by Alistair George
6 December 2011 | International Solidarity Movement, West Bank
“If you don’t look nice, you don’t spend too many hours in front of the mirror,” says Yehuda Shaul, one of the founders and Executive Directors of Israeli NGO, Breaking the Silence.
“What we demand of our society is to look in the mirror, so no wonder no one likes it.”
Breaking the Silence was founded in 2004 by Israeli soldiers and veterans who collect and publish testimonies from soldiers who have served in the West Bank,Gaza and East Jerusalem since September 2000. They also hold lectures and conduct tours inHebronand the South Hebron Hills area “with the aim of giving the Israeli public access to the reality which exists minutes from their own homes, yet is rarely portrayed in the media.”
The organization states that “cases of abuse towards Palestinians, looting, and destruction of property have been the norm for years, but are still explained as extreme and unique cases…While this reality is known to Israeli soldiers and commanders, Israeli society continues to turn a blind eye, and to deny what is done in its name.”
Shaul, 28, is a religious Jew and a Jerusalemite; he served as a combat soldier and a commander in an Israeli infantry unit during the Second Intifada, from March 2001 until March 2004. He grew up in a right-wing family; his high school was in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank near Ramallah, his cousins were settlers in Gaza, and his sister currently lives in a settlement. He is bearded, bulky and speaks English in a North American accent; his mother is American and his father is Canadian.
Shaul says that he always expected to become a soldier but that he had doubts from the very beginning that what he was doing was right. “But when you’re in the military you always find a way to continue because there are always things that are bigger than you – orders, missions – and I think the most important thing is the bound of comradeship.”
Two years of his service was spent in the West Bank, mostly in Hebron, where he did what all Israeli soldiers do in the Occupied Territories, ranging from the banal to the brutal – standing at checkpoints, carrying out house demolitions, firing grenades into civilian areas and using human shields.
The significant turning point came towards the end of his service as he began to think about civilian life beyond the military.
“Throughout my service it made sense; there were explanations, titles, logic – it’s only when you take one step out and you see things from a different perspective, that’s when you realize that something is wrong and we have to do something about it.”
Shaul says he didn’t really know what to do so he, “just started talking to [his] comrades about it, and very quickly [he] discovered that they all felt the same.” Shaul said,
The one thing that really shocked us was the realization that people back home had no clue. People back home who were sending us to do a job had no idea what doing the job means. In a way Breaking the Silence operates in a very simple logic; you send us to do the job, we went there, we’ve done it, we’re back, we’re not going to tell you who to vote for, but there’s one thing we demand – that you sit down and listen to what we’ve done.
Shaul, along with former soldiers Avichai Sharon and Noam Chayut, staged an exhibition in Tel Aviv in June 2004 of photographs and video footage taken in the Occupied Palestinian Territories by 65 Israeli soldiers. Shaul explains – “The idea was that – OK, this is insane what’s going on here, we need people back home to know…We didn’t really have any plans, it was a really personal thing, and it was the huge response and impact we had once we opened the gallery, with the fact that we met other veterans from other units who served other places who had the same story, that brought Breaking the Silence to where it is today.”
The Israeli military was rattled by the popularity of the exhibition as thousands of people attended; in the first week they broke into the gallery, confiscated exhibited items and hauled the organizers in for interrogation. However, Shaul says that “once they realized it just brought more attention to us, they left us alone.”
Breaking the Silence
Since the initial exhibition, the organization has grown and developed rapidly. In total Breaking the Silence now does around 400 tours and lectures a year – many of the talks are with young Israelis before they have been drafted, which Shaul claims is the organization’s main target group – “these are people who are still civilians and are not infected by the military – yet.”
Breaking the Silence also writes reports and collects testimonies, usually published anonymously, from Israeli soldiers. Almost 800 people have now testified about their experiences and conduct during occupation of Palestinian territory to Breaking the Silence.
According to Shaul, most of the soldiers that testify are low ranking commanders and officers and they tend to be people from the centre-left politically, although he estimates that 10-15% don’t come from this background. He says that usually people come forward because they had problems during their service that they have to express – “Half of the people who testify, do so because they saw the importance of doing it. There was a lot of pressure on them and then, OK, they’ve done a good thing [by testifying] – goodbye. For another big group, testifying was the first step to becoming political activists. It’s really diverse – different people, different experiences.”
Breaking the Silence knows the details of all those who testify and they claim to double check facts rigorously to ensure that testimonies are accurate, but they usually publish the results anonymously. As Shaul said,
When we started Breaking the Silence, most of the people in the first exhibition were still in service. So we had to keep their anonymity because they violated military law. Actually a lot of these investigations and threats in the beginning were to discover who they were so they could throw them in jail and shut down the project because people would be afraid. Of course there are also social repercussions and legal repercussions [in testifying].
Many of the soldiers that testify are men because they comprise the overwhelming majority of soldiers in combat units. However, Breaking the Silence has recently published a collection of testimonies from female soldiers. Shaul says that this was firstly a new way of telling a similar story but that also “this is a voice that is more silent than others. This is a unique voice and it’s an interesting voice that people must be confronted with…What comes from the testimonies is that usually women need to be worse than the men in order to prove themselves – that they’re one of the gang, one of the guys.”
In one of the testimonies, a female soldier describes how “a female soldier who can lash out is a serious fighter. Capable. A ball-breaker. There was one with me when I got there…everyone talked about what grit she had, because she could humiliate Arabs without batting an eyelash. That was the thing to do.”
The collected testimonies from Hebron show instances of extreme brutality, such as when a soldier wound metal wire so tightly round the hand of a Palestinian that his hand had to be amputated. Many of the stories are accounts of more systemic abuse, often sanctioned and encouraged by superiors, as soldiers randomly search houses, detain and beat up Palestinians and destroy and loot property just to “educate” the Palestinians or to “make our presence felt”.
Several soldiers express their disgust at the violence of the settlers in Hebron, like one who stated, “I simply hated them…And you feel like you’re serving them. Them and their capacity for violence. There were all kinds of situations there of stark, brute, shocking violence.”
Breaking the Silence conduct tours to Hebron, showing people what life is like for the Palestinians that live in the divided city. Several thousand Israeli soldiers protect between 400-500 Israelis who live in settlements, illegal under international law, in the centre of Hebron. It is the only city in the West Bank that contains an Israeli settlement.
In 1994, Brooklyn-born settler Baruch Goldstein opened fire on worshipers as they prayed in the Ibrahimi mosque, killing 29 people and wounding many more. The Israeli authorities responded by effectively punishing the Palestinians by preventing them from accessing many streets and ordering the closure of over 1800 Palestinian shops.
Breaking the Silence explains how settlers frequently abuse and attack Palestinians in the area and how the military harass and restrict the freedoms of Palestinians at checkpoints throughout the Israeli controlled H2 sector of the city. They also show them the empty, shuttered Shuhada Street, once Hebron’s major market area and a vibrant shopping street – now desolate and forbidden for Palestinians to enter.
Given that a lot of Breaking the Silence’s work focuses on Hebron, to what extent is the city paradigmatic of the occupation?
“I think it’s the advocates of the status quo – the people who want to maintain the occupation, who try to make us think that Hebron is an extreme case,” said Shaul. “I don’t think it’s an extreme case , I think that Hebron is a gift from God. Two square kilometers where you walk for half a day and you actually understand how the West Bank works. Hebron is a microcosm of the West Bank. If you zoom out of Hebron, it’s the West Bank. Different policies you see in Hebron you can find all over. Hebron is more visual, more dense – but not extreme.”
The military and Israeli society
The military is a powerful and deeply rooted presence in Israeli society and culture. The writer Arthur Nelson claims that, “Israelis see their army as a great leveler. All teenagers are drafted, and those who serve undergo a rite of passage that forever links them with the national struggle and the national state.” Nelson points out that “Israel is a young country but the civil identification with army culture within it has been grounded in four major wars and two Intifadas.”
Despite the preeminence of the military, Shaul disputes the claim that Israeli society understands the reality of occupation and impact on the lives of the Palestinians.
I think this is one of the biggest lies of Israeli politics and Israeli society is that ‘everybody knows’ – almost no one knows. The amount of people that have the experience that I have – meaning being a combat soldier in the occupied territories in these specific years, is very very low. We’re basically talking about a few dozen thousand.
How does he explain the reluctance in Israeli society to discuss or examine what is being done in their name – is it a lack of information or do people mostly ignore the information that they have available to them?
It’s a mixture of everything. Of course Israeli society doesn’t want to know but still not everything is out there, people are not forced to confront it. Very deep inside there is a lot of optimism in the work of Breaking the Silence and a sense that we believe there is a significant minority of Israeli society that, if given the information and put in a corner, that they will have to choose whether they can stand behind this reality [the occupation] or not, they will choose our answer, which is ‘no’.
Shaul admits that “Israelis are not standing in line to listen to [Breaking the Silence],” and does not really expect them to.
“We don’t really fit into the categories of ‘human rights organization,’ ‘anti-occupation organization,’ ‘peace group’ – we don’t really fit easily into these, but out of all these groups, Breaking the Silence is the most mainstream group and I think that has a lot to do with who we are – we’re all ex-combat soldiers, in a way we’ve earned the right to speak out.”
‘The problem is the political mission…’
Breaking the Silence has taken a clear stand against the occupation of Palestinian territory, although Shaul is quick to point out that they don’t offer any political solutions. However, Shaul insists that in his view, the problem is political and systemic.
We don’t believe that the problem is the military. The problem is the political mission that the military gets”. He says that explains why Breaking the Silence doesn’t take the “mainstream human rights approach of ‘let’s identify the human rights violation, let’s identify the perpetrator, let’s make them accountable’. The problem with that is, if you actually want to put in jail every soldier that abused Palestinians, all soldiers would be in jail. It’s not that we all murdered innocent Palestinians – no. But, no one who served there has clean hands and that’s the story. There’s no way to change it if you don’t change the political mission…when you control people against their will, without giving them rights, the only way to rule them is that they will be afraid of you…if they get used to a level of fear then you have to increase it and that’s how the occupation woks, it’s very simple. So you can have a lot of investigations, as many as you want, and you can have a lot of hours about classes about morality and international law but at the end of the day when you are there to make sure that these people don’t have rights and these people do have rights, there’s no nice way of doing that, no legal way of doing that and that’s the story. In a corrupt reality, in an immoral reality, there’s no moral way to behave.
We ask Shaul if claiming that it is the political system that causes soldiers to commit crimes, is a way of excusing what happens and denying individual responsibility?
No, no, no” Shaul replied – “It’s not that I think I’m not responsible for what I’ve done. Look, when they called us in for interrogation in 2004 [after the exhibition in Tel Aviv] I was interrogated for like seven hours. I had the right to remain silent and not incriminate myself, but I said everything I can say in seven hours. Probably the list of my crimes, to talk about the stuff that I’ve done, would take more like 50 hours but I signed – I’ve used human shields, I’ve fired grenades into civilian neighborhoods…the reason why they don’t put me on trial was because putting me on the bench would mean putting the system on the bench…I think in that sense, the most political thing that I can do is to be put on trial – that’s when my message will be proven.
While there is a danger in posing that Israeli soldiers are victims of a political system, at the expense of the Palestinian victims of their crimes, Shaul said,
I didn’t say [Israeli soldiers] were victims – I said that any soldier – it doesn’t matter what his background, his socio-economic background, his age – being put in this reality, he will behave this way. I didn’t say he was a victim. We don’t see ourselves as victims. If I murdered an innocent person and I can’t fall asleep, that doesn’t make me a victim. I am a victimizer.
Shaul believes that some soldiers be put on trial while others should not, but quickly adds “that’s not the story – I don’t really care about that. What I care about is to put society on trial. In most cases society cleans itself by putting soldiers on trial. How does it work? Very simple – once in a while someone, somehow, forces the army to admit about one event and stories pop up in the media about how ‘a soldier looted something here,’ ‘a soldier shot there.’ But always it’s being framed as ‘there’s another exceptional case, there’s another rotten apple.’ This soldier, who did that specific thing, to that specific Palestinian, in that specific place…’let’s court martial him and send him to jail and our conscience as a society is clean because we treat our bad apples.’ In a way usually when soldiers are sent to jail, the judge goes like this with the hammer,” motioning as if to strike a table top. “he basically washes us as a society, and I think this is our problem.”
But by not seeking justice for specific crimes, is there the danger that the Palestinian victims of the crimes are neglected?
Shaul replies, “Of course we don’t seek justice because I don’t know what that justice is. Who says that law is the solution for everything? No doubt that I feel better in the language of moral and immoral, than in legal and illegal. So what? We just feel as people that were there it is our moral obligation to speak out and tell the truth – that’s it.”
The future of Breaking the Silence
Shaul is highly critical of the Israeli media and says that Breaking the Silence has been struggling to get it’s voice heard. ” We see ourselves as journalists” he says – “If the Israeli media would do their job there would be no need for us. We’re basically doing what journalism’s about – exposing corruption to the public…I think Israeli journalists are first of all Israeli and these things don’t sell newspapers and people don’t want to be disrupted by this usually. There is a limit to how much you can report about the same thing. It’s been going for 45 years. It’s not news.”
Shaul is also concerned about the raft of recently proposed laws by the Israeli government that threatens the existence and funding of Israeli NGOs – ” These laws need to be looked at within a greater umbrella of other legislation that was passed and some that was not passed, of trying to shrink the space of Israeli civil society. From political appointments in the supreme court, up to libel cases. This is a regime change more than simply passing anti-democratic laws. In terms of human rights organizations, most of the laws are not really there to pass, they are there to shut down people and dominate the discourse and the debate.”
Nevertheless, Shaul feels that the organization has achieved many things.
“For me the most important is that, if you had come to me seven and a half years ago and told me that I would be sitting here and almost 800 people had testified to Breaking the Silence, I would probably laugh in your face. That’s 800 people who are saying the truth about what the occupation is.”
In terms of changing the practices of the Israeli military does he think Breaking the Silence has made an impact? ” God forbid – I don’t think we can do that. We maybe want to change the practice of the military, meaning from an occupation army into a defense army but that’s a different story.”
Alistair George is a volunteer with International Solidarity Movement (name has been changed).