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Breaking the silence

Michael Pooler discovers how former IDF soldiers are opening up about life in the occupied territories.

October 10, 2011
9 min read

In Israel criticism of military service in the army is taboo, while speaking out about personal experiences can be a source of stigma for former soldiers. But now a growing chorus of voices are daring to break the silence.

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.

An ordinary soldier

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.

No questions, please

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.

Psychology of the oppressor

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.

Hostile reception

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.org.il/ 

Eran Efrati now lives in New York where he gives lectures on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and the ‘Israeli Apartheid’

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