Breaking the Silence marked its ten-year anniversary on June 7th, in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square. Some 350 former soldiers, politicians, journalists and activists spent ten hours reciting witness statements from soldiers who served on the West Bank, in Gaza and East Jerusalem. In the decade the organisation has existed, it has collected 950 statements from soldiers who served in the Israeli defence Force (IDF). These statements raise the question whether the ‘defence force’ actually protects Israel against ‘terrorists’. Breaking the Silence is a belief organisation funded by, amongst others, The Norwegian Foreign Office, which in 2012 gifted them 64,000 Dollar, and the Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) which provided transport means for them to be able to spread their message abroad. The organisation tries to make the reality of ‘the military occupancy of the occupied territories’ public knowledge. They confront people internally in Israel with the reality of what soldiers in the occupied areas actually do. Their statements describe how soldiers routinely harass and suppress Palestinians, whilst the outside world are told that abuse is only connected with ‘a few rotten apples’ in the Army.
The enemy was the entire Palestinian population.
In Tel Aviv, former sniper Nadav Weiman explains how they shot and killed an unarmed Palestinian, simply because he spoke on his mobile phone in a suspicious manner. Their officer gave the go-ahead, adding how “lucky” they were to be able to shoot during an operation. Others describe massive demolitions of Palestinian homes as something to “add to their list of war crimes”. Furthermore, some explained how they provoked Palestinian youths into throwing stones. One officer said to his privates after years of training, “I expect you to bring me a dead terrorist.” To the crowd gathered at Habima Square, Avner Gvaryahu explains how they went out at night harassing people in a bid to get attacked – missions entitled “provoke and react”. In Nablus, Hebron and Jenin, soldiers randomely select passing old men to beat up.
Becoming a combat soldier is a privilege. In Jaffa, Tel Aviv’s old town – once a fishing harbour densely populated by Palestinians – I meet with Avihai Stollar, one of the young veteran soldiers from Breaking the Silence. As the organisation’s research director, his name is the public eye. Statements made by the organisation are most often anonymous for fear of pressure from others in the Army, or from society in general. Stollar says that his Israeli friends had no idea what the Army was doing when he served on the West Bank ten years ago:
– There were frequent media reports about terrorists and suicide bombers, but nothing on what we were doing on road posts and during our invasions of Palestinian cities.
Stollar participated in the storming of Palestinian villages, where soldiers shouted into megaphones, fired guns into the air and threw stun grenades. He explains how they entered random houses in the middle of the night, lined Palestinians up against the wall and photographed them, all the while pulling out everything they found in drawers and cupboards on to the floor.
– We were told that the aim was to create insecurity. That the Palestinians were to feel fundamentally vulnerable, to not feel secure anywhere. The military were supposed to be able to pop up anywhere, enter any house, to grab anyone. We were to disturb, to interrupt Palestinians’ daily lives. Every day we would enter densely populated areas, jump out of alley ways, shoot into the air, and fire rubber bullets at anyone throwing rocks at us, he explains.
– Did you discuss with the other soldiers what exactly you were doing?
– No, we only wanted more action than we were given. To us, it was black and white, we did not even consider the civilians; our enemy was the entire Palestinian population. We only wanted to invade their homes. As a combat soldier, all you want is to fight. We were only 18-19-year olds, just like children playing computer games.
As he grew older, Stollar suffered pangs of conscience. But when young, he was easily influenced, and his family expected him to become a soldier:
– I grew up with a grandfather who was a combat soldier, my father was a combat soldier, and my elder brother was a combat soldier. Every time the males in my family sat down to share their experiences, their faces lit up. As a 16-year old, I wished for nothing more than to be part of this – to me it meant being a good Israeli. And not only a good Israeli, but simply a revered citizen. My family is not particularly radical. In Israeli terms, they would be considered left-wing liberals. But, when I was actually considering leaving the Army, my dad replied “Fine, but then we will kick you out of our home!” he reminiscences.
The longer we suppress with the use of weapons, the more of our own moral and democratic values we sacrifice.
Stollar signed up with the Army straight after college.
– We looked at our commanding officer as a demi god. His welcome speech ended “nothing feels better than killing a terrorist!” In the first few days, he passed round images of dead Palestinians. Looking at these pictures, we felt it was ok to kill, it was what we were trained for; killing was our goal. We considered it a privilege to be chosen to be combat soldiers. After eight months’ training, we were all left virtually charged with a knife between our teeth.
Permanently occupied. Military service is mandatory in Israel. Men serve three years, women two. Thereafter, they are part of a reserve army which do annual military service lasting three – four weeks every year, over the next twenty years. When Israel invade Gaza, they call upon this reserve army. Not only an enormously militarised society, Israel also enjoy considerable amounts of military import and – export. According to the documentary The Lab (2013), in 2009 already, Israel’s annual export was seven billion dollar. In the film, former minister for defence, Ehud Barak claims that 150,000 households are salaried by the army. Stollar believes it is not about defence:
– During the second Intifada, there were frequent news about suicide bombers. I enrolled in the Army to help protect my country, but in my active service on the West Bank, I realised it is actually not about the safety of the Israeli citizens. The Israeli Army seizes control of Palestinian land and the people who live there. In reality, it is only about grabbing more and more land.
According to Stollar, the average Israeli does not understand that the IDF is despatching their children to protect Israeli interests in Palestinian areas. They think it is about stopping Palestinian terrorists from entering Israeli areas:
– In Israel, everyone is talking about counter terrorism. But, this phrase could be used to describe a million different military assignments.
Our authorities and the Army constantly use the term terrorist. You are told that every Palestinian who dies or is arrested is a terrorist. I arrested hundreds, and we always called them terrorists. But, the majority of those I arrested were unarmed and not potential suicide bombers. These could be youths copying CDs, organisers of demonstrations, or people belonging to ‘illegal’ associations – meaning virtually any Palestinian political organisation. All of these arrests were described in the media as capturing terrorists, he explains.
– Once, we declared curfew in a Palestinian city to hinder some terrorists from escaping something they had done the day before. But, with 70, 000 inhabitants, we could only close off two city centre streets. We fired into the air, set off stun grenades and closed down shops. Unsurprisingly, after some time, children came and threw stones at us. We shot back, I used rubber bullets – these are rubber-covered metal – we also fired gas grenades to try to push them back. But even when their stones could no longer hit us, we shot at them, because we craved action. We wanted to exert power, using the barrel of a gun to teach the Palestinians a lesson. They were not to mess with us who controlled them.
Stollar feels soldiers are frequently despatched to do the job of the police:
– As an infantry soldier, you are trained to fight another army. It would have been ok to fight the Syrian army, but faced with protesters brandishing placards, you often have no idea what to do. Also, gas cartridges and rubber bullets are not that accurate. Sometimes innocent people get caught in the crossfire. Other times, civilians are shot at on purpose, he says.
– Are Israeli soldiers instructed to shoot civilians?
– I do not think soldiers in Gaza are ordered to shoot everyone they see now. To an Israeli soldier, it is hard to differentiate between a Palestinian shepherd by the side of the road and a fighter dressed as a shepherd. But although the military policy is to protect civilian lives, this is not done the way it should be done.
According to Stollar, the Israeli moral threshold increases:
On July 22th 2002, the Air Force assassinated Hamas leader Salah Shehade by dropping a one-ton bomb from an F16 airplane which also killed 15 civilians. The next day, there were shocked reactions in Israeli media. “Are we willing to pay this price; 15 dead for one dead terrorist?”
– Seven years later, in 2009, as Gaza was invaded, no one knows the extent of similar events. Hundreds of children were killed. Perhaps not on purpose, some might deem it ‘accidental losses’, but it did not even make it into the media! Nobody discussed it, because the authorities felt it was a fair price to pay for our military goals. In just seven years, our moral threshold increased so much. The longer we suppress people with the use of weapons, the more of our own moral and democratic values we sacrifice, he states.
Questionable strategy. Breaking the Silence is waiting for the Gaza war fog to lift, before commencing the soldier interviews. They have gathered statements from further military operations on the Gaza-strip. Stollar is unsurprised by the latest Gaza attack:
– In 2009, Israel said the attack happened in a bid to establish peace. Then 2012 happened. And now 2014. I do not think peace is possible as long as the West Bank is occupied and the Gaza strip besieged. Unless both sides have equal rights, there will be no peace. This is about the big questions, the bigger picture. Our forces do not bring peace. If we dissolve the occupancy and siege, there is a far greater possibility of peace.
– The reality is that the occupation is becoming increasingly permanent. Most people cannot see that the occupation itself is the core problem. Netanyahu said that it was to be two states for two peoples, but such statements have not changed reality – these claims have been uttered since the Oslo-agreement some twenty years ago. Whether we will end up with one state, or two or three, I do not know. The current situation is the worst of all alternatives. I know this because I helped implement it.
Stollar is excited to hear what the soldiers will say following this summer’s Gaza operations.
– Earlier, the main problem was the manner in which the Army carried out their operations. They bomb homes they know house civilians and claim it is military justifiable. However, this is very problematic! You should not attack civilians or ignore the fact that they live there. This breaks fundamental war operations principles – both relating to proportionality and the difference between civilian and hostile combatants. It should at the very least be discussed publicly in Israeli! Is it really in a bid to fight Hamas, to destroy their tunnels, or to stop rockets against Israel?
Israel’s Achilles heel. Breaking the Silence is one of several Israeli organisations criticising the governmental occupation politics. Israel has also hundreds of military evaders who refuse to serve outside of the 1967-borders, because they know it is all about humiliating and harassing the Palestinians living there. Several military evaders have publicly discussed this.
The almost one thousand members of Breaking the Silence are not necessarily military evaders, but want to increase the service awareness. They do not want to humiliate Palestinians or treat them as ‘terrorists’. The problem is conveying their message to the greater Israeli public. Most Israelis are not aware of the organisation, despite some media coverage:
– A lot of Israelis do not read the news on a daily basis. And many refuse to believe Palestinians or international organisations who expose the abuse inflicted by the Israeli army on Palestinians in the territories. In addition, many Israeli powers are trying to undermine our work. In 2009, the IDF spokesperson stated that we were supported by foreign agents, that we do not publish actual witness statements, but rumours and hearsay. Because the army describes us like this, few Israelis want to listen to us unfortunately, because we are ‘anti-Israeli’ and ‘fake Jews’.
Stoller explains that the militarising of the Israeli society is so deep seated that it is hard to challenge it:
– Our Army is our national religion: You do not criticise the brave soldiers protecting us! In a nation so in love with their soldiers, everything akin to military criticism is unacceptable to most people, he adds.
– But, in a country where the Army plays such a big part, the people should be willing to listen to the soldiers. This is the Achilles heel of our society. Whenever Israeli organisations expose what the government makes the army do, we are called naive left-wing liberals who live in Tel Aviv and thus have no idea. But we rise up and say: You cannot call us that because we are the soldiers who did this. We were there in our military boots, so do not call us naïve!