Anshel Pfeffer : A Picture of a Headlock That's Worth a Thousand Words


Look at this picture of an IDF soldier holding a Palestinian boy in a headlock. If you hadn’t been paying attention to the news over the last three days, would you have known it was taken recently? Of course, if you know a bit about military hardware or the changing fashions of IDF combat fatigues, you could tell by the fact the soldier was carrying a Tavor Tar-21 and by the stitching of his uniform that it had taken place in recent years, but aside from these minor clues, there is nothing to indicate that the picture wasn’t taken at any point over last 28 years, since the first intifada broke out in 1987. (There was stone-throwing in the West Bank of course before, but that uprising saw the average age of the stone-throwers go down into the early teens.)

Which raises the question: Why hasn’t one of the most sophisticated and advanced militaries in the world learned a damn thing in all this time? Let’s set aside for a few paragraphs the question of whether Israeli forces should be in the West Bank, the competing claims between the Nabi Saleh villagers and the neighboring settlement over the local spring, around which the weekly protests take place, and even stop asking for a moment which side’s leaders are more at fault for the lack of a viable solution. Let’s just ask why that picture is so unsurprising.

Shouting for help

Look at it again. Only one part of the soldier’s body radiates confidence. His right hand is holding on to the assault rifle, correctly pointing it towards the ground, and even though you can’t see it, you absolutely know all his fingers are around the handle, outside the trigger-guard. He’s a pro rifleman. All the rest of his body is shouting for help. He’s overpowered a child half of his size, who may or may not have been correctly identified as throwing stones, but the soldier doesn’t know what to do next. He’s been intensively trained by a crack infantry battalion to go after Hezbollah fighters in the Lebanese underbrush, but nothing in the few days he spent mastering the use tear gas and stun grenades before this deployment could have possibly prepared him for what he’s doing now.

And that’s before the mother and sisters of the boy start jumping on him and biting his hand. Unlike him, they’ve been in this situation dozens of times in recent years. They know he’s going to keep on using his strong arm to cling to the useless rifle, the other one to cling inexpertly to the wriggling child, while trying to keep balance on the rocky slope. Deployment after deployment, year after year, decade after decade, some of the IDF’s most accomplished combat units are sent to places like Nabi Saleh, Na'alin and Bil'in, where these dramas have played out with depressing regularity every Friday at noon, and insisted that they’re soldiers doing a soldier’s job, not glorified riot police. It’s no longer a tactical mistake, it’s a national headlock in which an entire army, and behind it a nation, remains in a state of denial that there are military solutions to the conflict.
Palestinians scuffle with an Israeli soldier in Nabi Saleh.
Palestinians try to prevent Israeli soldier from detaining a boy during a protest in the West Bank village Nabi Saleh, August 28, 2015.Reuters

Military ethos demands that a soldier never put down his sidearm while out in the field. But what happens when a soldier is in a position where he won’t possibly use his rifle? Sure, you can make an argument that a gunman or sniper will use the opportunity to open fire on the soldiers, but the sensible precaution against this is to position a second force well outside the perimeter of the rioting. Those who are tussling with civilians will find it very difficult to return fire anyway. But tactical common sense goes out the window when we’re in a national headlock.

Right-wing apologists of course have been quick to brand this as another “Pallywood” production and pointed out that the Palestinian family are known “troublemakers” who routinely stage such scenes. Let’s go along with their argument just for a couple of sentences. Whatever you think of the Palestinian national struggle, you don’t get to choose the other side’s weapons. The people of Nabi Saleh, with the help of foreign volunteers, put on the weekly show for the media because it’s compelling, it works. Anyway, if the only issue here was one of appearances, then why is the IDF providing extras every week for the show? There are much more effective ways of handling these situations which don’t necessitate such scenes. For a start, using properly-equipped police instead of soldiers who should stay on the perimeter.

Morally bankrupt

But it’s a morally bankrupt argument anyway and we shouldn’t indulge these stooges. No amount of PR and media management will make the occupation of another nation look good, regardless of whether you think this is all their fault and it’s not an occupation because, as Naftali Bennett says, a nation cannot be an occupier in its own land. If we’re not occupying territory, then we sure as hell are occupying another people, and at the end of the day Israel is doing a bad job of it because deep down the majority of Israelis know it’s wrong. They just haven’t found a way to get out of the headlock which makes them hope that we can just continue chucking the IDF at the problem and somehow, one day, it will go away.

Actually, looking again at the picture, there is one other detail which you wouldn’t have seen a few years ago. The soldier is trying to conceal his identity behind a badly constructed mask. Until very recently, you almost never saw servicemen in the West Bank covering their faces while trying to suppress riots. This isn’t for fear of being hauled in front of an international court - those tribunals never indict anyone beneath the level of senior commander. And while the soldier belongs to an elite battalion, it isn’t a special forces unit that needs to preserve its members anonymity.

Taking their toll

The mask is proof that the Palestinian stage managing, the dozens of cameras and the results immediately uploaded to YouTube, and in cases like this also broadcast in the media, are taking their toll. Whatever these men and their immediate commanders are telling themselves, the true underlying reason more soldiers are covering their faces is shame. They know our politicians have put them in an impossible situation where they can never win. No decent person, no matter his politics, wants to go home for Shabbat and see himself online manhandling children and women. Today’s young soldiers are by now a third generation enforcing an occupation that is eating away at our army and our society. Perhaps their shame will one day motivate them to demand real solutions from the politicians.

Anshel Pfeffer

Haaretz Correspondent

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