What do dogs remind you of? And what do German shepherds remind you of? And what about armed soldiers who sic German shepherds on people trying to sneak through a border in order to earn a living?
These lines are being written in a hotel room in the capital of the Czech Republic, a country that knows a thing or two about occupation, oppression and struggles for liberation. In this city’s Museum of Communism, which is next door to a casino, one can view a photograph of East German soldiers siccing German shepherds on people trying to sneak into West Germany. The Nazi soldiers were replaced by Communist soldiers; the dogs remained.
A few days before my museum visit I was in the West Bank village of Beit Ula, near Hebron. I met a young man, Mohammed Amla, whose back and neck are scarred along their entire length from the bites of an Israel Defense Forces dog − a German shepherd, of course. Amla, married with two daughters, has worked in Israel for the past 12 years, doing manual labor.
When Amla has money he bribes his Israeli contractor, paying him a small fortune (NIS 2,000 a month) to obtain an Israeli work permit for him. When the family ran out of money because one of the daughters, who is deaf, needed an expensive ear operation, Amla sneaked into Israel. The result: a stay in the hospital with torn skin on his back and neck.
One evening last month masked IDF soldiers lay in wait near an opening in the separation fence. When Amla and two companions approached, before they crossed into Israel, the soldiers set their dogs on the trio. After it seemed that the IDF had stopped siccing dogs on “illegal residents,” the army has resumed the horrific practice of setting dogs on unarmed civilians. After all, the IDF’s storied Oketz canine unit must be kept busy during periods of relative calm.
One cannot ignore the historical connotations; one cannot remain oblivious to the unavoidable associations. Bullets are more deadly but less cruel than setting dogs on human beings. The very thought of Israeli soldiers doing this should have aroused more than a flicker of shock and shame. But it did not, not even when the connotation shrieks to the heavens. We’ll send our soldiers first to the March of the Living in Auschwitz, and then we’ll train them to sic dogs on people. The IDF Spokesman’s Office, which once at least made an effort to protect the reputation of “the most moral army in the world,” has apparently given up on that as well. Its arrogant, apathetic response to the story of that night of the dogs was the ultimate nonresponse: “The matter is being evaluated.”
While we wait for the “evaluation” to end − it never does, usually − we must honestly ask ourselves: Is this what we genuinely want? If an Israeli citizen’s sneaking into the Palestinian Authority were to end in his being set upon by dogs and hospitalized, as sneaking into Israel did for Amla, the entire country − and perhaps the world − would be in an uproar. The full weight of history would be brought to bear against the image of a Palestinian soldier siccing a dog, God save us, on a Jew. The Palestinians, those beasts, set dogs on human beings. But that (too) is of course permitted to the IDF.
For the meantime, Amla is at home recovering from his injuries. He cannot work yet. He says he won’t sneak into Israel again, as thousands of Palestinians looking for work do every night, out of fear of the dog that attacked him. When the dog gripped Amla’s neck in its jaws, he was sure he was about to die. Ostensibly, that’s a great accomplishment for Israel: Amla won’t return to renovate homes illegally. But from my hotel room in Prague − the city where I found the names of my murdered grandmother and grandfather engraved on a stone plaque, the city whose memories of the Nazi and Soviet occupations and of the “Prague Spring” echo in every corner − the thought of Israeli soldiers siccing their dogs on Mohammed Amla takes on an added meaning that is very disturbing and burdensome.