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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Israeli ex-soldier shares insight into occupation

Thu, 29 Jan 2009 18:47:45 GMT
By Fareena Alam, Press TV, London

A Palestinian carries the
flag of a local activist group
and covers his face as
tear gas is fired by Israeli soldiers in a protest against
a separation barrier -- key to the 60-year Israeli occupation policy of confiscating Palestinian land.
With more and more evidence that Israel may have committed war crimes and contravened the Geneva Convention during its recent 3-week assault on Gaza, concern is also brewing over whether any British subjects were involved.

Press TV's Fareena Alam spoke to Seth Freedman, a British Jew who once served as an Israeli army volunteer. He has since become disillusioned with the occupation.

Freedman: I spent the first 7 months of my army service (for Israel) engaged in basic and advanced training - you don't actually go into the West Bank, you just learn the basics. During this period, you're psychologically prepared by the army on the way they want you to view the situation.

At that point, alarm bells start ringing because you realize you're being conditioned to see the Palestinian people as the enemy. By the time we were taken to Bethlehem - the first point of our tour of duty, it occurred to me that the situation wasn't as black and white as I'd been conditioned to see it.

The experience of actually policing the occupation on a day-to-day basis - not under fire, not in particularly violent circumstances - but with us just relentlessly harassing people at checkpoints, dragging people out of cars, taking over houses to sleep in - that's when I realized that I don't want to play a part in this and that this was detrimental to the security of the Jewish people, rather than the party line which is, 'You have to do this in order to preserve the security situation'.

Press TV: Would you say then that you weren't fully aware of the reality of this occupation?

Freedman: I think most people are in a sense, unaware. You can read all the second-hand opinions you like or you can see the television reports but until you're taken out of your comfort zone in England, as a televisions viewer or holiday-maker and forced to confront it on a daily basis whereby you're the one with the gun, looking into the eyes of Palestinians or whoever it is - you remain unaware.

They did a study for Haifa University with ex-combat soldiers and found that many turn left-wing because of what they've gone through.

So the only good thing I take from my service in the West Bank is that it opened my eyes, in a way that any number of television reports could never have done.

Press TV: So would it be correct to call you a refusenik?

Freedman: I was a foreign volunteer - you don't have to be a citizen of Israel to serve in the army for 15 months, in combat. All foreign volunteers are exempted from reserve duty. Now that I live in Israel, technically, I should do it but people like me kind of fall through the cracks. They're not going to call me to serve in the West Bank but if they do, I would refuse and then I would fall into the bracket of 'refusenik'. That situation hasn't arisen because of the special status that foreign volunteers like me have.

I continue to live in Israel because I passionately believe I can play a part in changing the status quo. I write for The Guardian twice a week on the subject and I give interviews such as this with the hope of making a difference.

Press TV: What change do you hope to bring about?

Freedman: I want to see a move toward co-existence. I grew up in London where I had no issue with having Muslim and Christian neighbors. I didn't suffer from anti-Semitism. I wasn't assailed with the fear that is common to many Israelis and Jews out there in the Diaspora.

I want to bring my London experiences into practice here. I live on the edge of Tel Aviv, in a very mixed community of Jews and Arabs and I engage in dialogue with my Arab neighbors and participate in joint Jewish-Arab projects - things that bring the two communities together. Also, by writing for the Guardian, I can give a voice to Palestinians whose voices don't get heard by the media in Israel, who don't have an outlet to say what they are going through.

Press TV: Are there British citizens who are serving in the IDF?

Freedman: There are plenty of expat English men who still hold and English passport but living in Israel. They are both English and Israeli and they are serving in the West Bank on reserve duty. They have also served in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. I don't think anyone would hide that. I couldn't give you exact figures but it's quite clear that a big percentage of the Israeli population is made up of immigrants who aren't obliged to give up their home-country citizenship.

Press TV: What do you think of the brewing concern over British Jews participating in a foreign conflict like the one in Gaza, particularly because war crimes may have been committed? They could face legal implications when they return to Britain.

Freedman: If it was clearly established that going to fight in the occupied West Bank was tantamount to committing a war crime, then I'm sure England could put preventative measures in place in the same way that they put British Muslims who allegedly go for what they call 'terrorist training' in Pakistan under surveillance.

I think it's a fair discussion to have. Israel is a unique country. It grants citizenship without making you give up your British, French, South African citizenship - wherever you come from.

This does leave Israel open to the accusation that it is in fact employing mercenaries - particularly with regards to the volunteer corp who never actually take up Israeli citizenship. They come here, fight and then go back to their home countries as though nothing has happened. So this is an issue that needs discussing.

But I understand the motivation of those who come to serve here - it's not as black and white as going around the world to look for wars to fight in. I understand their motivation is linked to the reason why Israel was set up in the first place, even if I don't agree with it.

Press TV: Do you see a double-standard in the way British Muslims who allegedly travel to fight in foreign conflicts, are treated, compared to British Jews serving in Israel?

Freedman: If you're asking if it's a double-standard just to focus on British Muslims and not British Jews, then definitely there is a double-standard.

You have got an issue of divided loyalties, whether it's to do with British Muslims or British Jews or whoever. If they're going off to fight in a war, ultimately if you extrapolate it far enough, they might end up fighting British forces, whether it's in Afghanistan or if there was a situation where British Forces were stationed in Gaza for example, as peacekeepers and there was some kind of conflict with Israeli forces.

If people are going off to fight for a country that isn't their country of birth, namely Britain in this case, then you have to have this discussion across the board. You can't focus exclusively on one set of people.

Press TV: What's the mood in Israel like with regards to the recent conflict in Gaza?

Freedman: There is a massive variety of opinions in Israel with regards to Operation Cast Lead. Some had an issue with the fact that an attack was launched at all and others have an issue with the scale of the attack that was leveled against the Gazans.

There is a huge group of hard-left activists in Israel - made up of both Jews and Israeli Arabs, all of whom are Israeli citizens. They regularly demonstrate against the IDF's actions and the government's actions. It's misleading to paint all Israelis as supportive of the war. There is widespread support for what the IDF did in Gaza but that can't discount the fact that there is quite a large core of opponents to it, in most of the major cities.

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