Why I Broke the Silence

I was hoping I could use my knowledge to help defend my country, but when the moment of truth arrived, I was sent to the occupied territories to control a civilian population.

Nadav Weiman
Nadav Weiman
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IDF soldiers facing Gaza during Operation Defensive Edge, on Aug. 3, 2014.
IDF soldiers facing Gaza during Operation Defensive Edge, on Aug. 3, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Nadav Weiman
Nadav Weiman

Seven years have passed since I completed my military service in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and to this day, each time I'm asked why I broke my silence, I think of the military code names of the tasks I carried out.

I remember, for example, one of the tasks I often performed, called “mapping.” When I first participated in mapping, my team and I were sent to a street in the city of Nablus. It was nighttime and we knew what we needed to do. We would wake the sleeping family, photograph each family member, write down their names and occupations, draw a map of the house we had entered, and then move on to the next home to begin the process again.

When we returned to the base I entered the battalion’s intelligence office to upload the photographs I had taken. The battalion intelligence officer stopped me before I proceeded to do so. He explained to me that the aim of “mapping” is not actually to gather intelligence. He told me to throw away the maps that we had sketched, and to delete the images from the camera. At first I didn't understand. If the information we collected was not important, why were we sent to wake families in the middle of the night?

In the end I figured it out. As my commander explained to me, the aim of this operation, as with many others that I carried out throughout my service, was to create “a sense of persecution” among the Palestinian population. When we enter family homes to gather information and photograph individuals, we ensure that all residents feel threatened. In feeling ever exposed to the eyes of the Israeli Defense Forces, Palestinians are well aware of the dominant force on the ground. It was in the office of the intelligence unit of my battalion, that I began to understand that my job is not to defend Israel, but rather to control the Palestinians. It was not an easy reality to grasp.

I grew up in an environment that fostered not only a desire to contribute to my country, but also faith that one of the most important contributions I could make was to serve in the military and help defend Israel. This permeated the education my father and grandfather passed on to me as Israeli officers who both fought in Israel’s wars; the values engrained in me as an apprentice within the sea scouts; and my brothers’ roles as mentors to me, having served in the IDF’s most elite units.

When I was drafted into the IDF I was trained to conduct warfare, and specialized in sniping and identifying targets. I was hoping I could use my knowledge to help defend the country, but when the moment of truth arrived, I was sent to the occupied territories to control a civilian population. As with “mapping,” though many of the names of our tasks indicated a supposed defensive importance, most turned out to be means of strengthening our military control over Palestinians.

During my service, my initial reaction was to keep doing as I was told. Once my service was over, I just wanted to go on with my life and forget what I had learned, so that I could reintegrate into my society. It was only later, when I had traveled far away from Israel, that I had the courage to rethink my time in the army. Conversations with people from around the world made me realize that sending 18-year-olds to control another nation was not a necessary part of life. It was a decision made by this country’s leadership, and as such, it could be questioned.

Though I still believed it was my duty to do everything I could to protect my nation, the new threat I saw was different. I realized that not saying anything meant that I was helping to reinforce most Israelis’ false perception in regard to the IDF and Israel’s role in the territories. By doing so, I was making sure that we – the Israeli public – carry on making decisions on the basis of false perceptions. And that can’t do any good.

So two years after I completed my service, I broke my silence. It wasn’t easy. Most Israelis truly believe that what we’re doing in the territories is defending our existence. The silence about the truth is so strong, because daring to question this common belief is viewed as an attack on the soldiers on the ground. My family was no exception; they thought I had abandoned my values and turned against my fellow soldiers. It took time, patience and conversation until they understood that I wish to share my experiences to encourage people around me to question and talk openly about our government’s policies, which are carried out by soldiers like me.

These days, brave soldiers who fought in Gaza last summer, and whose eyewitness accounts were published in Breaking the Silence’s compilation of testimonies, are criticized for breaking their silence. This is not because of the content of their testimonies, but simply because of their decision to testify at all. I request that we return to the basic idea at the foundation of our activities at Breaking the Silence. I wish to reinforce that behind the publication of our testimonies is a basic, perhaps even naive, idea. We hope that by sharing our experiences, we may help enable genuine public debate on the way we fight in Gaza, and the moral price we pay for ongoing military control over the occupied territories.

When I reflect on the passionate, challenging, and sometimes painful debates that have taken place over the past month, I feel that we may have even succeeded.

Nadav Weiman served in the sniper team of the reconnaissance unit of the Nahal Brigade from 2005-2008 and is an active member of Breaking the Silence.

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