On September 12, 1997, soldiers from Egoz unit, part of the Golani infantry brigade, assassinated Hadi Nasrallah, son of Hizb’allah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Soldiers use this celebrated occasion to have their pictures taken next to the defaced body, the one they have just killed. Until the body was transported to Israel, while it remained on the site, and kept by the IDF, more soldiers use the rare photo opportunity next to a celebrity enemy fighter. Only a week earlier, Israel was outraged by the death of 12 navy commandos in a failed attack on Ansaryiah, Lebanon. The defaced body of one soldier, Itamar Ilya, was returned to Israel in June 1998, as part of an exchange deal. This was nine months later. Ilya's body was returned in exchange for, among others, the body of Nasrallah's son.
Vanity photos published in Lebanon following that failed attack, and broadcast by TV stations in Europe, showed body parts, uniforms, and military gear. The reprisal was similar, as if that was the deal: horror pics of Hadi Nasrallah's and smiling soldiers beside it. A corpse for a corpse, a photo for a photo.
"I used to carry a disposable camera with me over a long time, to catch a photo of a killed guerrilla fighter, but never got one," says Avi (real name kept by Kol Ha'ir), a combat soldier from Giv'ati brigade. Since he's about to complete his army service in a few days it seems like he'd missed his chance. But many other soldiers did carry a camera in their jacket pouch at the critical moment, and they used it.
An IDF focused web site, IDF2000, composed mostly of material written by soldiers, contains harsh pictures of Hizb'allah fighters' defaced corpses (a link to this site appears on the right hand side of this page, under "Related Links," but be warned: the photos are hard to stomach). In the site's "Leisure and Society" section, next to "Dating," and "The Love Calculator," is a "Galleries and Photos" section. One of the galleries, listed among various "Military Folklore" photos, contains 14 horror photos of defaced corpses. One corpse's photo was taken with Israeli soldiers standing next to it. Others are close-ups on defaced bodies, their heads split open.
The site also contains personal columns by soldiers and youths about to be drafted. It offers legal consultation for soldiers, military songs, jokes, and soldier semi-pornography. It is maintained and owned by E-IDF2000 Ltd, founded by Yigal Rozenkrantz, 25, from Herzeliya. It's a not for profit site, funded by Lifedns, a company supplying web space. IDF2000 is not operated by the IDF, or by Israel's security apparatus, but Rozenkrantz has told Kol Ha'ir that he'd recently started collaborating with the army's Communication's Corps' official magazine, which appears to attest that the IDF endorses the site's content. "The Communications Corps supplies us with materials for the site," Rozenkrantz said. "They gave us full permission to use their magazine. I contacted them, and met with the editor. She and I have agreed on ways to collaborate." In addition, Rozenkrantz said, negotiations are underway with central financial organizations in Israel, who would sponsor it.
"99 percent of the site was composed by surfers," Rozenkrantz said. "They are out there. The said photos are a few years old. According to our information they were shot in Lebanon. We've received a lot of reactions on these photos. Many were shocked, but there were also reactions of glee, 'We have to show them, Let the see, Let them beware.' A lot of soldiers' parents were a little scared by this story, they were shocked to think their kid too could do a thing like this. But that's the reality, what can you do?"
A Kind of Ritual
Yoav (real name kept by Kol Ha'ir), a soldier in Giv’ati infantry brigade, talked with Kol Ha'ir about the photography phenomenon: "It's a kind of ritual. When we go out on ambush missions we always take a pocket camera with us. It's a custom, once in Lebanon and today in the Territories [the Occupied Territories, oznik-news], to pose for a photo with the corpse. I personally did not get the chance to have my photo taken. There are regiment commanders in the IDF that carry with them photos of guerrilla fighters they've downed."
Indeed, sources in Giv'ati brigade tell of Lieutenant Colonel Eldad Peled's photos of Lebanese Guerrillas he personally killed. Lt. Col. Peled, who commands the brigade's training basis, is practically in charge of training newly drafted soldiers who are assigned to Giv'ati. Soldiers have told Kol Ha'ir that Peled presents his photos during combat-heritage classes he leads.
The class of March 2000 in Golani brigade's sappers unit, has a unit photo album containing many horror photos of Palestinians killed by the unit's soldiers since the beginning of the Intifada. Next to the corpses appear the soldiers, satisfied smiles on their faces. Most of the Palestinians in the album were killed some months ago, in the North of the West Bank, during an operation in which the sappers unit killed Tanzeem men.
Early in February, a Palestinian, Nasser Al-Hassanat, was killed after penetrating green houses in the settlement Kfar Darom. As reported in Kol Ha'ir (21 Feb. 2001), Al-Hassanat's body was mutilated. The body was photographed with the unit's digital camera and the photos were distributed among the soldiers.
There is hardly a combat soldier in the Israeli army, particularly those who served in Lebanon, who is not familiar with this practice. It's been happening in combat units in recent years, and spread during the occupation of Lebanon. It is known that during the first Intifada, soldiers from Duvdevan unit took photos of corpses.
Tzahi (real name kept by Kol Ha'ir), a Nahal infantry brigade soldier: "It's been going on since Lebanon. There's an ambush, a guerrilla is killed, let's say there are no other people around, no chase, so you take out a camera and photograph the dead guerrilla. I personally thought it's been in decline since we exited Lebanon. Most of the dead are on their side, and we don't do death confirmation [an IDF procedure in which a body is shot at, several times, from close range, supposedly to make sure the hit enemy fighter won't suddenly turn out to be alive, oznik-news], so there's no photo opportunity.
"When I was up North, the regiment commander's tracker had many photos on his wall. There were two or three photos of guerrillas who were left lying dead on the site for some days before they were removed. There was one photo of a Hizaballon [a Hizb’allah fighter, oznik-news] lying on the ground, an entry hole in his mouth, his eyes wide open, and the mouth too. All full of blood. There was a photo of another man, you could see the shape of a head, but not really a face. Apparently a missile smashed his face. A totally horrifying photo."
Why are these photos taken?
"As a fighter the grandest thing you can do is eliminate a guerrilla. Just like for pilots the grandest achievement is to down an airplane. It's a kind of proof that there, we did it. It's like carving an X on the gun after downing a guerrilla. It's a kind of machismo, when you do it you think of showing it to the guys. There's nothing to do about it, we are constantly trained to kill people, it's a part of the army. The moment a guerrilla stands in front of you, you don't consider him as a human. Once you are in the killing business, in which we are, things get to this, and to much worse."
Udi (real name kept by Kol Ha'ir), an Armour soldier, saw the Golani sappers unit's photos: "It's more about pride and relief after the burden of a face to face combat. These are horrifying photos, you see the guerrillas lying down, all blood, their guns next to them. The soldiers had their photos taken next to the bodies, sometimes they put a foot on the corpse. You see completely shattered people, can't recognize a face, can't recognize anything."
How did you feel when you saw these photos?
"I felt it was an honor for them. You say 'Wow, what an honor.' when you go on ambush missions for three months every night and never hit a thing, and then you see this and say 'Walla, this one got to hit.'"
A Manner of Coping
Gadi Amir headed the IDF's Behavioral Science department in the mid Nineties. He did not encounter this practice during his service, but did hear such rumors recently. He says he did not hear of it being a common practice, but after hearing details about the Golani class album and about the web site he says that "the accumulation of a few incidents cannot be considered a coincidence."
Amir tries to explain this on two levels. The first level is operational success. "This is the way a mission carried out successfully, the killing of a guerrilla, is expressed. Once it used to be that success, for the infantry, was the occupation of some territory. Today it's measured by how many guerrillas were downed." The second level, in Amir's view, is photography as a way to cope: "It's a part of coping, which may seem a little paradoxical, with the phenomenon of killing in war. Death is not directly referred to, but in a different way, somewhat alienated. Soldiers have always had a problem with direct killing.
"Beyond the moral-judgmental element, which I don't like at all, it would be wrong to define a way of coping as healthy or sick. Coping is measured by its effectiveness and functionality. This seems to me like a way of coping taken to extreme, but I cannot define it as problematic. It becomes problematic when your enemy stops being a human being. I deeply hope this has not become a phenomenon of dehumanization or depersonalization. We researched this issue during the first Intifada. There always were cases like this, but it was not a widespread practice. The army then was highly aware of the issue and very concerned about it.
A Culture That Celebrates Death
Dr Ruhama Marton, a psychiatrist, and president of Physicians for Human Rights, says this practice reminds her of an photo exhibition she saw in New York, displaying images from lynching of blacks by whites in the U.S. "It's an astonishing exhibit," Marton said, "all pictures that people took for their own fun. Shot as part of daily life. Simple people, not journalists or scoop hunters. Mister Jones went out for a walk, saw two blacks hung on a tree and took a photo. Some of those photos were made into postcards and sent to people, just like family photos that became postcards."
Marton explains that for a long time, and particularly this last year, Israel has been immersed in a culture of death, which makes a national matter from the death of Israelis, and considers the death of Palestinians very lightly. "A soldier knows how cheap and easy it is to kill a Palestinian. There's no punishment, it doesn't get to a military court, nor to the civil courts. The deaths of Palestinians are easy and cheap. This easiness makes the whole thing into a kind of amusement. It's very similar to what happened in the lynching, many of which were for amusement. It's hard to kill, so to make it easy you put it in an amusement category. 'I don't kill just like that, I'm one of the guys.'"
"The contempt and the lightness are part of the photography. In Israeli culture you look at all Arabs as enemies. We are returning to the 50's language, to Hasamaba [a popular series of youth books with a racist slant, oznik-news]. Amusement and bragging are the forte. It's a fact they don't photograph our own dead. It's a part of Israeli death culture: a culture that makes death, enjoys death, is entertained by death, and photographs it."
Singular Incidents, Individual Initiatives
The IDF spokesman's response: "The IDF takes a serious view of every instance of hurting human dignity. The IDF is not aware of a phenomenon, only of a few singular incidents that were the initiative of individual soldiers. The IDF educates its soldiers and commanders according to the IDF spirit, and the keeping of human dignity. In this period of fighting the General Chief of Staff has emphasized several times the importance of maintaining the dignity of a human, whoever that human is. Some of the events mentioned are known, and they have been treated at the commander level."
"In the incident mentioned, the commander performed a professional battle analysis before the officers and soldiers of an elite unit, who were going to carry out employment in a place where the commander and his unit have in the past encountered a guerrilla unit. Among the props used by the commander was a series of photographs that illustrated the complexity of the area where the unit was to carry out the employment. If there appeared a photo of a dead guerrilla among the photos, which demonstrated the character of the guerrillas' location on the ground, and the character of fighting in the area, it must be noted that the guerrilla's body was not mutilated, and that after a few lectures the said commander had decided to remove the guerrilla's photo from this battle analysis, because of soldiers reactions to that photograph."