A 118-page report, titled BREAKING THE SILENCE: Soldiers’ Testimonies From Hebron 2005-2007, was published recently. The organisation (Breaking the Silence) is composed of “veterans who served in the Israeli army during the Second Intifada (since September 2000), and have taken upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to everyday life in the Occupied Territories, a routine situation that is never reflected in the media.” What began as an exhibition of photographs taken by soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories in 2004 (the exhibition made it to Europe and the US) Breaking the Silence documents, in the soldiers’ own words, how “young soldiers face a civilian population on an everyday basis and control its life.” Only testimonies that have been corroborated (e.g., “cross-checking facts with additional eye-witnesses and/or archives of other human rights organizations who are also active in the field”) are published. This latest report is based on the testimonies of over thirty enlisted men (“officers, commanders and soldiers”) who served in Hebron from 2005 to 2007.
The city of Hebron, where approximately 800 Jewish settlers reside amongst 166,000 Palestinians, has and continues to be the epicentre of some of the most vile, indiscriminate and abhorrent behaviour displayed by the Jewish settlers towards not only their Palestinian neighbours, but also towards Israeli police, the Israeli army, and many visitors and activists. Hebron is where the Tomb of the Patriarchs is located, a sacred site to both Jews and Muslims who believe that the Biblical Fathers were buried there. It is the second largest Palestinian city in the West Bank “and the only one that harbours a Jewish settlement in its midst”. The problem is not the Jewish presence per se, it is the behaviour of the settlers and the consequences of such behaviour on the policies of the Israeli government and the Israeli military in regard to Hebron. For example, in the late 1990’s the city was separated into a Jewish and a Palestinian part (see the map below; taken from the Israel Ministry for Foreign Affairs). This resulted in a “legal and physical segregation between the Israeli settlers and the Palestinian majority” that led to “the economic collapse of the center of Hebron and drove many Palestinians out of the area.” (Although area H2 is controlled by Israel and area H1 is controlled by the Palestinians, the population numbers in both areas are predominantly Palestinian.) There exists “severe and extensive restrictions on Palestinian movement” in Hebron, and the soldiers, as the Breaking the Silence report makes clear, are either complicit or oblivious to the settlers’ violent attacks (both physical and verbal) on the Palestinians (see for example, B’Tselem’s Shooting Back project, where Palestinians living in high-conflict areas were given video cameras to record illegal activity by the Israeli army and Jewish settlers).
The Hebron violence and animosity is of course not wholly the domain of the Jewish settlers, but the Palestinian residents of Hebron do not have thousands of soldiers protecting them (perhaps the “ratio is 1 settler to 4 soldiers”) and the Israeli government, at the very least, is heavily biased towards the Israeli settlers. Thus the actions of the Hebron Jewish settlers is more pertinent, and cowardly. It is cowardly because, as quickly becomes evident whilst reading the Break the Silence report, the adult settlers very rarely engage in actual “flagrant, physical violence”: rather, “they send their kids to do it.” They send their kids to “throw stones at the girls from Cordoba (a Palestinian girls’ school)”, they send their kids to “pick up building blocks that look about 5 kilos each, and simply throw them at the cars [of the TIPH (Temporary International Presence at Hebron) activists], smashing glass”, they send their kids to do these and other acts of vandalism and intimidation because the adults know that, as one soldier in the report put it: “Listen, you know that these are kids under the age of 14 so there’s nothing I can do.” Another soldier noted to himself that one day that “your mission is to protect Palestinian homes from little, vicious Jewish children. Period. That’s the mission there on Saturdays.”
The report also highlights the soldiers’ own behaviour, regardless of what the settlers do. Incidents of beatings (“Then the rest of the guys on patrol saw the beating. Everyone jumped on him… They beat him up, really beat him up… Hit him with sticks, in the head… And then one started choking him, with two hands. He [the Palestinian] was 17 or 18”), theft (“A little looting was normal. Backgammon and cigarettes, everything… Everything that looked nice we took. Other guys took presents for their girlfriends from stores”) and vandalism (“Some of us kept clubs in our vests. It would get to the point where we’d be walking down the street, patrolling, suddenly stop a vehicle, just for the sake of it, stop it, check it out, break doors and such, not really gentle. Smash up the door from inside. Maybe they’re hiding weapons”) are just a few deplorable examples.
It is difficult to put all the blame on the soldiers themselves, most of whom are straight out of high school with little notion of the bigger picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (when asked “what are the procedures you’re given, generally, regarding the settlers?”, a solider in the report answered: “Nothing”); the bulk of the blame should lie with the authorities, with the Israeli government and the Israeli Defence Forces, for creating an environment that in a sense turns these young soldiers (many of whom believe that they are in the army to protect the State of Israel) into instruments of coercion. Such an environment is reminiscent of the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which American college students took part in a simulation of prison life. Part of the students were given the role of prison guards and rest of their fellow students were given the role of prison inmates. The experiment had to be ended prematurely after only six days because the the prison guards became horribly sadistic, doing things to their friends that they would never have imagined they could do to their own classmates.
The Stanford Prison Experiment sought to discover “What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph?” And there are certain parallels with the case of the soldiers in the Breaking the Silence report: the soldiers are put in a position of overwhelming power and dominance (“I can safely say that the power you wield there is incredible”), and if the students in the Stanford experiment were able to do such horrible things to their friends and peers, it does not take a vivid imagination to realise that the young Israeli soldiers in Hebron are likely to do horrible things to the Palestinian residents (whom most soldiers do not see as their peers nor as their friends). This by no means absolves the soldiers of responsibility for their disgusting acts, but in the broader context we can come to better understand the causes of the soldiers’ behaviour and work towards rehabilitating and changing the overall political and military structure that puts them in those situations in the first place.