Veterans who served in the Israeli Army during the second Intifada or uprising after September 2000, have formed a group to show the Israeli public a view of life in the occupied territories which is never seen in the media.
‘Breaking the Silence’ has acquired a special standing for the public and the media since March 2004 when it started publishing the previously silent voices of soldiers.
The group aims to stimulate debate about the moral price Israeli society is paying for a reality in which young soldiers control the daily life of a civilian population.
Testimonies of soldiers who served in Hebron show the dehumanising effect on the young men.
‘There were some who threw stones at us. We’d catch some kid who happened to be around there, and beat him to a pulp—break him. Even if he hadn’t thrown any stones, he knew who had’ (Testimony 49).
‘We had a guy in our unit, really screwed up. He enjoyed abuse. He once hurt someone so badly his hand had to be amputated’ (Testimony 41).
A ‘large number’ of soldiers broke up with their girlfriends during their tour of duty. ‘Many people said they couldn’t … didn’t talk about what went on.’ One talked of a ‘numbness’ when monitoring a checkpoint … ‘how he takes this, crossing these 200 metres inside his own neighbourhood … but if you keep getting into what that does to him, and to me … you end up not being able to carry out your assignment so you naturally go numb’ (Testimony 60).
Hebron is the second-largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, and the only one harbouring a Jewish settlement.
One soldier who had been at an army post near a Jewish settlement, Tel Rumeida, tells of an incident that shocked him.
‘A Palestinian boy was walking up to his home and a Jewish (settler) child simply turns his head, spits at his face and goes on. Now this wasn’t a whole show of hatred—I mean except for these three seconds of hatred—no beatings or yelling, just a master-slave thing. I saw this and felt I just had to catch that kid, slap his face or ask him what he thinks he’s doing, “who do you think you are?” I was stunned.’ But the soldier had been trained to deal differently with the children of the two cultures.
‘We chase him and warn him not to do it. Obviously if it’s a Palestinian child you arrest and shackle him and all. Not Jews. We’re there to serve the Jews. That’s also part of this sense of injustice. For you have a very clear feeling … you’re helping them in their revenge against the Arabs’ (Testimony 56).
Another tells of his abhorrence of the Jewish violence he saw there.
‘There were all kinds of situations there of stark, brute, shocking, disgusting violence.’ After soldiers threw some (settler) boys out of a grocery shop for vandalising it, they saw the boys harassing ‘some old man—literally sprayed his eyes with teargas and broke his cane’ (Testimony 58).
Just 40 minutes’ drive from Jerusalem, Hebron has special significance for Muslims and Jews because it contains the Tomb of the Patriarchs where the biblical fathers are said to have been buried.
At a particularly significant time for Muslims, the soldiers partitioned a street leading to the sacred site to separate the Palestinians from the Jews. Hundreds of Palestinians were walking along one side and a few Jews on the other. But when one Jewish family were warned after ignoring the partition, the man said, “Who are you to tell me? This is my street, my city, I do as I please here.” ‘From that moment on I decided to separate issues. Like this whole issue of accepting their coffee or not, I said, I don’t want them to legitimise my being there, to feel good about it’ (Testimony 45).
All testimonies are cross-checked against other eyewitness accounts and the records of other human rights organisations working in the area and identifying features removed.