by Roisin Davis
“There weren’t really any rules of engagement, it was more protocols,” the soldier said. “... They told us: ‘There aren’t supposed to be any civilians there. ... Whether it posed a threat or not wasn’t a question, and that makes sense to me. If you shoot someone in Gaza, it’s cool, no big deal. First of all, because it’s Gaza, and second, because that’s warfare. That, too, was made clear to us--they told us, ‘Don’t be afraid to shoot.’ ”
The soldier’s testimony is one of over 1,000 gathered by Breaking the Silence (BtS), an IDF veterans’ group. As stand-alone retellings, each account is more harrowing and gruesome than the next. Collectively, they help to lay bare the truth of an occupation in which violence and destruction as well as the humiliation and intimidation of Palestinians are routine, normalized, everyday facts of life. That truth is that “if you shoot someone in Gaza, it’s cool, no big deal.”
BtS was formed in 2004, during the Second Intifada--or the second Palestinian uprising against Israel, from 2000 to 2005--a time when Shaul Mofaz, a former Israeli defense minister, proclaimed that the IDF was the “most moral army in the world.” This mantra, a recent Haaretz article explained, has been “recited ever since, as though it were holy writ, by the top levels of the government and the army.”
The common thread that binds together the vast collection of testimonies gathered by BtS is the anguish that otherwise moral women and men feel when they discover that simply carrying out their duties has involved them in carrying out inhumane acts. Their medals are scars on their souls, just as American veterans testified in 1971 at the Winter Soldier hearings detailing many of the atrocities committed by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War.
“Cases of abuse towards Palestinians, looting, and destruction of property have been the norm for years,” according to the BtS website, “but are still explained as extreme and unique cases. Our testimonies portray a different, and much grimmer picture in which deterioration of moral standards finds expression in the character of orders and the rules of engagement, and are justified in the name of Israel’s security.”
Each testimony is painstakingly researched, and the facts are cross-checked against the testimonies of other eyewitnesses and the research of other human rights organizations. In 2011, BtS published “Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldier Testimonies 2000-2010,” containing first-hand accounts by over 100 Israeli soldiers. David Shulman, professor of humanistic studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, described the report in The New York Review of Books as “one of the most important published on Israel/Palestine in this generation.”
The group’s 2010 “Women Soldiers’ Testimonies” contains 96 anonymous accounts from over 40 female officers, commanders and soldiers in various units who served as combatants and in supporting combat roles in the Israeli-occupied territories since 2000. Ynetnews characterized those accounts as “systematic humiliation of Palestinians, reckless and cruel violence, theft, killing of innocent people and cover-up.”
The year that BtS was founded, former IDF soldiers Avichai Sharon, Yehuda Shaul and Noam Chayut exhibited a series of photographs and written accounts from soldiers who had served in Hebron, a Palestinian city located in the southern West Bank. “It’s hard for me to pinpoint the worst thing I did,” Avichai Charon said in a 2005 CBS News interview. “It’s not the extreme cases. It’s the trivial day to day. “What haunts me? It’s the memories of 6-year-old, 7-year-old Palestinian children watching with tears in their eyes when you’re tossing their room, breaking their wall, taking their father and slamming him into the wall before arresting him.”
The photo exhibition was attended by thousands, and the organization subsequently became an outlet for reporting the daily cruelties of the occupation. “While this reality is known to Israeli soldiers and commanders,” the group’s site explains, “Israeli society continues to turn a blind eye, and to deny … what is done in its name.”
“Discharged soldiers returning to civilian life discover the gap between the reality they encountered in the Territories, and the silence about this reality they encounter at home,” BtS continues. “In order to become civilians again, soldiers are forced to ignore what they have seen and done. We strive to make heard the voices of these soldiers, pushing Israeli society to face the reality whose creation it has enabled.”
Whistleblowers exposing state injustice are often condemned as unpatriotic, but BtS is considered virtually traitorous because its testimonies have supported the Palestinian narrative of repression in the West Bank and war crimes in Gaza. With the Israeli left more marginalized than ever before, and the ruling right-wing parties intoxicated with the home brew of unconditional support from their Republican allies in the United States, Israel’s veterans have become a constant target of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wrath. “There is no silence to break,” he has bellowed. “What are they talking about?”
There are disturbing signs of a new center-right campaign to brand BtS as pawns of the larger international conspiracy against Israel.
Last week, Yair Lapid, the former television news anchor who leads the middle-class secularist Yesh Atid Party, slammed the Kibbutz movement for inviting Breaking the Silence to attend a youth event. “Here’s another proof--for anyone who needed one--that there are some in the Israeli left who have completely lost it,” Lapid wrote on his Facebook page. He continued by describing members of BtS as people who “go around the world with foreign sponsorship to bad-mouth the state of Israel using anonymous testimonies.”
Would that those testimonies of conscience were better known in the United States and elsewhere around the world?