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Why soldiers don't 'break the silence' to the IDF

When Israeli soldiers admit their past abuses of Palestinians, as they did again this week, the occupation’s defenders often ask: Why didn’t you report this to the army at the time? A personal illustration of why it is a disingenuous question.   

I was 37, a new immigrant three and half years in Israel, drafted into the IDF for a month of basic training, and I found myself dumping a truckload of garbage on the edge of a Palestinian woman’s vegetable garden. She was screaming in Arabic at me and the other draftee doing the job, and the IDF driver sitting in the truck was screaming back at her in Arabic. I asked the draftee with me, a new immigrant from Morocco, what the driver was saying – I could pretty well imagine what the woman was saying – and he translated: “Shut up and go back in your house, you old whore.”

This was in 1989, and it was part of a clean-up of our army base near Ramallah in advance of a visit by a general. The other recruit and I were sent out in the truck to pick up all the big, bulky debris on the base that wouldn’t fit into garbage cans and dump it somewhere. The driver took us to this woman’s house, told us to start dumping the junk right there on the edge of the vegetable garden in front, and we did, no questions asked. In the distance some Palestinian boys started yelling “manyak” and throwing stones in our direction – none of them came close to hitting us, the boys cautiously stayed pretty far away. I felt sheepish, I knew that we were doing something wrong, and the other soldier did, too, but we emptied that whole truckbed of junk onto that woman’s garden. We didn’t say a word to the sullen driver, and when we got back to the base, we didn’t tell our commanding officers, either.

In those days my political ideas were not as left-wing as they are now, but they were close; I’d voted for Shulamith Aloni and Yossi Sarid’s Ratz party, I’d taken  part in every Peace Now rally at the start of the first intifada, I was totally against the occupation. But at the same time I felt very strongly that it was my duty to Israel and myself to serve in the army like everyone else. I tried as hard as I could in that month of basic training. And the idea of telling one of the officers about dumping the garbage on the woman’s vegetable garden was something I wasn’t ready to entertain. I didn’t want to be a “trouble-maker.” I didn’t want to “rat out” another soldier. I didn’t want to protest against the army, I wanted to be a part of it.

I bring this up in connection with a comment in Friday’s weekend supplement of Yedioth Ahronoth by columnist Yoaz Hendel, who served briefly as Bibi Netanyahu’s hasbara chief. He explains his “personal problem” with Breaking the Silence, which this past week published more testimony from IDF soldiers about how they and their comrades had routinely abused Palestinians. Hendel’s problem is that the soldiers didn’t report those abuses to the army right away, while they were on duty:

When violations occur, the soldier or commander is expected to take action to stop them, to report them. This is his personal and national responsibility. … The IDF can abide neither abuse of innocents nor soldiers who keep silent in real time. … All that’s required of a soldier in order to correct the situation is to report [violations] to the system – to the commanding officers, [or] to the Military Prosecutor’s Office.

This is a common attack on soldiers who go years before they can admit publicly the terrible things they saw and did to Palestinians: “Why didn’t they report it right away to the army?”

As if Hendel and Co. don’t know. A 20-year-old soldier serving in the West Bank is not going to turn himself or herself in, or his or her comrades, or his or her commanders, because of acts of cruelty or brutality they committed against Palestinians. It’s virtually unthinkable. Breaking the Silence’s Hanna Deutsch told Yedioth what it was like on occupation duty as a 21-year-old officer in the Nachshon Brigade:

The unit pride there is really strong and it’s hard to raise the slightest criticism. We all had it drilled into us, without end, not to think and to keep your mouth shut. Once I asked my commander if I could give some water to a few Palestinian prisoners who were sitting tied up in the sun. He gave me this look of contempt and I never dared open my mouth again. I became indifferent to people’s suffering, and even if I wanted to say something, I didn’t. By instinct, I kept quiet.

Of course she did. They all do. I did, and I wasn’t a malleable young recruit, I was a 37-year-old left-wing protester, and I didn’t dare open my mouth about the little act of humiliation I was told to carry out against that Palestinian woman.

Soldiers on duty do not break the silence. When they’re young, they’re typically too brainwashed to realize they’re even doing anything wrong to the Palestinians under their control. It’s only when they’re older, and when they’re out of that cult-like army environment, that they’re likely to be able to face the truth about the things they saw and did, and find the courage to go public about it. When Hendel, IDF spokesmen and others try to undermine these soldiers’ testimony by saying they should have given it to the army in “real time,” they’re just trying to shut them up now like the army did then. The occupation’s defenders pretend not to know this, but their pretense is transparent.

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    1. Arieh Zimmerman

      Most young soldiers, even if they are repulsed by the actions of their peers have no one to whom they might report the crimes. The chances are all too good that their immediate commanders don’t care or are even encouraging the soldiers.
      HaAretz reports on these actions almost daily and the IDF offers only lip service while acknowledging the acts. Little has changed over the last few years; as we occupy ever more Palestinian land, the situation can only grow worse.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Joel

      “I knew that we were doing something wrong..” We didn’t say a word..”

      So you punked out Larry, and at aged 37. This explains a lot.

      Reply to Comment
      • What a little mutt you are.

        Reply to Comment
        • Joel

          What does a person do when they’ve acted cowardly and don’t have another opportunity to redress their moral failure?

          I’ve found that these people often go off on a sublimated revenge mission against the person or institution that aggrieved them. It’s a mission impossible, of course.

          Reply to Comment
          • God, if there was ever an illustration of the saying “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Joel

            Young Sara Roy, encountered evil, and punked out badly setting her on her ‘revenge mission’

            “As I had tried to do with the Holocaust, I tried to remember my first real encounter with the occupation. One of the earliest was a scene I witnessed standing on a street with some Palestinian friends. An elderly man was walking along leading his donkey. A small child of no more than three or four , clearly his grandson, was with him. All of a sudden some nearby Israeli soldiers approached the old man and stopped him. One of them went over to the donkey and pried openits mouth. “Old man,” he asked, “why are your donkey’s teeth so yellow? Don’t you b rush your donkey’s teeth?” The old Palestinian was mortified, the little boy visibly upset. The soldier repeated his question, yelling this time, while the other soldiers laughed. The child began to cry and the old man just stood there silently, humiliated. As the scene continued a crowd gathered. The soldier then ordered the old man to stand behind the donkey and demanded that he kiss the animal’s behind. At first, the old man refused but as the soldier screamed at him and his grandson became hysterical, he bent down and did it . The soldiers laughed and walked away. We all stood there in silence, ashamed to look at each other, the only sound the sobs of the little boy. The old man, demeaned and destroyed, did not move for what seemed a very long time.”

            “I stood in stunned disbelief.”


            Reply to Comment
          • So do I. BTW, brave one, what’s your name?

            Reply to Comment
          • Joel

            Joel Eisenberg

            Reply to Comment
          • So, Joel, tell us about the times you refused an immoral order in the army or reported abuse of Palestinians.

            Reply to Comment
          • Joel

            I never served in the I.D.F., nor have I ever seen any Palestinians abused.

            I am oleh hadash.

            Reply to Comment
          • aristeides

            Or they go off on revenge missions against the people they’ve wronged, in an act of denial. That describes Israel pretty well.

            Reply to Comment
    3. directrob

      Did you ever consider visiting the family say sorry and compensating them?

      Reply to Comment
      • No, and I’m not proud of not doing so, but I don’t have such a sensitive conscience to make me ashamed of not trying to find her to apologize, either.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Aaron Gross

      Question: In the time since your army service, on those occasions when you’ve acted unethically or immorally in everyday life, do you feel that it was partly a result of your army experience? For instance, if an editor told you to do something unethical and you went along with it, do you you feel that your army experience was partly to blame?

      Same question to anyone else who served in the IDF. (I myself haven’t served in any army.) Of course none of us really knows what motivates our own behavior, but I’m asking people to speculate on their own – not other people’s – experience.

      The reason I ask is that we’re often told that the occupation has corrupted Israel, and this is supposedly one of the ways. I’m very skeptical of the claim that the occupation has significantly corrupted Israel; I think it’s just not true. But if it has, then we’d expect people like Larry to have acted more unethically since that kind of experience.

      Reply to Comment
      • Good question, Aaron. For myself, the answer is “definitely not.” But then I went into the army when I was 37, I did a total of about six or seven months in uniform, and that incident I described was a one-off, I’m happy to say. It’s completely different, and a thousand times less intense and formative, than doing three years as a combat soldier starting at age 18.

        Reply to Comment
      • sh

        “… if it has, then we’d expect people like Larry to have acted more unethically since that kind of experience.”
        Provided people are like sausages being churned out of a sausage machine. But not everyone reacts to an experience in the same way, as we know from, for instance, holocaust survivors.

        The occupation has corrupted our institutions, not necessarily every individual. That means there is no address to go to in a case like the one described here. If you insist and try to go further, you get the whistleblower treatment.

        Reply to Comment
        • Aaron Gross

          @Sh, I didn’t make this clear. I meant you’d expect to see a general tendency towards that among IDF veterans, not that every or even most persons would show it. This, plus the fact that no one knows the motivations for his actions, means that no one person’s answer would answer the general question. But it might illuminate it a little bit.

          Reply to Comment
      • Aaron, I would submit Superland as a counterexample to your conjecture that the occupation does not alter Israel internally. The occupation perforce runs on racial categories, in fact on blood guilt; it would be very hard for this not to be the case. Within Israel, I submit, the racial category “Arab” (on citizens) is similarly attaching group defined properties to individuals. I would also consider looking at the legal dance surrounding asylum and the newly constructed internment camp for such. Politics provides foci for our understanding, and I see such group determination effects indeed playing out within Israel proper. Once you admit such effects as primary, deviations (such as violations of human dignity) will be waived off as, indeed, epiphenomena.

        Reply to Comment
        • Aaron Gross

          Greg, I agree that the war is between peoples (can we stop saying “racial”?). I agree about all the ethnic discrimination in Israel, since its founding, or actually since the beginning of the Zionist movement. Unlike you, I don’t “see” discrimination in the territories “playing out” in Israel proper. It’s much harder for me to see causation than it is for other people.

          Reply to Comment
          • I say “racial” because the excluded children at Superland are Israeli citizens; to say they are another “people,” to me, alienates them from citizenship. Nor can they be called part of the “Palestinian people” without asserting them a 5th column, as they are then combined with residents of the Bank.

            Yes, there always has been discrimination in Israel. But it seems to be tending towards greater scope (consider the Knesset bill to allow discrimination against those not having served in the IDF). As media underrate assaults on Palestinians in the Bank, there is a natural tendency to conflate this attitude onto Arab citizens. Further, the High Court has been annulled as applied in some Bank decisions; this cavalier attitude against the Court seeps into Israel proper–there are cases of the State ignoring Court orders within Israel. Until your Court fights for judicial supremacy, I see an expansion of discrimination, driven by evolved government through the occupation, into Israel.

            Reply to Comment
      • I think this question might be a bit simplistic. For one thing, conscription is not the only means through which consequences of occupation enter the bloodstream of Israeli society. It’s a major means, but not the only one. Today I came through Checkpoint 300 and was struck by the marked difference between the behaviour of the guards (not soldiers, civilians from a private security company) towards Palestinians and their behaviour towards me (the only foreigner in line). They were shouting and yelling at those Palestinians even though there was no need (they were literally about a metre away), in dismissive sharp Hebrew. When they saw me, their whole attitude changed, and they motioned me to the front of the line. They were friendly. They smiled. I wanted to stop and ask them, why is it that you are yelling at that elderly man just because he can’t move fast enough for you, and you say good morning to me? Why don’t you motion him to the front? It’s obvious he has trouble standing in the queue. Those guards often act like the Palestinians are so many packages in a postal sorting office, or worse; and doing this isn’t even a solely military activity any more, it’s a civilian’s day job. That is corruption right there, that someone can seek employment in a building that contains caged chutes bearing more than a passing resemblance to an abattoir and in which white foreign women get ‘good morning’ and everyone else is treated like shit. They do the job and they go home and they take the pay cheque apparently without thinking twice about any of it. It’s just a job now.

        As for how ex-soldiers behave in later life, the occupation’s influence may not necessarily manifest in out and out unethical behaviour, but in other ways. An unusual level of difficulty with making big decisions alone, for example. A near-fatalistic sense of powerlessness (“Well, there’s nothing I can do to help that”). Military culture does tend to foster such attitudes, in my experience, although I think the degree to which they become ingrained will depend on the person.

        As I see it, the biggest evidence of occupation’s corrupting effect is the simple fact that a young kid on this street could be arrested and tortured at the behest of the state tonight, while three miles away there are communities of people who live either in ignorance or indifference to it or both. There is a willful element to that ignorance. What causes them to make the choice not to think about it?

        Reply to Comment
        • Aaron Gross

          Vicky, I don’t doubt that soldiers are brutalized by the occupation when they’re “on the job.” What I doubt is that the occupation corrupts Israelis (individually or collectively) beyond the sphere of the occupation.

          Your example fits pretty well with my view. The soldier was cruel to the Palestinian, but he was polite and considerate to you. He distinguished between the occupation and the non-occupation, between Palestinians and non-Palestinians.

          Regarding my question to Larry, I agree with you that the occupation could very well have an effect at the social level without having any effect at the personal level. Even if every IDF veteran agreed that he personally wasn’t affected, it’s very possible that society could be strongly affected by the occupation. The answer to my (too) personal question can’t prove anything one way or another; I’m just interested in hearing about people’s experience.

          Reply to Comment
          • Greg

            Aaron, what constitutes, for you, “outside the sphere of the occupation”?

            I think this is an important question, as for me as an outsider it seems clear that so much of Israeli economic, political and cultural activity is structured around maintaining the occupation, while variously justifying, ignoring, denying, minimising, angsting over or distracting from its existence.

            And the outcome seems to be that generally, people cope very well with being the occupiers, or at least with other individuals occupying on their behalf. To me, at least, this seems like some kind of moral or ethical corruption.

            Even the very ability to compartmentalise to the point that you can state, with confidence and clarity, that there is such a thing as living in Israel and being “outside the sphere of the occupation”, is on some level a symptom of this.

            Another could be the conclusion that it is desirable to treat people differently according to their race, or if you prefer, their “peoplehood”.

            Reply to Comment
          • He wasn’t a soldier. He was a civilian. This was part of my point – that manning a checkpoint could become a civilian job is a sign of how ingrained the occupation has become.

            Secondly, the occupation requires and facilitates the making of distinctions between Palestinian and non-Palestinian. The guard didn’t somehow leave the occupation behind when he chose to be polite to me before continuing to treat Palestinians like dirt. Doing that is part of being an occupier.

            Reply to Comment
    5. aristeides

      If the same IDF troops reported that Palestinians were throwing stones, setting fires, attacking Jews, they would instantly be believed, and anyone who dared cast doubt on their testimony would be denigrated. In the IDF, credibility apparently doesn’t lie in the person testifying but in the subject of the testimony.

      Reply to Comment
      • Under a zero sum war logic, violations of human dignity exist only on one’s own side; the other side is subject to “necessary measures,” to prevent threats to dignity among the occupation soldiers exposed to danger for the good of the nation. Occupation as slow motion war then elides into apartheid as a humane matter: appartheid is less harmful to the occupied than the disasters of war, urging them to accept their place as their own best possible outcome.

        Reply to Comment
        • aristeides

          You’ve just presented the original rationale for slavery. It’s better than being slaughtered after losing the war.

          Reply to Comment
          • And so it goes–again.

            Not slavery here but involuntary servitude, where one’s life possibilities are truncated for the purported security of others. I have no doubt that some on the national right see developing apartheid as the most humane response possible.

            Reply to Comment
    6. “We all had it drilled into us, without end, not to think and to keep your mouth shut.” : This is what armies do–for your own good, accept orders without question, as others, with the bigger picture, need you to act quickly for the good of all. Even after the fact questioning of orders is seen as potentially harmful to quick response. Western metropolitan police departments have Internal Affairs, purportedly protecting those identifying police malpractive; yet IA is often hated, and those coming forward can be ostracized, at least with a job, though, for years. And there is no evidence that the Israeli Military Prosecutor’s Office is at all as resolved as such police Internal Affairs divisions. I also suggest that coming forward in the IDF can be colored as racial and national treason; we have seen such ideology in comments on this site.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Daniel Gavron

      Many of us probably have similar experiences. When I served in the Gaza strip in the late 1970s, we were on patrol in a “refugee camp,” when one of our soldiers (a Druze tracker) started beating a Palestinian teenager with a thin, whippy, branch. The boy cried and pleaded, but received the blows for some two minutes. We stood there frozen, but not intervening. The soldier told us that the teenager “cursed Tzahal.” None of us knew enough Arabic to dispute this.
      After the patrol, however, a few of us complained to the Company Commander and the soldier was taken off patrolling duties. He could never understand what he did wrong.
      Twenty years later, in the same camp, a young soldier of my acquaintance was ordered to break his way into homes, smash the furniture and beat any teenage boys. This was after a grenade had been thrown at a patrol. Women, children and old people were not to be touched. The teenagers were handcuffewd, blindfolded, and taken to the nearby army camp, where they were released. My young soldier and his friend refused to participate in this operation, and a young soldier of Morocccan origin actually tried to prevent his comrades from carrying it out.
      I have always thought that these two parallel experiences, divided by two decades, illustrate the corrupting effect of the occupation.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Quentin Holt

      Well, as Mr Derfner and myself have both been banned from the Jerusalem Post i’ll congratulate Mr Derfner here for a very informative and balanced opinion piece, something that has been sadly lacking from the Post since his departure.

      Reply to Comment
      • Thanks, Quentin my man, good to hear from you – how did you get banned?

        Reply to Comment
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