Breaking the Silence: Your questions answered

Ahead of his visit to Australia, executive director of Breaking the Silence Avner Gvaryahu answers questions submitted by AJN readers.

When there are so many people and groups out there that hate Israel and seek to destroy it, why do you have to add fuel to the fire? Don’t you realise the damage you are doing? If you really cared about Israel, you’d find a way to air and deal with your grievances that didn’t help Israel’s enemies in their quest to demonise it at every opportunity

The most imminent existential threat to Israel is the continued military occupation of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. As Israelis it is our duty to work towards ending it anywhere we can effectively  share our stories.

The occupation isn’t an internal Israeli issue but rather an international one. As an Israeli soldier I was sent beyond the borders of my country to enforce a military regime on Palestinians who aren’t Israeli citizens. Therefore naturally the struggle for ending it – just like the struggle for its continuation – takes place both outside and inside the borders of Israel. We will be wherever the debate is taking place to ensure it is based on what we were actually sent to do as soldiers in the territories and not an alternative reality the settlers or this current administration would like us all to believe is taking place.

It’s fundamentally misguided to shoot the messenger by criticising or trying to muzzle those who are speaking out against government policy. Silence simply allows the immoral policy to continue, which in the case of Israel gives much greater ammunition to its enemies than taking steps to stop it.

There are several, well documented examples of the IDF and other authorities taking disciplinary action or bringing charges against soldiers who have not acted as they should eg Elor Azaria. Why do you go public with your allegations rather than pursue them through the proper channels? Is it because you’re afraid you lack evidence?

We are veterans who interview other veterans who have served in the territories in order to bring the daily reality to light and call to change it.

We don’t try to indict other soldiers because the problem with the occupation is the systematic violence required to maintain and deepen the military rule over millions of Palestinians, not the behavior of any specific soldier. While settlers and apologists for the occupation would prefer to scapegoat specific soldiers when violence is exposed and court marshall them, as former soldiers we know the only solution to the immoral reality in the territories is to end the occupation.

Our concern is not with individual soldiers, or even with the IDF, it is with the government’s policy of occupation. Our aim is to demonstrate, through the publication of soldiers’ testimonies, that the occupation is harmful to both the Palestinians who have to live under the occupation, and the Israelis who have to administer it.

Most of the conduct our testimonies describe is not illegal, and disciplinary or criminal proceedings would not apply. The soldiers are simply carrying out orders that, in many cases, are necessary to enforce the occupation. In these cases it is the occupation, not the conduct of individual soldiers, that is the problem.

Silence, what silence? You’re allowed to speak out and criticise Israel and the IDF. The IDF investigates allegations of misconduct. So what silence are you breaking? Surely your name, indicating censorship – either imposed by the authorities or self-imposed by those who feel they can’t speak out even though they clearly can – is just another indication that you are out to smear Israel.

The Israeli government is working hard to silence our voices. Laws have been passed in the Knesset with the attempt to harm our funding and current laws are progressing with the intent of limiting our ability to speak with Israeli school aged children. Several members of Knesset and Ministers have incited anger and violence against us in the attempt to silence our activity.

But the silence we are breaking is not one maintained, in the meantime, by legal censorship but rather a social taboo. Soldiers are sent to the territories and than expected to stay silent about the reality in which we took part. Whether it be arbitrary and warrantless home invasions, search and frisk quotas, or arresting children, the daily reality of the occupation is expected to stay silent.

The fact that one can accuse IDF veterans who want to speak out about their service as people who are looking to “smear Israel” is just another example of the attempts to silence future soldiers who will demand that you hear what they were sent to do in order to control millions of Palestinians.

The issue isn’t whether we are “allowed” to speak out, it’s about whether there are personal and societal pressures against doing so. Whistleblowers in many contexts, such as in the workplace or in government, face enormous pressure to stay silent, including because of the risk of victimisation and social exclusion. The same is true in Israel, but with even greater force because of the centrality of the occupation to the political and social fault lines within Israel.

The importance of Breaking the Silence is that it provides the opportunity for IDF servicemen and women to speak out safely about their involvement in the occupation.

Why is BTS never willing to debate settlers publicly?

This is not true. We have debated settlers or supporters of the settler movement on a number of different occasions. We just don’t think our political adversaries are the settlers solely; the decision to keep the occupation going rests with the government of Israel.

Colonel Richard Kemp and other military experts have regularly hailed the IDF as the most moral army in the world, stressing that no any other army in history has been as careful to avoid civilian deaths. Are you prepared to acknowledge that the Colonel’s observations, made regularly at the United Nations and to other international organisations, are true?

As an Israeli I fear the day we set our own moral standards by comparison to other occupying armies around the world. As director of Breaking the Silence I know that we cannot characterize recent operations as “careful to avoid civilian deaths”.

After Operation Protective Edge more than 70 soldiers and officers who fought in Gaza spoke about the loose rules of engagement and the disregard for Palestinians lives that lead to the death of thousands, including 547 children. There are lots of testimonies from soldiers who fought on our website.

There’s no such thing as a moral occupation, because of its very nature as an occupation, and there’s no international competition for who has the most moral military.

How does it feel to be a traitor?

Accusing veterans who returned from their service in the territories of treason, because we demand the public knows what politicians sent us to do as a call to end the occupation, is reminiscent of the most violent propaganda of the worst regimes in history.

For years incitement has been a tool used by settlers and right wing extremist to protect our control of millions of Palestinians. But if they think that soldiers who risked their lives for what they believe in will suddenly be deterred by their vile hate speech then they are mistaken.

 

How do you explain the fact that fellow members from the IDF units from which you have drawn your testimonies, refute those testimonies and do so without the protective cloak of anonymity?

No testimony published by Breaking the Silence has ever been shown to be false.  There are some people who have claimed that certain testimonies are false, but in each case these claims have been debunked.

What cannot be ignored is that more than 1,100 IDF servicemen and women have come forward to break their silence, about a third of whom are officers, and the violent reality in the Occupied Territories.

You’ve been constantly attacked by right-wing groups in Israel, many of which are associated with the government, with one even accusing you of being a terrorist. Does that make you think twice before speaking about your work in Israel?

It is certainly concerning. It’s a very difficult environment now in Israel for those who are trying to bring about social or political change.

But we have managed to build a strong, stable, democratic country and we have the privilege and the obligation to defend it.

I’m an Israeli, a patriot, and I believe that the biggest danger to Israel nowadays is the continuation of the occupation. I know that my worldview and the values I believe in do not represent the majority in Israel at the present time, at least on the surface. But we’re in the midst of a fight for the future of the country and we must win it.

Can you suggest how opinions such as yours could be better disseminated through mainstream media here in Australia as an antidote to both the blind support of the Israeli government and the anti-Semitism of many ‘supporters’ of the Palestinian cause?

That’s the purpose for my visit to Australia and other countries, and our frequent meetings with policy makers and influencers within Israel and around the world. But of course we need to do more, and we need your help!  Come along to our events, share posts on our Facebook feed, discuss the work of Breaking the Silence with your friends and family. This is the only way to turn around the tide of public opinion.

In Gaza, Hamas terrorists do not wear uniforms or identify themselves in any way. They store weaponry in mosques, hospitals and schools and cynically use civilians as human shields. Given that BTS must understand these unique constraints the IDF faces, all of which contravene the Geneva conventions, why should the blame for every single death on the Gaza border security fence not be laid squarely at the feet of Hamas?

We have continued to maintain effective military control on the Gaza strip since 1967. A few examples of the occupation are the naval blockade, control of land crossings and airspace, repeating rounds of violence that include ground invasions such as “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014, and influence on most of Gaza’s electricity and water infrastructure.

In recent weeks tens of thousands of Palestinians have been marching towards the fence that separates between legitimate Israel and the area under its military control. In response Israeli snipers have used live ammunition to kill close to a hundred unarmed protesters and injured thousands more.

The vast majority of those shot and killed were unarmed and not posing a direct threat to the lives of the soldiers shooting them or Israeli citizens. Constraints considered, there is absolutely no justification to shoot thousand of unarmed protesters, regardless of how much we disagree with Hamas and it’s methods as a terrorist organisation.

Last April’s “testimony” by BTS spokesperson Dean Issacharoff was conclusively exposed as fraudulent by the office of the Israeli State Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit. Why, therefore, should any other statement by BTS not be viewed with a high degree of caution and scepticism?

Israeli media and BTS conclusively proved Issacharoff was telling the truth.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked from the right wing extremist “Jewish Home” party called on the police to investigate Issacharoff due to his testimony of a routine violent arrest made on a Palestinian who was resisting non-violently. Shaked tried to prove that he was a liar and the state attorney gave in to political pressure and tried to label Issacharoff’s testimony as false.

A few days after the state attorney’s decision a video of the arrest Issacharoff testified about emerged and showed clearly a bruised Palestinian being lead by Issacharoff. The video also shows that none of the soldiers who denied the testimony took place were present during the arrest. Once the video was released all the justice minister said was that “even a thousand videos won’t convince me that Breaking the Silence aren’t liars” again proving her staunch decision to deny and repress the truth.

The fact that the justice minister is abusing her power over the Israeli legal system in order to hurt her political rivals and silence opposition to the occupation is another example of how the military control of millions of Palestinians is taking a toll on Israeli society as well.

The Breaking The Silence FaceBook page opines: “Our right to security does not permit the bloodshed of thousands of demonstrators shot with live ammunition.”  Quite apart from your gross exaggeration as to the numbers shot and your false characterisation of those shot as simply “demonstrators”, why should Israel’s right to security not indeed permit defensive measures, including, if necessary, lethal defensive measures, given that Hamas has clearly and unambiguously stated their intention to murder innocent Israeli civilians if they infiltrate Israeli territory?

No one doubts Israel’s need to defend its borders. I don’t have an issue with using the necessary tools at Israel’s disposal to prevent danger to Israel’s citizens including, where necessary, lethal force. That’s one of the essential duties of any government.

But Gaza is not a separate entity from Israel; rather, it is an area under our control. The question in relation to Gaza is about whether Israel’s use of force was out of proportion to the security threat posed by the demonstrators, not whether those shot were Hamas members or otherwise. We believe that the use of live ammunition against unarmed people was disproportionate and fundamentally immoral.

But the key point is that this was another instance that shows the inevitability of violence when one people occupies another for more than fifty years. It is the underlying policy that needs to be addressed if there is to be any non-violent and sustainable resolution to the conflict.

What backlash have you gotten for joining breaking the silence from friends and family and the wider community?

I am fortunate to have a supportive family, even amongst those members who do not share all of my opinions.  Most Israelis want to live in a country that upholds the highest moral values. Most Diaspora Jews want Israel to do the same. The political fringes may prefer to run slanderous or threatening campaigns against us, but those who come in contact with us overwhelmingly understand and appreciate the work we do and our commitment to Israel’s future.

Has BTS itself ever reported any of the allegations it raises to Israel’s Military Attorney General? If not, why not?

We do not see ourselves as having a role in disciplining individual soldiers; our concern is not with the individuals who in many cases are following lawful orders. Our mission is to expose the realities of the indignity and injustice in occupying people for more than 50 years, including the heavy price paid by Israeli servicemen and women and Israeli society more broadly, with the ultimate goal of bringing about a change of government policy and ending the occupation. It is the government, not the IDF, that has the power to make these changes, and so advocating against the government’s current policy is our focus.

While our mission does not bring us to try to indict soldiers, it is clear that the military legal system is deeply inadequate. Israeli NGO “Yesh Din” recently published that in 2016, some 300 complaints were filed against Israeli soldiers who harmed Palestinians. 40% of these complaints involved shooting and 34% involved other violent incidents. Of the complaints filed, only 5 led to indictments, while 79% of complaints were never even investigated.

 

Avner Gvaryahu will be in Australia as a guest of the New Israel Fund to launch Kingdom of Olives and Ash in Sydney on June 6 and in Melbourne on June 7. For details and tickets, visit www.nif.org.au