That story about the IDF’s vile t-shirts is in the Age today. Here’s something I wrote for Crikey about it a couple of days ago.

How much more do we need to learn about Israel’s war against Gaza? A full-scale assault upon a densely packed urban environment, the strikes against schools, hospitals and universities, the use of white phosphorus, the massive civilian toll — is that not sufficient to impel the inquiry demanded by the UN high commissioner of human rights, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch?

Evidently not. But now we have (oh, depressingly apt metaphor) the smoking gun, in the form of confessions by the troops themselves.

That is, the Israeli newspaper Hareetz has now published transcripts from a discussion held by graduates of the Yitzhak Rabin pre-military course at Oranim Academic College.

One soldier explained:

We were supposed to go in with an armored personnel carrier called an Achzarit [literally, Cruel] to burst through the lower door, to start shooting inside and then … I call this murder … in effect, we were supposed to go up floor by floor, and any person we identified — we were supposed to shoot. I initially asked myself: Where is the logic in this?

From above they said it was permissible, because anyone who remained in the sector and inside Gaza City was in effect condemned, a terrorist, because they hadn’t fled. I didn’t really understand: On the one hand they don’t really have anywhere to flee to, but on the other hand they’re telling us they hadn’t fled so it’s their fault …

That’s what is so nice, supposedly, about Gaza: You see a person on a road, walking along a path. He doesn’t have to be with a weapon, you don’t have to identify him with anything and you can just shoot him. With us it was an old woman, on whom I didn’t see any weapon. The order was to take the person out, that woman, the moment you see her.

Another veteran said:

And the atmosphere in general, from what I understood from most of my men who I talked to … I don’t know how to describe it …. The lives of Palestinians, let’s say, is something very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers.

Though the authorities dismissed the allegations as unrepresentative, Israeli TV has now shown actual footage of a pre-combat briefing in which a commander tells his men:

I want aggressiveness — if there’s someone suspicious on the upper floor of a house, we’ll shell it. If we have suspicions about a house, we’ll take it down. There will be no hesitation, if it’s us or them, it’ll be them. If someone approaches us unarmed, shoot in the air. If he keeps going, that man is dead. Nobody will deliberate — let the mistakes be over their lives, not ours.

Haretz has also uncovered a battlefield note suggesting that soldiers were instructed to fire upon those rescuing the wounded, an allegation repeatedly made (and denied) during the conflict.

But that all palls next to a story about the t-shirts IDF soldiers have been making and wearing. Thus a shirt made for snipers displays a pregnant Palestinian woman with a bull’s-eye superimposed on her belly, with the slogan, in English, “1 shot, 2 kills”. Another, for a different unit, shows a dead Palestinian baby with his mother crying beside him. The text reads “Better use Durex” — the implication being that it would have been had the child never been born. A third group wore shirts picturing a bruised woman with text reading “Bet you got r-ped”. A fourth design features a child in the cross hairs under the slogan “Smaller is harder”. Others shirts boasted about the destruction of mosques and the execution of the wounded.

The designs come from the soldiers themselves but, as Haretz says, “in many cases, the content is submitted for approval to one of the unit’s commanders”.

Where does the culture of atrocity celebrated in these vile shirts come from?

It’s nothing to do with religion, ethnicity or race. In fact, what’s most striking about the confessions of the Israeli soldiers is how similar they seem to the testimonies from “Winter Soldier” forums organised by American veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

A military occupation means the imposition of control over a civilian population by overwhelming force. It necessarily depends on dehumanisation, not simply of combatants, but of the subject populace as a whole. If the IDF scrawls “death to Arabs” inside Gazan houses, US troops designate all Iraqis as “hajis”, a twenty-first century version of “gook” or “dink”.

Not surprisingly, in the wake of Gaza, Israeli society has lurched even further to the Right, so much so that its next Foreign Minister will most probably be Avigdor Lieberman, a man who has built his career out of referring to Arabs in pretty much the way that anti-Semites discuss Jews and who once suggested that Israel might resolve matters in Gaza by dropping a nuclear bomb.

This is not simply an abstract discussion of a land far, far away. In the early days of the Gaza war, Israel Today ran the following headline: “US, Australia back Gaza strike; rest of the world doesn’t”. In other words, we were seen as one of the key enablers of that war. Isn’t it long past time to reassess?

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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