Israelis Don’t Want to Confront the Ugly Truth About the Occupation

That’s too bad, because in not one case have reports and testimonies collected by Breaking the Silence been proved wrong.

zeev sternhell
Zeev Sternhell
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Israeli soldiers stand guard at a bus stop in the West Bank, near the Palestinian town of Nablus, November 8, 2015.
Israeli soldiers stand guard at a bus stop in the West Bank, near the Palestinian town of Nablus, November 8, 2015.Credit: AP
zeev sternhell
Zeev Sternhell

During the Dreyfus affair, when despair gnawed at the supporters of the ill-fated Jewish captain, Georges Clemenceau, the editor of the newspaper that would publish Emile Zola’s “J’Accuse” and a future prime minister who would lead France to victory in World War I, wrote: “People don’t know. That’s the biggest tragedy on earth.” This harsh truth keeps repeating elsewhere.

This truth undermines the foundations of democracy and casts doubt on its rationale. People don’t want to confront the ugly truth. Thus immense courage and endless devotion and love for this country, despite all its ills, are required to carry on with the mission undertaken by Breaking the Silence.

These people deserve great respect, as do their supporters such as Maj. Gen. (res.) Amiram Levin, who once led the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit. Another example of ethical reflection during war was provided by Col. Eli Geva, a commander of a tank brigade who resigned during the first Lebanon war rather than open fire on a civilian area.

If there’s one thing I regret as a citizen it’s that I and my generation, as well as the one before us, the War of Independence generation, were party to a conspiracy of silence surrounding the Israel Defense Forces in this country’s first 20 years. If we had only spoken out then, when we first heard rumors about the killing of Egyptian prisoners – first in the Sinai Campaign and then in the Six-Day War – and if we had only forced the General Staff to investigate and prosecute those responsible, we would have had a different army when the occupation became entrenched.

If anyone had broken the silence after the revenge attack and massacre in the village of Qibya in 1953, other norms of combat would have been established, as well as norms of behavior among our political elites.

If only David Ben-Gurion had learned the hard way in 1953 that there’s a price for lying and deceiving people. If only he had learned that there’s a price for fostering a specious cult whereby our arms are always “pure” (the term before “the most moral army in the world” came in vogue), maybe Israel would have found it harder to get away with subterfuge after 1967, robbing land and sending its young soldiers to harass an occupied population.

In not one case have reports and testimonies collected by Breaking the Silence been proved wrong. The persecution of this organization and others such as B’Tselem and Peace Now by Im Tirtzu, a group whose ideology resembles an incipient fascist movement, only adds to the credibility of Breaking the Silence’s reports.

Israeli reservist Ido Even Paz, center, guiding visitors at the "Breaking the Silence" exhibition at the Kulturhaus Helferei in Zurich, June 8, 2015.Credit: Reuters

Now to the argument about washing our dirty laundry abroad. Today there are no more sealed laundromats; dirty laundry flutters in the breeze. Thus appealing to American Jews and European public opinion, including EU institutions, is inevitable and legitimate for two further reasons.

First, the IDF punishes soldiers in only a tiny fraction of complaints it learns of, while ignoring the majority. Second, it’s currently impossible to attain tangible results in any issue pertaining to the occupation and the apartheid in the territories without external intervention. The army would be even more violent were it not for the fear of international sanctions.

Indeed, since the nation doesn’t want to know and its leaders are either partners to the oppression or too pusillanimous – Isaac Herzog and Yair Lapid lead this camp – only externally imposed sanctions will break its repose. This is a historic role played by all the groups that oppose the occupation, and because of this they deserve our respect and strong support.

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