A few days ago some friends and I took a tour of the hills south of the city of Hebron in the West Bank. The tour was given by Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers who speak about the conscienceless things that they did to Palestinians in the name of “security” during their time in the military. I suspect that many of them view this project as some sort of repentance for their sins, and I also suspect that to some of them, it will never be enough.
As our bus plowed southward from Jerusalem, the scenery was of secondary importance. What held my interest were the anecdotes of our two ex-soldier tour guides, who shared priceless insights into a military occupation that I had only heard about from the Palestinian side. The former soldiers were interesting specimens, one resembling a Brooklyn hipster, the other a dreadlocked hippie.
Before I go any further, I should mention that the military is one of Israel’s most revered institutions. If you are an Israeli citizen, military service is compulsory: three years for a man, two for a woman. Refuseniks are pretty rare in Israel. I knew an Israeli girl back in college that boasted that not one of her dozen or so cousins had less than a fantastic, life-changing time in the army. It’s easy to imagine why: the camaraderie forged in the classless ranks, the heft of a weapon at the ready, the sense of importance reinforced by friends and family (“Don’t worry about it soldier, it’s on me.”), and most of all, the very little actual danger that they face. The Israeli Defense Forces, wielding such disproportionate power in relation to the Palestinians, is rarely on defense. Thus they can have their cake and eat it too, basking in the glory of the armed service without enduring the grueling hell of actual war.1 Thus, it is no surprise when Hippie says over the bus intercom that to most Israelis, serving in the army seems “like some computer game.”
In addition to a general sense of adulation for the army among the Israeli public, there was the chest-pounding assuredness and the pep rallies within the army itself that made the soldiers feel not only better, but unflinchingly right, even when protecting illegal Israeli settlements or torturing Palestinian prisoners. Hippie recalled his commander saying that “There is no better feeling that killing a terrorist,” then subsequently passing out photos of “terrorists” taken right after they had been killed by the IDF. “We were taught that all Palestinians were our enemies,” he said.
Brooklyn pointed out a small Israeli military outpost as we climbed a hilltop. As we passed, he mentioned that this outpost – “Hilltop 840” – only requires six soldiers to adequately man it. Yet when he served there, he did so with seventy-nine other men. Way overstaffed and consequently, bored out of their minds, they “practiced” on the locals by tying up, holding, and barging in on people who were unfortunate enough to be Palestinians living in Hebron. Even more unfortunate were the Palestinians that happened to live near Israeli settlements. No matter what the circumstances, “we have this mindset that wherever Jews are, we should protect them,” Brooklyn said.
Hippie then reclaimed the mic and told a story about his division’s hunt for a man wanted for the murder for three Israeli settlers. They knew where the man lived, but every time they arrived at the house, he was nowhere to be found and his family said they didn’t know where he was. While on patrol one night, Hippie saw that the wanted man’s house was abuzz with activity. The fugitive’s family – amidst a cluster of Israeli soldiers – was moving all of their belongings outside. He found that his fellow soldiers had decided to “punish” the family for their lack of cooperation by forcing them to clear out their house entirely, then put all their belongings back in, just as misbehaving soldiers had been forced to do with their foot lockers in boot camp.
Another little-known cruelty of the Occupation is the restriction of Palestinian movement. Hippie had no shortage of examples here:
* Palestinians were stopped on the road and questioned at length; sometimes their licenses were confiscated to be “examined” and “returned later.” The newly unlicensed Palestinian is back on the road when he is stopped by another IDF soldier asking for a license. The Palestinian describes in detail the soldier who confiscated his license, but to no avail – he is fined, or…
* …the IDF soldier reaches under the hood and takes the spark plug out of the car so that its Palestinian owner cannot start it. Later, when the Israeli army is feeling generous, the Palestinian is presented with a large bag filled with scores of electric fuses. “Here, you can have it back,” the soldier says. The Palestinian does not even know which one is for his car.
* A Palestinian farmer is stopped by an Israeli patrol. It seems that he has already been warned about driving on this road (since he must get to his crops, however, he has no choice). The IDF soldier orders him to turn the car off and takes the keys. The car is then left on the side of the road, perhaps to be used later as an improvised blockade.
When talking about Israel and Palestine to the uninitiated, or the “other side,” it’s common for Palestinian supporters to brandish their critiques garnered from leftist academics, to play them as their aces. Yet no matter the soundness of the scholarship of fellows like Finkelstein and Chomsky, they are not over there in the thick of things; they are easily dismissed as ideological, dogmatic academics disconnected from the events on the ground, just as the left dismisses fellows like Alan Dershowitz. Yet when armed with testimonies from Israeli soldiers—people who have been there, on the other side—the argument to end the Occupation becomes infinitely stronger. With this said, I feel that Breaking the Silence is one of the most important assets that the pro-Palestinian movement can utilize to work towards an end to the Occupation. I highly recommend a visit to their website, and taking a look at soldiers’ testimonies. If you’re actually over in Israel or Palestine, try and wriggle your way into one of their tours. (Even if you’re told that the tour is full, as my friends and I were, show up anyway, as there are bound to be no-shows.)
- An exception to the general rule of Israel’s military dominance: the country’s ground incursion into Lebanon in the summer of 2006. Israeli soldiers suffered relatively heavy losses against an intelligent and wily Hezbollah resistance. [↩]