Twilight Zone / `I punched an Arab in the face'

25 novenber 2003


By Gideon Levy


Staff Sergeant (res.) Liran Ron Furer cannot just
routinely get on with his life anymore. He is
haunted by images from his three years of military
service in Gaza and the thought that this could be
a syndrome afflicting everyone who serves at
checkpoints gives him no respite. On the verge of
completing his studies in the design program at
the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, he decided
to drop everything and devote all his time to the
book he wanted to write. The major publishers he
brought it to declined to publish it. The
publisher that finally accepted it (Gevanim) says
that the Steimatzky bookstore chain refuses to
distribute it. But Furer is determined to bring
his book to the public's attention.

"You can adopt the most hard-line political
positions, but no parent would agree to his son
becoming a thief, a criminal or a violent person," says
Furer. "The problem is that it's never presented this
way. The boy himself doesn't portray himself this way to
his family when he returns from the
territories. On the contrary - he is received
as a hero, as someone who is doing the
important work of being a soldier. No one can
be indifferent to the fact that there are many
families in which, in a certain sense, there
are already two generations of criminals. The
father went through it and now the son is going
through it and no one talks about it around the
dinner table."

Furer is certain that what happened to him is
not at all unique. Here he was - a creative,
sensitive graduate of the Thelma Yellin High
School of the Arts, who became an animal at the
checkpoint, a violent sadist who beat up
Palestinians because they didn't show him the
proper courtesy, who shot out tires of cars
because their owners were playing the radio too
loud, who abused a retarded teenage boy lying
handcuffed on the floor of the Jeep, just
because he had to take his anger out somehow.
"Checkpoint Syndrome" (also the title of his
book), gradually transforms every soldier into
an animal, he maintains, regardless of whatever
values he brings with him from home. No one can
escape its taint. In a place where nearly
everything is permissible and violence is
perceived as normative behavior, each soldier
tests his own limits of violence impulsiveness
on his victims - the Palestinians.

His book is not easy reading. Written in terse,
fierce prose, in the blunt and coarse language
of soldiers, he reconstructs scenes from the
years in which he served in Gaza (1996-1999),
years that, one must remember, were relatively
quiet. He describes how he and his comrades
forced some Palestinians to sing "Elinor" - "It
was really something to see these Arabs singing
a Zohar Argov song, like in a movie"; the
emotions the Palestinians aroused in him -
"Sometimes these Arabs really disgust me,
especially those that try to toady up to us -
the older ones, who come to the checkpoint with
this smile on their faces"; the reactions they
spurred - "If they really annoy us, we find
away to keep them stuck at the checkpoint for a
few hours. They lose a whole day of work
because of it sometimes, but that's the only
way they learn."

He described how they would order children to
clean the checkpoint before inspection time;
how a soldier named Shahar invented a game: "He
checks someone's identity card, and instead of
handing it back to him, just tosses it in the
air. He got a kick out of seeing the Arab have
to get out of his car to pick up his identity
card ... It's a game for him and he can pass a
whole shift this way"; how they humiliated a
dwarf who came to the checkpoint every day on
his wagon: "They forced him to have his picture
taken on the horse, hit him and degraded him
for a good half hour and let him go only when
cars arrived at the checkpoint. The poor guy,
he really didn't deserve it"; how they had a
souvenir picture taken with bloodied, bound
Arabs whom they'd beaten up; how Shahar pissed
on the head of an Arab because the man had the
nerve to smile at a soldier; how Dado forced an
Arab to stand on four legs and bark like a dog;
and how they stole prayer beads and cigarettes
- "Miro wanted them to give him their
cigarettes, the Arabs didn't want to give so
Miro broke someone's hand, and Boaz slashed
their tires."

Chilling confession

The most chilling of all the personal
confessions: "I ran toward them and punched an
Arab right in the face. I'd never punched
anyone that way. He collapsed on the road. The
officers said that we had to search him for his
papers. We pulled his hands behind his back and
I bound them with plastic handcuffs. Then we
blindfolded him so he wouldn't see what was in
the Jeep. I picked him up from the road. Blood
was trickling from his lip onto his chin. I led
him up behind the Jeep and threw him in, his
knees banged against the trunk and he landed
inside. We sat in the back, stepping on the
Arab ... Our Arab lay there pretty quietly,
just crying softly to himself. His face was
right on my flak jacket and he was bleeding and
making a kind of puddle of blood and saliva,
and it disgusted and angered me, so I grabbed
him by the hair and turned his head to the
side. He cried out loud and to get him to stop,
we stepped harder and harder on his back. That
quieted him down for a while and then he
started up again. We concluded that he was
either retarded or crazy.

"The company commander informed us over the
radio that we had to bring him to the base.
`Good work, tigers,' he said, teasing us. All
the other soldiers were waiting there to see
what we'd caught. When we came in with the
Jeep, they whistled and applauded wildly. We
put the Arab next to the guard. He didn't stop
crying and someone who understood Arabic said
that his hands were hurting from the handcuffs.
One of the soldiers went up to him and kicked
him in the stomach. The Arab doubled over and
grunted, and we all laughed. It was funny ... I
kicked him really hard in the ass and he flew
forward just as I'd expected. They shouted that
I was a totally crazy, and they laughed ... and
I felt happy. Our Arab was just a 16-year-old
mentally retarded boy."

In his sister's rooftop Tel Aviv apartment,
where he is living now, Furer, 26, comes across
as a thoughtful, intelligent young man. He grew
up in Givatayim, after his parents immigrated
from the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Before
Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, his mother was a
right-wing activist, but he says that their
home was not political. He wanted to be in a
combat unit in the army, and served in two
elite infantry units. He did his entire army
service in the Gaza Strip.

After the army, he traveled to India, like so
many others. "Now I was free. The crazy
energies of Goa and the chakras opened my mind
... You stuck me in this stinking Gaza and
before that you brainwashed me with your rifles
and your marches, you turned me into a dishrag
that didn't think anymore," he wrote from Goa.
But it was only afterward, when he was studying
at Bezalel, that the experiences from his army
service really began to affect him.

"I came to realize that there was an unchanging
pattern here," he says. "It was the same in the
first intifada, in the period that I was
serving, which was quiet, and in the second
intifada. It's become a permanent reality. I
started to feel very uncomfortable with the
fact that such a loaded subject was hardly
mentioned at all in public. People listened to
the victim and they listened to the
politicians, but this voice that says: I did
this, we did things that were wrong - crimes,
actually - that's a voice I didn't hear. The
reason it wasn't being heard was a combination
of repression - just as I repressed it and
ignored it - and of deep feelings of guilt.

"As soon as you get away from army service, the
political and media reality around you is not
ready to hear this voice. I remember that I was
surprised that no soldier had gone public with
this yet. It all somehow dissolved in the
debate about the legitimacy of settlement in
the territories, about the occupation - for or
against - and nothing connected to the routine
of maintaining the occupation appeared in the
media or in art."

Not an individual case

Furer is out to prove that this is a syndrome
and not a collection of isolated, individual
cases. That's why he deleted a lot of personal
details from the original manuscript, in order
to underscore the general nature of what he
describes. "During my army service, I believed
that I was atypical, because I came from a
background of art and creativity. I was
considered a moderate soldier - but I fell into
the same trap that most soldiers fall into. I
was carried away by the possibility of acting
in the most primal and impulsive manner,
without fear of punishment and without
oversight. You're tense about it at first, but
as you get more comfortable at the checkpoint
over time, the behavior becomes more natural.
People gradually test the limits of their
behavior toward the Palestinians. It gradually
becomes coarser and coarser.

"The more confident I became with the situation,
as soon as we reached the conclusion - each one
at his own stage - that we are the rulers, we
are the strong ones, and when we felt our
power, each one started to stretch the limits
more and more, in accordance with his
personality. As soon as serving at the
checkpoint became routine, all kinds of deviant
behavior became normal. It started with
`souvenir collecting': We'd confiscate prayer
beads and then it was cigarettes and it didn't
stop. It became normative behavior.

"After that came the power games. We got the
message from above that we were to project
seriousness and deterrence to the Arabs.
Physical violence also became normative. We
felt free to punish any Palestinian who didn't
follow the `proper code of behavior' at the
checkpoint. Anyone we thought wasn't polite
enough to us or tried to act smart - was
severely punished. It was deliberate harassment
on the most trivial pretexts.

"During my army service, there wasn't a single
incident that made us understand, or made our
commanders interfere. No one talked about what
was permitted and what was not. It was all a
matter of routine. In retrospect, the biggest
source of guilt feelings for me didn't happen
at the checkpoint, but by the Gush Katif fence,
when we caught the retarded boy. I demonstrated
the most extreme behavior. It was a chance for
me to catch one - the closest thing to catching
a terrorist, a chance to vent all the pressure
and impulses that had built up in all of us. To
lash out the way we wanted to. We were used to
giving slaps, to handcuffing, to a little
kicking, a little beating, and here was a
situation in which it was justified to let go
entirely. Also, the officer who was with us was
himself very violent. We gave the kid a real
beating and as soon as we got to the post, I
remember having a great feeling of pride, that
I'd been treated like someone strong. They
said, `What a nut you are, how crazy you are,'
which was basically like saying, `How strong
you are.'

"At the checkpoint, young people have the chance
to be masters and using force and violence
becomes legitimate - and this is a much more
basic impulse than the political views or
values that you bring from home. As soon as
using force is given legitimacy, and even
rewarded, the tendency is to take it as far as
it can go, to exploit it much as possible. To
satisfy these impulses beyond what the
situation requires. Today, I'd call it sadistic
impulses ...

"We weren't criminals or especially violent
people. We were a group of good boys, a
relatively `high-quality' group, and for all of
us - and we still talk about this sometimes -
the checkpoint became a place to test our
personal limits. How tough, how callous, how
crazy we could be - and we thought of that in
the positive sense. Something about the
situation - being in a godforsaken place, far
from home, far from oversight - made it
justified ... The line of what is forbidden was
never precisely drawn. No one was ever punished
and they just let us continue.

"Today, I feel confident saying that even the
most senior ranks - the brigade commander, the
battalion commander - are aware of the power
that soldiers have in this situation and what
they do with it. How could a commander not be
aware of it when the more crazy and tough his
soldiers are, the quieter his sector is? The
more complex picture of the long-term effects
of this violent behavior is something you only
become conscious of when you get away from the

"Today it's clear to me that that boy whose
father we humiliated for the flimsiest of
reasons will grow up to hate anyone who
represents what was done to his father. I
definitely have an understanding of their
motives now. We are cruelty, we are power. I'm
sure that their response is affected by
elements related to their society - a disregard
for human life and a readiness to sacrifice
lives - but the basic desire to resist, the
hatred itself, the fear - I feel are completely
justified and legitimate, even if it's risky to
say so.

"It's impossible to be in such an emotional
state and to go back home on leave and detach
yourself from it. I was very insensitive to the
feelings of my girlfriend at the time. I was an
animal, even when I was on leave. It also
sticks with you after your service. I saw the
remnants of the syndrome in India - something
about being in the Third World, among
dark-skinned people, brings out the worst of
the `ugly Israeli,' which is as Israeli as it
gets. Or the way you react to a smile: When
Palestinians would smile at me at the
checkpoint, I got tense and construed it as
defiance, as chutzpah. When someone smiled at
me in India, I immediately went on the

"I was an average soldier," he says. "I was the
joker of the group. Now I see that I was often
the one to take the lead in violent situations.
I often was the one who gave the slap. I'm the
one who came up with all kinds of ideas like
letting the air out of tires. It sounds twisted
now, but we really admired anyone who could
beat up some guy who supposedly had it coming.
The officer we admired most was the officer who
fired his weapon at every opportunity. Out of
everyone I've spoken to, I've been left with
the most guilt feelings ... A friend from the
army read the book and said that I'm right,
that we did bad things, but we were kids. And
he said that it's a shame that I took it too