Breaking the Silence: Former Israeli soldier branded a traitor for asking troops to tell their West Bank stories

Group publicises anonymous testimonies of soldiers to show 'moral price' of occupation and to bring it to an end

Achiya Schatz does not fit the profile of a traitor to Israel or an enemy of its people. As a young man, he was a Boy Scout counsellor and role model; as a soldier, he risked his life serving in the elite Duvdevan combat unit; and then he became an emissary for the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental Zionist organisation with the task of bolstering support for Israel abroad.

As a soldier, one of Mr Schatz's jobs was to be a handcuffer of Palestinians and he was known for his abilty to do this speedily.

Yet Mr Schatz, 30, and the organisation for which he is spokesman, Breaking the Silence, stand accused of stabbing the army and the country in the back and even endangering the lives of Israeli citizens. 

The group, founded in 2004, collects and publicises anonymous testimonies of soldiers from their service in the West Bank and Gaza, offering more revealing accounts of the military occupation and its impact on Palestinian civilians than the official statements from the army. The stated goal of the group, which has gathered more than 1,000 testimonies, is to show the “moral price” of the occupation and to bring it to an end.

“Breaking the Silence is a voice of soldiers who want change, who care about this place in a deep way, who are willing to confront their own acts and to think about what they did and what we do as a nation,” Mr Schatz told The Independent on Sunday.

The group does not blame soldiers for claimed abuses, but the politicians who perpetuate the occupation and send them into situations in which it is inevitable that they will cause harm to Palestinian civilians. Activists testified before the subcommittee on human rights of the European Parliament shortly after the group published testimonies on the 2014 Gaza war. The soldiers alleged lax rules of engagement and raised questions about whether the army had fulfilled its obligations to protect non-combatants.

Partly because it can be depicted as undermining the country’s image internationally, Breaking the Silence has become the most vilified anti-occupation NGO by the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Within the space of a few days, Mr Netanyahu denounced it on the Knesset floor, Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon banned it from contact with soldiers, Education Minister Naftali Bennett banned it from schools, and the centrist opposition politician Yair Lapid, the head of the Yesh Atid party, accused it of “gnawing away at the foundations of the state”. The airwaves resounded with reservists calling the group “traitors” and alleging that it fabricates testimonies. 

But it also had supporters who said its criticism played a valuable role – including Ami Ayalon, a former head of the Shin Bet internal security agency.

At the group’s modest offices, which now have a security guard outside, Mr Schatz says he came to the conclusion that ending the occupation was the best thing he could do for his country – and for Israeli soldiers. While he was a soldier, he and his friends tried to behave morally. But, in retrospect, no matter how moral he tried to be, he still harmed the civilian population. That harm, he says, is integral and inevitable to the occupation. So the occupation itself must ended, he reasons. 

“You can’t do it nicely. You can’t be moral when your mission is to occupy millions of people and deal every day with civilians as a soldier relying on force when they don’t want you.” 

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Achiya Schatz

Taking over the houses of innocent neighbours to secure arrest raids for undercover troops disguised as Arabs; manning checkpoints; guarding settlements and handcuffing Palestinians were all part of his service. In 2007, he was participating in what seemed to be a routine arrest operation in a northern West Bank city – he doesn’t remember which one. His job was to secure a part of the street near the house where the arrest was to be made. It was about four in the morning and suddenly the call to prayer resonated and Palestinians streamed into the street on their way to the mosque.

“Anyone who passes, you must arrest,” he explained. “People kept coming. It was a lot of people. I remember how easily we handcuffed all of them. They were quiet sitting there, they didn’t object. All they were doing was going to the mosque, but they were intercepting our mission. I don’t know what we did with these people after. I can’t remember. But every operation involves civilians.”

On another arrest operation, also in 2007, forces were supposed to carry out a “hot entry”, blowing open the door of a wanted person’s house with explosives. But they went to the wrong home. “Inside the house it looked like it had been raised in the air and dropped down. The colour of the paint was off, the refrigerator open and tilted on the floor, the windows and doors broken. The people inside didn’t know what was going on,” he said.

After completing his service in 2008, being forced to explain Israeli policies as part of his job as an emissary to the South African Jewish community merely intensified his questioning of what of he had done – and what Israel was doing. 

When Mr Schatz returned from that stint, he made his first contact with Breaking the Silence, going on a tour they gave of the West Bank. The tour visited Carmel, a settlement he had guarded as a soldier, and for the first time he got to meet the Palestinians of the adjoining village of Um al-Kheir. “You see a settlement built on a Palestinian village. You, as a soldier, protect the settlement and see the village that was built before the settlement as your threat. And you ask yourself, ‘How the hell is this moral?’ and then you ask the broader questions.”

But the former defence minister Moshe Arens told The IoS that Breaking the Silence should bring problematic “incidents” to the attention of the army, not publicise them. “There is no other army like Israel’s that tries to be as careful and responsible in very difficult situations, sticking to the norms of civilised warfare,” he said. “For them to assume that the army would not be interested in what they have to say has no basis in fact.”

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