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Opinion: 'I joined the army out of love for Israel... but I was just playing the part of the British soldier'

‘At first, I hated shooting school children with rubber-coated bullets … but after a few months in Hebron, we would high-five each other every time we hit one’, writes Dean Issacharoff.

Dean Issacharoff

Breaking the Silence is an organisation of Israeli veterans who speak out about the injustices of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. 

I COULDN’T STAND Breaking the Silence the first time I met one of them.

I was 19 years old when an Israeli veteran named Avner came to speak to my pre-army deferment programme.

The meeting took place during an intense year of physical training and ideological indoctrination that allowed us to ‘hit the ground running’ when our draft time came around.

Immediately after Avner finished speaking about his army experiences as a commander in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, I began to question his motives, unconsciously trying to steer the conversation away from an uncomfortable truth that I couldn’t digest.

I had no idea that eight years later, I would be in the same position as Avner, trying to speak to the public about the very same uncomfortable truth: the immoral reality of the occupation that I had taken part of as a soldier, first in a special infantry unit and later as a lieutenant during tours of duty in the West Bank and Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip.

I joined the army out of love for my country. I felt that it was my turn to protect my people, just as my grandfather had done while fighting for independence against the British occupation of Mandatory Palestine.

My ideological drive to enlist into a special unit was further fueled by the stories I heard from my grandparents’ experiences as Holocaust survivors, which were a terrifying reminder of what might happen if we ever failed to protect ourselves.

I was ambitious, patriotic, and hoped to high heaven I would be accepted into a special unit and get to pull terrorists out of their beds at gunpoint.

It is hard to describe how proud I was to be accepted into the special unit of the Nahal Brigade.

Once enlisted, it took a year and three months to transform a team of idealistic teenagers into combat-ready fighters.

We marched endless nights, learning how to navigate geographical terrain, camouflage ourselves into our surroundings, and search and destroy Syrian tanks. Once we finished our training, we were sent to the South Hebron Hills in the West Bank.

There were no Syrian tanks to be found there, just Palestinians who we policed. Instead of camouflaged ambushes against enemy combatants, we set up checkpoints and searched Palestinian families; instead of navigating difficult terrain, we were sent to arrest Palestinian teenagers who threw stones.

After a few months of arrests and checkpoints with my team, I was sent to an officers’ course and graduated as a first lieutenant assigned to command a platoon of infantrymen in the segregated city of Hebron.

Although Hebron is no more violent or oppressive than the rest of the West Bank, it is special in that it is the only Palestinian city that has a settlement right in the city centre – 850 settlers living in a city of 230,000 Palestinians.

As a result of the settlement, and according to the Israeli Defence Forces policy of segregation, we were ordered to maintain ‘sterilised’ streets where Palestinians aren’t allowed to set foot.

The Palestinians who lived in houses on sterilised streets had their doors welded shut and were expected to find alternative ways to leave their homes.

I spent four months in Hebron until we were sent to Gaza. We boarded buses with our combat gear, knowing we were about to take part in a full-fledged ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.

Our instructions were simple: we were told that pamphlets had been distributed warning people to leave, and so we could assume that all innocent civilians had fled the area.

Therefore, we were told that we should shoot to kill anyone over the age of 15. Whether they were armed or not.

Sometimes I can still smell the burnt rotten carcasses of farm animals who were abandoned by their fleeing owners and caught under the rubble left by our armoured bulldozers. 

I finished my army service in 2015, and the last thing I wanted to do was deal with all that I had experienced. I thought I would travel the world and then start my studies – that was until I received a phone call that changed my life.

My little brother, then a soldier in the infantry, called to proudly announce that he too would be sent to serve on the segregated streets of Hebron, just as I had.

It was then that I realised that the occupation didn’t end with my army service – it has been the daily reality of millions of Palestinians and thousands of soldiers for more than 51 years now.

I knew that my little brother would go through the same process of moral degradation that we all go through as soldiers in the territories.

At first, I hated shooting school children with rubber-coated bullets when they threw stones at checkpoints. They were, after all, children. But after a few months in Hebron, we would high-five each other every time we hit one.

The sad truth is that soldiers want to hit the target, regardless of who it is or how old they are.

It was that phone call that led me to contact Breaking the Silence and speak openly about my army service for the first time in my life.

Looking back, I now realise I hadn’t been playing the part of the heroic freedom fighter, that my grandfather had been, when British soldiers invaded his home. I was playing the part of the British soldier.

Breaking our silence about our military service is our way to take responsibility for what we did – and fight to end the occupation.

We must prevent another generation of Israelis from being sent to harm Palestinians and another generation of Palestinians from growing up under the occupation without basic rights.

That is the only way to protect the right of both peoples to live in dignity.

Dean Issacharoff served in the Israeli army as an officer in the Nahal Brigade in Hebron and in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in 2014.

He now works as the spokesperson for Breaking the Silence. Breaking the Silence partners with Trocaire in Ireland. 

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Dean Issacharoff

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