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Soldiers talk about service in Israel

Patrick Barron/Daily
Ari, a former Israeli soldier, recounts personal experiences from his time with the Israeli Defense Forces in front of a crowd in Hillel on Thursday. Buy this photo

By Cassandra Balfour, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 22, 2013

On Thursday night, a group of about twenty students gathered at Hillel to hear the stories of two former soldiers who served in the Israeli Defense Forces.

Business junior Barak Kaufman, president of I-LEAD — a group that advocates for Israeli policy stances — collaborated with StandWithUS, a non-profit educational and advocacy group that promotes Israeli interests, to bring the two former Israeli soldiers, Ari and Lital, to campus in order to put a “human face” on the IDF.

“We have meetings and we talk about all this stuff and we hold events … but you’re thousands of miles away from the conflict, “ Kaufman said. “But to put a face to them, to be able to interact with actual Israelis that live and breathe that kind of life and provide an open forum to see what life is like.”

Talking in mixed English and Hebrew, both soldiers only used their first names during the conference for unspecified reasons. During their presentation, they emphasized that they want a two-state solution but said that Hamas, the group that governs Gaza and is classified as a terrorist organization by the United States, wouldn’t grant any concessions. For the bulk of the talk, both soldiers fielded questions from the audience about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

They also told personal stories about their time in combat. Ari, now a software engineer, recalled a time when a paramedic in his unit, Jonathan, was killed during a mission to arrest a suspected terrorist in the West Bank. He claimed his friend was killed because Israeli rules of engagement dictate that soldiers cannot shoot until they are directly threatened.

“On the one hand you want to stop the terrorists, on the other hand you want to avoid as much as possible hurting innocent civilians,” Ari said. “But sometimes you put your own life at risk. Maybe if things went differently Jonathon might be alive today.”

Both served in combat positions and frequently noted the difficulty of living under constant threat of rocket fire. They claimed that nearly everyone in Israel knew at least one person who had been a touched by terrorism.

“I can’t really describe to you what it means to be an 18-year-old girl who goes out to a nightclub and cannot think what to wear, just about ‘is it safe’ … her mother is at home worried sick for when she’ll be back, if she’ll be back,” Lital said. “That was the situation then and we’re still facing terror attacks and rocket attacks from Gaza.”

During the question-and-answer portion, one student brought up a scandal the IDF faced earlier this week that involved an IDF soldier purportedly posting an Instagram photo of a Palestinian child in the crosshairs of his sniper rifle. Both Ari and Lital condemned the picture and assured the crowd that the IDF doesn’t view all Palestinians as the enemy.

“If a soldier is doing something inappropriate in the West Bank, it’s not something that is common or acceptable and usually that solider will be punished by his commanders and be judged by his peers,” Lital said.

Nick Lieber, a StandWithUs campus coordinator, said the talks with soldiers were started in order to humanize IDF soldiers because the media presented a skewed portrait of them. The group’s hosting of IDF soldiers last year was met with protests by groups that advocate for Palestine.

“It was response to disinformation about Israel in the media during the Second Intifada, so our mission is to educate about Israel and about the conflict,” Lieber said. “The whole point is to put a human face to the IDF because people hear stories about the Israeli army, and you never meet the people and hear their actual stories.”

LSA junior Samia Ayyash said she was disappointed with the event and claimed that the former soldiers presented a biased view of the complex conflict and that they dehumanized the Palestinian side. She added that, as someone of Palestinian descent, she has seen Palestinian civilians beaten by IDF soldiers and took offense to the former soldiers referring to the Palestinians as “terrorists.”

“The Palestinian side is trying to rid what they see as terrorist attacks, the attacks on humanity the attacks on their identity, they’re striving for civil rights for water, for the rights to move,” Ayyash said. “There are two sides to the conflict and one side was clearly not acknowledged here today.”

Although Ayyash was pleased that many students came up to her after the event to thank her for coming and for asking critical questions, she felt that dialogue alone won’t solve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“The biggest issue is that people are so indoctrinated into their own beliefs,” Ayyash said. “They’re not willing to recognize the humanity in the other side.”