Yesterday I interviewed Yehuda Shaul, one of the founders of Shovrim Shtika (Breaking the Silence). The organization was initiated in 2004 by a group of 65 Israeli army veterans who had served together in Hebron. All were upset about the missions they were required to undertake when serving there, believing them to be unjust and out of step with the moral conduct they expected from the army. Once discharged, they discovered a a great deal of public ignorance about what actually occurs beyond the Green Line in the service of Israeli security and control of land. Therefore they saw it as their responsibility to raise awareness about abuses committed by the IDF in the territories.
Gathering together photographs and testimonies of these veterans, they opened an exhibit in Tel Aviv on June 1, 2004 and received a huge public response. With no initial plans about what to do next, they found that people were shocked by their collected testimonials and that the story was much larger than just what has taken place in Hebron. They now see it as their mission to “bring Hebron to Tel Aviv,” by exposing and demanding public accountability for Israeli military actions “in the Occupied territories perpetrated by us and in our name.”
In doing so, they have collected over 730 solider testimonials and published numerous pamphlets which have raised broad awareness of the “moral price tag of the occupation.” They also conduct regular tours of Hebron and the South Hebron Hills for both Hebrew and English speakers. It was on the former tour when I first met Yehuda three years ago. Since then, the organization’s visibility and public notoriety has increased significantly. Their tours now regularly clash with Jewish residents of Hebron and their publication of soldier testimonies from Operation Cast Lead were denounced by the Israeli government as false and politically motivated.
Shaul, however, sees this as an indication of what the organization is doing right. First, he maintains that Shovrim Shtika only publishes those testimonials which they can “stand behind.” As evidence, he points to a survey taken by the Israeli War and Peace Index in July 2009. This survey found that initial testimonials independently reported by soldiers after Cast Lead, which were widely denounced as false and unsubstantiated, were only held to be credible by 20% of the population. However, Shovrim Shtika’s testimonials were believed by some 43% of those polled. Indeed, he argues, many of the claims they exposed, which were initially denounced as hearsay, have since led to prosecutions of commanders by IDF military tribunals.
Why does the Israeli public trust what Shovrim Shtika has to say? In part, Shaul believes it is because of their history and credibility. Claims made in their testimonials have been proven correct in the past while their identity as former commanders in the field, gives them an identity and authority which is still well-respected in Israeli society. While the government has attacked their identity as Israeli insiders, noting that many of their funding sources come from European governments and NGOs (not to mention the New Israel Fund), he believes that the Israeli public “cannot stomach” that they are good enough to lead soldiers into battle, but not good enough to speak publically about their experiences doing so. If things are this bad, the members of Shovrim Shtika believes they have a moral obligation as Israelis and human beings to fight them. “If that’s not democracy, what is?”
In bringing to light abuses, the organization argues it is bringing to the fore critical questions about Israeli identity: “What do we stand for, what is right and wrong, and what do we allow ourselves to do?” They have a strong belief that what is happening in the territories is wrong and the abuses they have seen and participated in must end. In this, they do not take a precise position on whether there should be one or two states or what the borders of that state or states should be. Rather they believe that Israeli society still respects “humanistic values” and that the public must be made aware of the clash which exists between those values and the orders they give to their military in their names. Using the military to control a civilian population, they argue, can never lead to clean outcomes. Shaul does not say that every IDF soldier is a murder or even that most are. Rather, he believes that there is no way for a soldier to serve in the territories and still believe and act like the Palestinians are equal human beings.
He insists that when engaging the Israeli public, it is more important to him that they acknowledge the moral price tag associated with the occupation than to agree with him that it should be ended. If they accept that this is a price they are willing to pay, at least they are acknowledging that there is a price. Israeli society, Shaul argues, still holds to moral principles which, if cognizant of the abuses being committed, would not allow them to continue. That campaigns exist in Israel and abroad portraying the IDF as “the most moral army in the world” is evidence to him that Israelis are still deeply committed to moral conduct by the military and are troubled that they might indeed act otherwise.
Critics of Shovrim Shtika and other “anti-occupation” organizations often charge that it is hypocritical for these organizations to criticize Israel’s methods and security measures. Indeed, they ask, does Hamas respect human rights? Are arms in Gaza and Southern Lebanon not hidden in the homes of civilians? Does not a suicide bomber or launcher of a qassam rocket intend to inflict civilian casualties? Shaul is adamantly opposed to this point of view. Why should Hamas be taken as Israel’s moral equivalent? Just because Israel does not use suicide bombers, should it believe that its actions in the service of the state’s security are moral?
While he recognizes that fighting a terrorist organization poses serious strategic and tactical challenges, and indeed moral considerations, it is Israel’s attitude toward facing these challenges with which he has a problem. Although soldiers are not ordered to shoot first and ask questions later, he believes there is a prevailing attitude that Palestinians should bear the mistakes of the army, rather than the soldiers themselves. There is a question, he asserts, of how loose one is with the trigger. For those who charge that Israel simply wants to murder Palestinians, he notes that if this was what Israel was really after, it certainly could “do that better.” Yet that the Israeli army does not seek to wantonly kill does not release it from moral considerations of its own conduct.
To the charge that if Israel were to militarily withdraw from the West Bank, it would soon look like Gaza, he also believes this is nonsense. Shaul asserts that there is a significant difference between when he served in the north defending Israel’s border and when he served in Hebron defending Jewish settlers. Maybe Israel’s presence in the West Bank is about security considerations, but “only after Israel takes out every settler from the Occupied Territories,” can it legitimately press the security argument.
Designating roads in Hebron where Palestinians are not allowed to walk is not a security measure which defends Israel. No such closures have been imposed in Nablus or Jenin which were widely considered “hives of terrorism.” These measures serve only to protect the lives of Israeli settlers. Whether this is a legitimate use of the state security apparatus clearly remains a divisive issue in Israeli society. Hebron, he believes, is a microcosm of the entire conflict. Here the conflictual relationships between Jewish settlers, Palestinians, and Israeli security forces and the Israeli and Palestinian national narratives are unavoidably evident. It is precisely because of the history that a place like Hebron holds that it is important. Here, issues of history and religion cannot be escaped and the “Tomb of the Patriarchs is not something that can be waved out in a second.” In such a place, Israelis are forced to take a stand about “who we are and what we stand for.”
This discussion begs the question of why Israel is still in the territories at all. Answering for himself and not the organization, Shaul believes it is because there is no pressing reason for Israel to leave. Israel is particularly good at “deciding not to decide,” and in doing so, it effective has decided to remain. “The occupation,” he said, “is our national project.” It is where the state’s and society’s resources are directed, and there is no reason to stop it because Israel “is not paying a price” for it.
In many ways, at the height of the intifada when buses were blowing up, Israelis were much more interested in resolving the conflict than they are today. For most Israelis, he charged, the past decade have been the best of times for Israel. While much of the world has been experiencing an economic crisis, Israel has done fine. Tourism is back up, the economy is booming, there have been few terrorist attacks outside the Green Line, and no Israeli feels the brunt of the occupation. Similarly, the international community insists upon a peace process and talks, but they don’t need it to go anywhere, while the Palestinians are themselves “crushed”.
At the end of the day, however, he believes this system must collapse. By continuing the settlement project, Israel is playing into the hands of the radical left, increasingly acting the part of a colonial or apartheid state. While Shaul does not believe that this is the true story of Israel, the state will be judged by what it does and not what it sees itself to be. As much as he is committed to the land, he is more committed tot he state. He readily admits that places like Shechem/Nablus and Hebron are more Jewish than Tel Aviv as the land of “our forefathers” and are central to Israel’s Jewish heritage. Yet “we are in 2010 and we need to make a decision,” even if this means not having access to places like the Tomb of the Patriarchs and others found in the West Bank. If giving up these places is what is needed to preserve Israel’s democratic values, “this is what we need to do.”