November 8th, Day #7

Breaking the Silence, Israeli Soldiers Talk About the Occupied Territories, with Shay Davidovich

Shay Davidovich, Breaking the Silence

Shay Davidovich, Breaking the Silence

Verbatim Excerpt of Listening Session at Everest Hotel, Bethlehem, West Bank

 What we are trying to do is to create a public discourse about the moral implications of the occupation. Here in Israel, we all have to serve in the military. I personally served from 2005 to 2008 in a unit called field intelligence. The last time I served as a reservist was in 2012 in Gaza, Right afterwards I joined Breaking The Silence….

I grew up in Ariel – one of the biggest settlements in the West Bank. Life there is very nice and very easy. Many Israelis don’t see it as a settlement. I grew up surrounded by Palestinians. But I never spoke with Palestinians. There were no interactions among us. The first time I actually met a Palestinian is when I’m wearing my uniform, holding my gun, and I’m a soldier in the occupied territories.

Let me tell you about my first day as a soldier. We had our basic training for one month and afterwards we are sent on our first mission – to guard a settlement called Susya in the South Hebron hills, right next door to a Palestinian village also called Susya. We are given a short briefing from one of the settlers. He tells us where Palestinians are allowed to walk and where they are not allowed to walk; when we are supposed to shoot and when we are not supposed to shoot. 

After the briefing I volunteered to take the first shift in the most dangerous post – the one facing the Palestinian village. The place is very quiet, very beautiful – nothing at all happening. I was ready to meet my first terrorist. After 2 or 3 hours – all of a sudden one of the settlers comes in his car to where I am standing. He tells me he has seen a Palestinian walking beside the settlement and we need to check it out. He tells me to get in his car – he is the commander so I do as he says. All of a sudden he stops the car – loads his gun and gets out. I follow him and we start chasing something – but I can’t really see what it is. It is very stressful – it takes me a few minutes to locate the target we are chasing. Then I see a boy – maybe five years old – he was completely naked – wearing only a pair of rain boots. He was running away from us – crying and screaming hysterically. My first reaction was to freeze on the spot and think ‘what the hell is going on?’ The settler keeps chasing after him, so I keep chasing after him also. All of a sudden the boy disappears behind some rocks, so we go back to the car and drive back to the military post, and the settler drops me off – he says, ‘great job.’ So I am standing there wondering what the hell had just happened. Chasing after a kid with a loaded gun – it seemed crazy to me.   It made me start to question the role of the army in Israel.

When I got out of the army, the last thing I wanted to do was think about what I had been doing there. I wanted to move on in my life. I think this is something we all share in Breaking the Silence.

Breaking the Silence was started by a group of soldiers who were serving in Hebron during the second Intifada [Palestinian uprising]. Hebron was one of the most violent places – as it is today. When the soldiers went home to their families on the weekends, they noticed a gap between their families’ understanding of the role of the army and what they were actually doing.

There is an order given to most soldiers called ‘making our presence felt’. From the army’s point of view, it is important to stop the Palestinians from resisting our control. They are less likely to attack if they feel the army is there 24/7 – and since the army can’t be everywhere – they need to create the impression they are always watching. In order to ‘make their presence felt’ – the soldiers on a night shift choose a Palestinian house at random; knock on the door – not very politely so they know the army is here – gather everyone in the living room; ask for their ID’s and then start searching the house. It can take between 30 minutes and an hour. The soldiers will often go back to the same house the following week and do the same thing.

Four years ago I was called up as a reservist to take part in a mock training activity to conquer Southern Lebanon. The army’s decision about the best way to train 1000 soldiers to conquer villages in Southern Lebanon is to practice in the West Bank. We were taken by helicopter in the middle of the night and dropped off in the middle of nowhere. We create our fake military post and we go to sleep. When we wake up in the morning we are standing in front of a Palestinian village. Every night for a week, we move to a different Palestinian village, and while we are there – we visit each house – not harming anyone. We have tanks which are shooting – not in the village but outside; we have helicopters dropping soldiers off and picking them up – it was very loud with all the explosions. I wondered what it was like for the villagers being in a state of war for a week. The purpose of these maneuvers was not just to train us – but also to train the Palestinians to feel that we are always there.

The army also believes the best way to train a soldier to arrest a Palestinian is to arrest one – to carry out a mock arrest. It is best to start with one who will not actually pose a threat. We are given the address of someone who we know for sure is not involved in terrorism. We blindfold the person, handcuff him, and take him for a ride around the village or take him back to the base and return him in the morning.

Most Israeli soldiers don’t have bad intentions. Most of them want to be seen as moral occupiers. I think everyone has red lines – things they are not willing to do. But sometimes you find yourself crossing a red line – and then it happens over and over again – and you find yourself setting a new red line that you think you will never cross. Then you find yourself crossing that also.

If you really want to sum up what we are saying in Breaking the Silence – it is that you can’t be a moral occupier. This is what occupation looks like. We need to help people understand the price the Palestinians are paying for this occupation. In Israel there is no discussion about those things at the moment.

I don’t think most soldiers think the same way I do. Many think this is the action we need to take in order to ensure security.

Ten years ago there was a high level of support for what we are doing and we were invited to be part of the discourse. But today we are attacked by the media and the Government – who say not just that we are traitors – but that we are a foreign entity; that we are anti-Semitic. Now much of the discourse about Breaking the Silence is not about the content of what we are saying – it is about questioning our legitimacy.

~ Thank you to Joel Berman and Helen Fitzgerald for transcribing the session.

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