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A Silence to Break: The Ear and the Mouth

It is hard to imagine what it is like to be an Israeli soldier in the occupied territories.  Most soldiers who served in the Gaza Strip or in the West Bank do not enjoy discussing their military experiences – it … Read More

By / February 17, 2010

It is hard to imagine what it is like to be an Israeli soldier in the occupied territories.  Most soldiers who served in the Gaza Strip or in the West Bank do not enjoy discussing their military experiences – it reminds them of a long and endless nightmare.  And the media, on its end, covers events like Palestinian riots, settlers from Hebron harassing Palestinians, or soldiers capturing terrorists and discovering smuggling tunnels, but does not convey a picture of what it is like to be an occupier on a daily basis.  However, in the past few years, through the voices, photographs, and testimonies of soldiers – both men and women – the mundane, yet alarming, life of soldiers, settlers, and Palestinians in the occupied territories has become more imaginable.

The testimonies, which have been collected in the past ten years, paint a very complex picture of soldiers who are but 18, 19, or 20 years old.  The soldiers have to manage interactions with the Palestinian residents, search for terrorists and prevent impending terrorist attacks, protect the settlers, and cope with few hours of sleep.  Soldiers easily find themselves angry, desperate, bored, or frustrated, and sometimes take it out on the Palestinians.  At times when things get too quiet, soldiers provoke Palestinians to act (like making them throw stones at the soldiers) in order to react, following the concept of: "peace and quiet is not necessarily good, and if there isn’t mayhem… create it."  A female soldier frequently faces chauvinism or isolation, and even more so if she criticizes the soldiers’ misconduct, which the testimonies recount:  by releasing frustration by beating up Palestinians – sometimes even kids and elders; confiscating car keys from Palestinians without explanation; making Palestinians detainees sing the Israeli anthem; throwing rotten vegetables at passer-bys on a donkey-cart; searching houses in the middle of the night, throwing contents onto the floor, mocking the owner, and on the way out taking "house souvenirs," "[but] nothing too big"; shooting Palestinians who come too close to the border fence in the "air of their lungs" instead of first shooting in the air in order to alert them; photographing Palestinians corpses, and then using these photos as computer screen savers on the base.

Did you know that these behaviors occur with some regularity?  Did you know this could be the reality that some soldiers face in the occupied territories during their military service?  Neither did I until five years ago when I saw Breaking the Silence’s first exhibit in Tel Aviv and was startled by what I observed and heard.  Breaking the Silence was started by a group of young soldiers who had served in Hebron.  The soldiers reflected upon their service in the occupied territories by asking themselves who they became, what they had done, and how their friends acted during their three years of military service.  In 2004, realizing that most Israelis are unaware of the various aspects of soldiers’ service in the territories, they took upon themselves the responsibility to expose the public to the routine life of an Israeli soldier as an occupier.  Their aim was to stimulate public debate about the moral price that Israeli society as a whole has been paying for a reality of young soldiers controlling the lives of an occupied population.  The founding exhibit featured photos from "normal life" scenes in Hebron, displayed dozens of keys from confiscated Palestinians cars, screened soldiers’ testimonies, and told their personal stories.  

Breaking the Silence grew as an organization and became more active throughout the Second War in Lebanon and the War in Gaza.  As the territories remain occupied, Breaking the Silence has published more than six hundred testimonies of soldiers in the last decade.  The new Israeli government, and even more so the IDF, are livid about these testimonies, claiming that they are all baseless.  Moreover, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself has already urged European governments to cease financial aid to groups of this kind.  Referring to Breaking the Silence, the Prime Minister said, "There is no silence to break; what are they talking about?"

A few weeks ago, Breaking the Silence – together with fifteen other organizations (all New Israel Fund grantees) – was singled out by a relatively new purportedly-Zionist group named Im Tirtzu ("If you will it").  The group criticized these organizations for having supplied materials cited in the Goldstone Report, maintaining that these materials effectively marred the image of Israel, and accusing them of airing Israel’s "dirty laundry."

The "dirty laundry" – the testimonies published by Breaking the Silence – are not easy to read, nor is the notion that loss of control and humanity could happen to any Israeli teenager in his or her obligatory military service.  But preventing the airing of "dirty laundry" cannot be a legitimate concept in a civilized democracy.  First, a true democracy will strive to abide by the rules of national and international law, thus avoiding the aforementioned misconduct.  Second, if the rules are broken, there should be a governmental body that investigates the matter, punishes, and publicly deters.  And last, if no governmental organization fills that role, it is not only legitimate, but morally necessary for citizens to fill the void — to advocate for increased transparency, for better military conduct, and for increased awareness in the public of the moral and social costs of the occupation.  Breaking the Silence fills this void as it plays a dual role – serving as an ear for the soldiers and as their mouth to the public.

On Saturday, February 20th 7:00-9:00pm at the Columbia University Hillel, the New Israel Fund will host Dana Golan, the executive director of Breaking the Silence, who will elaborate about the organization’s role in shaping Israeli society and its democratic values.  The event will feature a documentary about Breaking the Silence’s work and will focus on women soldiers’ experiences in the occupied territories.  This will be a great opportunity to learn more about this fascinating topic and to support Breaking the Silence.  To RSVP for the event, please go to the NIF’s site: http://nif.org/IDFwomen.

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