Breaking the silence: what Israeli soldiers really think about conflict and occupation

Published June 9th, 2014 - 11:43 GMT

Whilst the increasingly concerning Palestinian hunger strike situation is a way for ordinary Palestinians to give voice to their plight in Israeli jails, Israeli soldiers have found a way to voice their surprisingly similar, critical views of the conflict and occupation.

Breaking the Silence is commemorating its ten years of establishment and 47 years of Israeli occupation of territories by publicizing its comprehensive collection of stories and interviews with Israeli soldiers. The collection gives a keen insight into being Israeli, a soldier and the moral, psychological and physical effects of conflict. Breaking the Silence states that in these incredible interviews soldiers describe "the routine of violence, boredom, damage to human life and property, and the sense of endangerment amidst ceaseless tension... [and] what prolonged military control on a civilian population looks like from the vantage point of the Israeli soldier". 

On June 6, Breaking the Silence read from its collection for 10 hours in Tel Aviv, describing humiliating treatment of Palestinians at checkpoints, assaults and shootings highlighting treatment that was more regular that the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) publicly stated. The organisation states on its website that "while this reality is known to Israeli soldiers and commanders, Israeli society continues to turn a blind eye, and to deny that what is 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 encounter at home. In order to become civilians again, soldiers are forced 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 whose creation it has enabled."

Following is a brief selection of some of the testimonies published by Breaking the Silence.

The witness: 1st Sergeant, Paratroops
The Location: Jenin
Date: February-May 2003

"We took up positions of ‘Straw Widow’ (a disguised ambush). We were  told that this ‘Straw Widow’ was against armed people and against people  climbing on our armed vehicles. Our APCs (armed personnel carriers) were  cruising 24 hours a day close to buildings (in Jenin), waiting for kids to  climb on them, trying to dislodge the top -mounted MG (machine gun) and  to shoot them. We had fixed positions inside Jenin’s casbah, the APCs were on the streets, below us. They were moving continuously. We were expressly  told that we were just waiting for someone to climb on an APC, and ordered  to shoot to kill. We quickly understood that we weren’t expected to deal  with armed people as no armed Palestinian would roam the streets with so  many APCs around. They (our authorities) were looking for children or plain  people daring to climb on an APC or on any other armored vehicle. We  understood that from the talks with our officers.  After a day or two, a 12-year old kid climbed on one of the APCs. There were  lots of guesses about his age. First they said he was 8, later, that he was 12. I  don’t know. In any case he climbed on an APC and one of our sharpshooters  killed him. I already mentioned, we were looking for kids."

Witness: Staff sergeant, Paratroops.
Place of incident: Nablus

"During Ramadan of 2003, or 2002. We were on an arrest operation. There  were normal open-fire orders – of arresting a suspect and so on: meaning “stop, stop or I’ll shoot, shot in the air, bla bla bla*. On operation we never  use all this. The actual procedure is a quick suspect-arrest procedure, which is: “Wakef” (“Stop”), boom. If the person does not stop the second you tell him to, puts up his hands and all that – you shoot to kill."

Witness: Staff sergeant, Armored troops
Place: Gaza strip
Date: not specific

"The main area I was involved in during my service was Gaza. Generally, what would happen there… You have two options… Or sometimes we were… An operational battalion. There were times when the army was initiating many operations. The main purpose of those operations was either to demolish terrorists’ houses or to demolish places where they manufacture mortars, and other such stuff, or… You would come in and ruin everything you see. Also, the open-fire orders would constantly change. Meaning: there were timeswhen – ‘Every person you see on the street, kill him.’ And we would do it. We wouldn’t think. We would just do it. I am talking about certain periods, not all the time. The first time we were deployed in Gaza there was a time when, say, at 1 am, we would have to go on an operation – to demolish some Palestinian police building. And the open-fire orders were: “Every personthat is on the street – shoot to kill. Don’t mind whether he has or has no gun on him.” There were such cases. And at other times, [we were supposed to shoot] only if the person had a gun, or… It would change from place to place. There were places like the fence, times when they [Palestinians] would infiltrate… There were times when every person spotted in the general area of the fence, even if it was relatively distant [from the fence]…. ‘See him in the vicinity of the fence: shoot to kill’; not thinking twice about it. And I tell you we would do it. I wouldn’t begin in such a case to try to scare him off, or anything like it. In the end it got a lot calmer, for there were agreements and all. But at the beginning, at the early period of my basic training, each day, someone would have killed someone, or shoot an innocent person…"

Whilst the above selection of testimonies from Breaking the Silence's collection are specific to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, these stories resonate more broadly, giving an intimate, human face to the ethical dilemmas and personal issues soldiers experience in any conflict.

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