'Breaking The Silence': Diagnosis Is Not Treachery

Soldier with a Hebron settler. Nahal Brigade, 50th Battalion. Hebron, 2003

"How are we going to retain respect for human life? This is the contradiction, this is the paradox with the whole business. What we’ve got to avoid is cheapening life and becoming conquerors. We mustn’t become expansionists at the expense of other people, we mustn’t become Arab haters.”

More testimony from soldiers affiliated with Breaking the Silence--you know, the radicals delegitimizing the Jewish state? Actually, this passage is quoted from an extended conversation of elite Israeli soldiers immediately after the 1967 war, famously edited and published by Amos Oz and Muki Tzur; a book called Siach Lochamim ("A Conversation of Fighters") in Hebrew, and published in English as The Seventh Day. It sold something like 100,000 copies in a state of less than three million people in the year after it appeared.

Siach Lochamim also had soldiers rhapsodizing about retaking the Wailing Wall and Temple Mount, speaking of their determination never to surrender the Golan Heights, and so forth. But my point is that no sooner had Israeli fighters conquered the Palestinian territories in 1967 that some significant part of them began to wonder where this would all lead, and especially about the corrupting influences of conquest.

Yes, the concern may all have been a little hypothetical, the kind of worry you express because you have read modern colonial history and want to prove you have learned its lessons. Perhaps some were being moral show-offs, the way those of us who wrote about the settlers back in 1975, and wondered out loud if settlements of 20,000 or 30,000 people "would make negotiations impossible," were also showing off a little, not really believing that things like that could ever happen to us. Anyway, there is nothing hypothetical about the concern of "becoming conquerors" anymore.

BREAKING THE SILENCE has just published (still in Hebrew, but an English version is forthcoming) a compendium of testimonies that, for anyone who had read Siach Lochamim, will evoke a shock of recognition, what the children of Israel should feel when a prophesy is fulfilled. Breaking the Silence's book contains many testimonies about extreme actions by the army during the Al-Aqsa Intifdah, which leave one wondering what is cause and what is effect. Let's leave those aside.

The most revealing testimonies are more recent and address the question of army control per se, the actions of an IDF and Secret Service insinuated in a system where showing the defeated population who rules has become an end in itself; the fear of letting go of the levers of power--routine efforts at intimidation, networks of collaborators--which seem even more important, in a way, than promised land:

Unit: Paratroopers [Reserves] - Location: Tul Karem district - Year: 2007
[T]he army, since the time of the [Lebanon] war, concluded that it needs to take advantage of every day of reserve duty that a soldier does in order to bring him to complete competence for the next war that will come...I started my reserve duty on the 11th of March [2007]. It was my second reserve duty deployed in Ariel. We knew that the reserve duty would begin with three or four days of training.

The Friday before the 11th was a Sunday...I’m listening to the news and they are talking about an exercise done by the central paratroopers brigade, towards pre-operations training in the Bet Lid village. Now, that’s me. Meaning, it’s clear to me that if that’s what the battalion before me did, then I’m going to do it on Sunday...the terrain of Lebanon, in the area of Samaria, which will simulate movement towards targets, with lookouts and ambushes and all kinds of things like that during the process. And in the end it concluded with the occupation of a village.

...[Y]ou go into a village in the middle of the night…with blanks and stun grenades and explosives at the end. A village in which the people living there didn’t present a threat beforehand, they won’t present a threat afterwards…maybe afterwards they will…and you basically disrupt their night. Children pee in their beds, mothers scream, things that happen when you get into…they put on [the radio] an attorney who spoke, they put on my deputy brigade commander, the deputy brigade commander of that same brigade. And the guy is talking – how important it is after Lebanon to train and whatever and everything is OK. 

And he concludes with a sentence that I was in shock when I heard it that…he said: “I was the last to leave the village in the morning and the locals, with smiles and understanding, blessed me to go in peace.” Which is, beyond the ignorance and the arrogance with which he allows himself to speak, you know – apologize, say that the military attorney general is checking it, give a military response maybe, but I wish for this deputy brigade commander for an exercise like that to happen in the kibbutz where he lives. That at four in the morning they go in with stun grenades, and I want to see the rice he’ll throw in the morning at the soldiers who are leaving. Because it’s really chutzpah, unlike any other...

Now, I imagined, in my innocence, that for us it would be different. Meaning we would come, and since it already made it to the media, and there is a military attorney general in the world and there are other legal authorities, there is someone who will take care of it. So I got to reserve duty..., they were at the height of preparation for the exercise. The story of everything that I heard is still running through my head, and I wanted to see if there would be some kind of difference. I arrived at the second to last briefing..., the deputy company commander...opened with, “guys I don’t care. From my standpoint, you can go to the media, tell them whatever you want, but what’s important to me is that you do this, this, and this…” 

And in reality, what happened was exactly what the description of the battalion exercise had said--it also happened with us. We walked all night and made ambushes and invasions here and there and everything, what you do during an exercise like that. And in the early hours of the morning we found ourselves in Al Hayad, in the direction of incursion into the village itself....

...We finished the exercise in the middle of the village. We started on the march that is called “logistical” towards the buses waiting at a distance of a few kilometers from there. Look, you see the residents like standing, looking, smiling and whatever. The words of that deputy brigade commander reverberate for me again, yes, but it’s not smiles and understanding. It’s smiles and understanding of the fifth or fourth time that this exercise is happening in their village without anyone coordinating it with them...

VILLAGES HAVE NOT only become periodic props for training.  They are more often at odds with settlers encroaching on their land. They army is called in to "keep the peace," supposedly neutral, but actually enforcing a status quo in which the settlers gain:

Unit: Kfir Battalion · Location: Susiya · Year: 2004-2005 
How was the relationship with the settlers there? Ups and downs. For the most part, during that time they did respect us, sometimes they also spoiled us, meaning they hosted us in all kinds of places. There were also people that for them the work we were doing wasn’t tough enough, all kinds of catchphrases like, “We want security, not protection.” One thing, sometimes the one responsible for the security of the settlement, how do you say this, they think of themselves as our commanders, not the company commander. They would try and give us orders about what to do, where and when.

They had influence...Meaning, if they would say: “Your guys didn’t send away the shepherds when they were too close,” or perhaps they would say to us: “next time you are in the same situation, be sure to do it right and be more aggressive.” It wasn’t a situation where they would tell the company commander what to do, but they definitely had influence...The security coordinators would meet with the company commander at least once a week, both for a situation assessment and routine, but also to say what they thought about what we were doing, and what they thought that we needed to do. I don’t know how much they cared in the higher ranks. In the lower ranks, there were instances where the company commander didn’t listen to them at all. There were cases where he did exactly what they said...

WILL THESE TESTIMONIES embarrass Israel?  Yes--or at least they should, the way organizing against Jim Crow in the South embarrassed the US, though this came during the worst of Cold War. But they can heal Israel as well.  For anybody with the slightest appreciation for how democracies work, the question of "delegitimization" is just demagogy. As those fighters after the 1967 war understood, Israel was about to face the very serious question of how, and whether, to conduct an occupation. The soldiers understood how they, and their government, could get things very wrong, and the only way to get things more nearly right was through expressions of anxiety and public criticism of brutal behavior.

There is a difference, after all, between diagnosis and treachery. If a doctor tells you you have AIDS, it is true that she is also telling you something that will make you, shall we say, less desirable at the bar. But you have to be pretty thick to suppose that, in making the diagnosis, she is actually trying to give comfort to your rivals or generally wreck your life. Breaking the Silence may be wrong in its diagnosis (it is not), but then the only way to get things right is to investigate the facts and explore how they came to be what they are.

Being "democratic" is not just a product feature to be celebrated by Israel's brand managers in America. The issues Israeli democracy, or what's left of it, enables Israelis to debate are a matter of life and death. True enough, a Knesset majority, swayed by Avigdor Lieberman, is now trying to shut up Breaking the Silence through hearings and investigations. Which only goes to prove that a majority, especially one locked in a colonial project, is often a democracy's greatest enemy.