On one side of a not-so-neatly marked divide stood Aryeh Green, an advisor to former Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Natan Sharansky, who argued in a Feb. 19 speech that human-rights abuses committed against Palestinians by Israeli soldiers at West Bank checkpoints, while deplorable, are the exception and not the rule.
Green also noted that such incidents happen within the context of a military acting to protect its citizens — on both sides of the green line, the pre-1967 border — from acts of terrorism.
On the opposite side of the debate was a member of an Israeli organization called "Breaking the Silence," founded by Israel Defense Force veterans in 2004 to document soldiers' experiences while serving in the West Bank. A traveling photo exhibit, put together by the group, presents a less heroic narrative than Green's portrait, one in which abuse and injustice are widespread and systematic.
Recognition of this reality, members of the group argue, must be incorporated into the political dialogue about the future status of the West Bank and the long-term strategy for combating terrorism, particularly in light of renewed talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
While an initial advertisement from the Penn Israel Coalition promised a debate between Green and the soldiers, the program turned out to be a speech given solely by Green, and not a panel discussion.
Speaking before 40 people at Penn, the American-born Green described the Jewish state as a "champion of human rights."
He said that Israeli rule over the West Bank bank ushered in an era of relative freedom of expression, freedom that has been curtailed in the past decade by both Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. (He argued that self-determination is not a fundamental human right in international law.)
Green is currently the director of the Jerusalem-based organization MediaCentral, which offers a number of services to foreign-based journalists, including access to Hebrew and Arabic translators. It operates under the notion that accuracy is Israel's best friend in terms of public relations.
Making his case for Israel, Green also cited the 2002 battle of Jenin, in which Palestinian claims of a civilian massacre, after making headlines across the world, were later refuted by a United Nations investigation. Instead, in targeting a hotbed of terrorist activity, IDF officials opted to forgo air power and expose its soldiers to added risk in order to minimize Palestinian civilian casualties, said Green.
According to the speaker, 23 Israeli soldiers died along with 52 Palestinians, of which he said 50 were combatants.
"The battle of Jenin is the paradigm of a democratic, free-society basing its policies on its best values," he said.
Green also stressed that after handing over control of most of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority in the mid-1990s, the Israeli government reluctantly decided to retake the area in 2002 as a response to a series of suicide bombings that killed hundreds and gripped the nation with fear.
A Few Bad Apples?
In lieu of the initially proposed panel format, 26-year-old Arnon Degani, an IDF veteran who is critical of Israeli policy and is traveling in the United States for several weeks along with the photo exhibit, was afforded the first question from the audience.
However, the sense of a dramatic confrontation between the speakers was dissipated when Degani said that his dispute with Green's presentation was so pervasive that he didn't know where to begin. While he agreed that no massacre had taken place at Jenin, he questioned Israel's human-rights record, though without providing much in the way of detail.
But during an interview held days before the Green speech, Degani — a veteran of the Second Lebanon War who was at pains to distinguish himself from a group of well-publicized reservists who'd refused to serve in the West Bank — said that the group and its exhibit are about defending Israeli soldiers.
He stressed that troops must exert some measure of brutality — including striking or detaining Palestinians who get too close or don't obey checkpoint rules — in order to protect themselves while on duty. He also said that it's untrue that the violence is the work of only a few "bad apples."
"These things happen all the time. Israeli society doesn't know about this — and Israeli society has to know about this," said the current graduate student in Middle Eastern history.
Estimates vary about the frequency of such military-instigated incidents.
According to B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, a group associated with the political left, there were 74 documented cases of physical abuse of Palestinians by Israeli security forces in 2007, including the IDF, border police and regular police.
The "Breaking the Silence" photo exhibit began as an effort to document such instances — to fix them in images taken by the soldiers themselves.
The photos depict scenes that include the detention and blindfolding of Palestinian men.
The exhibit also features a 2004 video clip from a West Bank checkpoint that shows an Israeli striking a Palestinian man in the face.
The display, comprised of images that were also meant to convey the psychological toll that West Bank duty can take on young soldiers, was exhibited on Penn's campus — in a separate building from where the Green program took place — Feb. 9 through Feb. 23.
It was sponsored by a number of dovish groups, including Americans for Peace Now and Meretz USA.
"I am sure that there are a number of cases of real abuse at the hands of Israeli soldiers against Palestinians," Green said during his talk. "[And] most of the time, those abuses are found out, reported and punished."