Rewriting the lines of defence

14 December 2012

Ed Thornton meets former Israeli soldiers who are questioning their government's security policy in the occupied territories


An Israeli military patrol in the West Bank city of Hebron

An Israeli military patrol in the West Bank city of Hebron

SERGEANT Avner Gvaryahu led his soldiers to a house on the outskirts of Nablus, a city in the north-west of the West Bank. They were under orders to use it as a temporary base from which to carry out observations, and to launch sniper attacks.

As they approached the house, they could hear screaming from inside. They broke the windows with their rifles, and entered the property, where they found a "petrified" elderly Palestinian woman on one side of the room. On the other side, her family stood, also looking terrified.

"I remember that moment: standing there, realising that - no matter how good I see myself - they see me as the ultimate evil," Mr Gvaryahu says. "I started to realise that it's impossible to be a nice person. . . There is no way to be a good soldier in an immoral situation."

Nevertheless, he still looks back to the day he became a paratrooper in the Israel Defence Force (IDF), in November 2004, as one of his proudest moments.

"You start with red shoes, and they slowly give you more insignia: the wings, the beret, the badges," Mr Gvaryahu, who is 27, says over dinner in a restaurant in downtown Jerusalem. "You start to build yourself as a soldier."

Named after an Israeli paratrooper who was killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he is a ninth-generation Jerusalemite, raised in a religiously Zionist family. He had long had ambitions to follow in the footsteps of his father, who had also been a paratrooper.

Mr Gvaryahu served in the West Bank, rising to the rank of sergeant of a snipers' team. It was always his intention, he says, to be "a good soldier - the guy at the checkpoint who could smile at Palestinians passing by; if I had to enter a house, I'd do it nicely, as much as I could."

It was while leading his men in that mission, he says, that "the bubble broke around me." The unit was conducting what is known among IDF soldiers as a "straw widow": taking over the house of a Palestinian family for strategic purposes.

"You enter a house in the middle of the night, wake up the family, put everyone in one room, take away cell phones; the house is yours - maybe for two hours, or two days. . . If they want to use any part of the house, it is up to you to decide." The experience scarred him, troubling him profoundly.

AFTER finishing his service, he continued to be plagued by uncomfortable questions. "What I thought was a necessary evil I realised is part of a bigger picture called occupation: not allowing 2.5 million people in the West Bank, and 1.5 million in Gaza, access to freedom and dignity. What we called security . . . I realised is not all about security, but about control."

Mr Gvaryahu eventually found himself on a tour of the West Bank's South Hebron Hills with Breaking the Silence, a group of military veterans who had served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000, and ended in 2005.

A year earlier, Mr Gvaryahu had been guarding one of the settlement outposts in the South Hebron Hills, making sure that Palestinians could not enter the settlement. Now, he was talking to the very same Palestinians. "Perspectives hit me," he says.

Many Israelis do not know about what goes on in the West Bank, he says, because, while all Israelis are obliged to serve in the army for a short time, only a small minority serve in the West Bank. "Everything happening there is very distant from Israeli society."

Mr Gvaryahu now works as a researcher for Breaking the Silence, and is happy to go on record as a critic of the occupation.

He says that his father broadly supports what he does, but finds it "very difficult" to criticise the Israeli army. There are some friends to whom Mr Gvaryahu no longer speaks, "or we don't talk about politics any more".

He may be an outspoken and highly articulate critic of the Israeli government and military; but he staunchly defends Israel's right to exist. "If groups call for the destruction of Israel, then I do not have a conversation with them, because they are questioning my right to be here. I do think it's important for there to be a Jewish state . . . but it cannot come on the back of other people."

AS AN observant Jew, Mr Gvaryahu believes that it is "important for Jews to be in the Holy Land; but we also have to talk about what is done in our name and done in God's name. The Judaism I believe in is being a light to the nations. For me, the only way [to achieve that] is to strive for equality.

"The problem in Israel today is occupation: we have to fight together against occupation. The question should not be, [are you] pro-Israel or pro-Palestine? The question is, are you pro- or anti-occupation?

Breaking the Silence was founded in March 2004 by a group of former IDF soldiers who had served in Hebron. It has since collected the testimonies of 850 former IDF soldiers, providing evidence from the inside of the way the Israeli military conducts itself. The testimonies include evidence of: attacks by settlers on Palestinians; house demolitions; and the humiliating treatment of Palestinians at checkpoints.

Members of Breaking the Silence now give some 500 lectures and tours of the West Bank each year, to more than 10,000 people - of whom about 40 per cent are young Israelis about to be drafted into the army.

The work they do is not illegal. Israel is a democracy, after all, unlike some of its neighbours, and free speech is permitted. But the group has attracted fierce criticism from the Israeli government.

"They are breaking their silence about the only democracy in the Middle East that has an independent legal system, and an investigative press that does not cease dealing with these issues," the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said during a trip to Europe in 2009. "Why don't they break the silence over what is happening in some of the regimes in the Middle East? Let them do it in places in which there is silencing of others, like the Hamas regime in Gaza."

LAST year, the Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, went so far as to accuse Breaking the Silence of being a terrorist organisation, an accusation that was strenuously denied by the group.

The co-director of Breaking the Silence, Yehuda Shaul, is undeterred by the criticism. "We always say that the day we will be popular is the day we stop doing our job, because our job is about spoiling the party," he says when I meet him during a trip to the West Bank with Christian Aid, a partner of Breaking the Silence.

Mr Yehuda, a 29-year-old Jerusalemite who grew up, in his own words, "on the right side of Israeli politics", says: "We understand why people get very angry. . . What we're saying is not easy, not simple for people to hear."

Over lunch in a café in the old city of Hebron, in the south of the West Bank, Mr Shaul spoke of how he joined the Israeli military after graduating from high school in 2001. Starting out as an infantry combat soldier, he rose to become a company sergeant, in charge of about 120 men.

His service took place "more or less at the peak of the violence of the Second Intifada", he says. Two out of his three years of service were in the West Bank; 14 months of those two years were spent serving in Hebron.

After his service ended, he began "suddenly seeing things from a different perspective. For the first time in my adult life, I was thinking like a civilian rather than a soldier.

"I began talking to my comrades around me, and discovered that we all felt the same. Somewhere in the back of our minds, we had all felt that something was wrong."

MR SHAUL and his comrades had begun to doubt seriously whether the real purpose of Israel's military presence in the Occupied Territories was to defend itself, and its settlers, from terrorism.

Having believed at the start of their service that Israel's military activities were about "playing defence", serving in the West Bank convinced Mr Shaul and his comrades that defence was "a very small part of the story. We [Israel] are here mainly playing offence. And we're not playing offence against terror: we're playing offence against Palestinian independence.

"A lot of what the occupation is doing is trying to maintain and preserve our military control over Palestinians. It's about trying to maintain and preserve the status quo, improving it to the level of entrenchment."

Earlier this year, Breaking the Silence published Our Harsh Logic: Israeli soldiers' testimonies from the occupied territories, 2000-2010 (Metropolitan Books). The report contains 145 testimonies from soldiers who have served in nearly all IDF units in the Occupied Territories - from commanders and officers down to rank-and-file soldiers.

The purpose of the book, Mr Shaul says, is to "decode" four terms employed by Israel to define their mission in the occupied territories: "prevention"; Sikul (a Hebrew word for "separation"); "fabric of life"; and "law enforcement".

The book's introduction says that it intends to show, through the soldiers' testimonies, that such terms "convey a partial, even distorted, portrayal of the policies that they represent"; it "lays bare the aspects of those policies that the state's institutions do not make public".

Mr Shaul says that the testimonies demonstrate, for example, that "the concept of prevention is so wide that every defensive act you can think of - and almost every offensive act you can think of - is considered defensive by the army."

Fundamental to the concept of "prevention" is what the Israeli military calls "making our presence felt. If Palestinians will get the feeling that the army is all the time everywhere, they'll be afraid to attack. . .

"Every Palestinian must feel the military breathing down their neck. You never know when we're going to show up, how it's going to go, when it's going to start, when it's going to end . . . [in order] to create the feeling of being chased."

BREAKING the Silence has been accused by Mr Lieberman of attempting to "delegitimise" Israel. But it is Mr Lieberman, Mr Shaul argues, who is "the greatest delegitimiser of Israel, because what he says is that we're doomed to live in a sin; that the only way we will be free is if the Palestinians will never be free.

"And that's an equation I refuse to accept. Israel has a right to exist? Yes. Israel has a right to indefinitely occupy Palestinians? No. That is not right, to take freedom from a whole people."

Mr Shaul becomes increasingly animated as he continues: "Terrorism is not going to destroy the country. What's going to destroy the country is if we have no soul left. I think the question is not where are we going to be in two years: the question is who are we going to be in two years. The only way you're going to have a sustainable solution here is if both sides have dignity."

The members of Breaking the Silence do not share a political vision or agenda, Mr Shaul says. "What brings us together is that we all agree on the same problem."

As a public face of Breaking the Silence, his decision to speak out so openly against the occupation must have come at some personal cost. Mr Shaul admits that his family are "not enthusiastic" about what he does, but he insists that he has a "great relationship" with them, including his sister, who is a settler.

"I don't think I've paid a price. I do what I do because I don't think that I have a choice. If we're not going to speak out, no one is - the story's not going to be told. We have a moral obligation to speak out. Otherwise, we're continuing to be part of the problem."

This year, Christian Aid's Christmas appeal is focusing on "Healing in this Holy Land". For more information, visit


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