Breaking the Silence
Avner is a slight, quietly spoken young man in short-sleeved blue T-shirt and jeans, his pale skin protected from the sun by a straw hat. Hard to imagine that just 5 years ago he was a paratrooper in a special unit in the Israeli army and could have been one of the soldiers stopping us at a checkpoint anywhere on the West Bank.
Today he is leading us on a tour of Hebron and the South Hebron Hills as a member of ‘Breaking the Silence’, a group of former soldiers from the Israeli army who talk openly about the reality of everyday life for those who serve in the occupied Palestinian Territories – and how the behaviours and underlying strategies of the army affect the Palestinian civilian population.
Avner relates some of his personal journey. Before joining the army he wasn’t sure what exactly was going on in the West Bank. He had ideas about being a ‘good soldier’, of being on the ground and changing things. However, his years of service – November 2004 to 2007 just following the 2nd Intifada – were particularly difficult in terms of violence. This included violence by both settlers and the army against Palestinian civilians, but this isn’t something that was ever talked about. By the end of his service he came to the conclusion that it was impossible to be a ‘good soldier’ because the orders received and the very system itself were often immoral. After joining a tour of the South Hebron Hills with Breaking the Silence, he gave testimonies to the organisation about his experiences as a paratrooper. Leading tours is now an ongoing commitment for him.
Some key points emerge from his experience in the army. First of all, he says, the Occupation is primarily about controlling the indigenous population rather than security.
One tactic of control by the military, says Avner, is by instilling a sense of fear into the local population. There are various ways of doing this, including ‘mock arrests’ (for training purposes) and ‘straw widows’ (the practice of taking over a house for strategic purposes and keeping the family in one room). His unit received orders to deliberately ‘stir up the everyday life of the Palestinians’ – to make sure that they never forgot the presence of the army, in order to harass them, and ultimately to drive them out of the area.
Avner described his ‘rules of engagement’ as a paratrooper. Soldiers must never intervene in cases of settler violence, although they can phone the police. If a settler opens fire, for instance, the order is to hide somewhere until the last shot is fired. If a Palestinian is seen carrying a weapon, on the other hand, the order is ‘shoot to kill’. There were cases where his unit received orders directly from the settlers. The prior concern of the army, he says, is to protect the settlers.
What did it feel like to be a member of such a unit? To some extent he and his fellow-soldiers were unaware of the problems they were causing for the local population. He describes how delighted they were, when stationed in the South Hebron Hills, to find that they had a fresh-water spring on their patch in which they could swim – without realizing that this was a vital source of water for the farmers of Susiya. There were light-bulb moments, however. One of these was an incident where he was head of a sniper unit in Nablus, and received orders to take over what they called ‘the house of the doctor.’
The unit got to the 4th floor, but was not allowed entry. After breaking down the door, they found an elderly man trying to prevent them from entering. They pushed him to the wall, tied his hands, took his wife, and occupied the house. Later on, when the situation had calmed down, Avner had some conversation with the owner who, he discovered, really was a doctor. He had been promised by the army that they wouldn’t enter his house again. On the wall in the living room was a photo of the owner with Shimon Perez. Towards dawn, the owner asked Avner if he could go to the kitchen to prepare something to eat and drink for his wife and himself, as otherwise they wouldn’t be able to eat until after sunset. The soldiers hadn’t even realized that it was Ramadan.
This story illustrates a total lack of understanding and empathy for the local population or any ability to relate to them as human beings. The very opposite of ‘winning heart and minds’, says Avner.
However, as he talks to Nasser, the head of Susiya Village Council, we can see that this is all in the past. We ask Nasser how it makes him feel to hear Avner saying that he and his fellow soldiers used to bathe in one of their springs. Nasser waits for our question to be translated into Hebrew, then puts his hand on Avner’s knee and smiles. There is no need for words.