Idan Barir (Israel)

“Descending from this hilltop settlement into the town of Jenin was like going from heaven down into hell.”

Photography by Dubi Roman

Idan Barir is a former Israeli soldier in the artillery forces, from Tel Aviv. In recent years he has been  an activist with the Israeli-Palestinian movement Combatants for Peace (www.combatantsforpeace.org) and is currently a PhD candidate in Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University. See also www.machsomwatch.org/en.

As a child I had a very clear idea of what patriotism was. I’d grown up with images of the glorious fighting of 1967 and wanted to be like those great Israeli heroes who had entered the old city of Jerusalem.

In 1999, the year after I was conscripted, I was sent for the first time to the occupied territories  – to the West Bank, just north of Nablus. It was during the last phases of the Oslo Accords implementation and the region was very quiet. By now the Second Intifada had just broken out and we were sent to a tumultuous area near Jenin. We used an almost deserted settlement Kadim, which had just eight families remaining in it, as our base of operations. Descending from this hill-top settlement into the town of Jenin was like going from heaven down into hell.

It was a completely crazy time. Armed with guns we’d chase boys with stones through tomato and eggplant greenhouses. We were trained to believe that every Palestinian was a threat. By the fifth week, when all the Palestinian greenhouses had been destroyed and trampled underfoot, the military built trenches where the tomatoes and eggplants once grew. I remember being very indifferent to the dramatic changes I had viewed in the rural landscape of Jenin during the first weeks of the Intifada. Agricultural scenery was changed in a blink of an eye into giant fields of trenches and tall dirt walls, and I didn’t find anything wrong in it. If Palestinians were a threat, we had to do all in our power to thwart this threat.

In April 2000, we were taken to Hebron and posted in a very religious settlement where the men wore kippahs on their heads and had long side-locks. One of the fiascos of the Israeli operation was Kaleb’s Field. The field was owned by Menachem Livni, a settler who was convicted in the early 1980s of leading the terrorist organization known by the name ‘The Jewish Underground’. Livni grew grapes in the heart of a small Palestinian town called Bani Na’im. He came to his field at 6am and left at sunset and ten of us had to guard him round the clock. It was during one nightshift here that I became very fearful and began to think what we were doing was ridiculous and redundant. Ten people’s lives were being put in danger for the sake of a convicted felon growing grapes.

Once out of the army I was moved to a reservist unit and in 2006 we were called again to Jenin. Our base was a checkpoint on a very small hill, fenced with high cement walls. We would conduct nightly raids and ambushes firing tear gas just for the hell of it. For some it was fun, but for me it felt purposeless. Later I was sent to Qualquiliya to serve in an agricultural checkpoint. Every morning we’d have a meeting on an empty parking lot overlooking Tel Aviv. My commander would point out across the land trying to make us believe that this was the land we were defending. They needed to give us a purpose. He told us that we would face many threats during our time of duty, including knife attacks and shootings, but the threat to be most afraid of was that of the Machsom Watch – a group of Israeli female peace activists who stand silently by checkpoints in protest against the Israeli occupation. My superior officer said, ‘If a Palestinian threatens you it’s very easy because you can shoot them in the head, but unfortunately you can’t shoot the Machsom Watch.’

As it happened, on that very day, the Machsom Watch did come to my checkpoint and I got to speak with one very nice grey-haired woman who reminded me of my grandmother. I didn’t accept everything she told me, but I was proud she was there.

A few months later, I was travelling in Germany when I met a Palestinian from Ramallah who was working as a waiter. His name was Ahmed and he told me a terrible story of how he’d been arrested by the Israeli security forces and held in a secret facility for ten days. The investigator had put him in a coffin half-filled with water and left him there for six days. He said on the first day he believed they wouldn’t break him. On the second day he had to shit and pee on himself and his legs began to freeze. On the third day he was shouting and screaming, and by the fourth day he was begging for his life promising to tell them anything they wanted to know. He was very angry with Israelis and told me that in another time and place he would have killed me.

What finally made me realise that violence was not the solution was seeing pictures on television of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) bombing the outskirts of Gaza with phosphorus artillery shells. In training we had always been told that it was against the Geneva Conventions to use phosphorus, but day after day I watched these bombs being used and then heard the IDF military spokesperson denying it in the evening. I felt my moral world collapsing. I had grown up to believe that the army never lied. This was the start of a new way of thinking for me. I wrote a letter to my commanders and told them I was no longer willing to take part in any fighting in the occupied Palestinian territories.

As an Israeli I feel so ashamed that our army tells lies. Also, hearing the story of Ahmed made me feel very ashamed. If I had a chance to meet Ahmed again I would tell him, ‘I will fight your war for you, but I want you to convince other people that revenge is not the way forward.’

I’m not looking for forgiveness from those I may have hurt because I know I won’t get it. Nor do I feel that I have the right to forgive myself and rid myself of guilt or the strong sense of shame I feel. Forgiveness should be something more practical that both sides can benefit from. If we can tunnel vengeance into something constructive, then this is forgiveness.