In testimonies collected and published by the NGO Breaking the Silence, we learn what Israeli soldiers did, and were expected to do, in the West Bank and Gaza in the past decade, to impose the occupation
`I`ll tell you when I flipped. We were in action in Gaza... We were in a trench and children got closer and threw stones. The orders were that the moment [a Palestinian] can hit you with a stone, he can hit you with a grenade... so I shot him. He was 12, or 15, something like that. I don`t think I killed him. I`m saying that ... to sleep better at night. I flipped when ... I talked about it with my friends [and] family: I was fucking aiming [a weapon] at someone and I shot him in the leg, in the ass. Everyone was happy, they made me a hero, they announced it in the synagogue. I was in shock` (1).
In his book If This Is a Man (2), Primo Levi recalls a dream he kept having in Auschwitz; later he learned that many other prisoners had the same dream. He was back home, telling his family about the horrors of Auschwitz, but nobody was listening; they left the table and went away. This was his nightmare: to tell his story and not be heard, or understood.
Gaza is not Auschwitz, and the Israeli soldiers whose testimonies are collected in Occupation of the Territories are not Shoah survivors. Yet they share with Levi the need to tell their stories. Those around them are not interested, they feel threatened by the stories and prefer to ignore them or reinterpret them within their existing ideas of how things work in Gaza, the West Bank, behind the Wall, behind the newly reconstructed checkpoints which look more like international border-crossing facilities than the military outposts of an occupation army.
`What did you want the parents of this soldier to say to him?` said Avihai Stoler, an ex-soldier who helped to collect the testimonies for the book. ``Don`t worry, kid, you killed a child, so what?` The parents prefer not to understand his dilemma.`
The book collects testimonies from men and women who have served in the Israeli army in the West Bank and Gaza in the last 10 years, since the beginning of the second intifada. It is the most comprehensive insider account of Israel`s modus operandi in the occupied territories - not the decisions taken in high places, just the everyday reality of Israeli military control over Palestinian homes, fields, roads, property and time, the lives and deaths of inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza.
Some 40-60,000 Israeli conscripts have served in combat units in the last decade (3). All are likely to have spent some time in the occupied territories (except for those in the air force or navy). Seven hundred and fifty of them were interviewed for this book - 1-2%. The sample is far larger than that needed for an opinion poll or an academic study, so it can`t be denied that this is the way things work.
The `normal` soldier
Shovrim Shtika (Breaking the Silence), which collected the testimonies, was founded in 2004 by some Israeli soldiers who had served in or around Hebron and wanted show Israeli society, and the world, what the occupation felt like. At first they tried to publish horror stories: photos of soldiers who cut off the heads of Palestinians killed in battle and stuck them on the barrel of their guns. But later, they understood that cases of extreme cruelty missed the point. `We are not interested in the soldier who abuses an old man at a checkpoint,` explained Michael Menkin, a founder of the group. `We are interested in the soldier who stands beside him, the `normal` soldier.`
Even so, the book chronicles war crimes: a mentally handicapped Palestinian beaten so badly that he bleeds all over; Palestinian passers-by sent to detonate suspected bombs at the top of a minaret because the military robot cannot climb the stairs; the killing of a unarmed Palestinian because he was standing on a rooftop (`Why did I shoot, you ask me today? Just out of pressure. I surrendered to the pressure of the guys,` according to one testimony). There are also the premeditated executions of unarmed Palestinian policemen in revenge for an attack on a checkpoint; the orders from a high-ranking officer on how to deal with a presumed terrorist lying wounded or dead (`You approach the corpse, you put a [gun] barrel between its teeth and shoot`); the stealing, looting or destruction of property.
But `this book is not a Tsahal [army] horror show,` said Stoler. `It is the story of a generation, our generation.` In the first 30 years after the 1967 war, much of the debate within Israel centred on the occupation - the need for it, its evils - but in the last 15 years the word has almost disappeared. Israelis will talk about Judea and Samaria, or the West Bank, or just `the territories`, without using the word `occupied`. The word `occupation` became almost taboo, not to be spoken in public. I was working on a television show and one of the guests said that violence in Israeli society was rising `because of the occupation`. My colleagues in the control room were alarmed. They pleaded with me - tell the anchorman to ask the guest to take back the word. As if it had the power to burn them.
There are several reasons. The terrorist attacks of the second intifada gave the army carte blanche, in the view of the Israeli public, to `prevent terrorism`. The futile `peace process` became background music, and convinced Israelis that there was no rush to solve the conflict; it made them feel the conflict was already solved because the Israelis had already agreed to give up the territories, have a two-state solution and grant self-determination to the Palestinians. Israel`s most influential columnist, Nahum Barnea, recently wrote: `The story of the territories is over.` Time ran a cover story in September 2010 titled `Why Israel Doesn`t Care About Peace` (4).
`Our mission was to disrupt`
There is a military factor. Since the beginning of the second intifada, and especially since the construction of the Separation Wall, military control over the Palestinians has become more systematic and `scientific`. The book translates the military jargon, and Breaking the Silence, based on these testimonies, proposes new terminology better suited to the realities: it suggests we talk of `spreading fear among the civilian population` in the West Bank and Gaza rather than `terror prevention`; `appropriation and annexation` instead of `separation`; `controlling every small detail of Palestinian lives` rather than `Life Fabric` (the military term for the road system that serves the Palestinians); and `occupation` rather than `control`.
`Our mission was to disrupt - this was the phrase: to disrupt and harass the lives of the citizens,` reads one of the testimonies. `This is how our mission was defined, because the terrorists are citizens, and we want to disrupt [their] activity, and the operational way to [do this] is to harass the lives of the citizens. I am sure of this.` Harassing the locals and disrupting their lives is not just carelessness or abuse but the cornerstone of Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.
Avihai Stoler, who spent almost three years in the Hebron area, met Israeli soldiers who had detonated explosive devices in the centre of a village `so that they will know we were here`. According to Stoler a `noisy patrol`, `violent patrol`, `manifestation of presence`, `low-key activity`, `Happy Purim`, are all names for a regular type of action: to enter a village or city in force, throw shock grenades, erect makeshift checkpoints, carry out random house searches, remain there for hours or days `to produce a sense of being persecuted, so they will never feel at ease`. Stoler was citing his orders.
Stoler and Avner Gvaryahu served in an elite unit whose activity had been measured (so they were told by a high-ranking officer) by the number of dead terrorists. They are aware that people don`t want to hear what they have to say. Not a single Israeli TV crew came to their book launch, only foreign media. `My father is second generation after the Shoah,` said Gvaryahu; `In his eyes, we are the persecuted.` But both he and Stoler are optimistic; both of them believe that eventually Israeli society will understand what is being done on its behalf and will change, because it is society that needs fixing, not the army. `I was once interviewed by a Colombian journalist,` said Stoler. `She asked me what all the fuss was about: in Colombia soldiers chop off insurgents` heads on a daily basis and nobody pays attention. But I think Israeli society wants to be moral. This is what drives us forward; without this collective will there is no point in our action.`
Israeli society was taken hostage, said Gvaryahu. The hostage takers `have an interest which is not ours, they don`t have a face, and we [got] Stockholm syndrome, we fell in love with our kidnappers. It is easy to say that the settlers are our kidnappers, the face behind the scene. I don`t think so. The only face behind the kidnapping is our own.`
Original text in English Meron Rapoport is a journalist at Haaretz, Tel Aviv
(1) Shovrim Shtika (Breaking the Silence, an NGO), Occupation of the Territories, chapter 1, testimony 45, Tel Aviv, 2010.
2) Primo Levi, If This Is a Man, Everyman, 2000.
3) Israel does not publish official data on its armed forces. In 2004 the International Institute for Strategic Studies estimated there were 85,000 conscripts in the Israeli army. Assuming 10-15% were combat troops, this means 10-15,000 conscript combat soldiers. Military service in Israel is three years, so it is fair to assume that 40-60,000 Israeli conscripts have served in the Occupied Territories over the past 10 years; www.globalsecurity.org/milit...
(4) Karl Vick, `Why Israel Doesn`t Care About Peace`, Time, 2 September 2010.