This article is part of Forward’s partnership with Shomrim, a nonprofit investigative newsroom in Israel. Click here to see the original Hebrew version.
Several Israeli soldiers and police have recently been spotted with a surprising emblem adorning their helmets or bulletproof vests: the skull worn by the Marvel Comics character “The Punisher” – and reminiscent of the one used by the famous SS of the Nazi era.
It was seen on the jacket of a soldier confronting a Palestinian on September 17 in the hills of southern Hebron, part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. He was also spotted during a violent epidemic in the streets of Jaffa in May, during the war between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. And when an Israeli F-15 pilot was interviewed this spring on UK Sky News, the emblem was in full view.
âThe Punisher,â who appeared in various Marvel comics in the 1970s, is Frank Castle, a former Marine whose wife and children were murdered by the Mafia. After a police cover-up, Castle embarks on a massive campaign of self-defense justice (the creators of the character also considered calling him the Assassin).
Vigilante heroes are common in the comic book world, but the Punisher is particularly brutal and known for his love of guns. The skull he wears on his chest is a derivative of the Totenkopf – German for “skull” – which adorned the uniforms of SS officers who guarded concentration camps during the Holocaust.
âHe’s our dark, violent side,â Punisher creator Gerry Conway once said. âIf we were all like him, it would be anarchy.
“We spray painted it on every building”
After the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the Punisher gained popularity with US law enforcement and troops. Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who inspired Clint Eastwood’s 2014 film ‘American Sniper’, wrote in his autobiography that members of his unit painted the emblem on their personal equipment, vehicles and on the walls of the premises they ‘they would cross. The symbol also appeared in Afghanistan.
âHe righted the wrongs. He killed bad guys. He made criminals fear, âKyle wrote, according to Time Magazine. âWe spray painted it on our Hummers and body armor, helmets and all our guns. We spray painted it on every building or wall we could. “
The release of “American Sniper” further popularized the symbol among law enforcement, militias, gun advocates – and neo-Nazis. In 2017, Netflix produced an action series based on the Punisher (which starred Jewish actor Jon Bernthal).
The emblem is also identified with the Oath Keepers, a far-right group that calls on its supporters to protect the United States from both foreign and domestic enemies, and urges them to refuse orders it deems unconstitutional. The group claims many police officers and US military veterans as members.
In Israel, rapper, blogger and right-wing political activist Yoav Eliasa – known by his stage name The Shadow – was also pictured recently with the symbol on his sleeve, most recently during a photo shoot on the Gaza border with soldiers waving their weapons.
Last year, a Forbes article reported that Conway, the character’s creator, was furious and embarrassed that QAnon supporters and Fox News host Sean Hannity were Punisher fans. In response, according to the article, Conway had created a campaign called Skulls for Justice that invited people of color to create artwork incorporating the Black Lives Matter image and themes.
“Everyone knows the link”
Dr Avner Vishnitzer, one of the founders of the Israeli anti-occupation group Fighters for Peace, was in the hills of southern Hebron on September 17 trying to bring a water reservoir to one of the Palestinian communities. isolated from the region. He was arrested that day and posted on the Fighters Facebook page of his shock at seeing the emblem on the Israel Defense Forces uniform.
“It is an IDF helmet bearing the Israeli flag – and a skull,” he wrote. âThe Israeli flag and a skull. What do they say that IDF soldiers choose to put such a symbol on their helmets? “
Vishnitzer, a senior lecturer in the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University, said in a later interview that he and others arrested that day interviewed a female soldier. wearing the emblem on her helmet about it, “but she didn’t. You want to talk about it. “He said that they also asked other soldiers, who did not have the emblem, if they bothered to see the skull entwined with the Israeli flag, and” they told us that ‘they hadn’t given it too much thought â.
âAs far as I’m concerned, this is part of the dulling of the senses that occurs when soldiers serve in the territories,â Vishnitzer said. âEven if they didn’t fully understand the meaning, and just thought it looked cool, the person who designed the badge and then distributed it surely must know.
“Even though most soldiers do not understand the meaning and neo-Nazi connotations of the symbol,” he continued, “everyone knows the connection between the skull and death.”
No soldier or police officer wearing the symbol has been interviewed for this article as to why they have chosen to do so. Mossi Raz, Member of the Israeli Parliament, submitted an official investigation to the Minister of Police to determine the extent of the phenomenon, but police said they did not have enough details to investigate.
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Asked about the officer seen with the emblem during the Jaffa incident in May, a police spokesperson Chief Superintendent Yigal Habasor said the sticker was removed because it was not authorized, but ignored any idea of ââdisciplining the officer who wore it.
“Do you want us to take disciplinary action over a sticker?” I think you’re getting confused, âHabasor said. âInstead of greeting an officer who was protecting civilians with his body, you are embarrassed by a symbol he was wearing. That’s crazy.”
The IDF spokesperson’s unit, however, was more contrite, saying in a statement that soldiers are allowed to “wear on their uniforms only symbols that have been approved by the authorities” and that the emblem Punisher âhad not been approved by the Symbols Committee. and therefore is not allowed.
“The instructions will be reinforced and we will hold conversations with soldiers regarding the historical significance of the symbol,” the statement continued. “They will be responsible for removing it from their uniforms.”
Military officials added that members of the unit whose soldiers are pictured in this article were reminded of the regulations but were not sanctioned because they did not know the meaning of the symbol.
“It’s not hidden, like before”
Avner Gvriyahu, executive director of Breaking the Silence – a group of military veterans protesting Israel’s treatment of Palestinians – said he had started to see “the badge with the Totenkopf and the Israeli flag” he three years ago, and that it had “become much more common. “
âJust today, a Palestinian friend who was passing through the Bethlehem checkpoint asked me if I knew what that meant, because she saw it on a soldier’s uniform,â Gviryahu said in a statement. interview in September. âIt seems to me that this is an attempt by the frontline soldiers to intimidate people. As a soldier, you think about how you find yourself in a situation – makeup, masks, etc. – and this symbol is a way of saying “Wassah!” of a soldier.)
Professor Yagil Levy, who focuses on civil-military relations at the Open University of Israel, sees this trend as a reflection of a larger trend.
âExpressions of military violence have become more extreme,â he said. âIt’s not hidden, like before; it is uncovered. It is not denied; it is a source of pride.