I told him myself he was a war criminal but I was still surprised when
his name appeared on the list. Not because I thought for a moment that it
wasn’t fair, but because it’s always different when you know someone
personally, and the color of his eyes, and the certain way he greets you and
lightly touches your shoulder. And although I didn’t want to, I thought of
his mother. And I thought of his mother because I know she didn’t want him
to enlist, although she kept her silence. Not because for her Palestinians
are human and it would be terrible to hurt them. Only because she didn’t
want him to endanger himself. And still she didn’t try to talk him out of
going. Because she, too, grew up in the same place and absorbed the same
values and clichés. She too was stamped. So all that was left for her was to
worry. That was her symbolic role. Hers and all the other mothers’. Be
proud, worry, then mourn. She does know that. What she didn’t know was about
The list. Just as he didn’t. And something big happened in the lives of A.
and his mom and his little brother who has been waiting for the moment he
could enlist and become a combatant like his brother.
What happened was that, recently, a list has suddenly shown up on the
internet, headed “Two
hundred war criminals”. The list provides names, photos, ranks, military
unit assigned, dwelling, date of birth and ID number of two hundred male and
female Israeli soldiers who had taken part in various but specific ways in
what Israel knows as “Operation Cast Lead”, otherwise known throughout the
world as the Gaza massacre.
This is not the first time Israel is accused of perpetrating war crimes. Nor
is it the first time certain politicians and generals must seriously
consider whether they can afford to travel to countries where it is legally
possible to prosecute them for this.
The special thing about this list, in the context of ‘war criminals’, is
that this time not only high-ranking officers or politicians are named, but
rather junior officers, non-commissioned officers, sergeants and even
lower-ranking servicemen and women. These are young soldiers, some of whom
are still in their regular term of duty..
The two hundred war
criminals posted on the list making its rounds on the internet are
ordinary people. They followed the customs of their time, neither more
nor less than anyone else. They are not exceptional, and they are not
especially worse than anyone. They are everyman. Ordinary everyman. And
it is by chance, merely, that this is the military operation selected by
the creators of this list, and that these persons were in the army at
the time. And any one of Israel’s young men and women who enlist in
their turn might have been on that list. And would have done more or
less the same thing, (and indeed – do it, one generation after another,
everything they are told to do, be what may), because that is what
ordinary people do.
Incidentally, the list does not say anything other than what has been
said by the perpetrators themselves. Nor are there any facts on this
list that the listed persons would deny. On the contrary. They are
indeed soldiers, they all say without shame, usually even proudly, and
they did, indeed, participate in this military operation, they’re the
first to admit it.
The only way in which Israel and the people listed differ in their point
of view from the people who put together this list – is not the question
whether these soldiers committed the acts themselves, but only in
calling these acts ‘war crimes’.
In other words, the only thing that the list does is to re-organize
naming. The lexicon. What means what. Through this intentional
selection, it is actually claiming that Israeli soldiers commit war
crimes, and – furthermore – that by selecting random junior-ranking
servicemen and women too, it makes the point that war criminals are not
the exceptional, high-ranking or policy-making persons alone, but rather
any soldier serving in the Israeli military forces.
And this is the outstanding wisdom embodied in this list, its uniqueness
and its subversive power.
Indeed, soldiers and their parents might protest and say that it is not
true that their children – merely doing their duty to their state and
carrying out its missions – are war criminals. They could say they are
young. And this is the law of the land. Or that they defended their
homeland, and that the 1,400 people murdered deserved to be killed, and
that they were killed because they threatened to kill ‘us’.
We killed in order to live, the soldier might still be saying, to defend
our homeland under attack.
Killed the four hundred children.
Killed the one hundred police cadets.
Killed The Samouni family.
Destroyed the UNRWA building that had to be destroyed, there was no
other way about it.
“They started”. Because “they teach their children to hate”. And it’s
their fault. The fault of 10-year old Fadi. And Marina and her little
Indeed they could say this or that, and they do. But something has
happened in the world, in reality, which they cannot undo. For this list
– unlike the Israeli habit of kidnapping or forbidding or execution-ing,
or firing white phosphorus at it or dropping a one-ton bomb on it – has
been absorbed in the world, and this time Israel has no control over it.
Not only because is it diffused on the internet, but because all it does
is cite facts over which there is no dispute or disagreement. Visibly.
It merely challenges local values that stipulate the axiom: being a
soldier = doing good. It rattles the common assumption that if someone
followed the law, he/she bears no personal responsibility. Thus also
saying that in the world there is a different kind of conformity, “like
everyone”, a different sort of ‘normal’, of ‘ordinary’, of being ‘in’ or
‘cool’, a different standard of popularity. A different law. And values.
It says that when all those ordinary youngsters do what is common,
blessed and accepted in Israeli terms – in terms of this list (and of
the world) they have committed war crimes.
Fair or not, anti-Semitic or not, this is what the list says.
No longer the State, says the list, nor the army, nor the Occupation,
nor top brass, and “everyone” nor “we” but the soldier him/herself. And
this normal ordinary soldier, says the list, has a name. A proper name.
And with that personal, proper name comes personal responsibility. And
personal guilt. And a personal appellation.
Something immeasurably important has happened. This is how I see it.
Through this list and many others that I hope will follow, something new
and powerful has infiltrated Israeli terminology, a space that
constantly reaffirms itself. A tiny virus. An autoimmune
failure. Which to my mind has a chance to change something that to date
has remained unchangeable.
I assume that its effect will be felt first and foremost among the more
“conscience-ridden”. Those who claim they oppose the policy, that the
Occupation is criminal, unjust, but continue to send their sons and
daughters serve it. In order to bridge over this inherent contradiction
they sanctify the absurd dichotomy presenting the act of Occupation and
its perpetrators as two separate entities. The Occupation, they say, is
bad, but the soldiers are good. And various other rationalizations that
come to justify the true and subversive need that lies deep underneath
them – their malignant conformity which makes them do as everyone does,
come what may.
I believe that among these particular people, the transition from
speaking the language of everyone and the state and the Occupation to
speaking me, my son, my daughter will have its effect.
Not that they are conscious of this, not yet. Not they, nor the rest of
the youngsters who still passionately flock into the army. They continue
- and will continue - to repeat the usual mantras: “We (i.e. Jews) have
no choice”. “Someone has to do the job”. And “Better my son do it than
another”. “We’ve (i.e. Jews) offered them (i.e. Palestinians)
everything”. “We (i.e. Jews) seek peace but what can we do if they (i.e.
Palestinians) do not”. And military ‘service’ is a contribution to
society. And all the rest of those empty phrases they have learned to
But I assume the day isn’t distant when - especially if this list be
followed by others - without understanding why, with some excuse or
other (that is equally empty and hides the truth just as those used to
explain why they should enlist), these youngsters and their mothers will
be less eager to enlist, less proud of it, less passionate.
And not because Israel oppresses an entire people, cages it in,
massacres it, tramples it, harasses it, steals its land and water
resources, and has been trying to subject it to ethnic cleansing
forever, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
Nor because they’ll suddenly understand that not every law is just. And
that there are things that must not be done regardless of their
popularity, and that Occupation corrupts – but because all of a sudden
it will become less opportune. And it will take its toll.
A personal price. Because when, after their army time, these young
people will embark upon their traditional trips abroad, or go off to
study in faraway places, they will discover the actuality of their new
name which the list has added and merged into their identity.
And something will finally crack the inherent sense of value embodied in
Because no one will call my son a criminal, those mothers will exclaim
who, earlier, had kept silent and collaborated and never protested. Not
my own son. No way.
When A.’s mother heard of the list, her first sensation was rage that
flooded every cell in her body and mind. Her sweet baby was being named
a war criminal. She was ready to kill because of this, she said. The
gall! Anti-Semites, murderers, she added, beside herself.
You say that too, she lashed out at me. You too want to see him in jail.
I did not voice my answer, yet, but my answer is yes. He should indeed
go to jail. And his name should flash on every home computer screen. He
should indeed be damned wherever he goes and be called a war criminal.
And from today on, I want everyone Googling the words ‘war criminal’ to
find his name cited. A.’s name. And all those others’. Because I say no
to mandatory conscription’s power to corrupt Israeli society.
It intentionally erases the healthy, important distance between the act
of state and its perpetrators, its inhabitants. Because it determines
that those who maintain Israel’s policy, come what may, are everyman.
Are the ordinary. The people I grew up with, possibly my own relatives,
sons and daughters of my childhood friends.
And I refuse this stamping which is meant to impose upon me and everyone
else a sense of belonging and connection to Israel’s crimes, and thus -
I say no to this system that forces one to collaborate with a flawed
regime. That imposes guilt and wrongdoing on me, and hence to be
unwilling to call it and its perpetrators by their rightful names, all
these ordinary people.
How ironic, I want to say to her further, that precisely from the place
where all these youngsters could hurt the other, because the other had
no face, no name and no identity, here them, you and your A. and all
perpetrators of the act of state, from now on – have a name and a
No longer the Occupation, Israel, the generals – it is the particular
you and no one else. You are guilty. You, A. You are a war criminal.
Incidentally, A.’s mother no longer speaks to me. She is perfectly
right, I think. For her duty above all else is to him who did not choose
to be born. And I, her friend, said terrible things about him. I wished
him in prison. I wished his name be born everywhere in calumny. I said
things that are not said to a mother, not about her son.
How sad and how horrible it is, I think, that it is from me that my
friend shields and protects her son, from me and not from the act of
state. From accepted norms.
From the corruption imposed on his moral fiber, from the danger to his
life and spirit and fate at the hands of a treacherous history whose
values change like the colors of a chameleon.
Aya Kaniuk. Translated by Tal Haran