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It’s Not Just the Killing. Why Must Israel Dehumanize Palestinians?

Civilian men are stripped, made to kneel, and lined up. An IDF soldier wreaks havoc in a Gaza toy store. Why? Because they can.

Moti Milrod/Haaretz/AP Photo
Israeli soldiers stand by a truck packed with bound and blindfolded Palestinian detainees in Gaza on December 8.

As a journalist, I worked in the field covering the first Palestinian intifada and part of the second. The world was horrified to see men stripped down to their underwear huddled with their hands behind their heads as Israeli soldiers looked down at them. For many of us, those images were not new. We had seen and witnessed similar images in various locations in the occupied territories. Israeli soldiers would enter a village, a town, or a refugee camp, round up the men over 18, and force them to sit for hours in a local schoolyard. If Palestinians had thrown stones, burnt tires, or drawn graffiti, the “captured” men would be ordered to clean up after the protesters, paint over the graffiti, and spend most of the day or night in the schoolyard.

The stripping part began with the introduction of suicide attacks. While hiding under the guise of wanting to know if those men taken from their homes had wrapped themselves with explosives, the Israelis would often leave them in their undershorts for hours as part of a collective punishment.

Researchers and psychoanalysts for years studied the phenomena of the effects on Palestinian children of the Israeli soldiers’ humiliation of their fathers in such a manner. I remember that when I was the executive producer of the Palestinian version of Sesame Street, after the euphoria of the 1993 signing of the Declaration of Principles at the White House, we took on this issue. We worked with educators, psychologists, writers, and puppeteers to design episodes that would deal with it and help restore pride to children, especially Palestinian boys. Our goal was to help channel their energy and anger in more positive directions. But we found it next to impossible to produce the desired results so long as the humiliation continued, whether at checkpoints or in schoolyards.

While the Israeli mentality of superiority was prevalent in those incidents during the Palestinian intifada, it was largely absent as the Israeli army withdrew from major cities and regrouped outside of Gaza back in 2007. But the desire to show who was boss and to rub Palestinian civilians’ noses in the dirt while they were stripped to their underpants in the cold weather never left. And the reoccupation of parts of Gaza provided the opportunity to go back to their hateful deeds.

Initially, Israeli officials claimed that the recent mass arrests were of Hamas members who had surrendered. This was such a blatant lie that with the help of social media it was quickly debunked. Slowly, as the images made the rounds, people were able to identify friends, colleagues, and relatives, all of whom were professional men: journalists, engineers, schoolteachers, and so on. Activists argued that Hamas fighters who have a strong conviction and motivations simply don’t surrender. At the same time, social media activists argued, Israeli soldiers are not known to arrest—rather than shoot to kill—any Hamas fighter they happen to run into.

As this lie was being exposed in the media, an Israeli official made a disgusting comment, telling a Western TV anchor that the Israelis stripping Palestinians down to their underwear was “not the end of the world” because the Middle East was “warmer.” Eventually, and after being trashed in the world media (both traditional and social), Israeli officials admitted that the vast majority of those who were taken literally from their homes in Beit Lahya were civilians and not Hamas fighters.

In another incident, an Israeli video has gone viral showing an Israeli soldier in full protective gear standing in a small bookstore and gift shop somewhere in Gaza. Looking into the camera, most likely held by one of his comrades-in-arms, the soldier acts like a salesperson, offering the price of a toy, a book, or other trinket before throwing an item violently on the ground to ensure it is broken. The message behind the Israeli video is clear: We are the masters, and we can do whatever we please to you, Palestinians.

When Israel began its war on Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed two goals of the military mission: to end Hamas and to bring back hostages. No hostage was released except as part of a mutually agreed exchange with Palestinian prisoners, and Hamas has not gone anywhere, as daily Israeli army casualties testify to its resilience.

What is interesting in both cases, the stripping and the toy store incident, is that someone took time to film them, and others had no problem in distributing them widely. Why?

The only explanation that one can surmise from these actions is that they were carried out to show to the Israeli public, which felt that their army, intelligence, and civilians were humiliated on October 7, that their army could carry out the desired revenge. Ever since October 7, Israeli officials have been making dehumanizing statements about Palestinians. An IDF spokesperson said early on that the Air Force will emphasize “maximum damage not accuracy.” Israel’s defense minister said that Israel will treat Palestinians as animals, and the president of Israel denied the existence of any innocent Palestinian civilian.

Out-of-control Israeli shelling resulted in around 18,000 Palestinians killed, most of them children and women, as well as the destruction of hospitals, churches, mosques, bakeries, schools, and other institutions. But all of that is not enough. The Israeli army needs to show its public back home that it was in control and that the IDF had succeeded in subjugating and, yes, humiliating Palestinians in revenge for an act that some of them (Hamas) perpetrated.

When U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that October 7 did not happen in a vacuum, he was referring to the years of Israeli occupation, subjugation, and efforts to humiliate Palestinians at checkpoints, during break-ins, and by taking their land and dignity.

Humiliation is ugly and immoral, but also counterproductive. While the Israeli public might get their kicks out of seeing Palestinian men humiliated or a soldier destroying a Palestinian toy store, people around the world have the opposite reaction. And for Palestinian families of those men stripped naked in front of their families and the world, and the owners of that tiny store, such shameful Israeli actions only plant anger, hatred, and, eventually, a desire for revenge.