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It's time to challenge Israeli militarism from within

The Left must fight the urge to exclude those who haven’t served in combat roles from voicing their opinion on the occupation.

By Michal Rotem

Israeli soldiers take cover along the side of a home in the Gaza Strip during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. (Courtesy of Breaking the Silence)

Israeli soldiers take cover along the side of a home in the Gaza Strip during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. (Courtesy of Breaking the Silence)

Several weeks ago, Israeli Police prevented Israeli human rights group Breaking the Silence from organizing a talk in a pub in Be’er Sheva. After a court backed the decision to bar the event, the organizers decided to move the talk to two different apartments in the city. I came to show my support, but ended up staying outside with some Breaking the Silence activists.

A few days later I recalled to a friend how those two hours outside the apartment made me feel like I was doing reserve duty. Perhaps this was my preparation for Breaking the Silence’s response to the recent campaign of incitement against human rights activists by far-right group Im Tirzu, which included photos of brave-looking soldiers in uniform, claiming that those who served in combat units have more legitimacy to talk about what is happening in this country than those who served behind a desk, or those who didn’t serve at all.

As I clicked through the different photos proudly published on the organization’s Facebook page, I understood that if you were an officer in the IDF, your voice matters more. If you are an Arab and served in the army, you are an exception, and if you were an elite unit, then your words are worth much more than those who served in noncombatant roles.

According to Breaking the Silence’s website: We endeavor to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis, and are engaged in the control of that population’s everyday life.” According to the organization’s recent campaign, it seems that some people are simply less worthy when it comes to taking part in this public discussion.

Soldiers in an IDF honor guard hold their weapons during the funeral for a soldier killed in Gaza, July 20, 2014, Holon, Israel. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Soldiers in an IDF honor guard hold their weapons during the funeral for a soldier killed in Gaza, July 20, 2014, Holon, Israel. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

When an organization like Breaking the Silence creates a hierarchy of voices, it is taking part in the oldest trick in the fascist book, putting many of us — supporters of the organization — beyond the pale of legitimate discussion. Even if the intention was to oppose the founders of Im Tirzu, the idea that anyone who did not serve in the occupied territories cannot criticize the organization or its members reveals what lies beneath surface.

I don’t think anyone in Breaking the Silence was confused when they launched their recent campaign. Not only is the ethos of the combat soldier an inseparable part of Israeli society — it is an inseparable part of the discourse promoted by Breaking the Silence.

As long as Breaking the Silence sanctifies combatants while claiming that those who did not serve in the occupied territories have no right to criticize them, they will continue to have a conversation that excludes large, important segments of the population of the Israeli Left. In order to defeat militarism, we need to go beyond the typical Israeli militaristic discourse.

In the end, if the occupation does end, it will happen only because of a large movement made up of Jews and Palestinians. It will not come to an end thanks to combat soldiers who talk about their army service, just like war does not lead to peace. Excluding Jewish and Palestinian activists from discussions on ending the occupation, and managing the discourse within a narrow, militaristic framework will ensure that we continue living with the situation for many years to come.

Michal Rotem works for the Negev Forum for Coexistence and is based in Be’er Sheva. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call, where she is a blogger. Read it here.

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    1. Lewis from Afula

      The role of the IDF is NOT to primarily occupy areas outside the state of Israel. Indeed, the IDF’s function to defend the country from invasion from Lebanon, Gazastan or Syria. That is why those who avoid combat service get shunned in Israeli Society. Your piece reads as if the IDF was merely set up post 6 day war to occupy the disputed areas.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Well that is indeed the problem, Lewis. The IDF’s function is indeed to defend the country from invasion. So why is it instead spending much of its time and resources policing and suppressing an entire civilian population day and night? Why is it spending much of its time ruthlessly suppressing protesters? Why is it spending much of its the protecting marauding settler hooligans squatting in illegal outposts on occupied land?

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          Well, the civilian population in these areas is determined to destroy their neighbors (us). That is why the IDF must occupy the mountains where their villages & towns are based. Its not very complicated really.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Lewis? “Neighbors”? Really now? That word alone reveals massive presumption. And an array of false assumptions. To begin with, this is the strangest set of “neighbors” you fancy. They do not enjoy even remotely the same set of rights or the same set of laws. The Palestinians are denied every right the settlers enjoy; and they are subject to a completely different and rigged military “legal” system. This is not what happens between “neighbors,” Lewis. Members of a population transferred by a power into territories it occupies, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, are not “neighbors.” By the way, who is “us,” Lewis? You’re a settler? Lurking in your use of “us” is the fraudulent assumption that Israelis living inside the West Bank are Israelis like any other, subject to Israeli law while living outside Israel—all the while their “neighbors” among them have for 48 years been denied all of the same rights. The true civilian population of the West Bank is only trying and for the most part failing to resist the relentless colonizing of their land – by settlers, transferred by an occupying power, backed by a massive army. That occupying army must brutally suppress the local population day and night only because of an occupation it carries out daily and daily refuses to end. You do see the circularity. Could I trouble you to take these things into account and re-explain how it’s not very complicated, really?

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            BEN:”it is not what happens between neighbors”

            It is what happens when the neighbors don’t even recognize your right to exist and claim that everything you own is theirs.

            See Bennyleh? When the choice is between their well being or us being dead. Their well being takes secondary importance coz we are not suicidal.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            But of course that’s not the choice. You’re peddling false choices as you always have. We have learned how fruitless it is to try to tell you you are wrong. But it’s ok, there are much more interesting conversations to be had.

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            The choices that I? As in I am peddling, Benny-leh? Nah, I am not peddling any choices. I am just reacting to the choices that your Palestinian Arabs have made and are STILL making.

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            “…colonizing their land…”


            The lands that the settlements have been built on were never Arab lands.

            There never was a sovereign Arab nation called Palestine. Palestine used to be the British Mandate which had both Jewish and Arab citizens. Prior to that it was part of the Ottoman empire.

            In 1947, at the end of the British mandate, the UN recommended that the lands be partitioned into two states, one Jewish state, one Arab state. The Jews accepted, the Arabs rejected the UN recommendation because they wanted ALL the land to be under Arab control (supremacism at it’s best).

            The Palestinian Arabs rioted and murdered any Jewish Palestinian they could lay their hands on. In the war which ensued, the Arabs and their allies were unable to prevent the birth of the Jewish state but Jordan ended up occupying the West Bank for 19 years, till 1967.

            In 1967, Jordan attacked Israel but they were defeated and Israel ended up controlling the WB. Over the ensuing years, since the Arabs were unwilling even to talk to us, Israel started populating parts of the WB close to it’s borders. Those were not lands that Arabs lived on or owned. This was in line with UN SC resolution 242 which foreshadowed some border adjustments to make Israeli borders more secure. Nor were they transgressing formal borders since there were no formal borders. There was only the 1949 armistice agreement of 1949 which is where the fighting temporarily stopped in 1949. Today, those armistice lines are erroneously called the 1967 borders by people who want to force Israel to accept those lines as vulnerable borders. We won’t be accepting that under any circumstances!

            One can only colonize lands which are owned by someone else. But the above history demonstrates that the lands on which the “settlements” were built belonged to both Jews and Arabs. Each side seized lands in the civil war that ensued in 1947 and each side is entitled to build on those lands.

            Reply to Comment