Breaking the silence about Israeli occupation

The founder of Breaking the Silence, a group of ex-soldiers opposed to Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza, talks about moral accountability on the group’s 10-year anniversary.

Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP
Israeli soldiers arrest a Palestinian man during clashes after a rally marking the 66th anniversary of what the Palestinians call the 'Nakba,' or catastrophe, in the West Bank city of Hebron, on May 15, 2014. Israeli troops shot dead two Palestinian teens in a West Bank clash that erupted just hours after Palestinians marched in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to commemorate their displacement in the war over Israel's 1948 creation.

On the anniversary of Israel’s stunning six-day defeat of its Arab neighbors, hundreds of Israelis gathered not to celebrate, but to question the morality of the 47 years of Palestinian occupation that followed. At stake is not only Palestinian freedom, but the identity of Israel, says Yehuda Shaul.

Mr. Shaul, who spent much of his mandatory three-year army service in the West Bank city of Hebron, founded Breaking the Silence 10 years ago to bring the realities of occupation into the Tel Aviv “bubble.”

Growing up in a modern Orthodox family in Jerusalem, insulated from the conflict, he got a rude awakening in the IDF. During an officer course, his peers admonished him for questioning the handcuffing of a boy caught throwing stones. “Oh shut up, leftist,” he recalls them saying to him. “Go hand out candies at the checkpoints.” 

It was Hebron where Shaul really began to question the military’s role in the West Bank. He was assigned to a grenade machine gun, and was ordered to fire on a Palestinian neighborhood more than a kilometer away, never knowing exactly who he had hit.

“I lived my life in the military believing I’m a good guy. The turning point was when I realized … what had I done?” he says. “That understanding is the collapse for me and Breaking the Silence is the answer for me.” 

The organization raises hackles among many Israelis, who see its members as undermining the state and accuse them of mischaracterizing a few exceptional cases into systemic problems. 

Shaul dismisses such arguments. Today he gathered some 300 to 400 people, including members of Knesset, distinguished public figures, and 60 soldier-testifiers, to enumerate the "exceptions" at the protest, which began at 8 a.m. and was expected to last until 6 p.m.  

“Here’s 10 hours of exceptional cases. We could go on for 100 hours and 100 days, because the occupation is going on for 47 years,” he says, as a woman behind him starts yelling at a few settlers who had come to hand out their own materials as a counter protests. 

A handful read Breaking the Silence pamphlets silently under a nearby tree and at least 150 others listened to the speakers under the blazing sun.

Among the group’s 900 published testimonies, soldiers as young as 18 describe their unease at stripping down an old woman during a search for weapons; seeing superiors fatally shoot a young boy in the belly as he was running away; and watching a feisty 8-year-old Israeli settler girl in her Shabbat dress clobber an older Palestinian man’s head with a rock – only for a soldier to punish the Palestinian for his angry reaction rather than the girl, who was known to tell her baby brother to throw pebbles at Arabs from his pram.

But Neria Arnon, a Jewish settler in Hebron who came to counterprotest after overhearing Breaking the Silence tours in her neighborhood, says the group’s perspective is one-sided. “They ignore that there is terror against us,” she says.

Shaul sees it the other way around – that Israelis are oblivious to or ignore what happens in the Palestinian territories. 

“What shocked us is that people back home had no idea what we had done,” he says. “We decided to bring Hebron to Tel Aviv.”

In response, 10 years ago he and some of his fellow soldiers organized a photography exhibit in Tel Aviv depicting some of what they had seen.

Today, he says, there is still a lack of awareness of what goes on in the Palestinian territories, particularly in Tel Aviv, modern, cosmopolitan and without the intermingling of Jews and Arabs like Jerusalem, despite being only 11 miles away from the West Bank.

Last month, a video of an Israeli soldier threatening a Palestinian teen in Hebron went viral among both leftist activists as an example of undue force and among those on the Israeli right, who spoke of support for and empathy with the soldier.

“I think this is a fight over our identity as a society,” Shaul says, dismissing the notion that what goes on in the territories is an inevitable reaction to Palestinian violence. “Zionism was never a passive way of life. It was about – we have force, power, and legitimacy to decide how we live.”

“The question we need to answer is not whether Israel will be here 10 years down the road, but what Israel will be here,” he says. “So I’m forced to break the silence.”

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