Dead babies, mothers weeping on their children’s graves, a gun aimed at a child and bombed-out mosques – these are a few examples of the images Israel Defense Forces soldiers design these days to print on shirts they order to mark the end of training, or of field duty. The slogans accompanying the drawings are not exactly anemic either: A T-shirt for infantry snipers bears the inscription “Better use Durex,” next to a picture of a dead Palestinian baby, with his weeping mother and a teddy bear beside him. A sharpshooter’s T-shirt from the Givati Brigade’s Shaked battalion shows a pregnant Palestinian woman with a bull’s-eye superimposed on her belly, with the slogan, in English, “1 shot, 2 kills.” A “graduation” shirt for those who have completed another snipers course depicts a Palestinian baby, who grows into a combative boy and then an armed adult, with the inscription, “No matter how it begins, we’ll put an end to it.”
There are also plenty of shirts with blatant sexual messages. For example, the Lavi battalion produced a shirt featuring a drawing of a soldier next to a young woman with bruises, and the slogan, “Bet you got raped!” A few of the images underscore actions whose existence the army officially denies – such as “confirming the kill” (shooting a bullet into an enemy victim’s head from close range, to ensure he is dead), or harming religious sites, or female or child non-combatants.
In many cases, the content is submitted for approval to one of the unit’s commanders. The latter, however, do not always have control over what gets printed, because the artwork is a private initiative of soldiers that they never hear about. Drawings or slogans previously banned in certain units have been approved for distribution elsewhere. For example, shirts declaring, “We won’t chill ’til we confirm the kill” were banned in the past (the IDF claims that the practice doesn’t exist), yet the Haruv battalion printed some last year.
The slogan “Let every Arab mother know that her son’s fate is in my hands!” had previously been banned for use on another infantry unit’s shirt. A Givati soldier said this week, however, that at the end of last year, his platoon printed up dozens of shirts, fleece jackets and pants bearing this slogan.
“It has a drawing depicting a soldier as the Angel of Death, next to a gun and an Arab town,” he explains. “The text was very powerful. The funniest part was that when our soldier came to get the shirts, the man who printed them was an Arab, and the soldier felt so bad that he told the girl at the counter to bring them to him.”
Many controversial shirts have been ordered by graduates of snipers courses, which bring together soldiers from various units. In 2006, soldiers from the “Carmon Team” course for elite-unit marksmen printed a shirt with a drawing of a knife-wielding Palestinian in the crosshairs of a gun sight, and the slogan, “You’ve got to run fast, run fast, run fast, before it’s all over.” Below is a drawing of Arab women weeping over a grave and the words: “And afterward they cry, and afterward they cry.” [The inscriptions are riffs on a popular song.] Another sniper’s shirt also features an Arab man in the crosshairs, and the announcement, “Everything is with the best of intentions.”
What is the idea behind the shirt from July 2007, which has an image of a child with the slogan “Smaller – harder!”?
“It’s a kid, so you’ve got a little more of a problem, morally, and also the target is smaller.”
Do your superiors approve the shirts before printing?
“Yes, although one time they rejected some shirt that was too extreme. I don’t remember what was on it.”
A shirt printed up just this week for soldiers of the Lavi battalion, who spent three years in the West Bank, reads: “We came, we saw, we destroyed!” – alongside images of weapons, an angry soldier and a Palestinian village with a ruined mosque in the center.
A shirt printed after Operation Cast Lead in Gaza for Battalion 890 of the Paratroops depicts a King Kong-like soldier in a city under attack. The slogan is unambiguous: “If you believe it can be fixed, then believe it can be destroyed!”
Y., a soldier/yeshiva student, designed the shirt. “You take whoever [in the unit] knows how to draw and then you give it to the commanders before printing,” he explained.
What is the soldier holding in his hand?
Y. “A mosque. Before I drew the shirt I had some misgivings, because I wanted it to be like King Kong, but not too monstrous. The one holding the mosque – I wanted him to have a more normal-looking face, so it wouldn’t look like an anti-Semitic cartoon. Some of the people who saw it told me, ‘Is that what you’ve got to show for the IDF? That it destroys homes?’ I can understand people who look at this from outside and see it that way, but I was in Gaza and they kept emphasizing that the object of the operation was to wreak destruction on the infrastructure, so that the price the Palestinians and the leadership pay will make them realize that it isn’t worth it for them to go on shooting. So that’s the idea of ‘we’re coming to destroy’ in the drawing.”
According to Y., most of these shirts are worn strictly in an army context, not in civilian life. “And within the army people look at it differently,” he added. “I don’t think I would walk down the street in this shirt, because it would draw fire. Even at my yeshiva I don’t think people would like it.”
Y. also came up with a design for the shirt his unit printed at the end of basic training. It shows a clenched fist shattering the symbol of the Paratroops Corps.
Where does the fist come from?
“It’s reminiscent of [Rabbi Meir] Kahane’s symbol. I borrowed it from an emblem for something in Russia, but basically it’s supposed to look like Kahane’s symbol, the one from ‘Kahane Was Right’ – it’s a sort of joke. Our company commander is kind of gung-ho.”
What’s the idea behind “Only God forgives”?
The soldier: “It’s just a saying.”
No one had a problem with the fact that a mosque gets blown up in the picture?
“I don’t see what you’re getting at. I don’t like the way you’re going with this. Don’t take this somewhere you’re not supposed to, as though we hate Arabs.”
After Operation Cast Lead, soldiers from that battalion printed a T-shirt depicting a vulture sexually penetrating Hamas’ prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, accompanied by a particularly graphic slogan. S., a soldier in the platoon that ordered the shirt, said the idea came from a similar shirt, printed after the Second Lebanon War, that featured Hassan Nasrallah instead of Haniyeh.
Shlomo Tzipori, a lieutenant colonel in the reserves and a lawyer specializing in martial law, said the army does bring soldiers up on charges for offenses that occur outside the base and during their free time. According to Tzipori, slogans that constitute an “insult to the army or to those in uniform” are grounds for court-martial, on charges of “shameful conduct” or “disciplinary infraction,” which are general clauses in judicial martial law.
Sociologist Dr. Orna Sasson-Levy, of Bar-Ilan University, author of “Identities in Uniform: Masculinities and Femininities in the Israeli Military,” said that the phenomenon is “part of a radicalization process the entire country is undergoing, and the soldiers are at its forefront. I think that ever since the second intifada there has been a continual shift to the right. The pullout from Gaza and its outcome – the calm that never arrived – led to a further shift rightward.
Levy: “I’m familiar with things of this sort going back 40, 50 years, and each time they take a different form. Psychologically speaking, this is one of the ways in which soldiers project their anger, frustration and violence. It is a certain expression of things, which I call ‘below the belt.’”
Do you think this a good way to vent anger?
Levy: “It’s safe. But there are also things here that deviate from the norm, and you could say that whoever is creating these things has reached some level of normality. He gives expression to the fact that what is considered abnormal today might no longer be so tomorrow.”