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How Did You Become a War Criminal?

by Dr. Neve Gordon

To Colonel Aviv Kohavi
Brigade Commander
of the Israeli Defense Forces Paratroopers

I presume you remember me. In any event, I remember you. We first met in the paratrooper brigade. I was a platoon sergeant in the corporals company; you were a young platoon officer. Even then friends of mine who were serving with you in the same post in Lebanon related that you were a sensible, serious, and above all decent officer.

The better part of our acquaintance occurred, though, at Hebrew University. We were studying towards our B.A. in Philosophy–you in preparation for a career in the military, I as a human rights activist. During that period we had more than one political discussion. I couldn’t help but admire you. I found you to be a thinking person, imaginative, and judicious–quite different from the typical army officer that one meets at the university, one who registers merely to snatch a degree and to run off. Looking back, I believe that you really enjoyed your studies, a number of which, it should be noted, dealt with ethical theory.

Years have passed since we last met. You became the paratroopers’ brigade commander, I a lecturer in the department of politics and government at Ben Gurion University. On Thursday, March 1, 2002 I once again saw you, not face to face, but on television. You were on the news program: the commander of the troops that entered Balata refugee camp, near Nablus. You solemnly explained that at that very moment your soldiers were transmitting a forceful message to the Palestinian terrorists: the Israeli army will hunt them down in every nook and cranny.

In the days after the interview, news began to trickle about what took place in the camp: prior to the incursion the Israeli military reigned terror on the inhabitants employing helicopters and tanks; then, Aviv, you imposed a curfew on the camp, blew up the electric transmission lines, cutting off electricity to 20,000 civilian inhabitants; bulldozers ruined the water supply pipe lines. Your soldiers, Aviv, then moved from house to house by smashing holes in the interior walls; they destroyed furniture and other property, and riddled bullets in water tanks on roof tops. The soldiers spread terror on the inhabitants, most of whom were women, elderly, and children.

But that wasn’t all. I learned that your soldiers also used inhabitants as human shields. Also, in the first few hours of the incursion the Palestinians had 120 wounded, and that you, Aviv, refused to allow ambulances to enter and leave the camp.

There were, of course, several battles in the camp during the incursion; two Palestinians and one of your soldiers were killed. You also reported that you confiscated weapons and that your operation prevented future terrorist acts from happening. But you totally ignored the connection between Israeli military violence perpetrated in the Occupied Territories and Palestinian violence in Israel, as if the incursions into the camps and the reign of terror that you and your soldiers imposed do not drive Israel/Palestine into a blood bath from which none can escape.

How, Aviv, do you think that your incursion affected the children whom you locked up for hours with other members of their families, while you searched their house and blasted holes through their walls? Did your incursion contribute a smithereen to peace, or did it instead spread seeds of hatred, despondence, and death in the crowded, poverty stricken, hopeless refugee camp?

I have not stopped thinking about you since that television interview, trying to understand what was going on in your mind. What caused you to lead your soldiers –soldiers of the paratrooper brigade — to a war against a civilian population?

Aviv, I am presently teaching a course entitled “The Politics of Human Rights.” One of the topics I discuss during the semester is the intifada and its lessons with respect to human rights. From the standpoint of international conventions, at least, your acts in Balata constitute blatant violations of human rights. Such acts are, in fact, war crimes.

Aviv, what happened to the sensible and judicious officer? How did you become a war criminal?

Dr. Neve Gordon
Department of Political Science
Ben-Gurion University
Beer Sheva, Israel

Neve Gordon is a Leverhulme Visiting Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies and the co-author of The Human Right to Dominate.

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