Israel’s insider critics

Avner Gvaryahu is a former Israeli soldier who has become a campaigner against his country’s policies. In the city of Hebron he demonstrates what he regards as the folly of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank


Standing in the middle of Shuhada Street, a thoroughfare that runs through Hebron’s old city, Avner Gvaryahu produces a photograph of the area, taken in 1999, and holds it aloft to drive home his point. The scene in the picture is a bustling market, with large crowds moving among fruit and vegetable stalls and cars inching their way through the gaps.

Today the same street is deserted and tense. The shops are all closed, hardly anyone is out and a fortified military watchtower overlooks us. “That used to be the meat market,” he says, pointing to a shuttered building. “And this street used to be full of stalls.”

Hebron is the only Palestinian city in the West Bank with a Jewish settlement at its centre. Shuhada Street is the flashpoint, one of the most bitterly contested pieces of urban space in a part of the world where land disputes are invested with existential significance.

Since 2000, Shuhada Street – the epicentre of a community of Israelis that has grown steadily since the first settlers squatted in a house here in 1979 – has been entirely closed to Palestinians.

The map of the city has three types of colour-coded roads where the army restricts access in order, it says, to protect a few hundred settlers. Purple means no Palestinian vehicles allowed, yellow means Palestinians cannot drive or open shops, and red marks what the Israeli military calls “a sterilised road”, meaning no Palestinians are allowed at all.

Shuhada is red. Yet several Palestinians live on the street; one elderly woman, Malkha Kapisha, must climb on to her roof when she wants to leave her home. Graffiti on the street declares: “There is no Palestine. There never will be.”

Gvaryahu has brought me here to demonstrate what he regards as the folly of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank. The 29-year-old knows the area well. As a paratrooper in the Israeli army he walked these streets in uniform, helping to enforce the occupation. In recent years he has returned as a critic and campaigner.

“I think what really changed my perspective was just meeting this reality,” he says. The first time he was ever in a Palestinian house, Gvaryahu recalls, was when he did his first “straw widow” – army jargon for entering a home to commandeer it as a lookout post for an operation.

“You go into the house in the middle of the night,” he explains. “Whether you break down the door or knock on the door depends on the officer. You get into the house, get an entire family and lock them in a room. If they want to use the bathroom, they need permission from us. If they want to use the kitchen, they need permission from us. It’s all under our control.

“This was my first interaction with Palestinians. This is the balance of power.”

Destined for the military

Born into a religious-nationalist community in the town of Rehovot, near Tel Aviv, Gvaryahu was always destined for the army. His parents were relatively liberal, politically left of centre, but his father had been a paratrooper, his grandmother had fought in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and when he joined, in 2004, he went straight into a special-operations unit. “I was very enthusiastic,” he says. “I felt it was my time, my time to give back, do the right thing. I felt I was going in with my eyes open.”

He struggles to identify a turning point, but slowly his questioning became more insistent. He saw Palestinians suffer thefts and humiliation (and, on one occasion, when a woman with a broom was mistaken for a man with a gun, a gunshot wound) at the hands of his fellow soldiers. “All those incidents happened around me, but I managed to rationalise them.”

Then, a month before he was to be discharged, after three years in the military, Gvaryahu took a tour of occupied areas with Breaking the Silence, an organisation of veterans who have served in the Israeli military and seek to show Israel society the everyday reality of the occupation of Palestinian territory. He would later sign up. “I felt in many cases I was doing more harm than good,” he says.

Nestled in the Judaean Mountains south of Jerusalem, Hebron is the largest city in the West Bank and a place venerated by Muslims, Jews and Christians. It is considered the second-holiest city in Judaism, after Jerusalem, and since the Six Day War, in 1967, the Israeli settler movement, with the support of its government and military, has been encroaching farther into the city.

The international community considers the settlements, like all of those in occupied territory, to be illegal, but Israel has persisted in expanding them. And as Israelis have moved in – there are now almost 100 Jewish families in Hebron – Palestinians have been moving out. More than 1,000 Palestinian housing units, about 42 per cent of the apartments in central Hebron, have been abandoned by their occupants.

Israeli policy towards Palestinians near the settlements is all about separation, Gvaryahu argues. Their movements are tightly circumscribed, their shops and roads are closed. They have different legal regimes: a Palestinian throwing a rock at a car can be held for two days; an Israeli doing the same thing could be held for no more than 12 hours.

He believes the unspoken purpose is to make it so difficult for Palestinians to live that they decide to move on and make way for more Israelis.

The small number of Palestinians who live in the old city have built cages around their doors and windows to protect themselves against stone-throwing settlers. “In order to start ending this conflict we have to start with ending the occupation, giving Palestinians back their dignity, helping with education and jobs, helping Palestinians grow into their potential,” Gvaryahu says.

Drawing opposition

The veterans of Breaking the Silence know they don’t belong to the Israeli consensus. They see themselves as critics not of the army but of government policy. Yet in a society where the military is highly respected and deeply anchored in the community, their stance has drawn fierce opposition.

As we stroll around the settlement in old Hebron a young man approaches us and introduces himself as Israel. A polite but vigorous argument ensues. Israel, a history student, is angry at Gvaryahu and his “anti-Israeli” organisation for undermining the country in the eyes of foreigners.

“I’m absolutely shocked,” he says. “Soldiers are being killed in Gaza and you’re here saying we need to be full of morals. The IDF” – Israel Defense Forces – “every time they attack a house, they call, they send letters, they text. There is no army in the world that does the same.”

Israel warms to his theme. “You know,” he says to Gvaryahu, “many soldiers are killed because of you people . . . You handcuff the IDF. Every commander in Gaza today has a lawyer following him around.”

Gvaryahu replies, “You live in a place where people can’t leave the front door of their house, even if it’s an 80-year-old woman or a six-year-old child. It’s collective punishment . . . That’s a moral discussion which I think it is important to have.”

Israel disagrees: “This is not an occupation. This is Jewish land. Abraham came to this city. We were promised this land,” he says. “We were exiled by the Romans 2,000 years ago, but we’re back home. I know there were other people here on this land when we came back, but it’s absolutely not occupation.” He adds, “You can’t judge. You don’t suffer from shootings here.”

“I want to end this reality of long-lasting military occupation for the benefit of both people,” says Gvaryahu. “You’re not willing to make that compromise for religious reasons, not practical reasons.”

Israel says, “We are here because the Israeli government wants us to live here. If we didn’t have soldiers here, we’d leave in half a second.”

As Gvaryahu walks away Israel calls after him to say he’s not too bothered anyway, because “we’re winning and you’re not”.

He’s right. The settlements, a cherished cause for ascendant right-wing Israeli parties, have been expanding rapidly across the West Bank; new approvals were granted even in the middle of a recent, unsuccessful round of peace talks brokered by John Kerry, the US secretary of state.

“When we started Breaking the Silence, in 2004, I think Israeli society was more open to hearing this,” Gvaryahu says. “We were even invited into the Israeli parliament. Ten years later we’re farther away from ending the occupation.”

The climate has become even more delicate since the conflict in Gaza erupted two weeks ago. “I really feel it now more than I felt it a month ago – this feeling that ‘this isn’t the time, no criticising’,” he says. “It’s so difficult to hear about these things. It’s definitely a taboo. But we’re here to raise the moral questions – and if we’re here to do that then we have to do it in these difficult times.”

Breaking the Silence – Ex-Israeli soldiers speak

“On the way back no one had any regrets. We were comparing who had fired at the largest number of people. I was ridiculed for not having killed the armed militant, for just having wounded and not killed him. Then the guys started counting how many each of them had killed.”
– Staff sergeant, Gaza Strip, 2003

“There’s a heavy machine gun there on the porch, a grenade launcher, two marksmen . . . And they would start ripping the city apart. Spraying. Sight unseen. It was a kind of madness. No one attached any importance to it; the city was like a shooting range.”
– Staff sergeant, Hebron, 2002

“We were basically the ones who stayed to remove whatever remains were left of the bodies . . . And I remember standing there and simply looking at what was going on. I think they intended to spare me and didn’t let me inside. I stood there and saw parts of something that had once been a human being – and my mouth, I mean, my jaw dropped, and I was just standing there, gaping.”
– Lieutenant, Gaza Strip, 2003

“My commander decided he identified somebody about 1,000 metres away . . . The gunner fired to 1,000 metres into a built-up area. At best you hit a wall. At worst you kill somebody who is not the one you aimed at.”
– Staff sergeant, Gaza Strip, 2000

Excepts taken from a database of 1,000 testimonies from Israeli ex-soldiers, compiled by Breaking the Silence.

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