracy and claimed “Breaking the Silence is also one of those groups that are part of an orchestrated effort against Israel.”
A May 2014 Breaking the Silence report, based on interviews with over 60 soldiers and officers from Israel’s army, air force, and navy, found that IDF officers ordered soldiers to “shoot to kill” “any person you see,” “anyone you spot that you can be positive is not the IDF,” even if they are civilians. Israeli soldiers also recalled shooting innocent Palestinian civilians in Gaza because they were “bored.”
At 48:45 in the segment, Berrin returns to the mic. He speaks of Israeli soldiers’ and officers’ “general attitude of” racism toward Palestinians. He says the IDF only addresses Palestinians in “grunts, short sentences, and yelling” and that this racism “happens everywhere; I hear this from all sorts of other units.” “It’s not in isolated instances,” Berrin explains. “This is something that happens throughout the occupied territories.”
The man sitting next to Berrin is the next to speak on the program. He can be seen at 50:25 in the DW video. He corroborates Berrin’s testimony and says that, during the six months he served as an officer in the infantry of the Israeli army in the West Bank
I was a witness of systematic violence towards an unwilling population who did not want us to police them. I joined the army to protect my country, and what I found myself doing was mainly arresting Palestinian drug dealers, oppressing protesters, and being a part of a violent system.
And when the violence does reach a red line, then it is usually just covered up, and not court martialed.
Dayan interrupts to ask if the man reported the violence he observed to Israeli authorities. He replies “Yes, I reported it many times.”
After the debate ended, the producer of the TV program asked Berrin if he would like his face to be blurred in the show. He said no, insisting that he had nothing to hide.
Less than 12 hours after the filming of the show, authorities ordered Berrin to return to his base. He was tried and convicted before the episode even aired on TV.
Levy contacted the IDF for an official statement. The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit told him Berrin “was tried for expressing himself in the media without authority or permission, as called for by army orders.”
The leading Israeli journalist explains
This whole incident shows that when rapid, determined action is called for, the Israel Defense Forces knows how to act. When soldiers kill Palestinian children, the investigation is stretched out over years, gathering dust before usually going nowhere. When soldiers are filmed holding abusive slogans, or when they identify publicly with “David Hanahalawi” – the soldier from the Nahal Brigade who threatened a Palestinian youth with his rifle and roughed him up a year ago, prompting hundreds of soldiers to express solidarity with him on the social networks – no one considers putting them on trial. But if a soldier dares to attest publicly that his fellow soldiers are humiliating Palestinians, the IDF mobilizes rapidly to trample, punish and silence. That’s what happened to Shachar Berrin.
Haaretz also reports another scene witnessed by Berrin, in which an IDF commander told a soldier to “kick” Palestinian children. When she replied “I can’t kick them. They’re kids,” the officer said “So what? Every one of them will throw a Molotov cocktail at you when he grows up.” The soldier insisted “Not every one.” The commander firmly told her “Yes, every one.”
Berrin went up to the soldier afterward and asked about the exchange. She told him “I hate Arabs, but they’re just children.”