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On Gaza Beach

Ari Shavit, translated from the Hebrew by Stephen Langfur

The setting is idyllic: a few hundred yards from the quiet Mediterranean shore. At six in the morning, when the fishing boats go out, you feel for a moment that you are back in the Greek Islands of the 1950s. A fresh breeze blows eastward through the guard tower and past the Palestinian prisoners below me.

The guards in the towers turn to look out now and then at the water. And the early risers among the prisoners enter the tin shanty where the toilets are and stand on tiptoe as close as they can to the only window from which it is possible to see the Mediterranean.

One day, if there is a state called Palestine, its government will no doubt lease this piece of ground to some international entrepreneur who would set up a Club Med Gaza Beach. One day, when there is peace, Israelis could come here for a short vacation on foreign soil ten miles from the border. They would dance the samba and buy Palestinian needlework in the duty-free shop.

Meanwhile we have the usual morning routine: long lines of prisoners in blue uniforms are led from compound to compound beneath the curling wire fences, beneath the barrels of the M-16s.

Those who lead them are my buddies. Jewish soldiers. In the bluish light of an early April morning they hold their rifles tightly. They tell the prisoners to stop, to advance, to stop. While the fresh breeze blows in from the sea, they tell the prisoners to hold their hands out in front of them. A young soldier goes from one to another, clamping on handcuffs.

This is the internment camp “Gaza Beach.” It is one of seven camps built in a rush in the early stages of the intifada three and a half years ago. But the temporary camps gradually became part of routine life in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

I am here doing my annual reserve service, like any other Israeli man. This time, instead of taking part in military exercises, I am a guard. The camp is on the southwestern outskirts of the city of Gaza. I’m lucky: this place is considered one of the best of all internment camps of its kind. The notorious internment camps at Ketsiot and Far’ah are much worse than this one, and only Megiddo prison in the north of Israel—so they say—competes with ours for humaneness.

Until the uprising broke out in December 1987, the prison contained a small number of prisoners, some of them said to be dangerous criminals. Since 1988 it has held at any given time a thousand men or more. Most are awaiting trial; most were arrested because they were throwing stones or were said to be members of illegal organizations. Many are in their teens. Among them, here and there, are some boys who are small and appear to be very young.

The Gaza Beach Internment Facility has several sections: the interrogation section of Shin Bet (the general security services); a small interrogation section belonging to the police; and four compounds. In each compound there are about twelve old, brown army tents. In each tent there are twenty to thirty prisoners—which is considered a reasonable number. When the intifada was at its height, fifty or sixty men were crowded into a tent.

Each of the compounds in the Gaza Beach Facility is surrounded by a regular wire fence topped with curling barbed wire. Outside this fence is a narrow path for the jailers. Then comes an additional, outer fence—a sort of improvised wall made up of metal barrels that have been filled with cement. As the jailers pace back and forth between these fences, the thought arises that it isn’t clear who are the confined and who the confiners. The entire camp strikes me as a grand metaphor for everybody’s imprisonment. But then, this metaphor is a faulty, misleading one.

The prison has twelve guard towers. Some Israeli soldiers are struck—and deeply shaken—by the similarity between these and certain other towers, about which they have learned at school. But the shock is merely emotional. The guard towers constructed in Europe in the Thirties, for example, were all made of heavy European wood, whereas the towers in the Gaza Beach Facility are of flimsy Israeli metal, produced by a plant in Tiberias.

The towers are equipped with search lights, but there is no need for them, because the prison is suffused all night with a very strong yellowish light from hundreds of bulbs and beacons, Sometimes the electrical system is not turned off and glows on into the light of day.

The camp has a mess hall, a canteen, showers, toilets. Arab prisoners are assigned to scrub the Israeli soldiers’ toilets three or four times a day. The prison has a set of tents for reservists, an office, an operations room. The two kitchens, one for the jailers, one for the jailed, are separated only by a net. Sometimes, when the guards run out of coffee, the cook in the jailers’ kitchen may ask the cook in the kitchen of the jailed to pass him a few bags of coffee through the net.

The same clinic is used by everyone. The doctor may be consulted about a reservist’s eye infection, and then he may turn to the care of a prisoner whose legs have been injured by an overzealous interrogator. Thus everything is in order. The Gaza Beach Internment Facility runs by the rules.

As for the commander and his adjutant, one can say—without sarcasm—that given the circumstances in which they are imprisoned they try to do their best. On their orders, the prisoners receive plenty of food and cigarettes. The prisoners for the most part are allowed to run their own kitchen and they are given the supplies to do so. The prisoners’ leaders and the prison command talk together when necessary so that life proceeds calmly. It is more than two years since an officer shot to death a prisoner who tried to attack him—and kept shooting while the man rolled over on the floor in his blood. Nowadays family visits are allowed on Fridays. Lawyers meet with their clients in a special hut constructed for that purpose, and the Red Cross visits regularly.

And yet the unjust analogy with those other camps of fifty years ago won’t go away. It is not suggested by anti-Israel propaganda. It is in the language the soldiers use as a matter of course: when A. gets up to do guard duty in the interrogation section, he says, “I’m off, late for the Inquisition.”

When R. sees a line of prisoners approaching under the barrels of his friends’ M-16s, he says with quiet intensity: “Look. The Aktion has begun.”

And N., who has strong right-wing views, grumbles to anyone who will listen that the place resembles a concentration camp.

M., with a thin smile, explains that he has accumulated so many days in reserve duty during the intifada that soon they will promote him to a senior Gestapo official.

And I, too, who have always abhorred this analogy, who have always argued bitterly with anyone who so much as hints at it, I can no longer stop myself. The associations are too strong. They break through when I see a man from Pen Number 1 call through the fences to a man from Pen Number 2 to show him a picture of his daughter; or when the young man who has just been arrested awaits my orders with a mixture of surrender and panic and quiet pride. And when I merely look around at people in pens, in cages.

Like a believer whose faith is cracking, I go over and over again in my heart the long list of arguments, the list of the differences. There are no crematoria here, I remind myself, and there was no conflict between peoples there. Germany, with its racist doctrine, was organized evil, its people were not in danger, and so on.

But then I realized that the problem is not in the similarity—for no one can seriously think that there is a real similarity—but that there isn’t enough lack of similarity. The problem is that the lack of similarity isn’t strong enough to silence once and for all the evil echoes, the accusing images.

Maybe the Shin Bet is to blame for this—for the arrests it makes and for what it does to those arrested. For almost every night, after it has managed, in its interrogations, to “break” a certain number of young men, the Shin Bet delivers to the paratroopers in the city or to the border guard professionals a list with the names of the friends of the young men. And so I would see their cars go out almost every night to the city, which is under curfew, to arrest the people who are said to endanger the security of the state.

And I would see the soldiers come back with children of fifteen or sixteen. The children grit their teeth. Their eyes bulge from their sockets. In not a few cases they have already been beaten. Even S., who owns a plant in the occupied territories, can’t believe his eyes. Have we come to this? he asks. That the Shin Bet goes after kids like these? And soldiers crowd together in the “reception room” to look at them when they undress. To look at them in their underwear, to look at them as they tremble with fear. And sometimes they kick them—one kick more, before they put on their new prison clothes. Sometimes they just curse.

Or maybe the doctor is to blame. You wake him in the middle of the night to treat one of those just brought in—a young man, barefoot, wounded, who looks as if he’s having an epileptic fit, who tells you that they beat him just now on the back and stomach and over the heart. There are ugly red marks all over his body. The doctor turns to the young man and shouts at him. In a loud, raging voice he says: May you die! And then he turns to me with a laugh: May they all die!

Or maybe the screams are to blame. At the end of the watch, on your way from the tent to the shower, you sometimes hear horrible screams. You walk in your shorts and clogs, a towel slung over your shoulder, toilet kit in hand, and from the other side of the galvanized tin fence of the interrogation section come hair-raising human screams. Literally hair-raising.

From the various human rights organizations you know that they have no “closets” for torture here in the Gaza facility. (Other detention centers have them in abundance.) So you ask yourself what is happening here five yards from you. Are they using the “banana tie”? Or just plain beating?*

You don’t know. But you know that from this moment on you won’t be able to rest. Because no more than fifty yards from the bed where you try to sleep, eighty yards from the mess hall where you try to eat, people scream. And they scream because other people, wearing uniforms like your own, do things to them that cause them to scream.

Try not to be oversensitive, you say to yourself. Don’t get carried away, don’t jump to conclusions. Doesn’t every nation have its basements, its special services, its “security” problem? It just happens to be your bad luck to have been sent to a place where you can hear exactly how the thing sounds.

But you know that there isn’t a grain of truth in what you just said. Because in this interrogation facility they don’t question dangerous spies or traitors or guerillas who are about to blow up the army’s headquarters. (Only one out of twenty-five young men who were interrogated during my service was accused of murder—the murder of a collaborator.)

Because in the prison compounds in the territories, it is not just one or two dozen secret agents who are interrogated each year. Thousands upon thousands of political prisoners are questioned by Shin Bet. In all internment camps, on any given day, about 14,000 people are being held: almost 1 percent of the population of the territories.

Because what is happening here around you is not some kind of necessary counterespionage, limited and precise. What is happening here is that an entire population of our reservists—bank clerks, insurance agents, electronics engineers, technicians, retailers, students—carries out the task of imprisoning another entire population, theirs—tile layers, plasterers, lab workers, journalists, clergy, students. This is something without parallel in any part of the world today that is thought to be decent. And you are a partner to it. You comply.

And now, as the screams grow weaker, as they change to a kind of sobbing, wailing, you know that from this moment on nothing will ever again be as it was. Because a person who has heard the screams of another person being tortured is already a different person. Whether he does anything about it or not, a person who has heard the screams of another person being tortured incurs an obligation.

You look around and cannot believe it. Indeed most people feel a shock when they arrive here, when they see people closed up in pens. Most are shaken when they first hear the screaming. Yet only one out of sixty of us refuse to do guard duty in the interrogation section. Only four or five look troubled. Most of the rest get accustomed to it very quickly. After a day or two here it already seems quite natural to see people enclosed behind barbed wire. The interrogation section is part of the routine. As if this were the way of the world.

And these people, your friends, ordinary Israelis, who sit in the canteen in front of the TV with you to watch a repeat screening of Gandhi, or thirty-something, or LA Law—these good people who are solid citizens of a consumer-oriented, technological democracy—undergo here, without the slightest difficulty, the silent metamorphosis that is required of them.

Only a few people actually do the sordid deeds. But in fact nearly all of us stand there while the sordid deeds are done. As if we had been trained for this, as if it were all a matter of course.

I make a quick calculation, rough, inexact:

I estimate that several hundred young men at least must do reserve duty in this internment camp each year. So in all camps of this type, the number of reservists each year must amount to at least several thousand. Thus in the forty months of intifada, more than ten thousand Israeli citizens in uniform have walked between the fences, have heard the screams, have seen the young being led in and out. One out of every hundred Israeli men has been here (or maybe one out of seventy, or one out of fifty). And the country has been quiet. Has flourished.

And Prime Minister Shamir has continued to believe that everything’s all right, more or less. And our ambassadors in Washington and New York have explained to the networks over and over that we are the good guys and they are the bad guys. And Benjamin Netanyahu has reminded Ted Koppel time after time that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. And no one has arisen to silence them, in shame.

No one has brought them a cassette with the screams. Ten thousand (if not fifteen thousand, if not twenty thousand) Israelis have done their work faithfully—have opened the heavy iron door of the isolation cell and then closed it. Have led the man from the interrogation chamber to the clinic, from the clinic back to the interrogation chamber. They have looked close up at people shifting in terror, pissing in fear. And not one among them has begun a hunger strike in front of the house of the prime minister. Not one among them that I know of has said, This will not happen. Not in a Jewish state.

And although there is no basis for comparison—and in truth there is no basis for comparison—I begin to understand how it was with some of those other guards who stood in other places, over other people, behind other fences. How these other guards heard other screams—and didn’t hear a thing. For in most cases, the bad do not know they are bad. Those who carry out atrocities hardly ever know they are carrying out atrocities. They simply obey orders. Or wait for promotion. Or do what they have to. All they really want is to get home safe and sound. And they worry about their taxes, and about their kids’ problems in school. But at the same time that they are thinking about home and the wife and the bills to be paid, their hands unthinkingly hold the weapon; their eyes are on the fence, on the door. The door behind which people are suffering.

When we line up for guard duty at one-thirty in the morning I scan our faces. Our slouching bodies. Are we the thing that is called “evil”? The gatekeepers of oppression?

No, no. Look, when it comes right down to it, we don’t want to be here. We don’t like this work. It’s not for us, the whole business. Along with other Israelis, we’d prefer our Israel to be a sort of California. The trouble is, this California of ours is surrounded by ayatollahs, is it not? And when we stand here like this in a weary semi-circle, a bit miserable, with tattered belts, with coats that don’t keep us warm enough, it’s very hard to make accusations against us. We too, in our way, are the victims.

But it’s not all that simple.

When the formation breaks up and I climb the ladder to my tower, Number 6, I realize that the problem is the division of labor—the labor of evil. This division makes it possible for evil to take place apparently without evil people.

After all, the people who voted “Likud” aren’t evil. And the ministers who sit in the Likud government aren’t evil. They don’t hit children in the stomach with their fists. And the chief of staff is not evil. He carries out what the elected government obliges him to carry out. And the commander of the internment facility is not evil—really not. And the interrogators—well, after all, they are doing their job. And it is, they say, impossible to govern the territories unless they do it. And as for the jailers, most of them are not evil either.

Yet in some magical way, all these not-evil people manage together to produce a result that is very evil indeed. Worse: a result that is evil itself. And evil is always greater than the sum of its parts. Or the sum of those who contribute to it.

That is to say: despite our Schweikian exterior, our clumsiness, our pathetic petty-bourgeois ways, we are the evil in Gaza. Only this evil of ours is an evil in disguise. A cunning evil. For it is an evil that happens, as it were, apart. The responsibility is no one’s.

I look for comparisons, because I need some sort of anchor. A reference point. I need some sort of lever that will place me “beyond the veil of ignorance” (as John Rawls puts it) and allow me to define my condition with lucidity. If I were not an Israeli and a Jew, how would I look in my own eyes? What kind of verdict would I pass on myself at this moment? And as I encounter more and more sickening phenomena in the various corners of this well-run prison, the more I need to make comparisons. I know this is a place that urgently requires comparisons.

No, not to the Gestapo. No, not to anything that happened in Central Europe between 1939 and 1945. Well then—the Stasi? Maybe the cars that daily come and go through the gates—with our good-looking agents in them—are not fundamentally different from the Skodas and Volgas of those other regimes. Or the exuberant interrogators who sit beside me at lunch and mimic the torments of the interrogated—perhaps they are not so very different from the interrogators of Natan Sharansky, or from the jailers of Nelson Mandela.

For in Gaza there are no excuses. From Guard Tower Number 6 I can make out the city that is beyond the fences. A Mediterranean city, past hope of cure. And in this city live people whose houses and villages in what is now Israel we took over years ago; and not only did we take their houses, but later, in 1967, we took over their place of refuge too. Not only that, but in those long years of occupation we turned them into a sub-proletariat and we exploited them. Not only did we exploit them, but when they dared to demand their freedom, we put them behind barbed wire. And in Gaza there are no strategic heights, no vital water sources for Tel Aviv. Not even the tombs of our ancestors to which we claim historic rights. In Gaza, indeed, there are no excuses.

In Gaza our General Security Services therefore amount to a Secret Police, our internment facilities are cleanly run Gulags. Our soldiers are jailers, our interrogators torturers. In Gaza it’s all straightforward and clear. There’s no place to hide. And I think: What if someone were to sneak a hidden camera in here? If only Robert Capa were alive. If only Claude Lanzmann were to make a film here. He would see a bored soldier who sits and solves crossword puzzles chewing on his pencil, under the apparently innocent sign: “Compound Number 1,” while another soldier, one or our charming Sabra types, a youth from a Tel Aviv suburb, walks around with a wreath of handcuffs over his shoulder.

Then he might turn his camera on the forty-one prisoners whom we shove into the narrow filthy detention cell in the government building in Gaza. They are awaiting trial. Because they have no room to move, because they are squeezed one against the other from morning until noon like cattle, they press ever more tightly up against the bars on the door to the detention cell so as to gulp in a little air. And because the door is too narrow for them all, some collapse, and some crawl under the legs of others. And the seven or eight who are caught on the bars appear, without intending or knowing it, as a kind of living statue, a mute poster of protest against imprisonment and oppression.

A military policeman happens to walk by and says, smiling: I’d toss them a grenade. And the prisoners hear this; they are used to it. One grenade in there, the Israeli policeman laughs, and all those shits are finished.

Across the compound a conversation is going on about the virtues and drawbacks of the newest Japanese cars, ten yards from where a young man sprawls, his head opened by IDF rifle butts. The talk continues about the gears of the Subaru, ten yards from where this young man still goes on making empty gestures in the air—of pleading and despair.

Then there is the little pleasant patio that belongs to the interrogation section. A little strip of grass, chairs. The Israeli flag flying on top of the pole. The soldiers sit and play backgammon. (From the other side of the door behind them one can hear sobs.) Anybody want some coffee? Yeah, sure, let’s have some. It’s so boring here.

So I try once more to comprehend the inner logic of the place, the necessity that, so to speak, created it. I try to summon up the just claims, the mitigating circumstances: Aren’t we refugees too, or children of refugees? And the knife slayings in Jerusalem. And we must be strong. And we have to practice patience. And without the Shin Bet our life would be hell. And our decisions are made democratically, even if I personally don’t like them. I try to summon up all those sedatives that help us to see things from within. To drug ourselves with thoughts about how complex the situation is. But it doesn’t work. Because there are places, there are situations, where talk of mitigating circumstances is falsifying and the truer pictures are precisely the simple clear-cut ones, the ones in black and white.

But what’s to be done? I ask myself. These are pictures, after all, which one cannot ignore or forget. It is not a place one can turn one’s back on. In my case, I can write an article for my newspaper. A comfortable alibi. But what will the others do? And what shall we do—we, all of us, the “good Israelis”?

Shall we wait until James Baker III sweeps through on yet another visit and saves us from ourselves; from this swamp in which we are sinking? Or shall we violate the law, break with national solidarity, become conscientious objectors? Or perhaps we shall continue to play the same double game, looking on as the moral character of Israel continues to rot away, growing in corruption from day to day, from month to month, before our eyes.

For this is what the Palestinians have brought upon us by means of the intifada: they have deprived us, in the most unambiguous way, of the possibility of an “enlightened occupation.” They have forced us to choose: territories or decency. Occupation or fairness. And, yes, that is indeed the question of the hour. An acute and urgent question, demanding an answer at once. It is not, at this hour, a matter of territories in exchange for peace. It is a matter of territories in exchange for our humanity.

Translated from the Hebrew by Stephen Langfur

  1. *

    In March 1991 an Israeli organization called B’tselem, which is dedicated to upholding human rights in the territories, issued a report. It was based on the testimonies of people who were interrogated. It describes methods of torture which carry various names, “closet” and “banana” being the most prominent.

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