Israeli soldiers' new occupation: opening up a closed conflict
An exhibition of photographs and testimonies, based on interviews with more than 700 former soldiers, sheds new light on the 45-year Israeli occupation
SIX YOUNG BOYS play as an armed soldier looks on. Look closer and you’ll see that the smiling boys are playing Israelis and Palestinians – occupier and occupied – with four lined up against a wall and two standing guard, with sticks as guns.
It’s just one of many disturbing images in Breaking the Silence, an exhibition documenting, in personal photographs and testimony, the past decade of the 45-year Israeli occupation.
The exhibition opens with 25 photographs of Israel’s finest – fresh-faced, smiling soldiers during their military service. Visitors are then plunged into the daily reality, where smiling soldiers become dead-eyed twentysomethings with machine guns, emotionally under-equipped to deal with the occupation they have inherited.
With his slight build, brown hair and smiling eyes, it’s hard to imagine anyone feeling threatened by Nadav, a 24 year-old Israeli from Haifa, currently in Berlin with the exhibition.
“For the first two weeks you’re afraid,” he says, recalling his service in Hebron. “Then, on day 15, you get used to controlling people, handcuffing people.”
The Israeli-Palestinian struggle is one of the most documented conflicts in history. The names of territories occupied by Israel since the Six Day War, in 1967 – the Golan Heights, the West Bank, East Jerusalem – are as familiar to our ears as the Falls Road and West Belfast once were. But, unlike in Northern Ireland, nothing has changed in Israel.
The 1993 Oslo Accord has not delivered the promised two-state solution; the asymmetrical conflict of resistance and occupation rages on, having claimed 6,500 Palestinian and 1,000 Israeli lives in the past decade alone.
The flood of information and imagery from the region – and the heated debate it generates – can overwhelm and intimidate outsiders.
“This is not about good Palestinians and bad Israelis but people who have quite terrible roles,” says Tsafrir Cohen of Medico International, a German aid agency and cosponsor of the Berlin exhibition. “On one hand they are people doing evil, but they are also victims of a situation, doing things they don’t quite understand.”
The Israeli nongovernmental organisation behind the exhibition, also called Breaking the Silence, was founded in 2004 and sees its task as opening up a closed conflict, restoring to the territorial claims the terrible human cost. It wants to show us the conflict through the eyes of those asked by Israel to shoulder the ultimate responsibility on the ground.
The group director, Dana Hebron, served in the Israeli military for three years, until 2004. She has no illusions about the challenges Breaking the Silence has taken on.
The first is to air criticism in Israel of its army, an untouchable institution viewed widely as a central guarantor of the Jewish state’s security. Questioning the military’s methods, as Breaking the Silence does, leaves its members open to attack as national traitors, undermining a central pillar of Israel’s existence. Individuals who “come out” as members of the group jeopardise their social standing in Israeli society.
“We are criticised heavily; people fear this will ruin the image of Israel in the world,” she says. “We say we are not ruining the image: the occupation is. I’m not ashamed to talk about it.” The second challenge, Hebron says, is in confronting apathy and ignorance about what it means for the vast majority of Israeli society, with no personal experience of it, to be an occupying force.
To bring home the reality, the group has interviewed more than 700 former soldiers about their experiences during the decade-old intifada, or armed struggle. Interviewers noticed striking similarities in the soldiers’ experiences and use of language that, like George Orwell’s newspeak, often expresses the opposite of what it means.
The Israeli military strategy of “prevention”, for instance, goes far beyond preventing terrorist attacks. In the past decade the group says “prevention” has expanded beyond killing those who pose a threat to killing those who might be a threat or who were a threat. This creates moral dilemmas for soldiers, who soon realise their superiors are just as morally compromised.
“It’s like the Wild West and everyone . . . does what he wants,” one soldier writes in Our Harsh Logic, a book accompanying the exhibition.
“I knew the [Palestinian] man was not dangerous, yet the commander issued the order and we killed him,” another soldier writes. “I think of the US where . . . every death sentence goes through thousands of appeal hearings . . . Here, a 26-year-old guy, my commander, declares a death sentence [over the radio] on an unarmed man. Who is he anyway?”
The book details other strategies used by the Israeli army in the occupied territories. “Demonstrating presence”, for instance, is an elastic term former soldiers say is designed to intimidate Palestinians into believing the Israeli army is everywhere. From random firing of machine guns to arbitrary car checks and destructive house searches, demonstrating presence is sometimes based on concrete intelligence, often not.
Breaking the Silence has vocal critics in Israel. Some say the group presents one-sided propaganda of a complex conflict; Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, insists “there is no silence to break”.
Dana Hebron says there are new limitations on the group’s work and a creeping process of “de-democratisation” under a government she says equates Israel’s right to exist with its right to occupy. “The meaning of that is that I can only fulfil my right to self-determination if I prevent Palestinians doing the same,” she says.
“We would like to live peacefully and not suppress other people. As the people sent to perform this task we would like to end the occupation. Nothing can come out of this.”
Change can only come from within Israeli society, she says, but this can be influenced by outside pressure.
With their online testimony and worldwide exhibitions, these former soldiers hope to break a second silence: of the international community on Israeli human-rights violations.
“I only understand what is so wrong about the occupation after serving,” says the former soldier Nadav, in Berlin; “how it is destroying Israeli and Palestinian society.”
Breaking the Silence is at Willy Brandt Haus, in Berlin, until September 29th; breakingthesilence.org.il. Our Harsh Methods is published by Metropolitan/Macmillan