Determinism in the West Bank

The YouTube video of an Israeli officer beating a Danish activist in the West Bank with his rifle last Saturday is making top headlines this morning. And understandably so. Although such violence is commonplace in the occupied territories, it is rarely captured so vividly on video.

The officer, Shalom Eisner, is a Lieutenant Colonel and deputy commander of a brigade. He was promptly suspended from duty and is likely looking at early retirement from his military career. The Prime Minister and Chief of Staff both condemned his actions, as did most sane politicians.

But I feel the main point of the story has been missed. You see, I don’t blame Eisner for what he did.

I don’t know Eisner, but I’m betting he is basically a good guy from a good family who understands what is right and what is wrong. He is most definitely a good soldier to have risen to his position. Needless to say, an IDF officer shouldn’t behave the way he did and he should be severely punished for his actions. The IDF claims to be a moral army, so it cannot condone such actions. This is not the Syrian army. Having said that, I also believe Eisner had no choice. What happened was almost deterministic. There was almost no way for him to act differently.

I say this for two reasons. First and foremost, after 45 years of occupation and 25 years since the first Palestinian uprising, the IDF is no longer a regular army. All of its soldiers were born after 1967 and all have been trained from day one to perform the duties of an occupying army. Day after day of dealing with a disobedient civilian population, of manning checkpoints, of breaking into homes, of confiscating or destroying private property, of solving “neighbourly” disputes – all unavoidable outcomes of occupation – have turned the IDF into an impossible creature: an army trained, in principle, to deal with military threats from enemy countries, yet having to deal mostly with civilian unrest. Were the West Bank part of Israel, such tasks would have been given to the police, not to the army.

The second reason is more personal. Eisner was raised in a very particular national-religious environment. He is the son of a prominent right-wing rabbi from Merkaz HaRav, who brought up his eleven children believing that the Land of Israel is ours by divine promise. Eisner was brought up learning the twisted Merkaz interpretation of Rabbi Kook’s writings, about how the 1967 war and the occupation of the West Bank were the “beginning of redemption”. Anyone opposing our divine rights to the Land of Israel is therefore our enemy, and that eventually includes also blonde-haired Danish activists.

Eisner is the product of 45 years of occupation and the product of a distorted religious upbringing. Nobody can accuse him of “losing it” under such circumstances. He and his fellow officers and soldiers are sent to perform an impossible job, a thankless task that has no chance to be completed successfully. Compounded with religious zealousness, Eisner didn’t stand a chance.

Punishing Eisner is inevitable, but the real problem is not Eisner. It is the continued occupation of millions of people and the dangerous coupling of religious beliefs and politics. These root problems will not go away with the dismissal of Lieutenant Colonel Eisner. The next video is only a matter of time.

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