Monthly Archives: March 2009
The Israeli army is at the centre of a second controversy over the moral conduct of its soldiers in as many days.
The printed t-shirts were discovered by an Israeli newspaper (Pic: courtesy of Yanai Yechiel)
The revelations centre on t-shirt designs made for soldiers that make light of shooting pregnant Palestinian mothers and children and include images of dead babies and destroyed mosques.
One, printed for a platoon of Israeli snipers depicts an armed Palestinian pregnant women caught in the crosshairs of a rifle, with the disturbing caption in English: “1 shot 2 kills”.
Another depicts a child carrying a gun also in the centre of a target.
“The smaller, the harder,” read the words on the t-shirt.
According to a soldier interviewed by the newspaper, the message has a double meaning: “It’s a kid, so you’ve got a little more of a problem, morally and also the target is smaller.”
Another shows an Israeli soldier blowing up a mosque and reads “Only God forgives”.
Above a ninja figure, yet another shirt bears the slogan “Won’t chill until I confirm a kill”.
The revelations, coming so soon after Israel’s offensive in Gazain which hundreds of civilians were killed – many of them women and children – are causing outrage.
Perhaps the most shocking design shows a Palestinian mother weeping next to her dead baby’s grave, also in the crosshairs of a rifle.
It suggests it would have been better if the child had never been born, with the slogan “Better use Durex”.
The controversy follows more revelations by other soldiers about abuses and the shooting of civilians during Israel’s offensive during the Gaza offensive.
Ex-soldier and campaigner with Breaking The Silence, Michael Maniken, told Sky News Online this week’s revelations suggest a pattern of immoral conduct in the army.
“The army keeps on saying we’re talking about a few rotten apples but it seems the army doesn’t understand there’s a norm in this kind of action,” he explained.
“We’re hearing about this time and time again and the army seems disconnected from reality.”
A spokesman for the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) told Sky News Online, the t-shirts were printed on the private initiative of the soldiers and their designs “are not in accordance with IDF values and are simply tasteless. This type of humour is unacceptable and should be condemned”.
Arguably the most shocking design design shows a Palestinian mother weeping next to her dead baby’s grave, also in the crosshairs of a rifle.
It suggests it would have been better if the child had never been born, with the slogan “Better use Durex”. (Pic: courtesy of Haaretz Weekend magazine)
The Guard Who Found Islam
By Dan Ephron | NEWSWEEK
Army specialist Terry Holdbrooks had been a guard at Guantánamo for about six months the night he had his life-altering conversation with detainee 590, a Moroccan also known as “the General.” This was early 2004, about halfway through Holdbrooks’s stint at Guantánamo with the 463rd Military Police Company. Until then, he’d spent most of his day shifts just doing his duty. He’d escort prisoners to interrogations or walk up and down the cellblock making sure they weren’t passing notes. But the midnight shifts were slow. “The only thing you really had to do was mop the center floor,” he says. So Holdbrooks began spending part of the night sitting cross-legged on the ground, talking to detainees through the metal mesh of their cell doors.
He developed a strong relationship with the General, whose real name is Ahmed Errachidi. Their late-night conversations led Holdbrooks to be more skeptical about the prison, he says, and made him think harder about his own life. Soon, Holdbrooks was ordering books on Arabic and Islam. During an evening talk with Errachidi in early 2004, the conversation turned to the shahada, the one-line statement of faith that marks the single requirement for converting to Islam (”There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet”). Holdbrooks pushed a pen and an index card through the mesh, and asked Errachidi to write out the shahada in English and transliterated Arabic. He then uttered the words aloud and, there on the floor of Guantánamo’s Camp Delta, became a Muslim.
When historians look back on Guantánamo, the harsh treatment of detainees and the trampling of due process will likely dominate the narrative. Holdbrooks, who left the military in 2005, saw his share. In interviews over recent weeks, he and another former guard told NEWSWEEK about degrading and sometimes sadistic acts against prisoners committed by soldiers, medics and interrogators who wanted revenge for the 9/11 attacks on America. But as the fog of secrecy slowly lifts from Guantánamo, other scenes are starting to emerge as well, including surprising interactions between guards and detainees on subjects like politics, religion and even music. The exchanges reveal curiosity on both sides—sometimes even empathy. “The detainees used to have conversations with the guards who showed some common respect toward them,” says Errachidi, who spent five years in Guantánamo and was released in 2007. “We talked about everything, normal things, and things [we had] in common,” he wrote to NEWSWEEK in an e-mail from his home in Morocco.
Holdbrooks’s level of identification with the other side was exceptional. No other guard has volunteered that he embraced Islam at the prison (though Errachidi says others expressed interest). His experience runs counter to academic studies, which show that guards and inmates at ordinary prisons tend to develop mutual hostility. But then, Holdbrooks is a contrarian by nature. He can also be conspiratorial. When his company visited the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York, Holdbrooks remembers thinking there had to be a broader explanation, and that the Bush administration must have colluded somehow in the plot.
But his misgivings about Guantánamo—including doubts that the detainees were the “worst of the worst”—were shared by other guards as early as 2002. A few such guards are coming forward for the first time. Specialist Brandon Neely, who was at Guantánamo when the first detainees arrived that year, says his enthusiasm for the mission soured quickly. “There were a couple of us guards who asked ourselves why these guys are being treated so badly and if they’re actually terrorists at all,” he told NEWSWEEK. Neely remembers having long conversations with detainee Ruhal Ahmed, who loved Eminem and James Bond and would often rap or sing to the other prisoners. Another former guard, Christopher Arendt, went on a speaking tour with former detainees in Europe earlier this year to talk critically about the prison.
Holdbrooks says growing up hard in Phoenix—his parents were junkies and he himself was a heavy drinker before joining the military in 2002—helps explain what he calls his “anti-everything views.” He has holes the size of quarters in both earlobes, stretched-out piercings that he plugs with wooden discs. At his Phoenix apartment, bedecked with horror-film memorabilia, he rolls up both sleeves to reveal wrist-to-shoulder tattoos. He describes the ink work as a narrative of his mistakes and addictions. They include religious symbols and Nazi SS bolts, track marks and, in large letters, the words BY DEMONS BE DRIVEN. He says the line, from a heavy-metal song, reminds him to be a better person.
Holdbrooks—TJ to his friends—says he joined the military to avoid winding up like his parents. He was an impulsive young man searching for stability. On his first home leave, he got engaged to a woman he’d known for just eight days and married her three months later. With little prior exposure to religion, Holdbrooks was struck at Gitmo by the devotion detainees showed to their faith. “A lot of Americans have abandoned God, but even in this place, [the detainees] were determined to pray,” he says.
Holdbrooks was also taken by the prisoners’ resourcefulness. He says detainees would pluck individual threads from their jumpsuits or prayer mats and spin them into long stretches of twine, which they would use to pass notes from cell to cell. He noticed that one detainee with a bad skin rash would smear peanut butter on his windowsill until the oil separated from the paste, then would use the oil on his rash.
Errachidi’s detention seemed particularly suspect to Holdbrooks. The Moroccan detainee had worked as a chef in Britain for almost 18 years and spoke fluent English. He told Holdbrooks he had traveled to Pakistan on a business venture in late September 2001 to help pay for his son’s surgery. When he crossed into Afghanistan, he said, he was picked up by the Northern Alliance and sold to American troops for $5,000. At Guantánamo, Errachidi was accused of attending a Qaeda training camp. But a 2007 investigation by the London Times newspaper appears to have corroborated his story; it eventually helped lead to his release.
In prison, Errachidi was an agitator. “Because I spoke English, I was always in the face of the soldiers,” he wrote NEWSWEEK in an e-mail. Errachidi said an American colonel at Guantánamo gave him his nickname, and warned him that generals “get hurt” if they don’t cooperate. He said his defiance cost him 23 days of abuse, including sleep deprivation, exposure to very cold temperatures and being shackled in stress positions. “I always believed the soldiers were doing illegal stuff and I was not ready to keep quiet.” (Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, said in response: “Detainees have often made claims of abuse that are simply not supported by the facts.”) The Moroccan spent four of his five years at Gitmo in the punishment block, where detainees were denied “comfort items” like paper and prayer beads along with access to the recreation yard and the library.
Errachidi says he does not remember details of the night Holdbrooks converted. Over the years, he says, he discussed a range of religious topics with guards: “I spoke to them about subjects like Father Christmas and Ishac and Ibrahim [Isaac and Abraham] and the sacrifice. About Jesus.” Holdbrooks recalls that when he announced he wanted to embrace Islam, Errachidi warned him that converting would be a serious undertaking and, at Guantánamo, a messy affair. “He wanted to make sure I knew what I was getting myself into.” Holdbrooks later told his two roommates about the conversion, and no one else.
But other guards noticed changes in him. They heard detainees calling him Mustapha, and saw that Holdbrooks was studying Arabic openly. (At his Phoenix apartment, he displays the books he had amassed. They include a leather-bound, six-volume set of Muslim sacred texts and “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Islam.”) One night his squad leader took him to a yard behind his living quarters, where five guards were waiting to stage a kind of intervention. “They started yelling at me,” he recalls, “asking if I was a traitor, if I was switching sides.” At one point a squad leader pulled back his fist and the two men traded blows, Holdbrooks says.
Holdbrooks spent the rest of his time at Guantánamo mainly keeping to himself, and nobody bothered him further. Another Muslim who served there around the same time had a different experience. Capt. James Yee, a Gitmo chaplain for much of 2003, was arrested in September of that year on suspicion of aiding the enemy and other crimes—charges that were eventually dropped. Yee had become a Muslim years earlier. He says the Muslims on staff at Gitmo—mainly translators—often felt beleaguered. “There was an overall atmosphere by the command to vilify Islam.” (Commander Gordon’s response: “We strongly disagree with the assertions made by Chaplain Yee”).
At Holdbrooks’s next station, in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., he says things began to unravel. The only place to kill time within miles of the base was a Wal-Mart and two strip clubs—Big Daddy’s and Big Louie’s. “I’ve never been a fan of strip clubs, so I hung out at Wal-Mart,” he says. Within months, Holdbrooks was released from the military—two years before the end of his commitment. The Army gave him an honorable discharge with no explanation, but the events at Gitmo seemed to loom over the decision. The Army said it would not comment on the matter.
Back in Phoenix, Holdbrooks returned to drinking, in part to suppress what he describes as the anger that consumed him. (Neely, the other ex-guard who spoke to NEWSWEEK, said Guantánamo had made him so depressed he spent up to $60 a day on alcohol during a monthlong leave from the detention center in 2002.) Holdbrooks divorced his wife and spiraled further. Eventually his addictions landed him in the hospital. He suffered a series of seizures, as well as a fall that resulted in a bad skull fracture and the insertion of a titanium plate in his head.
Recently, Holdbrooks has been back in touch with Errachidi, who has suffered his own ordeal since leaving the detention center. Errachidi told NEWSWEEK he had trouble adjusting to his freedom, “trying to learn how to walk without shackles and trying to sleep at night with the lights off.” He signed each of the dozen e-mails he sent to NEWSWEEK with the impersonal ID that his captors had given him: Ahmed 590.
Holdbrooks, now 25, says he quit drinking three months ago and began attending regular prayers at the Tempe Islamic Center, a mosque near the University of Phoenix, where he works as an enrollment counselor. The long scar on his head is now mostly hidden under the lace of his Muslim kufi cap. When the imam at Tempe introduced Holdbrooks to the congregation and explained he’d converted at Guantánamo, a few dozen worshipers rushed over to shake his hand. “I would have thought they had the most savage soldiers serving there,” says the imam, Amr Elsamny, an Egyptian. “I never thought it would be someone like TJ.”
Whenever concerns are expressed over civilian casualties inflicted in Israeli military operations, the country’s generals and political leaders are quick to insist that theirs is the “world’s most moral army.” That claim was challenged by human rights observers over Israel’s recent offensive in Gaza, although such criticism is reflexively dismissed by Israel as driven by pro-Palestinian bias. But when the allegations of abuses come from Israeli soldiers involved in the fighting, they can’t be as easily dismissed.
“I simply felt it was murder in cold blood, said the soldier who witnessed the scene, quoted in the daily Haaretz. He went on to explain sarcastically, “That’s what is so nice, supposedly about Gaza. You see a person waking on a road� He doesn’t have to be with a weapon, you don’t have to identify him with anything and you can just shoot him. With us it was an old woman on whom I didn’t see any weapon. The order was to take that woman out, the moment you see her.”
After the anonymous soldiers’ testimony was splashed across the media in Israel and abroad, the military police on Thursday said it would investigate the alleged killings. Their allegations renewed an ongoing debate between Israelis who defend the Gaza assault and those who say it failed to accomplish its goal of crippling Hamas, but stained Israel’s reputation. On Friday, an Israeli Defense Forces spokesman dismissed claims of the gunning down of the mother and her two children as “heresay”, but said that the account of the elderly woman’s death was still being probed. But those were just two of the incidents alleged by the six soldiers.
Human rights investigators suggest that what the soldiers’ allegations and eyewitness accounts from Gaza residents suggest is that, in an effort to maximize the safety of their own soldiers entering Gaza, Israeli commanders may have let their ethical standards slide. Retired general and former security chief Ami Ayalon concurs. The Gaza operation, says Ayalon, “compromised the I.D.F.’s ethos, which was once built on ethics, sacrifice. And today, after the Gaza offensive, it is based on force alone.”
A soldier identified as Aviv from the Givati Brigade, one of Israel’s elite combat units, reportedly described to the military cadets his inner conflict over obeying orders to use indiscriminate firepower while clearing out an eight-story apartment building. “We were supposed to � burst through the lower door, start shooting inside and then � I call this murder� in effect, we were supposed to go up floor by floor, and any person we identified, we were supposed to shoot. I initially asked myself: Where is the logic in this?”
Aviv explained that his commanders had blurred the boundaries between combatants and civilians: “From [the officers] above, they said it was permissible, because anyone who remained �inside Gaza City was, in effect, incriminated, a terrorist, because they hadn’t fled,” Aviv alleged. “On one hand, they really don’t have anywhere to flee to, but on the other hand [the officers] are telling us they hadn’t fled so it’s their fault.” Faced with having to slay the 40 families cowering in the building, he was able to persuade his superiors to let him warn the tenants, giving them five minutes to leave or “get killed.”
In the Israeli military offensive, 1,434 Palestinians, including 960 civilians, were killed, according to the Palestinian Human Rights Center in Gaza. Three Israeli civilians were killed in the course of the same operation, and 10 soldiers, four of them by friendly fire. The lopsided death toll, and the fact that so many civilians were killed, has drawn fierce criticism of Israel’s by human rights agencies in Israel and abroad. And the consequences could extend from the political to the legal realm.
U.N. human rights envoy Falk said that Israel’s apparent failure to distinguish between military targets and civilians could “constitute a war crime of the greatest magnitude under international law.” He also said that rocket fire by Palestinian militants that indiscriminately targeted Israeli towns could also constitute a war crime, and urged the establishment of an independent commission to investigate the actions of both sides during the recent conflict. With mounting pressure at home and abroad to account for the high Palestinian civilian death toll in Gaza, Israel’s claim to have “the world’s most moral army” is likely to be subjected to the test of evidence in the months ahead.
— With reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Tel Aviv
I wrote a paper on this subject in while at UVA. My professor, who was a staunch and blind supporter of the military occupation and invasions of Iraq & Afghanistan, as well as a fairly extreme Catholic who would read passages from the Bible to support her ideas in the middle of class, obviously didn’t like my paper. I wish I could show her this BBC report. Reminds me of the face of US military cruelty towards innocent Iraqi civilians, Steven Green, who along with fellow US soldiers gang raped 14 year old Abeer Qasim Hamza and murdered her, her parents, and her infant sister. May Allah (swt) do with Steven Green as He wills, and if He punishes him severely in this life and the next he is Al-‘Adl, The Most Just.
Reports of sexual assault by US military personnel against both fellow troops and civilians rose by some 8% last year to 2,923, the Pentagon says.
The number of incidents reported in Iraq and Afghanistan rose by about a quarter on the previous year to 163.
Pentagon officials say the jump in reports suggests the department’s policy of encouraging victims to come forward is bearing results.
But they estimate that no more than 20% of attacks are actually reported.
“Given the fear and stigma associated with the crime, sexual assault remains one of our nation’s most under-reported crimes in both the military and civilian community,” said Dr Kaye Whitley, the director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault and Prevention Office.
She said the rise in reported incidents did not necessarily mean sex crimes were increasing but that victims were less afraid to come forward.
“The department has been aggressively pursuing efforts to increase reporting and convince more victims to seek care and support services,” she said.
Among the report’s findings:
- There were 2,923 reported sexual assaults in the 2008 fiscal year, up from 2,688 in 2007
- There 251 incidents in combat areas, including 141 in Iraq and 22 in Afghanistan
- Investigations took place in 2,763 cases. In 832 cases, action was taken, including 317 courts-martial, a rise of 38%
- Of the 6.8% of women and 1.8% of men who indicated they had experienced unwanted sexual contact, the majority – 79% of women and 78% of men – chose not to report it.
The Pentagon acknowledges that despite the increase in reported attacks and action taken, “the question will be asked why every single reported case did not go to courts-martial”.
One possible explanation, the report says, is the complexity of sexual assault investigations and prosecutions.
Unwanted sexual contact is defined as ranging from touching to rape. Of the reported attacks, 63% were rape or aggravated assault.
The report covers rape and sexual assaults across the 1.4 million active members of the US military.
Cases are defined as involving at least one member of the military as either alleged attacker or victim.