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Voices

Opinion: As a former Israeli soldier, I had to speak out about the injustices I participated in

After serving as an IDF combat soldier and commander, Yehuda Sahul questioned the morality of the military action in the West Bank.

Image: Aleksandar Todorovic via Shutterstock

IN 1982, the year I was born, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza finished its 15th year. When I was five years old, the first Intifada broke out. In 1993, when I was 11, the Oslo Accords were signed shortly after the occupation’s 26th birthday. When the occupation was 34 years old, I enlisted for military service. I served as a combat soldier then a commander, stationed all around the West Bank. Like many others before and after me, I stood at checkpoints, conducted arrests, searched and destroyed homes, and much more.

Many of the operations we conducted were aimed at “making our presence felt,” in order to show the Palestinians that they are never free from the watchful eye and disciplinary power of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The logic behind these operations is simple: if the Palestinians know that “we are always there,” they will be afraid to stand up for themselves. If they are afraid of rising up, it will be easier to rule over them.

To “make our presence felt,” we orchestrated patrols in the Palestinian city of Hebron – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We would patrol the streets, make a lot of noise, and routinely enter random Palestinian homes. Imagine the following situation: it’s the middle of the night, everybody is asleep, and a military force bursts into your home. The message is clear: you are always vulnerable, even in your own home.

Another strategy we employed was called ‘deterrence’. Palestinian youths would gather on certain roads and throw rocks at passing vehicles. Our commanders’ idea was simple: ‘If we take out some knees, they will stop throwing stones’. We placed snipers above the road with the following rules of engagement: aim at the legs of every youth holding a rock, and shoot to kill anyone throwing a ‘large stone’ (one that requires two hands to lift).

Breaking the Silence

At the time, the instructions seemed logical, and we carried them out without question. Only toward the end of my service did my comrades and I recognise that there was something immoral about what we had done. We also realised that the Israeli public, in whose name we were serving, had no idea what was being done.

When we finished our service in 2004, my comrades and I founded Breaking the Silence, in order to expose the Israeli public to the reality of the occupation.

A decade has passed. Almost 1,000 soldiers have joined us and testified about their military service. We all have similar stories. Even though Palestinian violence has dramatically decreased since the days of the Second Intifada, new recruits take on tasks similar to those we performed. Soldiers operate in the same way in order to “disrupt the routine of daily life” of Palestinians and make them “feel chased.”

This year marks the 21st anniversary of the Oslo Accords, which many saw as a milestone toward an end to the occupation. Countless negotiations have taken place since then, yet the occupation is still with us. Many fingers have been pointed in various directions, doling out responsibility for the failure of talks. I do not want to join them. I suggest that we return to the reality on the ground, and ask ourselves what is happening there while we are busy with the peace process?

What is happening on the ground?

When our eyes are fixed on the negotiation table, it may be possible to believe that Israel is moving toward an end to the occupation and granting independence to the Palestinian people. From the perspective of soldiers on the ground, however, it is obvious that the IDF’s behavior is directed at preserving Israeli control over the territories. Great efforts are invested in maintaining the “feeling of being chased” among Palestinians while ensuring communities living in diverse areas of the Occupied Territories cannot work together in pursuit of common goals. This is everything but independence for the Palestinian people, and the exact opposite of an end to the occupation.

This year, Israel celebrated its 66th anniversary. For 47 of those years, Israel has maintained military control over the Occupied Territories. This is not a side project; this is the Israeli national project.

In the Jewish tradition, the Jubilee year is the year when slaves are given their freedom. Will we, as the Jubilee year for the occupation approaches, remove the chains we have placed upon the Palestinian people? Will we release them as our ancestors released their slaves? I hope so. But in order for this to happen, we should stop being mesmerised by the peace process and start contending with the occupation.

Yehuda Shaul is a former platoon sergeant in the Israel Defence Forces and is the founder of Breaking the Silence. With the support of Trócaire, Breaking the Silence will host an exhibition of photographs taken by former Israeli soldiers in the Gallery of Photography, Temple Bar, from Thursday 19 June to Sunday 29 June. Entrance is free.

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