Israeli Veterans Break Their Silence on Life in the Occupied Territories
By Yehuda Shaul
In 2001, when I was 18, I joined the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to undertake my three years of military service. There was nothing unconventional about me. I was born in West Jerusalem, a practicing Orthodox Jew in a family that leaned to the right. My cousins were settlers; I attended a Yeshiva (a religious high school) in a settlement in the West Bank; my sister is a settler today.
But by the time I was finishing my life as a combat soldier—as a company sergeant in the infantry—I was questioning most of the military actions I had taken part in. The day I stopped thinking like a soldier I looked in the mirror and saw a different person. And it was terrifying.
Soldiers are consumed with their orders and missions, and the overwhelming priority is to protect the comrades they are serving alongside. I spent two years in the West Bank, more than half the time in Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the region.
When I started planning what I wanted to do after I left the army, the reflexes I developed as a soldier were weakened. There was a strong sense that something was wrong, but I couldn’t articulate it. I turned to the only people who could possibly understand: my brothers in the barracks. We talked about what we had seen on the West Bank and what we had done, and I found that most of us felt the same.
We realized that the people back home in Israel had no clue about what was happening in the Occupied Territories. Our idea was make them understand by bringing Hebron to Tel Aviv, and that was how Breaking the Silence started.
I left the army in March 2004, and on June 1, 2004, the group of 64 former soldiers who founded Breaking the Silence opened a photography and video exhibit in Tel Aviv detailing our experiences. No veterans had ever organized themselves like this, and media interest was intense. More than 7,000 people visited the gallery, and we were invited to stage the exhibit in Parliament.
We had no plans for what we would do next, but former soldiers from other units came forward. They had the same photographs and the same experiences, and together we were able to establish Breaking the Silence as a permanent organization.
A soldier’s perspective on the situation on the ground is unique, and a key part of our work is in gathering and publishing testimonies from former soldiers who served with the IDF from the time of the Second Intifada in 2000 to today. To this day we have interviewed nearly a thousand former soldiers. We crosscheck and verify the interviews closely before we publish them to ensure their veracity, and hundreds of them are archived on our website as documentation for the Israeli public regarding what has been done in their name in the Occupied Territories.
Hebron is home to 185,000 Palestinians. Other than East Jerusalem, it is the only Palestinian city that has an Israeli settlement at its heart, and it is the responsibility of the IDF to guard these settlers. I was one of the 650 combat soldiers who protect the 850 settlers. We did it by enforcing a strict policy of segregation using buffer zones.
Many roads are “sterile,” and the nearer they are to the settlement, the less access Palestinians are allowed. They cannot drive, they cannot open a store, and, closest to the settlers, they are not allowed to walk the streets. If a Palestinian family has a home fronting one of these streets, the army will seal the front entrance and the Palestinians will only have access over the roof and through the back door.
Our main job was to “make our presence felt.” The conscious policy was to give the people the sense that the IDF was everywhere, all the time. We patrolled the streets 24/7, picking houses at random, waking up the families at night and separating them into men and women, and searching, loudly and publicly. It fell to me as a commander to pick the houses, a selection that was made unrelated to military intelligence.
As an occupying force in a territory, you have to act like this. It’s a simple equation, as surely as one plus one equals two; this is what an occupation will result in. You can’t serve as a soldier in the Occupied Territories and treat a Palestinian as an equal human being, as the only way to control a civilian population against their will is to make them feel chased, harried, and afraid. And when they get used to that level of fear, you have to increase it.
For 47 years we have managed a democracy on one side of the green line and a military regime the other. I am convinced that a prolonged occupation is the greatest threat to Israel’s long-term survival. The occupation’s status quo is illusory. You can see that the value we accord a Palestinian life is decreasing, as witnessed by the use of inherently inaccurate artillery in Gaza in 2014, which is a marked escalation from as recently as Operation Cast Lead in 2009.
The occupation is destructive to both sides, as is the notion that Israel’s independence depends upon it. The Israeli government’s presentation of the policy of prolonged occupation as necessary for Israel’s existence creates for a political equation in which Israel’s right to exist equals the right to rule over the Palestinians forever. I cannot accept this reality as it is painted as a zero-sum. There is no doubt that Israel has the right to exist—of course it does—but we have no right to conduct a prolonged military occupation.
We started by bringing Hebron to Tel Aviv; now Breaking the Silence is bringing Tel Aviv to Hebron. We undertake advocacy work and hold lectures. We meet with young Israelis before they get drafted. And we run guided tours of Hebron and the area around Ramallah to show Israelis, along with interested individuals in the region—about 10,000 people a year—what the occupation looks, feels, and smells like.
It is important that Israelis meet with regular Palestinians. For many, these are the first Palestinians they have ever met. We’re holding a mirror up and saying to the people, you are sending soldiers out to do this job here, and this is what it looks like. Can you live with that or not?
We don’t believe that the soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces are the issue; it is the political mission they are being sent to carry out that is the problem. In a democracy, the army is an arm of the government, and the government is an arm of the people. So it is us, the people, who are responsible for what the army does.
Essentially, we see ourselves as spokespeople for the members of the IDF. We say to the people: this is what soldiers have to do if you take the political decision to rule these people against their will. Here are the facts; now you decide.
Breaking the Silence is a small organization, with nine full-time staff, a few part-time staff members as needed, and around fifty volunteers. But we believe a significant minority of the Jewish Israeli public shares the values that we represent, and once the people are exposed to the realities, they will chose our side.
The silence that largely exists within Israel is not endemic to our country—silence is a human disease. We believe that because the occupation is physically so close, the walls of denial we are working to bring down have been built, by necessity, that much higher.
Breaking the Silence is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.
Yehuda Shaul is a co-founder and member of Breaking the Silence, an organization of almost 1,000 Israeli veterans who work toward ending the Israeli occupation.