Israeli army in activists' crosshairs over 'souvenir' photos

The photo of an Israeli army sniper aiming at a Palestinian boy has reignited criticism of the degrading approach of some Israeli troops towards Palestinians in the West Bank. Vita Bekker reports from Tel Aviv

The Instagram page of Israeli soldier Mor Ostrovski shows a Palestinian boy in the IDF sniper's crosshairs. Instagram / Electronic Intifada
Powered by automated translation

TEL AVIV // An image appearing to show the back of a Palestinian boy's head through the crosshairs of an Israeli military sniper's rifle has stirred outrage among left-wing activists in Israel and abroad.

The photo, which one Israeli rights group called an "absurd show of force" by an Israeli soldier aiming at a child "just to post a 'cool' picture and get many shares", has reignited criticism of the degrading approach of some Israeli troops towards Palestinians in the West Bank.

Activists say it also represents a rare public glimpse of photographs that are routinely snapped and circulated by soldiers.

The photograph was disclosed last weekend by the online publication The Electronic Intifada, which focuses on Israeli violations of Palestinian rights, and which said it was posted by a 20-year-old soldier named Mor Ostrovski on the Instagram photo-sharing service of the social networking site Facebook. The photo was deleted this week, along with Mr Ostrovski's entire Facebook account.

Activists against Israel's West Bank occupation say the fast-growing use of social-networking sites is exposing an act that has been a decades-long norm among soldiers in the Palestinian territory - documenting their service with often demeaning images of Palestinians.

The uproar comes a week after another image on Facebook showed an Israeli infantry soldier appearing to ridicule four Palestinian detainees that he was guarding by posing handcuffed and blindfolded next to them.

The Israeli army has acknowledged both photographs, saying in an emailed response to The National that neither corresponded to its "values or code of ethics".

Activists, however, say such acts have long been common among soldiers carrying out army service in the West Bank - territory that Israel has occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and that the Palestinians want for their future state, along with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

Avichai Sharon, a co-founder and head of research at the Jerusalem-based Breaking the Silence, an Israeli group that gathers soldiers' testimonies of their military service that often reflect mistreatment of Palestinians, said: "This is just a glimpse into the mind of soldiers sent to control millions of people in Israel's military occupation of the West Bank. It also shows the apathy and blindness of Israeli society to the effects of the occupation."

Mr Sharon said that when he had served as a soldier in the city of Hebron in the West Bank, "we were all taking pictures, but the only difference was that it went into private albums … today soldiers are posting photos like these on new media."

On its Facebook page, Breaking the Silence posted the sniper's picture that was publicised this week alongside a similar image taken in 2003 by another Israeli sniper, who later told the group he snapped it with his private camera to keep as a "souvenir" from his army service days.

"Both pictures are testaments to the abuse of power rooted in the military control of another people," the group wrote under the images.

The Israeli army said in its response that the sniper's commanders were notified of the pictures and that it had initiated an investigation. It also said the soldier himself had not been the one to take the photograph that was uploaded to his account.

The military spokesperson also said that the soldier who had posed alongside the Palestinian prisoners "was sentenced to detention for a number of weeks" and that the image was removed from Facebook.

The photographs emerged three years after a similar scandal. In 2010, Eden Abergil, a former Israeli soldier in the West Bank, posted now-infamous photos of herself donning the olive-coloured Israeli military uniform and seated smiling next to bound and blindfolded Palestinians, who did not appear aware that the picture was being taken.

Last year, another photograph posted on the Facebook page of a 22-year-old Israeli soldier named Nissim Asis and disclosed by The Electronic Intifada - which closely tracks such images - showed him licking ketchup-coloured liquid from the point of a knife accompanied by a caption that contained an expletive and described Arab blood as "tasty".