#09 Prejudice
Yehuda Shaul / Eva-Maria Verfürth

Breaking the Silence

Shock grenades, detentions and humiliations: the stories told by members of the Israeli "Breaking the Silence" organisation never fail to shock their audience. Yehuda Shaul, the organisation’s founder, explains why: Most Israelis aren’t aware of what their army is really doing in the Palestinian territories, he states.

To change matters, "Breaking the Silence" collects and publishes video statements of veterans who served in the Palestinian territories. But some politicians strongly object to these ex-soldiers telling their tales: Yehuda tells that they have even already tried to prevent European governments from funding the organisation. Our editor Eva-Maria Verfürth met Yehuda for a coffee in Jerusalem to find out the reason.

At age 18, every Israeli has to complete military service: boys for three years, girls for two. So how is it possible that, as you say, people aren’t aware of what is happening in the Palestinian territories?

Nobody talks about these things. Those of us who serve in the Palestinian territories have to fulfil all the soldier’s tasks of occupation, such as detentions, search operations or enforcing curfew – but at home, nobody ever talks about what we do there. You’ve been to the West Bank, right? Then you’ve probably seen more of the occupation than 97% of Israelis. To people in Tel Aviv, Bethlehem seems further away than Berlin; it’s like a different planet to them.

Well, probably because they can hardly even get there.

They’re not allowed to go to most of the Palestinian cities, that’s true. But they’re allowed to go to Hebron, for instance. Hebron is the only city in the West Bank with an Israeli settlement right in the centre of town. The public busses from Jerusalem take you there in less than an hour. You even get a 50% reduction on the fare thanks to subsidies granted the settlements!

When did you do your military service?

My service lasted from 2001 to 2004. As a company sergeant I was in charge of about 120 people. During my service, I spent 14 months in Hebron. This opened my eyes.

“Patrols move through the streets 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, day and night. From September 2000 to the present day, they haven’t stopped for even a second.”

Hebron is holy to both Muslims and Jews, as it houses the graves of biblical figures such as Abraham, Isaac and Sarah. In town, Israelis live door-on-door with Palestinians.

The situation in Hebron is very tense.Military logic argues that if Palestinians have the feeling Israeli armed forces (IDF) are everywhere all the time, they’ll be afraid to attack. So in order to give them this feeling we had to “make our presence felt”, as we call it in the military.

What does “making your presence felt” mean?

Let me ask you a question first: In Germany, where you live, does the police break into your house in the middle of the night?

Of course not. At least not if I haven’t committed any crime.

Well, it wouldn’t happen here in Jerusalem either. But while you and I are sitting here enjoying our coffee, there are two patrols out in Hebron. They randomly force entry into private homes, wake the families up, put women on one side and men on the other, and search the whole house. When they leave, they shoot bullets into the air or throw shock grenades. Then they invade another house. Patrols move through the streets 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, day and night. From September 2000 to the present day, they haven’t stopped for even a second. The idea is to make Palestinians feel that the army is right there – in the military we call it “creating the feeling of being pursued”. This is not a story about a checkpoint soldier who recently split up with his girlfriend and is now taking it out on people: these patrols become your day-to-day routine.

Did you participate in these searches?

Everyone does. In 2002, for instance, during the Football World Cup, we conducted a search operation in a refugee camp near Ramallah. Every day we spent 16 to 18 hours walking from house to house. On one of those days Brazil had a game we all wanted to watch, so the company officer decided to briefly interrupt the operation. We entered a private house where the family had turned on the TV, locked them in the cellar, and watched the game. Afterwards we continued the operation. This was nothing unusual for us, as we had done it so many times. When you tell these banal things to a soldier, he doesn’t even understand what the problem is.

“I was trying to be the nice guy; I was always smiling at the women and children. But then I took away their husbands and fathers; that was my job.”

There must be people who try to act in a respectful way, though.

No one who has served in the occupied territories has clean hands. A good friend of mine always says: “I was trying to be the nice guy; I was always smiling at the women and children. But then I took away their husbands and fathers; that was my job.”

You have successfully finished your service and accomplished all these tasks – why didn’t you question your actions earlier?

I already had doubts during my service, but the comradeship somehow makes everybody go on. Military logic just doesn’t leave room for doubt. And we all joined the army thinking we’re the good guys! But when you return to civilian life, military thinking suddenly doesn’t make sense anymore. That’s why many young Israelis go abroad after their service to get stoned and forget

Do you think many soldiers reflect on what they did?

Most people don’t really change their mind-sets. But when I started talking to friends, we discovered that we were several veterans who had doubts. And what had shocked us most was discovering that people back home had no clue – that the people who sent us to do the job didn’t know what doing the job really meant!

“People who sent us to do the job didn’t know what doing the job really meant!”

How did you and your friends “break the silence”?

We decided to bring Hebron to Tel Aviv. We started producing audio- and videotapes of soldiers telling their stories. In June 2004, we opened our first photo and video exhibition. At that time Breaking the Silence had 65 members, all of whom had served in Hebron. We had no bigger plan or goal in mind: we just wanted to shout out our stories.

This first exhibition was a great success – more than 7000 people showed up.

Oh yes, we were the top story in the country! We were even invited to present in the Israeli Parliament. That’s why we decided to carry on.

That was eight years back from now. What is Breaking the Silence doing today?

Collecting, verifying and publishing testimonials in booklets and exhibitions is still at the heart of our activities. To date we’ve collected around 850 testimonials from men and women in their twenties who served as conscripts between 2000, when the second intifada started, and today. We also organise educational activities, giving lectures and organising guided tours of Hebron. Most of them are for young Israelis before they are drafted, as high school students for instance.

“If they become combat soldiers in the occupied territories, the best case scenario is that they will be members of Breaking the Silence four years from now, talking about the crimes they committed.”

How do the students react? They too will have to complete their compulsory military service.

They’re very angry and frustrated. They expect us to tell them what to do, but all we can tell them is that if they become combat soldiers in the occupied territories, the best case scenario is that they will be members of Breaking the Silence four years from now, talking about the crimes they committed. When you’re young, you think that you have the power to change things. But I always tell them: “I was exactly the same. It just doesn’t work.”

The conflict with Palestine is a highly sensitive topic. What is your political message?

Members of Breaking the Silence don’t share the same political vision nor do we vote for the same party. What brings us together is that we’ve all been there and that we’re frustrated. Our aim is to force a debate about the moral price tag of maintaining a prolonged occupation by holding up a mirror in front of society: the people sent us to do this job, so now that we’re back, we want them to listen to what we did in their name. Then they can decide for themselves whether they’re ok with it or not.

Where do you get your funding?

Almost half of our budget comes from the EU and European governments like the UK and Spain. The rest is from private donors and development organisations such as Misereor in Germany, Oxfam Britain or icco in the Netherlands.

Your family members are faithful Jews, and your sister even lives in a settlement near Ramallah. How did they react to your activities at Breaking the Silence?

We try not to talk about what I’m doing; that would be like putting a nuclear bomb on the table.

So none of them ever watched a testimonial or visited an exhibition?

The only one who came to our first exhibit was my father. He watched the video testimonial of one of my soldiers talking about a day we had to enforce curfew. We broke up a funeral that day: we didn’t let the family bury their beloved, but sent them back home. When my father saw that, he suddenly shouted at me: “That is what you did?” And I answered: “We didn’t only stop funerals, Dad; we also interrupted weddings right in the middle.” A few days later he took me aside and said that he understands why I’m doing what I’m doing.

“Since that day we’ve been an enemy of the state.”

Have you got any pressure from official channels?

When we had the first exhibit, military police investigators confiscated stuff and called us in for interrogation. I was interrogated for about nine hours. But when they saw that this only resulted in even more public attention, they left us alone. In 2009 though, when we published a booklet with testimonials from 26 soldiers who had served in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, we were seriously attacked. Since that day we’ve been an enemy of the state: the IDF has made sure the media bans us, the Minister of Defence publicly denounced us and the Foreign Minister tried to block our funding from European governments.

Have you been silenced?

If you will allow me to be cynical – we’re combat soldiers, we’ll always come back to fight.So even if they try to silence us, when we do something big, it always gets media attention.

Why do people believe you even though you are telling them things they might not want to hear?

As far as Israeli society is concerned, we’re seen as the good guys: we’re respected young veterans from Special Forces. A Tel Aviv University poll gave us a credibility rating of 43% among Israeli Jews – that’s a whole lot of people!

The media too are sometimes reflecting on soldiers’ behaviour. I remember the case of Eden Abergil who posted photos of detainees on her Facebook page. The news spread to many countries.

Stories pop up in the media from time to time, but they’re dealt with as if they were isolated cases. What Breaking the Silence tries to communicate is that there is nothing exceptional about these things – we’ve all done it.

What is the military’s official mission in the West Bank – to protect civilians, or to protect Israeli nationals?

According to international law, an occupying nation’s army is responsible for protecting all inhabitants. But it’s different in real life. Although the West Bank is outside Israel’s borders, Israelis who live there are subject to civilian law, which is enforced by the Israeli police, not the military. So if a soldier sees a settler attacking a Palestinian, all he can do is to call the police. To Palestinians, however, the military law applies, so soldiers arrest them.

These legal arguments are very abstract – can you give a concrete example?

Imagine a Palestinian and an Israeli are throwing stones at each other in the West Bank. Let’s suppose both get arrested. The Israeli will be tried in civil court for having committed a criminal offence. He can only be held in detention for a maximum of 24 hours before being brought before a judge and he has the right to consult with a lawyer before his initial interrogation. The Palestinian is brought before a military court accused of having committed a terrorist offence. He can be held in detention for eight days and prevented from consulting with a lawyer for 30 days.

Activists sometimes accuse the Israeli forces or the soldiers of committing human rights violations. Do you think the soldiers are the ones to blame, or is it the army, or even politics?

Every person is responsible for his or her actions, and so are soldiers. But if you really wanted to arrest every soldier who has ever abused a Palestinian, my entire generation would go straight to jail. When I was interrogated the first time, I officially confessed all my crimes: I have fired grenades into civilian neighbourhoods, responded to Palestinian fire, used Palestinians as human shields, blown up cars for deterrence. Part of me wanted to be put on trial, because I knew that then the whole system would have to go on trial too. Just imagine: if I told my story in court, every one of my 60 comrades would have to be judged too because we did all those things together. My brigadier general and my commanders would also have to be called into court because they gave me the orders.

“Responsibility belongs to every single Israeli who does all he or she can to avoid knowing what is happening to other people in their name.”

So who is responsible for the fact that, as you say, your whole generation has dirty hands?

At Breaking the Silence we’re convinced that most of the abuses committed by the armed forces are due to the political mission assigned the military. Every single Israeli bears responsibility for this mission. All these people around us, who do whatever they can to avoid knowing what is being done in their name.

Are you hopeful that things might change?

There is a strong sense of optimism at the heart of the work we do at Breaking the Silence. We feel this deep conviction that if people were given the right information, they would join our camp. On the other hand, I don’t think Israeli society will ultimately change the conflict. After all, in the history of the world, has a group of privileged people ever woken up one day, suddenly enlightened, and given up their privileges? I don’t think so. Palestinians will have to take their rights.

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