Back in the days when I was a soldier walking the alleyways of Nablus and Rafah in the early 1990s, before the Oslo Accord and the pullback from the Palestinian cities, there was no Breaking the Silence. No outlet to report the daily cruelties inflicted by our company on the local civilians with the full knowledge and sometimes encouragement of our officers. The kid, who may have been throwing stones, dragged back to camp and left, trussed up, to bake in the sun. Hours later, kicked out to hobble home, his clothes fouled by his own urine and feces. The young idealistic officer excited because he had been given a sniper’s telescopic sights and ordered to shoot live bullets at “trouble-makers’” legs from the security of a lookout post. The unclear orders for mounting a “surprise checkpoint,” which had led to a friend shooting and killing two innocent people, man and wife, one early morning. A trauma he hasn’t emerged from a quarter of a century later.
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Most of us weren’t even clear on whether there was something wrong about this normal routine of a four-month posting to Gaza or the West Bank in the last stages of the first intifada. Those who were bothered kept it to themselves, or at most unburdened themselves to officers barely older than them. On leave at home you didn’t want to think about the army, and there was no one who could understand you anyway who hadn’t been there himself.
Recently I’ve been asking myself: If Breaking the Silence had been around when I was still a conscript or reservist, before I became a journalist and had my own platform, would I have sat down with their interviewers? I’d like to think that I would, but I know that I probably wouldn’t have – the stigma, the bother, breaking the omerta of a close-knit unit, the desire to just put it all behind you. If one of my sons asked me whether to speak to Breaking the Silence, I admit that I would be at a loss on how to advise them. I’m surprised that over the years hundreds of soldiers and officers have been brave enough to overcome the inbuilt inhibitions. For some it has been a cleansing and cathartic experience, but for many the anguish and dilemmas remain.
Some criticisms of the organization are valid. There’s a serious debate to be had over whether Breaking the Silence should focus so much of their operation on the foreign media and hold events abroad. Not because I’m worried about them “slandering Israel” among the goyim, though that’s the accusation most often raised against them. It’s a ridiculous argument in an age where nearly every violent incident in the West Bank is filmed by someone’s smartphone and immediately posted online. Even if they never gave an interview to the foreign media and published their reports only in Hebrew, someone else would translate them. My objection is that the only people who will ever end the occupation are Israelis and all the available energies should be focused on that.
However I understand the fundraising necessity; it would be wonderful if enough Israeli donors were willing to contribute to the considerable expense of running a highly professional evidence-gathering operation that painstakingly researches each testimony, weeding out the fantasists and provocateurs. There aren’t, and in the same way that the right-wing in Israel has always used foreign money to promote its positions, since the arrival of Sheldon Adelson on the scene it is doing so to a much greater proportion.
On Wednesday in Brussels, the European Union’s subcommittee on human rights dealt with Israeli soldiers’ experiences of fighting in Gaza. There was a representative of Breaking the Silence who presented their report, in which 60 soldiers and officers detailed the orders they had received and the ways they were implemented, which, to their minds as military men, created uncalled-for destruction of homes and loss of civilian lives. And there was also Matan Katzman, a young man who detailed at length the procedures taken by the IDF to prevent civilian casualties and the way Hamas had used Palestinian homes to conceal weapons and its military infrastructure.
The only thing I can say in favor of Katzman is that he has actually been there as an infantry soldier and officer – unlike a lot of the vicious critics of Breaking the Silence who have never spent a day in uniform (and neither will their children), and have never woken up a Palestinian family in the middle of the night and seen children pissing their pyjamas in fear.
But Katzman, unlike the hundreds of IDF soldiers who have given their testimony to Breaking the Silence out of a noble feeling that the Israeli public must know the truth, is a paid propagandist. He is an employee of the right-wing Stand With Us group which masquerades as “pro-Israel” while its real agenda is to serve the current government (which partly funds it).
Katzman’s version of how the IDF fought in Gaza is not untruthful – in many of the operations and stages of fighting the IDF did take major precautions to avoid unnecessary bloodshed.
However, it doesn’t invalidate the Breaking the Silence testimony in any way. The narrative told by Stand With Us (or My Truth, the front group it has set up to smear Breaking the Silence) is a selective one. Both narratives are selective; they portray two sides of the same IDF operation. Any honest soldier or officer who was there will tell you there was caution and moderation alongside wantonness and excessive fire.
Katzman’s truth is naturally the only narrative the government wants to project – an entire hasbara hierarchy is backing him up, with most of the Israeli media playing along. The IDF Spokesman isn’t going to allow journalists to interview soldiers who will tell them the dark side of the Gaza operation. Only Breaking the Silence is doing that, and yet on Facebook, Katzman despicably calls these men who fought alongside him “a tiny, anonymous minority” who are trying “to slander the IDF.” They’re anonymous because unlike him, if they say in public what they saw in Gaza, they will be packed off to a military jail.
Katzman, the government-funded mouthpiece, has of course every right to present selective parts of the IDF’s operation in a way that serves his paymasters’ political agenda. But his Zionism and patriotism in no way measure up to those of the hundreds of soldiers who have spoken out and told the Israeli public the parts the government want kept from view.
Katzman writes that those who speak out “are an exception and do not represent IDFs soldiers and officers” and he’s right about that. The great majority haven’t spoken out about what we have seen, because we are conflicted, we are afraid of serving someone else’s agenda and we know that there are two sides to the story. Ultimately, we are thankful that there are others who have gone ahead for us. Not only are they not slandering the IDF, they are taking part in a necessary democratic service to ensure it remains somehow accountable to Israeli society.