Israel shocked by image of soldiers forcing violinist to play at roadblock
Of all the revelations that have rocked the Israeli army over the past week, perhaps none disturbed the public so much as the video footage of soldiers forcing a Palestinian man to play his violin.
The incident was not as shocking as the recording of an Israeli officer pumping the body of a 13-year-old girl full of bullets and then saying he would have shot her even if she had been three years old.
Nor was it as nauseating as the pictures in an Israeli newspaper of ultra-orthodox soldiers mocking Palestinian corpses by impaling a man’s head on a pole and sticking a cigarette in his mouth.
But the matter of the violin touched on something deeper about the way Israelis see themselves, and their conflict with the Palestinians.
The violinist, Wissam Tayem, was on his way to a music lesson near Nablus when he said an Israeli officer ordered him to “play something sad” while soldiers made fun of him. After several minutes, he was told he could pass.
It may be that the soldiers wanted Mr Tayem to prove he was indeed a musician walking to a lesson because, as a man under 30, he would not normally have been permitted through the checkpoint.
But after the incident was videotaped by Jewish women peace activists, it prompted revulsion among Israelis not normally perturbed about the treatment of Arabs.
The rightwing Army Radio commentator Uri Orbach found the incident disturbingly reminiscent of Jewish musicians forced to provide background music to mass murder. “What about Majdanek?” he asked, referring to the Nazi extermination camp.
The critics were not drawing a parallel between an Israeli roadblock and a Nazi camp. Their concern was that Jewish suffering had been diminished by the humiliation of Mr Tayem.
Yoram Kaniuk, author of a book about a Jewish violinist forced to play for a concentration camp commander, wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper that the soldiers responsible should be put on trial “not for abusing Arabs but for disgracing the Holocaust”.
“Of all the terrible things done at the roadblocks, this story is one which negates the very possibility of the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. If [the military] does not put these soldiers on trial we will have no moral right to speak of ourselves as a state that rose from the Holocaust,” he wrote.
“If we allow Jewish soldiers to put an Arab violinist at a roadblock and laugh at him, we have succeeded in arriving at the lowest moral point possible. Our entire existence in this Arab region was justified, and is still justified, by our suffering; by Jewish violinists in the camps.”
Others took a broader view by drawing a link between the routine dehumanising treatment of Palestinians at checkpoints, the desecration of dead bodies and what looks very much like the murder of a terrified 13-year-old Palestinian girl by an army officer in Gaza.
Israelis put great store in a belief that their army is “the most moral in the world” because it says it adheres to a code of “the purity of arms”. There is rarely much public questioning of the army’s routine explanation that Palestinian civilians who have been killed had been “caught in crossfire”, or that children are shot because they are used as cover by fighters.
But the public’s confidence has been shaken by the revelations of the past week. The audio recording of the shooting of the 13-year-old, Iman al-Hams, prompted much soul searching, although the revulsion appears to be as much at the Israeli officer firing a stream of bullets into her lifeless body as the killing itself. Some soldiers told Israeli papers that their mothers had sought assurances that they did not do that kind of thing.
One Israeli peace group, the Arik Institute, took out large newspaper adverts to plead for “Jewish patriots” to “open your eyes and look around” at the suffering of Palestinians.
The incidents prompted the army to call in all commanders from the rank of lieutenant-colonel to emphasise the importance of maintaining the “purity of arms” code.
The army’s critics say the real problem is not the behaviour of soldiers on the ground but the climate of impunity that emanates from the top.
While the officer responsible for killing Iman al-Hams has been charged with relatively minor offences, and the soldiers who forced the violinist to play were ticked off for being “insensitive”, the only troops who were swiftly punished for violating regulations last week were some who posed naked in the snow for a photograph. They were dismissed from their unit.
Last week the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem criticised what it described as a “culture of impunity” within the army. The group says at least 1,656 Palestinian non-combatants have been killed during the intifada, including 529 children.
“To date, one soldier has been convicted of causing the death of a Palestinian,” it said.
“The combination of rules of engagement that encourage a trigger-happy attitude among soldiers together with the climate of impunity results in a clear and very troubling message about the value the Israeli military places on Palestinian life.”
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