'Our lives became something we'd never dreamt': The former Israeli soldiers who have testified against army abuses

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Former Israeli soldiers who have testified against army abuses have for the first time given up their anonymity, to make their voices all the harder to ignore. Donald Macintyre gets an exclusive preview of a powerful new book

For anyone who has covered Israel, the West Bank and Gaza over the past few years, reading
Occupation of the Territories, the new book from the Israeli ex-soldiers organisation Breaking the Silence, can be an eerily evocative experience.

A conscript from the Givati Brigade, for example, describes how troops in the company operating next to his inside Gaza during 2008 had talked about an event earlier in the day. After knocking on the door of a Palestinian house and receiving no immediate answer, they had placed a "fox" – military slang for explosives used to break through doors and walls – outside the front door. At that very moment, the woman of the house had reached the door to open it. "Her limbs were smeared on the wall and it wasn't on purpose," the soldier recalls. "And then her kids came and saw her. I heard it during dinner after the operation, someone said it was funny, and they cracked up from the situation that the kids saw their mother smeared on the wall..."

A second-hand story, of course; one without names, dates or supporting detail. Except that it stirred a memory I had of reporting the death of a Palestinian UN schoolteacher east of Khan Younis. Wafer Shaker al-Daghma was killed when the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) commandeered her house during an incursion in May 2008. Her husband had been out at the time. When we came to the house five days later, another incursion was under way and we could hear, uncomfortably close, the gunfire from Israeli armoured military vehicles while Majdi al-Daghma described his wife's death at the age of 34. When she realised troops were nearby, she'd ordered ' the children, Samira, 13, Roba, four, and Qusay, two, into the bedroom, put on a headscarf and prepared to open the door. "Samira heard a loud explosion and there was a lot of smoke," he explained. "She looked for her mother but couldn't see her."

It was surely the same incident. You have to assume that the laughter alluded to by the conscript was a nervous reaction, a manifestation of delayed shock from the soldiers. They had, after all, had the presence of mind to cover Mrs al-Daghma's mutilated body with a carpet, and to keep the children confined to the bedroom for the five hours they had remained in the house. Samira said she had asked one of them, "Where is my mother?" but had not understood his reply in Hebrew. She explained how, when the soldiers finally left after nightfall, "There were still tanks outside our house... I tried to call my father on my mother's Jawwal [mobile phone] but there was no line. I lifted the carpet and saw a bit of my mother's clothes. She was not moving. I did not see her head."

The point of this is not just that the soldier's story is shocking, but that it is so apparently corroborated. Especially given that the conscript's short account – unlike many others in the book, some every bit as disquieting – is based on hearsay, it is powerfully suggestive of the testimonies' authenticity as a portrait of a 43-year-old occupation. These testimonies, checked and cross-checked, of young Israeli men and women struggling to come to terms, sometimes years after the event, with their military service in the West Bank and Gaza, add up to an unprecedented inside account, as the book's introduction puts it, of "the principles and consequences of Israeli policy in the [Palestinian] territories".

Breaking the Silence is a unique organisation. No other country – including those with recent and problematic military histories, such as the US and Britain – has anything comparable. Since it began in 2004, it has collected 700 testimonies from conscripts and reservists, spanning the decade since the beginning of the second intifada. In July last year, it made its greatest impact by publishing accounts from around 30 combat soldiers involved in the onslaught on Hamas-controlled Gaza only six months earlier, challenging the military's assertion that it had done "the utmost to avoid harming uninvolved civilians".

Breaking the Silence has since taken two more decisive steps. The Israeli military has long complained about the anonymity of its witnesses. In July, the IDF even questioned whether all the testimonies were genuine. Anonymity was understandable; the soldiers risked alienation and heavy criticism from their own communities as well as from the state itself, not to mention the possibility of proceedings brought by the military. Now, for the first time, 27 of those who had testified have allowed the Jerusalem-based photographer Quique Kierszenbaum to take their portraits, and use their names, along with summaries of why and what they testified.

The second step change, having in the past let the testimonies speak for themselves, is that Breaking the Silence has been emboldened by the sheer number of them to offer a broader analysis of what it believes they expose: in part that, while Israeli forces have indeed had to deal with "concrete threats in the past decade, including terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens", their operations, especially in the West Bank, extend beyond the solely defensive and "systematically" lead to the "de facto annexation" of occupied territory "through the dispossession of Palestinian residents".

In arguing that Israel exercises a measure of control over Palestinians that extends beyond its own security needs, the book (published in Hebrew on 21 December, with an English version to follow in the new year), takes four technical terms in frequent use by the Israeli military and tries to show in its introductions to the testimonies what Breaking the Silence sees as their real, as opposed to ostensible, meaning.

The first of these terms is "Prevention" [sikkul in Hebrew] which, it argues, has become a "code word" that allows almost every form of military action, offensive as well as defensive, to be classified as "prevention of terrorist activity". It says the principle, first enunciated by the former IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon of "searing it into the consciousness" of Palestinians that violence does not pay, translates into "intimidation... and indiscriminate punishment of the Palestinian population". The examples given include: sending a military truck into the village of Tubas at 3am in 2003 "with stun grenades and just throwing them in the street, for no reason, waking people up [to say] 'We are here. The IDF is here.'"; shooting ' a visibly unarmed man walking on a roof in Nablus in 2002 ("The company commander declared him a lookout, meaning that he understood there was no threat from the guy, and he gave the order to kill him"); and halting stone-throwing in Tekoa by using a "moving human shield" – a Palestinian man tied to the front of a vehicle – before driving round the village.

The second term is "Separation" [hafradah], meaning the separation of Palestinians not only from Israelis but from other Palestinians (within the West Bank and between Gaza and the West Bank) and their own land by using checkpoints, separation barriers, Israeli-only roads used by West Bank settlers, and a strict permit regime enforcing "isolation" of many communities. While much of this "separation" – including loss of land – is permanent, in the past two years, post-intifada, some obstacles have eased. But Breaking the Silence insists the "paradigm" is unchanged. "It's obvious Israel relaxes its grip when things are easier," says the organisation's Mikhael Manekin. "But it always has the grip. It can relax or tighten it as it chooses."

There was the "separation" of Nablus in 2003 from the surrounding villages: "You have to understand the proportionality. A person between the ages of 16 and 35, who lives in Nablus has not left Nablus in the past four years, even to go to a village next to Nablus." Another example was the Qalqilya area in 2002: "Someone whose fig grove they uprooted came in tears, and he said to me: 'I worked for 30 years to buy the land, I worked this grove for 10 years, I waited 10 years for it to bear fruit, I enjoyed it for one year and they [the IDF] are uprooting it.'"

Next is "Fabric of life" [mirkam hayyim], the term used by the IDF to underline that it does its best to ensure as normal a life as possible for Palestinians – a proposition strongly contested in the book. It claims that Israel controls the passage of civilians and goods into Israel and within the West Bank, the opening of private businesses, transport of school-children, university students and medical cases. "[Property] can all be taken at the discretion of a regional commander or a soldier in the field... troops will burst into the house in the dead of night and arrest one of the inhabitants, only to release him later – all in order to practise arrest procedures."

Among the examples is the story of a Palestinian truck driver trying to bring milk containers into Hebron from Yatta during a curfew in 2002, who was detained, handcuffed and blindfolded on a hot summer morning. He had some 2,000 litres of milk – all of which spoiled as he sat all day, restrained. "When I look at it [now]," says a former soldier, "I feel embarrassed... Did it contribute to the security of the state? No."

Another example concerns illegal workers and their families trying to get into the Wadi Ara of northern Israel from the West Bank. One former soldier recalls "Pouring out the kids' bags and playing with their toys... They cried and were afraid." The adults cried, too? "Of course. One of the goals was always: I got him to cry in front of his kids, I got him to crap in his pants... from being beaten for the most part."

Finally, in examining the term "Law enforcement" [akhifat hak], the book highlights the dual legal regime in the West Bank, whereby Palestinians are subject to military rule and courts while Israeli settlers are answerable to civilian courts. At the same time, it argues, Israeli settlers are effectively allies of the military – and they have a common enemy.

The book's stark – and inevitably highly political – conclusion is contrary to the view that "Israel is withdrawing from the Palestinian Territories slowly and with the appropriate caution and security". The IDF soldiers quoted "describe an indefatigable attempt to tighten Israel's hold on the territories, as well as on the Palestinian population".

Not surprisingly perhaps, Manekin acknowledges that those who have – as he deliberately puts it – "come out of the closet", by allowing themselves to be named and photographed, are among the more activist of the 500 individuals who have testified to the organisation. It is no coincidence that this parallel project has happened at a time when Breaking the Silence has decided to promote its own analysis of the past decade of occupation. Manekin says it wasn't easy to be photographed. "We didn't do this to be heroes," he says. "Really, the political significance is the only reason for doing it."

Donald Macintyre is The Independent's Jerusalem correspondent. For more from Breaking the Silence: shovrimshtika.org

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