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Where Israelis face Palestinians

By
JOSHUA BRILLIANT, United Press International

KALANDIA CHECKPOINT, West Bank, Dec. 12 (UPI) -- A recently published book describing Israeli soldiers' brutality toward Palestinians has made Israelis react with rage, indignation and shame.

"It's a pity we didn't know about it (then)," a senior army officer said of the author's remorseful account. "He should have been jailed."

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The writer is a war criminal that needs psychiatric help, a reserve soldier suggested. However, a human rights activist said, "The picture he presented is by and large very realistic."

The book, "Checkpoint Syndrome," by Liran Ron Furer, describes his unit's behavior near Khan Yunis, in the central Gaza Strip. Furer served there before the second intifada erupted in September 2002, when Israel and the Palestinian Authority were still implementing the Oslo accords, and were conducting joint patrols.

That thaw did not impress most soldiers in his unit, Furer said. They felt Arabs sometimes mocked and deliberately frightened them.

"We gradually realized it is they (the Arabs) who should be afraid," he wrote. "We determine whether they get to work or not.... Someone said the more they fear us, the more order there will be at the roadblock, and over time we realized he was right."

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Soldiers sometimes delayed Palestinian drivers for hours to get them to hand over Muslim prayer beads. Then they moved to collect cigarettes. Older Palestinians were submissive, but younger ones rebelled.

The youngsters "didn't hide the fact they hate us, but usually they are the ones who get beaten" he wrote.

In one instance, when Palestinians refused to surrender cigarettes, one soldier slashed their tires and another broke an Arab's hand.

Those soldiers, he wrote referring to the two involved in the incident, "were so f-- up. Within two days, they were flung into jail for a month ... and everybody calmed down."

Palestinians were also made to sing Hebrew songs at checkpoints and soldiers deliberately tossed away identity cards to make Arabs pick them up.

In one incident, Furer describes how a 16-year-old who did not heed a call to halt was beaten up by soldiers.

They raced over in a jeep, searched the Arab and found nothing. Furer then ran over "and with a swing punched him in the face.... He collapsed on the road.... He was bleeding."

The crying boy was handcuffed and blindfolded. He was afraid to walk to the jeep. Soldiers laughed.

"To impress (them), I showed them how I get him nicely into the (back of) the jeep. I kicked him hard in the butt and he flew in like I planned," Furer write.

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When the boy cried loudly, soldiers stepped on his back to make him stop.

"Our Arab was just a 16-year-old boy with a mental disability," Furer said.

He told Yediot Aharonot newspaper he had witnessed most of the events described in his book and took part in some. Similar events occurred in other units. The newspaper said two of Furer's comrades confirmed some of the incidents "Checkpoint Syndrome" described.

The Haaretz newspaper and Yediot Aharonot published interviews with Furer, excerpts of his book, and promptly received angry letters.

"What he and his friends did is nothing but a shocking series of war crimes," wrote reserve Sgt. Maj. Roy Liran of Haifa. "My friends and I never did such things."

Sgt. Mordechai Weiss, a paratrooper, suggested Furer seek mental help.

Adi Diechter, a 12th grade pupil from Tel Aviv, wrote saying the forced singing of Hebrew songs reminded her of a movie about the Nazis.

"Are the scenes identical?" she asked.

A parent, Varda Cohen-Silver of Haifa, argued the soldiers were not to blame "for having been turned into monsters, but we, the parents' generation (are guilty. We) let the state ... send them to a place where force reigns, where every b-- is a king, and every young boy becomes an absolute ruler."

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Soldiers' misbehavior "is a disaster for us, a disaster for them, and the army (command) is not doing enough about it," Tel Aviv University Psychology Professor Ariel Merari told United Press International.

A Central Command officer who can be identified only as Colonel Uzi, told UPI that as of Jan. 1 every roadblock commander would first go through a 3- to 4-day course, which some soldiers have already been through, in which a Hebrew-speaking representative of the International Committee for the Red Cross addresses them.

Roadblocks are vital in the battle against terror, Uzi argued. Israel maintains 50 permanent roadblocks in the West Bank and 30 to 60 mobile ones, erected for a few hours and removed. There are none any more in Gaza, a military spokeswoman said.

Uzi reported 30 to 40 instances in which soldiers caught terrorists, weapons and explosives in permanent roadblocks. Militants learn to skirt them so surprise roadblocks are needed.

Last week, reservists were transported by helicopter to a field near the West Bank town of Hebron, set up a roadblock and caught four armed militants on their way to stage an attack, he added.

Human rights groups monitor some roadblocks.

Two Mahsom (roadblock) Watch volunteers this week sat on small folding chairs at the Kalandia checkpoint on the Jerusalem-Ramallah road. Soldiers checked Palestinians' blue and orange identity cards. Some identity cards and Jordanian passports are forged, Uzi said. When an argument ensued with a Palestinian, one of the women came close enough to hear, but did not intervene.

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The B'Tselem human rights group sends a jeep on patrols, its spokesman Noam Hoffstater said.

The monitors have a restraining influence but problems reportedly emerge in remote areas where no independent observer is expected.

Two weeks ago, a B'Tselem team reached a roadblock at Beit Iba, near Nablus, and saw 20 detainees two of whom were handcuffed and blindfolded.

Soldiers told B'Tselem the Palestinians were detained because they behaved violently. Palestinians said soldiers ordered them to clean the position.

"The two refused and were handcuffed," Hoffstater quoted the detainees as having said. On the whole "you don't see blood," Hoffstater said. Physical brutality is rare and difficult to locate, he added.

Dr. Wael Qaadan of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society said he did not recall off hand any case of a Palestinian killed or wounded in a clash at a roadblock.

However, there is harassment, callous behavior, and sometimes fistfights.

"Many times they beat people, box them," said Ibrahim Salameh, 38, Coordinator of Public Committees in West Bank refugee camps. "They create hatred."

He recalled being detained for hours when soldiers did not let him through for lack of papers; the argument developed into in pushing match.

Barakat Hasan, a Palestinian Education Ministry official who lives on the Israeli side of the fence, this week took his 15-year-old son, Hammad, to a doctor in Ramallah. On their way home, a soldier refused to let the son pass because though Hasan had a crossing permit, Hammad did not.

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"How can I go without my child?" the father asked. It was evening. "I'll have to stay here with my child."

"You can stay until the morning. It's not my problem," the soldier responded.

Fifteen minutes later, the shift changed and another soldier went over.

"You can go now. Nobody's looking," he said.

Roadblock veterans maintain young soldiers are given enormous power over thousands of people. With a slight wave of the palm of the hand they motion someone through. They may keep another out or make people wait for hours. Like in basic training, there are young corporals out there "who think they're God," Gideon Fishman, a professor of Sociology and Criminology at Haifa University, said.

The soldiers react to frustration and fear with demonstrations of overconfidence, he argued.

The stress they face affects crime levels inside Israel, too. The intifada has increased society's brutalization and insensitivity, said Simha Landau, a professor of Criminology at Hebrew University.

"In the long run, violence resulting from conflicts with out-groups ("enemies") is generalized and directed toward in-group members of society," he wrote.

"We do feel it's a more violent society," concurred Police spokesman Gil Kleiman.

A language barrier sometimes impedes communication and sometimes soldiers do not understand the documents presented them. Their 8-hour shifts are taxing.

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"As hours pass we see increasing nervousness, shouts and pushing," said Roni Hammermann of Mahsom Watch. "The soldiers' nerves are also put to a tough test. We send them to a mission impossible and they gradually become violent. We can see the violence rise at the roadblocks."

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