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I Oppose the Occupation. This Is Why I Chose to Serve as an IDF Soldier in the Occupied West Bank

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Israeli soldiers patrol after an IDF soldier was killed by a rock thrown off a rooftop during an arrest raid in the village of Yabad near the West Bank city of Jenin
Israeli soldiers patrol after an IDF soldier was killed by a rock thrown off a rooftop during an arrest raid in the village of Yabad near the West Bank city of JeninCredit: AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed

It's been said that as the Israeli military's main mission has shifted overtime from wars of self-defense to occupation, the motivation of the more liberal parts of society to serve in combat has gone down as a consequence.

Indeed, I'm often asked by people why, even though I very much oppose the occupation, I chose to do the military service I did, which included long, intensive periods in the West Bank. 

My decision seems to confuse people not only because of my political leanings. Had I served in an intelligence unit, they say, I would have enjoyed far better career opportunities on my discharge. 

It might seem illogical to make such a life-defining decision which appears to contradict both my personal and ideological interests. However, I contend that serving in the occupied territories was not in spite of my liberal values, but because of them.

I served in the IDF's Sayeret Golani, a special reconnaissance unit; I was trained to fight Hezbollah in Lebanon. However, much of my service was spent patrolling the West Bank, and I knew that when I started. I’d like to tackle the most frequent, but wrong, assumptions made about my considerations.

Israeli soldiers use teargas to disperse Palestinian protesters during clashes at the entrance to the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, seen in the backgroundCredit: AP Photo/Nasser Nasser

Some assume my decision must be rooted in some kind of leftist self-righteous fantasy that, in a position of power, I could serve as a shield between the evils of the occupation and its victims, call out wrongdoing or carry out assignments in a more humane manner. In other words, better me than some right-winger doing the dirty work.  

But this heavily overestimates the influence one low-ranking soldier can have on an operation as large and complex as the occupation. Indeed, even the IDF chief of staff has his arms tied, because the considerations driving the the occupation’s policies are predominantly political and overpower any individual. 

Another mistake is assuming that the worldview one develops as an adolescent would necessarily inform more ethical decision making in a high-stakes context like that of the West Bank. 

While this may be true in some instances, I can attest from my experience that, more often than not, ethical decision making in these situations is more likely to be derived from a cool head and professionalism than any particular political leaning. 

My squadron was made up of Israelis who mainly came from extremely rightwing backgrounds; but if Breaking the Silence were to come asking me for testimony of IDF wrongdoings, the professionalism we exhibited as a group would leave me empty handed. 

Others have assumed that my decision was based on pure cowardice: That I succumbed to social pressure to conform to the Israeli ethos that sanctifies the use of force. But that would also be wrong. I felt zero pressure to serve where I served, and certainly none existed in the home where I grew up. 

So how does someone fiercely opposed to the occupation reach the conclusion that it is his civic duty to serve it?

Israeli soldiers guard a bus stop at the Tapuach junction next to the West Bank city of NablusCredit: AP Photo/Oded Balilty

First, there were social considerations that did heavily influence my decision, but had nothing to do with the occupation. 

Throughout Israel's history, the IDF has served the explicit purpose of being a melting pot between sectors of Israeli society that wouldn’t otherwise mix. But over time, this role has diminished. These days, the affluent and educated are disproportionately represented in the army’s technology and intelligence units, while infantry brigades like Golani have tended to attract the more disadvantaged elements of society. 

Although my thinking may have been naïve, I felt that serving with young men from very different backgrounds than mine would be my small contribution to reinforcing Israel’s crumbling social solidarity. But that doesn’t explain my willingness to go serve in a unit that is stuck particularly deep in the muck of the occupation of the West Bank.

I believe that there are evils that can’t be eradicated from the occupation, and its overarching purpose hurts Israel’s national interests. I believe settler violence and the unwarranted use of force by the army against civilian populations are unequivocally wrong. 

From experience, I know that the military does not know how to respond when settlers are violent. Time and again, the army has demonstrated ineptitude when pushed to shift its attention from enforcing a military rule on people who are not its own citizens to stopping violence perpetuated by its own citizens. 

Jewish settlers throws rocks towards Palestinians near the West Bank Jewish settlement of YitzharCredit: AP

Moreover, the IDF does not do enough to clarify to its soldiers in the field what force is appropriate to use and when. This is both a pragmatic and moral failing, as it puts soldiers in needless danger in certain instances and gives them the leeway to act immorally in others.

Both these phenomena are a result of ambiguous policies which are likely backed by settler interests. In other words, as long as the occupation is given reason to further exist by settlers, the negative aspects of it will necessarily remain as well. So, I went in understanding that nothing substantial could be changed.

Furthermore, the occupation is a political tool that solely serves the interests of settlers. It does not contribute to Israel’s security at large; in my opinion it actually does the opposite.

Israeli soldiers block Palestinians protesting against the expansion of Israeli settlements, in the West Bank village of Beita near NablusCredit: AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed

Believing all this, I still found it necessary to serve in the West Bank in the interim – that is, until a solution to the conflict is reached – because of the IDF's most basic purpose: protecting human life.

I wholly oppose the ideology of the settlers, but I absolutely affirm the sanctity of their lives. The primary reason for the presence of the IDF in the West Bank is to protect the citizens who are, wrongly, there. 

There is no question in my mind that the occupation is bad and must end, but based on my experience, serving in the occupied territories does not constitute the crossing of a moral red line, partly because a primary rationale guiding IDF policies is to protect the lives of Israeli citizens. 

I recognize that this is at the expense of the freedom of Palestinians, but when I weighed all the immoral and integral aspects of the occupation against the value of protecting lives, I reached the difficult conclusion that the latter outweighs the former.

While I can and should use all the democratic tools at my disposal to oppose the settler enterprise, it would be a rejection of my liberal values to deny the settlers the same security that all citizens are afforded. If the military were to pick up and leave the settlers to protect themselves, it would clearly only be a matter of time before they were massacred. 

This principle that puts human life above all has led me to this seemingly paradoxical conclusion that the occupation should be opposed because of the unnecessary loss of human life and suffering it causes, but that as long as it exists, I must be complicit in it because in that way I can help save human lives. 

To deny people basic protection because they are ideologically opposed to me or perhaps even violating international law felt to me like a betrayal of my values. Indeed, even those who hold that settlement activity is criminal, know full well that even criminals deserve protection. This is why I saw my military service as a moral imperative.

Iddo Schejter is a web editor on the Haaretz English desk