Soldiers’ testimonies on the occupied territories
The main significance of the testimonies published by Breaking the Silence is not in the descriptions of the acts of horror but rather in the documentation of the destructive effects of the occupation not only on the Palestinian inhabitants but also on the soldiers themselves.
By Ilana Hammerman, Haaretz
On the 50th anniversary of the death of Albert Camus, last year, I was invited to discuss him on the morning talk show “Mah Bo’er” on Army Radio. The host, Razi Barkai, asked me about the writer’s personal relationship with Simone de Beauvoir. But I had other things to say about Camus in the short time that had been allotted to the conversation, and I responded to Barkai that gossiping about the relations between Camus and de Beauvoir wasn’t what I had in mind.
“Don’t tell me that all you have in mind now is the occupation,” was the sharp and surprising response from the interviewer, with whom to the best of my recollection I had never spoken before in my life, neither about the occupation nor about anything else.
This response made a deep impression on me. Again and again I have asked myself in its wake the following question, to which I have yet to find an answer: How do you talk to people about what they so badly don’t want to hear that they will hasten to gag you even when you are intending to speak about something else? About Camus, for example.
True, not about Camus and the Parisian bohemia, but rather about Camus and his involvement in the political discourse of his day, about his complicated view of the French occupation of Algeria, about his committed writing. For these, after all, were the things he had in mind, the intellectual, writer and commentator Albert Camus. That is what preoccupied him, that pragmatic humanist, whom in my youth I saw as a guide and who in the meantime, not necessarily to his benefit, had become an almost mythological figure. A kind of modern saint whose heritage many people claim as their own without considering that it does not accord with their own disengagement from the current political reality.
Okay, so maybe Razi Barkai was right. An interview with me about Camus really was liable to lead us, if only by implication, to the “occupation” – that is, to the state of Israel’s control for 44 years now over the lives and fate of about 4 million people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (yes, also in Gaza, despite the “disengagement” ) – and to the silence of most Israeli intellectuals in the face of this reality. And he didn’t want that, the popular interviewer. He didn’t want to hear it and he didn’t want to expose his listeners to hearing it, even by implication.
And to tell the truth, most probably his listeners weren’t especially keen to hear it, either. And like them, the television viewers, who want neither to see nor to hear, and the newspaper readers, who prefer not to read. And the media indulge them all and do not report to them, or if they do, do it in a measured, moderate and cautious way, lest the numbers of listeners and viewers and readers drop, and with them the number of advertisers, and with them the revenues.
Thus, in “the only democracy in the Middle East,” where there is a large measure of freedom of information and of the press, in recent years a self-censorship has developed that is infinitely more effective than any official censorship could be, because its roots go very deep: into the consciousness and the subconscious of Israel’s citizens. They do not want to know. And when it comes to looking reality straight in the face, the worst of them are members of the middle class, whose daily routine is good and pleasant, and for whom it is convenient not to know what maintaining that reality entails.
These satiated Israelis – much more than those Israelis who are living in poverty and distress – not only have a moral obligation to know, it is also worth their while to know, very much worth their while. Because the danger threatening their comfortable routine is growing. Because five minutes from Kfar Sava their countrymen – soldiers, police and civilians – are constantly fanning embers under barrelfuls of gunpowder. Because it isn’t for the security of the satisfied middle-class Israelis that these people are concerned, and for which they have been embittering the lives of millions of people for decades now, but rather they are committed to realizing an ideology most Israelis do not support at all. It is an ideology of annexation that has already been realized on the ground to the extent that almost certainly there is no way back and the entire public discourse about “the peace process” is “fake, fake.” The diametric opposite of the bullets that hit Yitzhak Rabin, who perhaps wanted to and could have rectified something in the next to last minute.
The logic of the absurd
If so, how do you get readers to pay attention to books that are trying to reveal this reality to them? For example this book, which is called simply “Occupation of the Territories” and is thick and black – both its binding and its contents – and contains the transcribed testimonies, not always comfortable and fluent reading, of 101 male and female Israeli soldiers who served in those territories during the course of the past 10 years.
One of the soldiers whose testimonies are presented in the book says he has been reading the book “Lords of the Land,” by Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar. “That’s exactly how it is,” he says in his testimony about the improvised roadblocks he and his buddies would put up on “the Jewish roads” in the West Bank. “The Lords of the Land decided: ‘This one you don’t let cross, and he’ll wait until we decide.’ When we go to eat, they fold up the roadblock and everyone leaves.”
I wondered what that fellow would have done had he read “Lords of the Land” before his military service, and now I am wondering what the young people who read his testimony and the other testimonies in “Occupation of the Territories” may do. Will they take a stand or even do a deed after having read the book? Will they open their eyes and take in a more comprehensive view of what is happening in the territories? Will they be more aware, will they refuse to obey certain orders while they are serving there?
For it is impossible to read these two books, “Lords of the Land” (first published by Dvir in 2004, and available from Nation Books in an English translation ) and the recently published “Occupation of the Territories” (partially downloadable in English for the time being at http://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/testimonies/publications ), without discovering what a big and dangerous lie we are living in here. “Lords of the Land” relates and documents in detail the history of Israeli settlement in the territories and the explicit and implicit policy employed in the taking over of the lands of the West Bank. This policy has continued uninterrupted since 1967, under the leadership of all of Israel’s governments to this day. Its inevitable outcome will be to thwart the possibility of the establishment of another state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, although this is completely contrary to the protestations of the desire for a peace agreement to be based on the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel.
“Occupation of the Territories” completes the picture with its documentation of the army’s conduct in the occupied territories during the past decade. It firmly establishes “Lords of the Land’s” clear survey and demonstrates the extent to which the military control of these territories – like the gigantic settlement project – is aimed mainly not at defending the security of the citizens of the sovereign state of Israel, but rather at deepening Israel’s civilian, political and economic control there.
This is the logic of the absurd things that happen in the territories. Indeed, logic and not madness; rather, a consistent, practical and effective system of which even the arbitrariness is an inseparable part. The system has already entirely changed the face of this piece of land, to the satisfaction of those who stand with a clear mind behind the ideology of the Greater Land of Israel, who are pulling the strings and are acting on its behalf devotedly and decisively – and to the distress of those who know that the realization of this ideology is a disaster, but to whom this knowledge is so painful that they lower their heads and shut their eyes so as not to see things as they are.
This logic also rules in the ostensibly absurd reality depicted in the soldiers’ testimonies. The Israel Defense Forces are present in the territories of the West Bank in order to remain there, in order to make it clear to the Palestinian inhabitants “who’s the boss here” (as the soldiers put it ).
To this end the IDF conducts daily policing activities there, which are assigned to very young soldiers who spend weeks, months and even years in the very midst of a civilian population. Armed from head to toe, they stand at the barriers, race around in jeeps and armored vehicles on the roads, in the streets and in the alleys of towns and villages or patrol them on foot with their weapons cocked, banging on doors of homes in the middle of the night, entering them and searching, arresting men and teenage boys before the eyes of their families who have been rousted from bed. And in doing all these things, they have been maintaining, whether they want to or not, a routine of humiliation and abuse, damage to body and soul and property of civilians, a routine of a Wild West way of life in which neither the abusers nor the victims have any thorough knowledge of the laws and the rules that apply to them.
For in this stretch of land, despite the many fences and walls and barriers of all sorts that scar its landscape, the borders are not clear and they are not permanent – not only the physical borders between one power and another and between one authority and another, but also the mental and moral borders between what is permissible and what is forbidden, between good and evil, between stupidity and wickedness, between the humiliated and those who humiliate.
‘We’ll make your life bitter’
“We are here. The IDF is here” – as one of the givers of testimony in the book says. “In general they told us that some terrorist, if he were to hear the IDF presence in the village, then maybe he would [emerge]. He never appeared. It seems that the objective was just to show the local population that the IDF is here, and it’s a policy that repeats itself: ‘The IDF is here, in the territories, and we’ll make your life bitter until you decide to stop the terror.’ The IDF has no problem with it. We, the ones who were throwing the grenades, didn’t understand why we were doing it. We threw a grenade. We heard the ‘boom’ and we saw people waking up. When we got back they said to us: ‘Great operation,’ but we didn’t understand why. It was every day. A different force from the company each time, part of the routine. Not an especially positive way of life.”
This testimony by a soldier from a paratroop unit, who was called upon with his buddies to throw stun grenades within a village at 3:00 A.M., comes off as modest and innocent, in comparison with many other testimonies that describe acts of harassment and real crimes: sowing destruction in private homes, acts of looting, murderous beatings, shooting to injure and even to kill. You read those and you are truly shocked, and you don’t want to believe.
But while reading the book, I often had the thought that maybe the testimonies of that sort are too numerous, and that it is precisely the ostensibly milder testimonies that are more significant. Indeed, the lines of resemblance among the grave testimonies, despite the distance in time and place, show that these things do not involve unusual people or unusual deeds, but rather are in the very nature of bullying military activity within a civilian population. This is so especially when the power is in the hands of such young people, still boys and girls, who have been taught to see each and every person in this population as an enemy, as a terrorist and as an immediate danger to themselves and their families.
But the main significance of this collection of testimonies is not in fact in the descriptions of the horrible deeds included in it – other occupying armies have done the same and even worse – but rather in the destructive effect of the soldiers’ daily and constant presence not only on the inhabitants but also on the soldiers themselves.
“The standards of good and evil deteriorate there,” says one of them. “I think that’s the thing that is most difficult … the day to day is very gray … I can’t tell you what’s good and what isn’t, because I don’t have all of the tools.” And another soldier says: “It was difficult. Look we’re … the majority are good people. It’s not that most are problematic, there is a problematic minority. The problem is that then it was legitimate. So beating up an Arab, cursing, degrading him … pointing your weapon in his face and then shooting in the air a second later, those were legitimate things … there were people who knew that they would beat someone up every day. They talk about it freely, they photograph.
“I remember from there the nuances at the roadblock, not the extreme incidents of abuse, but what this causes,” relates another important testimony. “This feeling of ‘I am above them,’ which won’t help, you are above them. You say to them when to cross and when not to, they are not disciplined so you get annoyed, and you have the power to get annoyed because you have a weapon and you can close the checkpoint. barrier on them … it penetrates you, this supremacy … the most difficult part for me is the annoyance towards them, it’s not just getting annoyed for no reason, it’s the annoyance of an educator: ‘You aren’t doing what I’m telling you? I’ll show you [what’s what]’ … I’m convinced that the arbitrariness was an approach. The approach to undermine their confidence, their stability, so they won’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I don’t think it’s some kind of stupidity of someone from above, I think it was a policy…”
Who is your enemy?
The book is edited very intelligently in terms of its ability to convey the information in it. Yes, information, not statements of a political stance, though there is no doubt this information necessitates the taking of a political stance. It has four chapters, each of which places the emphasis on a different aspect of the policy of military control in the occupied territories. Taken together, the four chapters, with their precise and factual introductions, do a fine job of mapping out well and thoroughly the whole of this policy.
But they also do something else, which is equally important: They show the huge gap between the official terminology of the Israeli authorities, along with the public discourse that usually accepts this lexicon of terms almost without question, on the one hand, and the reality on the ground, on the other.
The authorities and the public discourse in Israel talk about “prevention,” about pinpointed thwarting of terrorist activity, whereas the testimonies describe in minute detail actions whose entire aim is to intimidate an entire population by means of the massive, noisy and threatening presence of soldiers, provocations, arbitrary arrests and collective punishments. In Israel they talk about a policy of “separation” between the Palestinian population and Israeli citizens, to protect the latter, whereas the testimonies clearly demonstrate that the walls and the roadblocks do not separate between Palestinians and Israelis, but rather between Palestinians and Palestinians, between their villages and between their towns; between people and their lands; between people and roads – and their aim, in the long term, is to enable not a policy of defense but rather a policy of robbery, expropriation and annexation of lands.
The Israeli establishment talks about a proportional, considered policy intended to preserve the civilian population’s “fabric of life,” that is, to ensure a routine that is as normal as possible despite the abnormal circumstances. The testimonies, however, describe the diametric opposite: Incessant damage to this routine. The official language talks about enforcing law and order in an egalitarian manner among all the inhabitants of the territories, the millions of Palestinians and the hundreds of thousands of settlers. The book, however, documents from the mouths of the soldiers a dual regime, aimed at enabling and advancing the settlers’ political aspirations at the Palestinian population’s expense.
There’s another reason why it is impossible, in reading this book, not to wonder and be angered by the silence and the silencing and the indifference: After all, it isn’t the soldiers of a mercenary army who are serving there, but rather we ourselves, our neighbors, our friends, our acquaintances, our sons, our daughters, our grandsons and our granddaughters. For three generations now. So, why is it that people talk so little about these things?
Even without much media coverage, people know, and many more could know. A few of the soldiers who testify in the book do talk about the repression, the silence during the time of service itself and the pressing need to shake it all off and forget upon the return home, to civilian life. Nevertheless, there is no satisfactory explanation here for the ignoring and the denial. Almost certainly the deeper and far more frightening answer is to be found in the changes seen in public opinion surveys conducted in Israel in recent years.
Thus, for example, a recent survey of young people aged 15 to 24, conducted by the Dahaf Institute for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Macro Center for Political Economics, shows a clear shift to the right: Young people prefer strong leadership to the rule of law, and Jewish nationalism to liberal democracy. Most of them do not aspire to peace with the neighboring countries and do not believe in the possibility of Jewish-Arab coexistence. At the same time, the number of supporters of violent resistance to government decisions concerning the peace process has increased. This trend is strong among young people aged 21 to 24 – that is to say, graduates of military service – more than among the youth.
From this survey it is possible to learn that more and more of the young people now serving in the territories are doing their job wholeheartedly, and that they have no interest or need to shake up public opinion in this country. One can also gather that there is an unambiguous connection between the control of those territories during 44 of the state’s 63 years of existence and the ruination of its inhabitants’ democratic civil awareness.
And the tens of thousands of liberals and humanists in Israel who stand off to the side should not say they know all this. Real knowledge, which is the basis for a sober and educated stance, and perhaps also for action, is in the details and not in general cliches like “The occupation corrupts,” “The occupation destroys” and “End the occupation.” Thus there are two possibilities: Either you go out to the West Bank and see and hear for yourself what the army and the other state authorities are doing there and how the settlements are expanding non-stop with their knowledge and their active help – or you read closely the books that document this for you. And then perhaps you too will ask, as does one of the soldiers who testifies in the book: “But who is your enemy in this war?” – and you will ask yourself whether it isn’t worth your while, too, to reconsider the extent of your public involvement in what is happening here.
Kibush Hashtahim (Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldier Testimonies 2000-2010 ) Published by Breaking the Silence (Hebrew), 347 pages, NIS 50 English version to be available later this year; 430 pages.
Ilana Hammerman is editor of the Teuda series at the Am Oved publishing house and a political activist.
New book exposes brutal treatment of Palestinian prisoners
Asa Winstanley, The Electronic Intifada
5 August 2011
Shlomo Gazit, an Israeli general and the first “coordinator of government activities” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip apparently wrote a book in 1985 about Israel’s occupation policies there called The Carrot and the Stick. It is quite telling that such Israeli terminology relates to Palestinians as if they are animals. A new book about Israel’s imprisonment of Palestinians contains strong evidence that these policies have been a lot more about the “stick” of physical and psychological torture than about the “carrot” of persuasion.
Threat: Palestinian Political Prisoners in Israel is a collection of essays from Pluto Press edited by Abeer Baker and Anat Matar. The contributors focus on different aspects of Israel’s system of political prisons. It is rare for such an anthology to be of such consistently high quality. Quite often essay collections can be a mixed bag but Threat is rarely less than interesting. Palestinian prisoners and the solidarity movements of their families and supporters have long been emblematic in the Palestinian liberation struggle. So the book is an important and welcome attempt to educate English-speakers on this neglected topic.
Consider, for example, this astonishing statistic: “almost half of all the prisoners held by the Israeli prison system are Palestinians who have been sent to prison by the military courts in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT)” (68). Furthermore, this share seems to have been consistently high over a long period: the figure stood between 45 and 60 percent during the first two decades after the 1967 occupation (72).
The contributors to this book are from a mix of Israeli, Palestinian and other backgrounds but most are lawyers, academics and professional activists for human rights groups in Israel such as Adalah (with whom Baker works as a lawyer) or B’Tselem. We can also read the words of Palestinian prisoners, recalling their own experiences.
We learn from Alon Harel and Yael Berda about what exactly “security prisoners” are. They are “deprived of many of the rights granted to non-security prisoners” (37). Yet the definition of “security prisoners” is not just those who engage in armed struggle — Palestinian political activists who do not use violence are also classified as such. Berda notes, “It is actually surprising how, under the harsh classification regimes of the security threat, many Palestinians have chosen nonviolent political and social action, even though it carries with it similar consequences to the violent actions” (54).
In reality, the Israeli secret police — the Shin Bet — decides who is a “security prisoner”. Known by its formal title the General Security Services (GSS), the Shin Bet runs a system that is “constructed and applied administratively by the GSS alone” (52). We also learn, in information relevant to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, that the closeness of Israeli universities to the Shin Bet has meant “merging the security apparatuses with bases of academic power” (52).
Apartheid behind bars
The prisoners are emblematic of the whole Palestinian struggle for many reasons, not least of which is the system of apartheid that they are fighting against. It is striking that this applied to the whole of historic Palestine, not just the occupied West Bank and Gaza. It applies to Palestinians living in Israel, too: “In January 2009, there were about 370 Israeli Arab citizens classified as security prisoners. A small number of Jewish prisoners are classified by the IPS [Israel Prison Service] as security prisoners but they are not subjected to the harsh conditions reserved for the Palestinians” (80).
Sharon Weill’s essay is a strong contender for best essay in the book. She proves that because of the separate and unequal legal systems for Israelis and Palestinians there — civil courts for Israeli Jews but military courts for Palestinians — the occupation of the West Bank is best understood as a system of apartheid. I was amazed to learn that “until 2004 the [Israeli military] judges did not need to have any legal background; they were just regular officers, usually very young” (147). She also includes a strong example of how Israeli apartheid applies to even its own (supposedly equal) Palestinian citizens: “While Israeli Jews have been excluded from the military courts’ jurisdiction as a matter of policy, Palestinians carrying Israeli IDs (especially those from East Jerusalem), committing an offense within the OPT, have always been tried there” (141).
Disturbing studies on torture and rape
There is a wide range of rich topics addressed. Palestinian sociology professor Nahla Abdo has a devastating critique of colonial feminism and the “Western Orientalist literature [that has since 2002] emerged to deal with the female military resistance” (59). Abdo shows how Western academics have tried to analyze female Palestinians fighters as a response to a supposed endemic misogyny in Palestinian society — to “wipe away the stigma of being female” as one has put it (59). She proceeds to convincingly dismantle this crude framework of assumptions. Abdo then moves on to sexism and racism in the Israel Prison Service and recounts disturbing case studies — from her own research and interviews with women prisoners — of sexual torture and rape by Israeli personnel.
If I have one reservation about the book it is its inevitable (considering the authors’ professional backgrounds) bias towards the “human rights” narrative, rather than the resistance narrative. For example, the failed case by the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din against the practice of transferring Palestinians to prisons outside the West Bank cited by Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard seemed in effect to be arguing for Israeli prisons to be rebuilt in the West Bank (197-198). The Israeli high court rejected the Yesh Din petition on patronizing and spurious grounds. But the fact that a liberal Israeli human rights organization was not instead arguing for all the political prisons to be emptied exposes the contradictions and limits of such legal activism within the system of apartheid Zionism.
The editors — and some of the authors — seem to be aware of this to an extent, and Palestinian prisoner Walid Daka’s essay concluding the book is a good antidote in this regard, since it critiques this tendency. Daka sees the Palestinian Authority as key to this transformation: “the ‘Palestinian Revolution’ was replaced by the ‘Palestinian Authority,’ the mobilization of these young people [in the PA armed forces] signals the replacement of struggle with the ‘rule of law’ and ‘resistance’ with the ‘prevention of armed chaos’ … These new slogans do not belong to a discourse of a liberation movement; they were invoked to make the movement disappear” (238-239).
I would have liked to read more from Palestinian prisoners in their own words: 8 out of the 22 contributions in the book are by Palestinians (including Palestinian citizens of Israel) who are often former or current prisoners. But to be fair, those included offer deep and insightful historical analysis as well as important and troubling eyewitness accounts of torture and ill-treatment in Israeli prisons.
Overall, there is a wealth of history, analysis, documentation and plenty of legal details in this book. And fortunately, the legal details rarely lead into dry or unreadable territory. Threat comes highly recommended.
Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. His first book Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation will be published by Pluto Press in October. His website is www.winstanleys.org.