On November 9th, Wissam Tayam (sometimes spelled Tayem), a Palestinian seeking passage at an Israeli checkpoint near Nablus, was observed playing his violin. According to Horit Herman Peled, a member of Machsom Watch (Checkpoint Watch, a group that monitors Israeli soldiers’ behavior at checkpoints) who videotaped the incident, Tayam was forced to play the violin to gain passage while Israeli soldiers laughed. As a result of her statements and video, numerous articles were written in Israel and worldwide condemning the soldiers at the checkpoint, the morals of the Israeli army, and some even claimed to find in the incident echoes of the Holocaust, when Jews were forced by the Nazis to play music in concentration camps. These reports failed to mention the fact that in previous instances, Palestinian terrorists used cases for musical instruments, including a guitar, to smuggle deadly explosives used in terror attacks.

In Peled’s video the soldier interacting with Tayam cannot be seen or heard laughing and appears to be merely sorting through some papers. No other soldiers can be seen or heard laughing. Peled, the videographer, does not appear to be close enough to the Palestinian and soldier to hear whether the soldier did or did not order the Palestinian to play. Furthermore, the video does not indicate that she witnessed the actual moment when Tayam began to play or what occurred right before.

According to a November 30th IDF statement, the soldier states that he asked Tayam to open his violin case for inspection, to make sure it didn’t contain explosives or weapons, but it was the Palestinian who chose to play the violin of his own volition and that the liaison officer had to ask the Palestinian to stop playing. Wissam Tayam claims that he was asked to play a sad song.

According to a November 30 Haaretz report, statements by other members of the Machsom Watch group who were there make clear that none of them, including Horit Herman Peled, has any idea what was said by the soldier to the Palestinian, because they "did not hear the exchange between the soldiers and the violinist, and in addition, the conversation was held in Arabic, which none of the volunteers understand."

In fact, initially another Machsom Watch volunteer, Rachel Bar-Or, gave a statement to the IDF supporting the Israeli soldier’s version of events. She was unable to hear the conversation between the soldier and Tayam, but based on what she saw, "she said that until she read the violinist’s account of the incident in the press, she was more than prepared to believe the soldiers’ version of events at the checkpoint. ‘When I found out that the Palestinian was denying [their story], I had no reason to prefer the IDF’s version of events over his.’ Another volunteer, Neta Efroni, also claims that the volunteers did not hear the exchange between the Palestinian and the soldiers." (Haaretz, Nov 30)

Based on what Rachel Bar-Or saw with her own eyes at the time of the incident, Bar-Or felt that the Israeli soldier had not done anything wrong. Only after hearing Tayam’s version, did she discount what she herself saw, saying, "I had no reason to prefer the IDF’s version of events over his."

Thus, initially, this was a case of the Israeli soldier’s word against Horit Herman Peled’s, who it turns out, didn’t even hear (and couldn’t have understood) the Arabic conversation between the two men. None of the initial stories had any statement by Tayam himself. Apparently based on only Peled’s questionable "evidence," many journalists repeated the story, and published the photos prominently, even the video seems to support the soldier’s case, and contradicts Peled’s. The NGO B’stelem also erroneously began a campaign around this issue.

Even if the soldier had asked Tayam to play his violin for a few seconds to ensure that it didn’t contain any explosives, such a measure is not per se humiliating or evidence of malice. And it certainly would not warrant comparing Israeli soldiers to Nazis.

At the same time, the IDF added unnecessary confusion to the issue. According to a November 25th BBC article, "The Israeli army says the man was asked to play the instrument he was carrying to prove it was not full of explosives. But, it said, the soldiers’ conduct at the West Bank checkpoint had been insensitive and they were reprimanded." The IDF did not explain if such a security measure (playing the violin to make sure it didn’t have explosives taped inside it, which would affect the sound when played) would indeed be needed, and if so, why following this precaution would be "insensitive." It is only in a statement made November 30th, as reported by AP, that an explanation of the "insensitivity" is given: "Col. Yuval said the soldiers acted insensitively only in that they did not make Tayem stop playing sooner." Since the IDF’s Nov 30th announcement of the conclusion of their investigation says the soldier only asked Tayam to open the violin case, not to play, the earlier official response was unclear and apparently inaccurate.

Despite the IDF’s confusing initial response, there is no justification for media coverage that leaped to extreme charges that Israeli soldiers were seeking to humiliate Tayam rather than simply making sure his violin contained no explosives.

Material courtesy of CAMERA (www.camera.org)