The young men and women dressed in khaki uniforms, semi-automatic rifles slung over shoulders, turn not a single head as they stream out of Tel Aviv’s busy central bus station. In any of Israel’s large towns this is a prosaic sight; with military service compulsory for all citizens over the age of eighteen – three years for men and two for women – everybody knows someone in the army. Yet while the embedding of the military in everyday life is manifest on the surface, its reality is not one readily acknowledged.
“You don’t speak about the army when you come home to your family,” says Eran Efrati, a well-built man in his late twenties. “They [the army] tell you that they don’t need to hear about it, that it might upset them. So it is ignored and denied and you pretend to go back to ordinary life”.
For Eran this denial is one of the ways in which the true nature of the illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories is masked within Israeli society.
His chance to speak out came through Breaking the Silence (BtS), an organisation of former soldiers that since 2004 has interviewed hundreds of ex-combatants anonymously about their experiences of active service in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). Their aim is to shed light on what really goes on in the occupied territories with the aim of stimulating public debate about the role of young soldiers in controlling the lives of a civilian population.
Full of tales of abductions, humiliation within homes and the beating of children perpetrated by soldiers, the testimonies make for shocking and at times harrowing reading. In doing so they uncompromisingly reveal the day-to-day of life under occupation for Palestinians – subject to measures justified under the banner of ‘security’ – from the unusual perspective of those meting the treatment. The severity of these accounts ranges from the mundane – the long delays inflicted at the checkpoints which carve up the West Bank; to the truly horrific – as recounted in the shock and awe tactics of warfare deployed during the bombardment of Gaza in 2009.
By his own account Eran was an ordinary Israeli serving in the army until a series of incidents led him to question not only what he was doing but the role of the army.
“I went to a Medicins Sans Frontieres demonstration and a doctor asked me to take a pass to a family in Hebron, so that they could cross checkpoints in order for a grandparent to gain treatment. It struck a human chord with me as my mother was ill at the time, so I took it to them.”
On returning to base he was punished for this breach of security with two weeks incarceration in military prison. This would mark the beginning of a journey of disillusionment that almost ended in official disgrace. From thereon throwaway comments by colleagues and behaviour to which before he paid little attention began to take on a new significance, revealing something darker about the nature of the army operation.
“In Hebron one of our jobs was to survey houses in order to make detailed plans of living arrangements and rooms in the case of a suspected terrorist,” he continues. “We sometimes woke people up in the middle of the night and marched them outdoors – men, women and children – to do this. One day I asked my Sergeant what happened to the drawings and he replied: ‘We have had Hebron since 1967. Do you think you are the first to do the surveys?’”.
“I couldn’t believe this, as we had always been made to think that what we were doing was important work”.
‘Searing of consciousness’
On another occasion Eran heard members of a neighbouring unit laughing about an incident in which a Palestinian standing on a porch with a broom was mistakenly perceived to be bearing an arm and was shot dead by soldiers.
“The press reported it inaccurately, saying that a terrorist had been neutralised and that fortunately no soldiers had been hurt. I thought to myself ‘this is wrong, the public needs to know the truth’. So I went to my commanding officer to say that we must speak to the media and set the record straight. He just laughed in my face.”
According to the authors of the introduction to the BtS publication Israeli Soldier Testimonies: 2000-2010, the real purpose of many such routine counter-terror operations is not the flushing out known terrorists or maintaining security. They are, it is argued, intended to ‘punish, deter or tighten control over the Palestinian population’ with the term ‘prevention of terror’ stretched beyond its normal meaning to cover all offensives – in the process disregarding any distinction between civil and paramilitary targets. Other frequent examples cited are detention without charge, the destruction of infrastructure and property extra-judicial assassinations.
While the accounts themselves are stark and without analysis, the BtS authors argue that the overall objective of these aggressive methods is the deliberate strategy of ‘searing of consciousness’, pursued by army commanders. In effect this means proving to the Palestinian population as a whole that opposition is futile. This interpretation is evidenced by accounts of everyday ‘demonstration of presence’ exercises – a term describing tactics of intimidation designed to stamp the army’s authority and instill fear. Under the military euphemism of ‘disruption of normalcy’, soldiers recount night patrols waking up villages at night by firing into the air, searching houses and throwing sound bombs – often without any intelligence linking sites with terrorist activity.
The recurring themes of arbitrary punishment and intimidation indicate that this strategy goes to the heart of the occupation itself; underscoring at the same time the contradiction between the rhetoric of security and reality of violent colonisation. Yet even within the ranks of the IDF this not admitted. Eran recounts how, during an officer training programme, one classmate questioned the logic of the deployment of troops throughout the entire West Bank.
“The [class] instructor told us that the army was here [in the West Bank] to ensure the security of Israel against terrorists. One guy asked whether it would be a better idea just to have a reinforced line of units along the border instead of loads of scattered inside [the territories] to prevent them from entering. It made sense; but instead he was removed from the class.”
It was at this point that belief in the morality of what he was doing started to unravel in Eran’s mind. Things came to a head when he was arrested at a weekly demonstration against the separation wall which divides many Palestinians from their land, for which he landed another two weeks in army prison and narrowly escaped a dishonorable discharge.
While statistics on detentions and the kilometers of road blocks can draw a systematic overview of the occupation, the BtS testimonies are unique in offering deeply human impressions. As anecdotes they go some way to explaining the psychological edifice upon which the occupation is built; and it is their subjective quality which is most striking – especially since they come from the mouth of those whose structural role is that of oppressor.
Soldiers are told how the IDF is the “most moral army in the world”, respectful of human rights and there is no indication that overt racism is promoted within the ranks of the army. Yet Eran says that there is a slow and subtle process of indoctrination in Israeli society – starting in the family and education system – that at once perpetuates the occupation and commands unswerving loyalty from citizens. The corollary fear and suspicion of Arabs pervasive in Israeli society comes to an inevitable ugly head in the army, he recalls.
“You are trained for 8 months to expect a war and then as an 18 or 19 year old they drop you at a checkpoint in the middle of nowhere and you are face to face with Arabs for the first time in your life. Many of those guys [IDF soldiers] are young and scared. Army life makes you miserable and without knowing it you want to inflict this upon somebody else”.
While some witnesses express disgust at the excesses of their colleagues, overall there is a general sense of detatchment from the barbarism of what takes place. This corrosive effect of the day-to-day drudgery on a soldier’s moral compass is laid bare in one unsettling account: “The standards of good and evil deteriorate there…I can’t tell you what’s good and what isn’t, because I don’t have all of the tools.”
The reader quickly infers that a normalisation of violence never lurks far away – degrading not only the victims but, in a different way, the soldiers themselves.
In a country that has always responded militarily to a (perceived or real) existential threat since its establishment, the reception to BtS is, predictably, not a warm one.
Critics have lambasted BtS as ‘terror supporters’ and for seeking to aid the ‘delegitimisation’ of Israel. The Israeli government sees them as such a threat that in 2009 it sought to persuade the Dutch foreign ministry to withdraw funding issued by its embassy.
Those critical of the occupation are on the fringe of Israeli society and treated with contempt in many quarters, and for people like Eran speaking out can mean accusations of betrayal, estrangement from family and social stigma.
Yet in spite of the the bulk of public opinion a recent article in the liberal newspaper Haaretz shows that there are cracks starting to appear in mainstream discourse.
In an impassioned review of BtS publications Ilana Hammerman decried the ‘logic of the absurd’ that sustains the occupation. This, she wrote, consists of a breakdown of “the mental and moral borders between what is permissible and what is forbidden, between good and evil, between stupidity and wickedness, between the humiliated and those who humiliate”.
You can read the testimonies and download PDF versions of Breaking the Silence’s publications in English at: http://www.breakingthesilence.
Eran Efrati now lives in New York where he gives lectures on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and the ‘Israeli Apartheid’
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
In this extract from his new book The Candidate, Alex Nunns tells the inside story of how Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015
Graham Jones proposes a framework for a diverse movement to flourish
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion
Musician Eliane Correa reflects on the fading revolution
Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall
Siobhán McGuirk says the question we are too afraid to ask is simple - what kind of society leads to Donald Trump as President?
The battle lines are clear. Democracy is in peril and the left must take itself seriously electorally and politically. Ruth Potts speaks to Gary Younge, who was based in Muncie, Indiana, for the US election, about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory
In Pictures: The World Transformed
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'
The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.
Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.
Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism
What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry
Airport expansion is a racist policy
Climate change is a colonial crisis, writes Jo Ram