An Ex-IDF Combat Soldier Returns to the West Bank with Breaking the Silence

Two weeks ago, I participated on a tour to Hebron – a West Bank city that is deeply contested between the roughly 1,000 Israeli settlers and 200,000 Palestinians that live there. The excursion was led by activists from Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) veterans who oppose the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. As a former IDF soldier myself, I was familiar with the Israeli army’s activities over the Green Line; five years prior, I was an infantryman stationed in the Nablus region. Having never been to Hebron, however, I joined the trip. I wanted to see the reality for myself.

At around 8:30 AM, we convened at Tel Aviv’s Arlozorov Central Bus Station. The 43 participants on this English-led tour hailed from all over the world: including China, France, Germany, and the United States. After a bit of a late start, we boarded our coach bus, and embarked on the 1.5-hour drive to Hebron.

Twenty minutes past the Tarqumiyah Crossing, the de facto ‘border’ between Israel proper and the West Bank (the 1949 Armistice Agreement Line is about 1.3 kilometers north-westward), IDF patrols ordered our bus to pull over to the side of the road. Our guide explained to us that the army cited their right to “dilute” traffic as the reason for stopping us along with several other buses belonging to various left-wing NGOs. The coalition of leftist groups was on its way to the Mitzpeh Yair outpost, where it planned to protest recent settler violence; that previous Saturday, six activists were physically assaulted (four of whom were hospitalized) by a group of settlers near there. At a standstill, we were unsure whether or not we would receive authorization from the military to continue. With nowhere to go, our group disembarked from the bus. As we stood in the shoulder of the road, several passerbys (presumably local settlers) welcomed us to the neighborhood: “You piece of trash,” a kippah-wearing elderly man called at Yehuda Shaul, a co-founder of Breaking the Silence. “Disgust” was the term attributed to us more generally by another individual. After about 25 minutes of roadside negotiations between the activists and IDF commanders, the latter granted our group permission to proceed (under the auspice of a military and police escort throughout the remainder of the tour). We were grateful and relieved to receive authorization to continue with our tour, but dismayed by our initial encounter. This ordeal underscored the low and alarming state of political discourse in Israeli society today, as well as the military’s seemingly arbitrary capability to infringe on the invaluable democratic rights to movement and non-violent protest.

Hebron is divided into two administrative sectors: H1 and H2. The former, which comprises about 80% of the city, is under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. The latter, constituting the remaining 20%, is controlled by Israel – and was the site of our trip. Accompanied by a platoon of infantry soldiers and a handful of police officers, we began our walking tour at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. From there, we continued down Shuhada Street, formerly the commercial center for Palestinians; since 2000, however, the Israeli military – in order to secure the Jewish settlements of Hebron – has almost entirely closed this area off to them. This restriction devastated local Palestinians: at least 1,014 housing units were abandoned (41.9% of all apartments in this area) and 1,829 business places were closed (76.6% of all businesses places in this area). Among the security personnel on our escort, I noticed a particularly innocent-looking soldier. I closed distance with him, and asked him of his age and where he comes from.

The bearded young man bluntly, yet politely replied: “19 years old, from Holon.”
“And how long have you been in the army?” I followed-up.
“One year,” he responded, “several months of which I have been an active soldier in Hebron.”

I recalled that one year into my army service, I was also operational in the West Bank. His story – which was also my story and that of so many others – marks the stark transition that the IDF combat soldier serving in the occupied territories undergoes over a brief time span. Just over a year ago, this young man was standing at his high school graduation. But now, armored from head to toe in military gear with an automatic rifle in hand, he is standing in the heart of Hebron. To protect the settlements, he is allotted with difficult tasks: to make arrests; to man checkpoints; to implement curfews on the Palestinian population; to search Palestinians and their homes; to restrict Palestinians’ movement; to be a bodyguard; to engage in violent clashes, and maybe even kill. Many have died doing this job: when I was in the army, a soldier from my brigade was shot and killed by a sniper in Hebron. I told the 19-year-old to “return home safely.” He greatly appreciated this gesture. And I was most grateful for this encounter, for it reminded me of the morally corrupting and dangerous nature of military service in the West Bank.

Along Shuhada Street stands Beit Hadassah, a facility constructed in 1893 under the authority of Hebron’s original Sepharadi Jewish community. As we stood across from the beautiful building, our guide provided historical context and explained the site’s significance to the current Jewish population of Hebron (In 1979, a group of Israeli settlers occupied the complex. Although unrelated to Hebron’s original Jewish inhabitants, they were determined and subsequently succeeded to re-establish a modern Jewish community in the city). Unfortunately, much of our leader’s account was inaudible, as some local settlers intentionally and repeatedly blasted their cars’ horns as they drove by. When they passed, we were graced with silence. But just when we began to clearly hear our guide, a policeman disrupted her; claiming that our group was interfering with the flow of traffic (from my view, idle military and police vehicles were blocking the road), he requested that we immediately continue on from the area. Perceived as another attempt – among many hitherto – to curb our movement, our guide was reluctant to comply; she respectfully responded to the officer that she would conclude her remarks shortly, and then lead us to our next point. At the same time, the few of us that were standing in the edge of the street, supposedly disrupting traffic, began to huddle onto the sidewalk. The police officer wasn’t satisfied; now citing the Brigade Commander’s directive, he issued modified and seemingly conflicting orders: to move on from the area, or to stand on the sidewalk (which, as already noted, we were in the process of doing). Having previously encountered security personnel who deceitfully reference military orders, a Breaking the Silence member accompanying our tour asked the police officer to present the directive before him. This legitimate and lawful request apparently riled the law enforcement officer, who subsequently hollered at the activist, calling on him to move us aside immediately. When the Breaking the Silence representative again challenged the officer, the policeman – yelling more passionately now – conveyed to the persistent activist that he would turn over the military order after we had adhered to his demand (by this point, we had largely cleared the road). Intimidated by the officer’s temper, the activist balked, and the scare number of participants standing in the fringe of the road all moved a few feet to the side. Thereafter, the tense outburst subsided. Aware of the commotion he had generated, the policeman – who I admit probably didn’t have malicious intent – tried to amend his poor conduct. Before frightened tour participants from all over the world, the officer, in broken English, apologized for the tense confrontation, and explained that his only aim was to relocate our group.

The incident with the police officer illustrates three troubling aspects of military rule in the West Bank. First, its inherent lawlessness. Instead of presenting directives to civilians before enforcing them, security personnel in the disputed territory – like the policeman – oftentimes do so afterwards, if at all. While Israelis and foreigners generally feel comfortable to demand to see these mandates, frequently Palestinians – out of fear of the consequences of arguing with authorities – do not. Moreover, military orders are commonly invalid. Following the confrontation, the police officer showed our guide a copy of the directive. In addition to being inapplicable for the location that our group was standing in during the altercation, the order was dated for the following day – rendering the dictate null. Thus, faulty edicts previously granted to Breaking the Silence activists shouldn’t come as a surprise. Second, the trivial assignments that soldiers and police are required to carry out. In order to secure settlements, Israeli forces need to restrict movement, which they do, in part, by imposing ‘sterile’ zones – areas that certain individuals (mostly Palestinians) cannot enter. To do this, brigadier-generals dedicate valuable time to issuing directives for low-level soldiers and police officers to enforce. In this way, the entire unit is devoted to this task, which can be as ludicrous as moving tourists a few feet aside. Third, the difficult, perhaps impossible task of defending these absurd practices in the international sphere. When a full-blown dispute ensues between Israeli security forces and a group comprised of mostly foreigners over the insignificant matter of where the latter stands, there is little if any way to make this incident ‘look good’ abroad. Like the policeman’s apology, Israeli hasbara (public diplomacy) tries to rectify an unsightly reality. Yet as long as the occupation exists, these efforts are in vein: for the French tourist, the intimidating ordeal outside of Beit Hadassah leaves a stronger impression than an Israeli official’s apology or justification for this on France 24.

Shortly before departing to Tel Aviv, our guide informed us that three prominent members of Breaking the Silence – Avner Gvaryahu (CEO), Achiya Schatz (communications director), and Michael Sfard (attorney) – were detained by the Border Police at the protest in Mitzpeh Yair. When we arrived at Arlozorov, shortly after 4 PM, I read about the incident in Israeli media. Reports indicated that these activists were arrested for allegedly violating a military order, but no charges were brought against them. This dissonance caused me to wonder whether their detention was merely another attempt to silence legitimate opposition to military rule in the West Bank?

I partook in the Breaking the Silence tour to see what takes place in Hebron. In spite of the anti-occupation narrative of the brief excursion, I acknowledge the legitimate attachment and claim of the Jewish people, in general, and Israel, in particular, to Hebron. At the same time, I recognize that the settlement project currently requires a military occupation to sustain it. The visit to the West Bank city augmented my opposition to this policy; military rule over another people breeds extremism, endangers democracy, curtails morality, undermines security, lacks law and order, drains the armed forces, diminishes global stature, and subdues dissidence. The late Rabbi Moshe Levinger, the leader of the modern Jewish community in Hebron, declared that settlement in the entire Land of Israel is required for the fulfillment of “the Jewish people’s spiritual mission in the world […] to be a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” Ironically, this expansionist policy has engendered a nation of perpetual combatants, and an increasingly undemocratic one.

About the Author
Ben Eitan Rathauser is a student at Tel Aviv University and a research assistant at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.
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