I’ve recently read a wonderful book about an authentic hero — The Luckiest Man, on the life of John McCain.
Author Mark Salter, a top aide and confidant, writes of the horrible torture that McCain endured as a POW in North Vietnam after his fighter/bomber was shot down.
That discussion led me to think about the treatment of captured enemy combatants in Israel. In my book, I write about serving one day as a guard at a military court in the West Bank. In the trials that I witnessed, the defendants were Palestinians accused of terrorist activities — mostly, throwing rocks at army patrols or civilian vehicles.
I also had two other experiences with how Israel deals with terrorists and acts of terrorism. (If you want to know more about the subject, you might try Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror by Jeffrey Goldberg, currently the editor of The Atlantic. Goldberg had been a guard in a prison with Palestinian inmates during the First Intifada in 1990, and I interviewed him about 15 years ago for an article I wrote about his book.)
Before beginning, I have to emphasize that I don’t know how Israel treats its Palestinian prisoners. I had two glimpses of that world, which I will share. You, my readers, need to decide how seriously to take them.
Once, while I was serving in the reserves, my fellow soldiers and I were given a tour of a jail holding Palestinians, which I believe was in the government building in Hebron. The facility was clean and well-lighted and when we entered, the prisoners in one cell were engaged in religious learning, according to our guide. They did not even look up as we passed through. Although my observations are based only on a quick walk-through, the men appeared well-fed, healthy and clean.
On another occasion, we were again serving in Hebron — I mention in the book that my unit and I spent much time in that town doing reserve duty — when some female Arab teenagers in a nearby village pelted an army patrol with rocks.
Some time later, the IDF picked up all the men in that village and brought them to a courtyard in the government building, where they were forced to spend the night. It was summer, and the men were wearing light clothes to keep cool against the daytime heat. But nights in desert-like climates often see a sharp drop in temperatures.
A few other soldiers and I were on duty that night, guarding those prisoners. The temperature was not dangerously cold, but it was cold enough for us to wear coats. The prisoners asked for blankets, but our commanding officer told us to ignore those requests.
In the morning, the men were set free.
So, what are we to make of this incident? Certainly, what I described does not fall under the heading of “torture.” The men were inconvenienced and made uncomfortable by being detained in the open night air. It was not the lack of medical treatment for his wounds and medicine for his illnesses, beatings, starvation and psychological torment that John McCain suffered.
But it was an example of collective punishment, where all the men — even those without teenage children — suffered for the misdeeds of some of the girls in the village. And I’m sure the men felt humiliated.
Obviously, for ethical and practical reasons, Israel should avoid actions that are unjust and increase resentment among the Palestinians. Sometimes, however, there are other factors that override those considerations. In my opinion, this was one of those cases.
The purpose of the overnight incarceration of the men was to encourage them to crack down on the youngsters in their village and thus prevent further violent protests. If that happened, then the men’s temporary imprisonment seems justified.
Throwing rocks at armed patrols is a recipe for disaster. Israeli soldiers can be seriously injured; panicky 18-year-old recruits may disobey orders and open fire, wounding or killing rock throwers.
With limited resources, the IDF tried to do its job — keep the peace and prevent casualties.
Remember, the subject is handling violent demonstrations and the treatment of prisoners in the situation as it exists. The question of whether the government should have permitted — even encouraged — Israelis to live in Hebron or built Jewish communities in the West Bank is an entirely different matter.
I hope that supporters and opponents of those settlements can at least agree that bloodshed should be avoided.