Israel & Palestine: Breaking the Silence
FEBRUARY 24, 2011
Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldier Testimonies 2000–2010
by Breaking the Silence
Jerusalem, 431 pp., available at jfjfp.com/?p=19918
Many Israelis, including those who might acknowledge the accuracy of my description, will readily blame the impasse on the cumulative trauma resulting from Arab, including Palestinian, violence against Jews going back to the beginning of the conflict. There is clearly some truth to this claim, though it does not explain the gratuitous cruelty inflicted by Israel on the Palestinians over the last few decades or the enormous and continuing theft of land that must be seen as the true raison d’être of the occupation. To understand the issue more deeply, it’s crucial to see what the occupation really means on the ground—and, apart from actually spending time in the occupied territories, there is no better way to understand this reality than to read the volume of soldiers’ testimonies just published by the Israeli peace group known as Breaking the Silence, a book, in my view, that is one of the most important published on Israel/Palestine in this generation.
Published in both Hebrew and English but so far only in Jerusalem, Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldier Testimonies 2000–2010 documents the everyday miseries of the occupation as seen through the eyes of over a hundred ordinary soldiers who served in the territories and who tell us what they saw and did and heard in the course of their service. Some of them were shocked by their experiences; others report almost nonchalantly, in the rich colloquial Hebrew of the army, as if they were detached from feeling, their sensibilities blunted or anesthetized. They were all part of a vast machine—the occupation system, which includes not only the army units but also the police, the military police, the military courts, government bureaucrats, politicians, and, of course, Israeli settlers—and they almost always followed their orders, including orders that were patently illegal, without protest, indeed even without speaking with one another about the crimes they witnessed or took part in.
You have in the book published by Breaking the Silence an account of the whole sordid business that all Israeli activists see week after week in the territories: the routine use of terror against the Palestinian population as a principle of control; the beatings and shootings and arbitrary arrests; the inventive and pervasive forms of humiliation inflicted on innocents; the expulsions from homes and grazing grounds and fields; the farce of the military courts; the occasional acts of pure sadism on the part of senior officers as well as ordinary soldiers and, in particular, settlers; the violent suppression of nearly all forms of protest, including (especially) nonviolent civil disobedience and peaceful demonstrations; the premeditated irrationality of the Civil Administration, which controls the lives of the occupied population through a bewildering regime of permits and bureaucratic regulations; and, above all, the intimate interweaving of the army units and the settlers, who regularly and freely assume the authority of telling the soldiers what to do (inevitably at the expense of Palestinian civilians).
Some of the most appalling testimonies relate to the years of combat during the second intifada. On the other hand, one could argue that what passes for normalcy under the occupation, as we see it today, is even worse, precisely because of its relentless, daily, dehumanizing grind. Any reader of Occupation of the Territories will soon see how the occupation has become a degrading system of control. I have never accepted Hannah Arendt’s thesis of the banality of evil (or rather, of the evildoer—which is what she meant), but I have observed the workings of the devastating drug of habituation. I have seen how evil, embedded in a ramified, often impersonal system, can be broken down into small, daily acts that, however repugnant at first, rapidly become routine.
Consider the following, chosen more or less at random from Occupation of the Territories:
i>During your service in the territories, what shook you the most?
…There was a thing that they [the IDF soldiers] came to a house and simply demolished it…. The mom watched from the side and cried, the kids sitting with her and stroking her….
What does it mean to wreck a house?
To break the floors, turn over sofas, throw plants and pictures, turn over beds, break closets, tiles…. The looks of people whose house you’ve gone into. It really hurt me to see. And after that, they left them for hours in the school tied up and blindfolded. At four in the afternoon the order came to free them. That was more than 12 hours.
Or this, from a soldier sent to guard the fanatical Israeli settlers in Hebron:
[There are Palestinian kids] who die for no reason, innocent, where settlers go into their homes and shoot at them, and settlers go crazy in the streets and break store windows and beat up soldiers and throw eggs at soldiers and lynch the elderly, all of these things don’t even make it to the media…. The people who live in that [settlers’] neighborhood do whatever they want, the soldiers are forced to protect them. And it exists here in the State of Israel, and no one knows about it…. People prefer not to know and not to understand that something terrible is happening not far from us, and really no one cares.
It is not surprising that there have been efforts within Israel, including by the Foreign Ministry, to silence Breaking the Silence and to dry up the group’s funding, some of which comes from European sources.9 The book is painful, and shameful, to read. It is also, incidentally, eloquent testimony to the remarkable freedom of speech that is, for now at least, still the norm inside Israel. The editors’ conclusion, stated in a mild and careful way (milder than I would have put it), is incontrovertible and worth quoting in full:
While it is true that the Israeli security apparatus has had to deal with concrete threats in the last decade, including terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens, Israeli operations are not solely defensive. Rather, they systematically lead to the de facto annexation of large sections of the West Bank to Israel through the dispossession of Palestinian residents. The widespread notion in Israeli society that the control of the Territories is intended exclusively to protect the security of Israeli citizens is incompatible with the information conveyed by hundreds of IDF soldiers.
One has always to bear in mind that we are dealing with a deeply entrenched system driven by its own internal logic and largely independent of local decisions made by individuals—soldiers, judges, bureaucrats—who are caught up in it, although each such person bears his or her
own measure of responsibility and guilt.
This particular system could not continue to exist without a profound and willful blindness that we Israelis have cultivated for decades, and whose roots undoubtedly predate the existence of the State of Israel itself. I am speaking of blindness not to the existence of millions of Palestinian people—they are there for all to see—but to the full humanity of these people, their natural equality to us, and the parity (at least that, if one can measure such things) between their collective claim to the land and ours. There is also, again, a studied blindness to the cumulative trauma that we Israelis have inflicted upon the Palestinians in the course of realizing our own national goals (and later, in going far beyond any rational conception of such goals).
This is no ordinary blindness; it is a sickness of the soul that takes many forms, from a dull but superficial apathy to the silence and passivity of ordinary, decent people, to the malignant forms of racism and protofascist nationalism that are becoming more and more evident and powerful in today’s Israel, including segments of the present government. I suppose that to acknowledge these facts is too demoralizing, and too laden with potential guilt, for most of us. Often it seems that we will do anything—even risk catastrophic war—to avoid having to look our immediate neighbors in the face, to peel away the mythic mask. Palestinian violence over many years has made it easier for Israelis to make this choice, but it is important to bear in mind that it is, indeed, exactly that, a choice. There is a clear alternative—clearer today than ever before. In the history of this conflict, Israelis have by no means had a monopoly on blindness, but they are the party with by far the largest freedom of action and the greatest potential to bring about serious change.
What does the future hold? Sari Nusseibeh repeatedly expresses his belief that change is possible if people have the self-confidence and faith in themselves to act. He sees his task as an educator to be one of inculcating such faith. And he also describes, in several chapters of his often moving book, a moral basis for political action that can speak to all of us. Like Gandhi, and like Abdallah Abu Rahmah and Ali Abu Awwad, with whom I began, Nusseibeh seeks not to coerce his opponents—in this case the Israeli people along with their political and military institutions—into changing their self-destructive course but to change their will, or their feelings. He wants them to step back from prejudice and an obsession with brute force and to open their eyes. He wants them to find in themselves the generosity of spirit needed in order to take a chance on peace, whether in the form of two states or a single binational entity or, perhaps, some kind of confederation.
Can nonviolent political action have an effect on Israelis? I don’t know. I think a generosity of spirit does exist, somewhere, in the collective, fearful, angry Israeli soul. It might even be hiding under the superficial veil of apathy. Nusseibeh closes his book with a paradoxical observation that he himself characterizes as “astounding.” In a situation like that in Palestine, where there is a vast asymmetry in power, the moral leverage to “draw out the desired attitudinal change in the other party” by the nonviolent exercise of one’s innate freedom, and by holding fast to universal values, belongs to the weaker, not to the stronger, party. Thus
if one defines power as the ability to cause political change to one’s own advantage, it is the Palestinians who hold this power even though (or precisely because) they are being held down by a mighty military force.
Some Palestinians, at least, including the current Palestinian government of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, have clearly internalized this truth and are putting it to use in practical ways. These days, Fayyad uses every public opportunity to announce unequivocally that violence is not an option, no longer a part of the Palestinian repertory. He is, of course, not the only player in the field.
So here is one answer to Sari Nusseibeh’s question. A Palestinian state that emerges from mass nonviolent struggle, clearly occupying the moral high ground, would undoubtedly have intrinsic worth, quite apart from its practical value in solving the tragic anomaly of Palestinian statelessness. But I don’t expect the Palestinian state to emerge like that. Only immense international pressure, on many levels, can bring the Israeli occupation to an end. Still, at this particular moment the Palestinians have a major asset in Israel’s recalcitrance, its steadfast refusal to make peace. Under current international conditions, and despite the continuing suffering on the ground inside the occupied territories, the more foolish, cussed, and destructive Israel becomes, the better for the Palestinian cause. Maybe someday even the US will no longer be able to swallow further humiliation at Israel’s hands and will choose not to exercise its veto in the UN and other international forums on Israel’s behalf.
A Palestinian state, recognized by all the world except for Israel, would, no doubt, be only a step toward an indeterminate future, replete with old and new dangers. Judging by recent statements by right-wing Israeli politicians such as Michael Eitan,10 one such danger is that Israel may (following the Gaza model) eventually retreat from much of the occupied territories without making peace with the new state—probably the worst of all possible outcomes, but one entirely consonant with the collective blindness I have described. I’d like to think the tortured peoples of Israel and Palestine could do better.
—January 27, 2011
For an expanded series of testimonies from Occupation of the Territories, see the author’s blog post, “‘And No One Wants to Know’: Israeli Soldiers on the Occupation,” NYRblog, January 9, 2011 (www.nybooks.com/nyrblog).