In the summer of 2010, a chubby-cheeked twenty-year-old girl from Ashdod named Eden Abergil posted on her Facebook page. Nestled among the photos of Abergil and her friends during their army service and labeled “The army . . . best time of my life” were shocking trophy shots depicting Abergil mocking blindfolded Palestinian detainees during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
In one photo, a uniformed but heavily made-up and coiffed Abergil pouts for the camera while three older Palestinian men sit behind her on concrete blocks, their eyes blindfolded and their hands bound with plastic ties. One of the prisoners appears to be straining with discomfort, as his hands are tied behind his back.
Abergil’s best army buddy, a young woman named Shani Cohen, commented on the photo: “LOL all my loves in one picture!!! My heart is pumping hard!!!” In another shot, Abergil appears seated inches from the man whose hands were bound behind his back. He is a pathetic sight, rail thin, slumped forward, and completely unaware that Abergil was blowing mocking kisses at him. A comment thread below the photo read:
Hours after a blogger discovered the photos, Abergil’s name appeared in headlines across the Israeli and international media. The Israeli Army Spokesperson’s Unit attempted to dismiss Abergil as an isolated bad apple, whose actions represented “a serious violation of our ethics and moral code.” In her initial reaction, Abergil played down her behavior, claiming, “There’s no violence. . . . There’s no contempt.” But former soldiers knew that such sadism was common across the ranks of the military. After all, what did anyone expect heavily armed teenagers to do when placed in control of a largely defenseless population that had been presented to them throughout their lives as a murderous enemy?
Abergil’s photos prompted the editor-in-chief of Ha’aretz, Aluf Benn, to detail his own military experience for the first time. “The photographs of the female soldier Eden Abergil on Facebook with the young, bound Palestinians did not ‘shock’ me, as did the automatic responses of people on the left who complained, as usual, about the corrupting occupation and our moral deterioration,” Benn wrote. “Instead, the photos brought back memories from my military service. Once, I was also Eden Abergil: I served in a Military Police unit in Lebanon whose mission was to take prisoners from the Shin Bet’s interrogation rooms to the large holding camp of Ansar. I covered many eyes with pieces of cloth, I bound many wrists with plastic cuffs.”
Despite having knowingly shuttled men from Shin Bet torture chambers to a prison notorious for its brutal conditions, Benn insisted that he and members of his unit emerged with their liberal, democratic values intact: “The occupation did not ‘corrupt’ me or any of my colleagues in the unit. We didn’t return home and run wild in the streets and abuse helpless people. Coming-of-age problems preoccupied us a lot more than our prisoners’ discomfort. Our political views were also not affected.”
The editor-in-chief ’s remarkable claim shocked his colleague, Gideon Levy, who many Israeli leftists regarded as the conscience of Ha’aretz. In an editorial response, Levy accused Benn of having lost his moral bearings as soon as he joined the invasion of Lebanon. “You didn’t return home to riot in the streets and abuse innocent people, you write, and that’s all very well. But you were silent,” he wrote. “You were a complete accomplice to the crime, and you don’t even have a guilty conscience.”
Breaking the Silence, the Israeli veterans’ organization that published harrowing testimonies from the soldiers who maintained Israel’s occupation, echoed Levy, insisting that army culture had corrupted an entire generation. “This norm is wide-ranging and was created as result of the occupation and the daily control over the civilian population,” Breaking the Silence cofounder Yehuda Shaul remarked. “Every soldier becomes used to seeing cuffed and blindfolded Palestinians as a matter of routine, and by seeing it so often, these troops become blind to the fact these are human beings.”
In 2007, well before Israeli society was forced to reckon with the phenomenon of trophy photos, Breaking the Silence collaborated with filmmaker Tamar Yarom in the production of a documentary film about the experiences of six female Israeli soldiers who served in the occupation. Entitled “To See If I’m Smiling,” the film opened with one of the ex-soldiers, Meytal Sandler, peering into an album of photos she took during her service in the West Bank during the Second Intifada. The contents of the album are not revealed until the documentary’s final scene, when Sandler returns to find a photo she had avoided gazing at for years, drowning her memories of the army in alcohol abuse and chain smoking. In the photo, she is seen posing next to the nude corpse of a Palestinian man with an erection brought on by rigor mortis. And she is smiling from ear to ear. “How the hell did I think I’d ever be able to forget about it?” Sandler muttered in horror.
In the days after the Abergil scandal, Breaking the Silence and a handful of Israeli bloggers released dozens of Facebook photos that depicted scenarios at least as shocking as anything that appeared on Abergil’s page. Among the disturbing shots culled from Facebook pages belonging to young Israelis was a photo of four smiling troops towering over a blindfolded preadolescent Palestinian girl kneeling at the point of their machine guns; a pretty female soldier smiling winsomely beside a blindfolded Palestinian man cuffed to a plastic chair; two soldiers posing triumphantly above a disheveled corpse lying in the street like a piece of discarded trash; a soldier pumping his rifle in the air directly behind an older Palestinian woman tending to pots on her kitchen stove; a soldier defacing the walls of a home in Gaza by spray-painting a star of David and the phrase, “Be Right Back”; troops in the Gaza Strip playing with and posing beside corpses stripped half nude in acts of post-mortem humiliation; a young soldier mockingly applying makeup from a Palestinian woman’s dresser. The Facebook pages were so replete with documents of humiliation, domination, and violence it seemed that army basic training had been led by Marquis de Sade.
Graphic trophy photos are, of course, a common feature of modern military conflict. But the images of fresh-faced Israeli kids smiling beside corpses reflected much more than the dehumanization of the enemy in the “fog of war.” These photos were documents of a colonial culture in which Jewish Israeli youth became conditioned to act as sadistic overlords toward their Palestinian neighbors, and of a perpetual conquest that demanded indoctrination begin at an early age and continue perpetually throughout their lives. The young soldiers provided a perfect example of cognitive dissonance, in which chants of “Am Yisrael Chai!” (“The People of Israel Live!”) alternated easily with “Death to Arabs!”
In March 2011, months after her photos drew international attention and widespread condemnation, Abergil began uploading other soldiers’ trophy shots to her Facebook page. She captioned one upload with the increasingly common refrain:
“DDDEATHHH to ARABSSSSSS.”
Beside the next photo, Abergil wrote: “Fuck you, stinking Arabs!!!”
And then: “C’MON LET’S MAKE AN ARAB SHOAH NOWWWWW!!!!!!!!”
Later, Abergil mustered a few thoughts about her role in the scandal, though she was incapable of recognizing the moral conundrum. “I can’t allow Arab lovers to ruin the perfect life I lead. I am not sorry and I don’t regret it.” She added, “I am in favor of a Jewish-Zionist State. I defend what has been rightfully mine for ages.”
Not only was Abergil unable to recognize any wrong in her actions, she also believed with all her heart, and with apparently considerable peer encouragement, that she had acted heroically in the name of the Jewish state and its mythical claim to “Eretz Yisrael.” And she would do it again.
“I would gladly kill Arabs—even slaughter them,” she declared.
Abergil never got the chance to fulfill her fantasies. Having generated international headlines that embarrassed the army, she was promptly dismissed from reserve duty. But there were others aching to kill Arabs for sport. Maxim Vinogradov, an immigrant from Russia who joined the Border Police, was one of them. On a social media site, the young Vinogradov described himself as follows:
Favorite food: Arabs
Things that you love to do: To hit, violence
Hobbies: Hitting and destroying things
Favorite sports: Beating Palestinian wetbacks
What turns me on: Violence
I belong to: Extreme Right
Things I am looking for: Red Headed Arabs
Vinogradov’s friend and fellow soldier, Avi Yakobov, was of a similar mindset. In December 2007, Yakobov arrested Ihsan Dababseh, a thirty-five-year-old woman accused of belonging to the militant group Islamic Jihad. After binding Dababseh and blindfolding her at an Israeli prison near Bethlehem, Yakobov decided to stage what he believed was a jocular prank. Gathering his army buddies around, he turned the veiled woman against a wall, blasted some Arab pop music, and performed a parodic belly dance just inches away from her backside, mocking her with gyrating, overtly sexual hip motions. His friends laughed hysterically, filming as they reveled in the humiliation. The video of the incident lingered on YouTube until it surfaced on a Hebrew blog in October 2010, leading to more international media attention and embarrassment for the army. “A disgusting picture of the diseased mentality of the occupier,” is how a spokesman from the Palestinian Authority described the video.
While the new scandal gathered momentum, Yakobov was away on a rowdy beer bust at Berlin’s Oktoberfest. On his Facebook page, he posted a photo of himself in Berlin affectionately wrapping his arms around a huge, inflatable Jagermeister bottle. In the comment thread that followed, he and Vinogradov joked about killing prostitutes, screwing MILF’s (Mothers I’d Like to Fuck), and drinking to the point that they were sick from alcohol poisoning.
In an earlier comment provoked apparently by the massacre by Israeli commandos of activists on the Mavi Marmara ship, Yakobov proclaimed, “Destroy Turkey and all the Arabs from the world.”
Vinogradov replied, “I’m with you, bro, and with God’s help I’ll start it”
“Haha and you are capable of it, with no intervention from the evil eye,” Yakobov posted.
Less than two weeks after that exchange, Vinogradov and his Border Police unit barreled into the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Wadi Joz for a routine Friday deployment. There, they encountered a forty-one-year-old Palestinian man named Ziad Jilani returning from Friday prayers to his home in nearby Shufat, where he lived with his American wife, Moira, and their three daughters. Jilani owned a profitable business importing massage chairs from Switzerland and had no record of political activity. That afternoon, he and his family planned on taking an excursion to the beach. But he never made it home. Instead, as he drove through the winding and crowded streets of Wadi Joz, a group of boys allegedly rained down a hail of rocks on his car, apparently aiming at the Border Policemen stationed nearby. Jilani swerved suddenly, accidentally striking three members of Vinogradov’s unit and badly wounding two. Chaos immediately ensued.
As the Border Policemen fired wildly around the streets, riddling parked cars, shattering windows, and wounding a little girl, Jilani took off running down an alley toward a family member’s house. Vinogradov’s commander, a Druze police superintendent named Shad Hir al Din, fired a volley of bullets at Jilani, striking him in the back and immobilizing him. With the wounded Jilani lying on the ground, Vinogradov approached and fired a short burst into the back of his head. It was, by all accounts, an execution-style killing.
An eyewitness described the scene: “The policeman was yelling at Ziad [Jilani] and talking to him in Hebrew . . . and he was holding his rifle and aiming at Ziad with his foot on Ziad’s neck. . . . Suddenly he shot Ziad two or three times. . . . Then he kicked Ziad in the face with his foot.” For his part, Vinogradov claimed Jilani was in fact a “terrorist” who “lay there scaring me,” so he executed him in self-defense. But the young tough who described Arabs as his “favorite food” had never expressed such fears before.
Jilani joined the more than sixty-four hundred Palestinians killed by Israeli forces since the beginning of the Second Intifada. And like all who had killed Palestinians while in army uniform, Vinogradov was immune from prosecution. Indeed, since 2000, not one member of the Israeli army has been charged with a capital offense. “I just want the two men that shot him, with the bullets that my friends and my family’s taxpayer dollars paid for, behind bars,” Jilani’s widow, Moira, told journalist Jillian Kestler D’Amours. “I’m an American, and they shot him with [American] taxpayers’ money.”
In interviews after the shooting became news, Vinogradov sought to downplay the racist diatribes he posted on various social media sites by claiming his perspective was typical of the culture of frontline Border Police units. His defense was that everybody was guilty and therefore he was innocent. “Go to any Border Policeman’s Facebook profile and you will see more or less what I wrote,” Vinogradov said. Instead of punishing him or his belly dancing friend, Yakobov, or even publicly chastising them for what they had done wrong, the army initiated a new program instructing soldiers on how to best avoid embarrassing the State of Israel when using social media.
While the abuses piled up and the army stifled efforts at accountability, the military occasionally invited a few trained human rights facilitators onto its bases to lead seminars for the young Border Policemen. By accompanying one of those trainers, I managed to gain entry to Beit Horon, an army base in the West Bank that serves as a key staging point for raids on Palestinian villages and cities. There, I got to know the members of a frontline Border Police unit while they were led through an exercise in human rights education. Over the course of the day, I gained an intimate look at a group of young men who yearned to be unfettered from all legal and moral limitations so they could, as one said, “finish the job” once and for all.
Excerpted from the book “Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel” by Max Blumenthal. Excerpted by arrangement with Nation Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.