Head to Head Breaking the Silence Founder Yehuda Shaul, Is There a Crack in the Israeli Army's Wall of Silence?

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Yehuda Shaul, 27, one of the founders of Breaking the Silence, which collects and publishes eyewitness accounts of soldiers from the territories, is celebrating a minor victory over the Israel Defense Forces, the IDF spokesman and the wall of silence that Shaul says surrounds the events of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. The cracks in that wall are decisions by Military Advocate General Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit to file an indictment against a soldier from the Givati Brigade on suspicion of killing two Palestinian women during the Gaza fighting, to subject an officer to disciplinary proceedings over questionable conduct, and to investigate the bombing of the al-Samouni family home, in which 16 people were killed.

Yehuda Shaul.Credit: Nir Kafri

But Shaul is afraid that this time, too, the IDF will try to isolate a few low-level scapegoats to continue to conceal the really important things - the orders that were given to the soldiers during the operation.

Shaul, a skullcap-wearing Jerusalemite, founded Breaking the Silence in 2004, after his discharge from combat service in the Nahal Brigade. He and his friends organized an exhibit about their experiences. "We wanted to bring Hebron to Tel Aviv," he says. The success of the exhibit gave rise to the organization, which has collected more than 700 eyewitness accounts from soldiers and commanders about their service in the territories.

Is the IDF's decision to investigate a crack in the wall of silence?

"I see a crack in the wall of silencing, mainly in light of the IDF attempt to keep things quiet. But as long as the blame falls on the little guy, it's very convenient for the system and very convenient to continue to remain silent. The IDF campaign against us stemmed from a desire to conceal the truth from the public. That's not a proper professional consideration or a proper democratic consideration."

"The question is what we as a society allow to be done in our name, and what we don't allow. That's why the investigation must be held outside the army. There's a reason for the insane campaign against us and against other organizations, because they're busy covering their asses and preventing the citizens from knowing what happened there. The minimum they owe us is to give an accounting in an independent committee."

"What's really disturbing about Operation Cast Lead is not the ordinary soldiers. The true problematic situation is the general policy, that they tell soldiers 'Go in and shoot, you're at war - whatever moves should be taken down.' They were also told 'Don't fire on women and children,' but when you tell the the air force that before entering a neighborhood you survey the area and any man, even if he's unarmed, is a legitimate target, that's problematic."

"Take, for example, an incident that took place on Salah al-Din Street, in the Zeitoun neighborhood [of Gaza City], the southernmost house that the IDF seized in the war. A Givati soldier sees someone approaching 200 meters from the south. The order is that it's forbidden to cross from south to north. The sergeant looks and realizes right away that he's not a threat. He's an old man who's walking with a flashlight turned on. The sergeant gets on the two-way radio and requests permission to fire warning shots. The company commander refuses and asks him to wait, gathering the soldiers on the roof in the meantime. The old man is 150 meters away, the sergeant once again requests permission, the company commander once again refuses. The same happens at 100 meters."

"The sergeant is tense because he knows that if the old man approaches, he'll be killed. When the old man is at a distance of 80 meters he asks permission again, and again is refused. When he's at a distance of 35 meters, they open fire on him and he falls and dies. The company commander gets on the radio and says: 'We have a nice start to the evening.' We have two eyewitnesses to this story and another two who heard the conversation on the radio."

To what extent do such cases represent what happened in Operation Cast Lead, as indicated by the eyewitness accounts?

"When the operation began I remember that we sat in the office and watched the broadcasts and said that this time it's a different story, and it turned out that we were right. To date we have collected testimonies from 26 soldiers who served in Operation Cast Lead - half of them in the regular army and half of them reservists. Operation Cast Lead was the first time the IDF admittedly crossed lines that had not been crossed before. The soldiers were told not to risk their lives at all. It was the first time that the IDF said 'I don't care about the other side.' It's not that they wanted a lot of casualties, but the familiar criteria of targets - a person with the means and intention of causing injury - were overturned. From the moment they tossed down flyers calling on the civilians to go outside, anyone who stayed inside was an enemy; it's enough for you to be male or to move near a window, and you become a target."

"You can't say that you don't know in advance that you're going to harm civilians. You can't fire artillery at neighborhoods and say that you didn't mean to fire on civilians, and the worst thing is to continuing lying to civilians."

Meaning what?

"Take the story of the 'neighbor procedure,' because of which the military advocate general decided to put an officer on trial. This case appears in the brochure we published. It was a case of armed men inside the house. [IDF soldiers] sent the owner of the house several times to ask them to surrender. The IDF claimed that it was done at the request of the owner of the house, who was afraid they would demolish his house. But according to the information we have, there was far more than one human shield in that area. It was a regular procedure to send Palestinians to check houses. The code name for that was 'Johnny.' They would say 'Johnny is entering to check that the house is clean, and then we go in.'"

"When we published this evidence, the IDF spokesman jumped on us and denied it and they tried to impose a silencing campaign. Now there's a story here that you said didn't happen and suddenly it turns out that it did happen. You lied brazenly to all the Jewish people. Someone has to pay the price for that lie."

Your organization's credibility was attacked after Operation Cast Lead. How do you defend yourselves?

"Since founding Breaking the Silence, we have understood that there are two things that will put an end to the project. The first is if they catch one of the soldiers providing testimony and send him to jail, whether because he talked or whether because of the things about which he testified. That's why we're extremely cautious regarding the identity of the soldiers."

"The second thing is credibility. For every significant story we demand two eyewitnesses, we conduct an investigation [by speaking] with other soldiers, record conversations and verify with B'Tselem and other organizations. There are lots of stories that we'll never publicize because there isn't enough verification. But today we are seeing that the first time the IDF tried to attack our credibility, it failed"

As a Nahal fighter and as someone familiar with Hebron, what is your opinion of the Internet video clip showing Nahal soldiers dancing in the streets of Hebron?

"I see it mainly as a reflection of your loss of sensitivity as a soldier, of boredom, of the nothingness in which you find yourself. It's an entertaining way of reducing the boredom. But what mainly drives me crazy is that it's causing such an uproar in the media."

"In Hebron there are Palestinian families who have to climb a ladder in order to leave the house, because their street has been defined as a sterile street, and the story we see is soldiers dancing in the street for a video clip. Mainly it seems absurd to me."



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