The following statement articulates the raison d’etre of a courageous group of Israeli veteran soldiers who are part of a growing movement in Israel called “Breaking the Silence.” Few in American Jewish life know about them. I have hesitated to write about them until now because I fear that anti-Israel voices outside the Jewish state will use what I say to vilify Israel. That is not my intent. I love Israel. However, love ought not to blind us to the truth of what is happening in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip under the Israeli military administration.
“Soldiers who serve in the territories witness and participate in military actions that change them immensely. Cases of abuse toward Palestinians, looting and destruction of property have been the norm for years, but these incidents are still described officially as ‘extreme’ and ‘unique’ cases. Our testimonies portray a different – and much grimmer – picture, in which the deterioration of moral standards finds expression in the character of the military orders and rules of engagement that the state considers justified in the name of Israel’s security. While this reality is well-known to Israeli soldiers and commanders, Israeli society in general continues to turn a blind eye and deny what is being 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 find at home. In order to resume civilian life, soldiers have 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 it has created.”
“Breaking the Silence” claims as members more than 1300 former Israeli soldiers who represent all strata of Israeli society and cover nearly all units that have operated in the occupied Palestinian territories. These soldiers confess now that they were participants in committing unnecessary violence against Palestinian civilians and humiliating Palestinians during their terms of service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
“Breaking the Silence” was created in 2004 at the tail end of the Second Intifada (2000-2005) in order to give serving and discharged Israeli personnel and reservists a means to confidentially recount their experiences. For more details, see the movement’s website at https://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/ . There it is written:
“All the testimonies we publish are meticulously researched, and all facts are cross-checked with additional eyewitnesses and/or the archives of other human rights organizations that are active in the field. Every soldier who gives a testimony to Breaking the Silence is well-aware of the aims of the organization and the interview. Most soldiers choose to remain anonymous, due to various pressures from military officials and society at large. Our first priority is to safeguard the soldiers who choose to testify to the public about their military service.”
These soldiers decided to speak out with the hope that their voices will describe the harsh facts of the occupation and thereby help to bring an end to 55+-years of Israeli military control over Palestinians living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.
I have known about “Breaking the Silence” for years. I feel compelled to write about this honest morally-based movement of courageous Israelis for the first time because West Bank violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians has grown more frequent, destructive, and deadly, because the harsh character of the occupation is increasingly more systemic and entrenched, and because territory that would become part of a future Palestinian state is being aggressively taken and settled by right-wing Jewish settlers with the support of the Israeli government and military administration thereby making a two states for two peoples resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more difficult to achieve.
These veteran soldiers in “Breaking the Silence” tell of the daily humiliation of Palestinians at the hands young 18, 19, and 20 year-old Israeli soldiers who do not speak Arabic well, cannot communicate easily with Palestinians or understand their needs, and whose military orders to control the Palestinian population are often arbitrary and not always based upon Israeli security concerns. As soldiers, they describe themselves as having been cogs in the complex administrative and military wheel of subjugation of the Palestinian people.
It all began after the 1967 Israel-Arab War when a victorious Israel fought against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in their deliberate attempt to destroy the Jewish state. Israel won that war in a lightning victory that stunned the Jewish world and dramatically expanded its borders after six days of fighting taking East Jerusalem and the Old City, the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and a portion of Southern Lebanon, and absorbed under Israeli control millions of Palestinian Arabs. Time passed. Egypt made peace with Israel and Israel returned the Sinai. The Oslo Peace Process began in 1993 bringing Israel and the Palestinians to the peace table. Jordan followed with a peace agreement with Israel in 1994. Israel withdrew its citizens and security forces from Gaza in 2004, but maintained control of 3 borders (Egypt controlled the southern-most border).
The Oslo Accords created the Palestinian Authority (PA) and divided the West Bank into three areas: A, B, and C. Area A is controlled by the PA’s security and Civil Administration. Area B is controlled by the PA’s Civil Administration but security is maintained by the Israeli military and police. Area C is controlled wholly by Israel’s military administration. “Breaking the Silence” notes that:
“The Civil Administration is a military body tasked with managing the civilian aspects of ruling the occupied West Bank. Together with the Gaza district Coordination and Liaison office (DCL), it is subordinate to the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT). These governing bodies are responsible, among other things, for granting or denying permits to Palestinians to enter Israel for work, medical care, or travel abroad; controlling the import and export of goods, including food; allocating natural resources and planning and building civilian infrastructure. In other words, COGAT, the Civil Administration and the Gaza DCL shape and impact countless aspects of Palestinians’ daily lives. It is impossible to understand the Israeli occupation without putting these units under the spotlight, and yet, they receive very little public attention both within and outside of Israel, and their work has rarely been the subject of in-depth research and investigation.
As demonstrated in the testimonies given by soldiers and officers who served in COGAT, the Gaza DCL, and particularly the Civil Administration, the unit’s work operates on two axes that exemplify Israeli occupation policies as a whole: preserving and perfecting control and monitoring of the Palestinian people, on the one hand, and entrenching and expanding Israel’s hold on Palestinian territory, on the other.” (Breaking the Silence, Military Rule – Testimonies of Soldiers from the Civil Administration, Gaza DCL and COGAT, 2011-2021)
Through an elaborate administrative system that controls the movement and rights of the Palestinian population, Israel set up many check-points, conducts regular unannounced night-time searches of Palestinian homes, demolishes unapproved and un-licensed Palestinian home construction, and builds by-pass roads permitted only to Jewish settler travel. In recent years there has been a marked increase in settler violence with impunity against Palestinian farmers and their cash crops (some violence also is committed by Palestinians against Jewish settlers and IDF soldiers). Water rights are denied to Palestinians (especially in Area C).
One set of laws applies to Israeli Jewish settlers (the same laws that apply for all Israeli citizens inside Israel itself) and another set of laws applies to Palestinian Arabs living in the territories controlled by the Israeli military administration.
Taking all accumulated evidence together, the leadership of “Breaking the Silence” concluded:
“As the soldier’s testimonies show, the result on the ground is a clear, strategic joint effort by the Civil Administration, the settlement enterprise and successive Israeli governments, designed to push out Palestinians and limit their presence in Area C while simultaneously promoting Israeli construction and expansion in the area, thus pushing the possibility of Palestinian statehood ever further into the distance, while paving the way for future annexation of the occupied Palestinian territories.”
Israel, founded as a Jewish and democratic state, is the pride of the Jewish people world-wide. It is without question the greatest achievement of the Jewish people in the past 2000 years. Though forced to fight many wars of self-defense and against terrorism, Israel’s democratic, Jewish, and moral foundation (still alive and well within Israel itself) is compromised every day by its harsh occupation of another people.
Only in a two-state resolution of the conflict can justice be achieved for the Palestinian people, can Israel’s democracy and Jewish character be preserved, and can Israel’s young soldiers and future leaders be made whole.
We in Israel and the Diaspora ought to support fully “Breaking the Silence” and those courageous Israelis who are speaking the painful truth about their IDF service as a necessary part of bringing peace to our two peoples and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in two states for two peoples living securely and peacefully side-by-side.
This blog also appears at the Times of Israel – https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/breaking-the-silence-courageous-israelis-speak-out/