Quoting statistics from Israeli army's rehabilitation division, the Hebrew daily Maariv said, in 2003 the number of Israeli soldiers who committed suicide was significantly higher than those killed during military incursions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

 

A total of 43 Israeli soldiers took their own lives last year compared to 30 soldiers killed in intifada-related hostilities, said the report.

 

This represents a 30% increase in the number of suicides over the 2002 figure of 31.

 

Additionally, in 2003, 32 Israeli soldiers died of various illnesses, 27 were killed in traffic accidents or during vacation and 10 died in traffic accidents while on duty.

 

Nine soldiers were killed during training and practice exercises and in course of military operations. A further eight soldiers died due to other reasons.

 

This year's suicide figure is just as disturbing. The newspaper said 15 Israeli soldiers had killed themselves in the first six months of 2004.

 

Army reaction

 

Embarrassed by the report, the Israeli Ministry of Defence refused to comment on its content. A spokesperson said she "knew nothing of the report", adding the ministry "had nothing to do with it".

 

Occupation duties have often left
soldiers psychologically scarred

The publication of the Maariv report appears to have taken the Israeli military by surprise. An army spokesman said the fatality figures might have been leaked by unauthorised sources within the army or the Ministry of Defence.

 

He said the army was deliberating about the revelations.

 

The Israeli army denies any connection between army "excesses" in the occupied territories and the phenomenon of suicides among soldiers.

 

Army sources routinely cite more mundane reasons such as emotional crises, bullying and persecution by superiors and psychological depression.

 

However, it is widely believed a significant number of the suicide cases are connected to soldiers' traumatic experiences in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

 

'Terrible burden'

 

An Israeli peace activist, who spoke to Aljazeera.net on condition of anonymity, said she believed many of the soldiers who went on to take their own lives, simply could not live with the moral burden of causing avoidable and unjustified deaths in the occupied Palestinian territories.

 

"Israeli soldiers are ordered to do things
 that go against their moral values ... and
they are left with this terrible burden which evolves into depression and eventually leads
to suicide"


Israeli peace activist

"They are ordered to do things that go against their moral values … and when they do – because, after all, a good soldier is one who obeys orders, not one who thinks - they are left with this terrible burden which evolves into depression and eventually leads to suicide."

 

Last month, a number of former conscripts who had just finished their army service in the southern West Bank town of Hebron, described vividly the manner in which they mistreated and humiliated Palestinian civilians.

 

The group set up a photo exhibition opposite the Defence Ministry complex in Tel Aviv, featuring graphic pictures of ordinary Palestinians being tormented, often in a sadistic manner, by occupation soldiers.

 

The Israeli army tried unsuccessfully to prevent the exhibition on the grounds that it tarnished its image and undermined "the war on terror".

 

Refuseniks

 

In another incident, which took place earlier this week, an army reserve soldier joined the small but growing list of so-called refuseniks opposed to the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

 

In a letter to his local recruitment officer explaining his reasons for disobeying orders to join his unit in the West Bank, Chaim Feldman accused the Israeli army of committing manifestly criminal acts against innocent Palestinians.

 

"My letter to you is short and concise. I have no intention of wearing the uniform of this organisation known as the Israeli Defence Forces which fires artillery shells on civilian crowds, including children and old people.  I see no reason why I should join this organisation."

 

The "conscientious objector" described the IDF as an organisation that defends "fascist settlers breaking the law and uprooting and burning olive trees".

 

Feldman is likely to be tried and imprisoned for disobeying orders and desertion.

 

Mounting toll

 

To be sure, a majority of Israelis regard the refuseniks and their supporters as "traitors" and "Hamas lovers".

 

Troops have also borne the brunt
of Palestinian resistance attacks

None the less, a growing and increasingly vocal minority of Israeli intellectuals and citizens back them, arguing that "conscientious objectors" in the armed forces represent the "the Jewish people's true moral ideal" of "not doing unto others what one wouldn't others to do unto you".

 

Since the outbreak of the present intifada in September 2000, the Israeli army and paramilitary Jewish settlers have killed more than 3400 Palestinians, a majority of them innocent civilians, including 640 children and minors.

 

Thousands of others have been injured, many of them disabled for life.

 

During the same period, as many 950 Israeli soldiers, settlers and civilians have been killed by armed Palestinian fighters, including human bombers.