Are IDF soldiers happy with their missions? Is the Israeli army 'the most moral' in the world? What are the tasks when there are no immediate wars or terror alerts? We talk to Avihai Stollar, IDF veteran combatant and member of 'Breaking the Silence' organization, which collects confessions from soldiers about what they had to engage in during their military service in the West Bank or Gaza.
For more information go to www.breakingthesilence.org.il
Sophie Shevardnadze: Our guest today is Avihai Stollar, a member of the IDF Veteran’s Group ‘Breaking the Silence’. Avihai,it’s great to have you with us on the program. Basically, ‘Breaking the Silence’ is a community of IDF whistleblowers, right?
Avihai Stollar: Yes, Actually, I guess what we’re trying to do is collect and publish stories, testimonies of soldiers who served in the occupied territories, and, I guess, advent some kind of debate, discourse regarding the nature of the military control over the occupied territories.
SS: How many are you at this moment?
AS: Well, until today, actually, more than 900 soldiers, both men and women, testified to ‘Breaking the Silence’, we’re talking about soldiers that served in all possible units, that served either in the occupied territories or in positions that are relevant to the control of the occupied territories. We’re talking about anywhere between, you know, the reconnaissance and commando units, and all the way to, I don’t know, logistics soldiers or soldiers that serve in less direct positions.
SS: How anonymous or exposed is participation in ‘Breaking the Silence’?
AS: Most of the soldiers that testify remain anonymous. I mean, that’s the only way that we have to allow us to publish so many stories, to protect those soldiers or those ex-soldiers from their friends or from society, or even from the military itself. Actually, even if you visit our website, you see that roughly 100 soldiers already gave a video testimony. So, actually, after they give their initial testimony then we offer our testifiers the option to do it out in the open, to do a video testimony, to expose themselves, like I mentioned, quite if you chose to do so.
SS: Like you said, some of them, actually, expose their names and faces. You also said, you know, “we offer anonymity to, actually, protect them from friends and family.” What are the reactions of people around them, for those who actually come out in the open and show their faces, and say their names?
AS: Well, I think it changes, it depends on the background that you coming from. But if I have to generalize, I will say that speaking out, when it comes to the reality, as a soldier in the occupied territory is something that society in a sense sanctions. I mean, Israelis see the military and definitely the soldiers as somehow, I don’t want to say, ‘holy’ but they definitely love them. You can understand it, maybe even justify it. But for them even though it’s the soldiers themselves were speaking out against the reality, not against other soldiers... The fact that it might sound like criticism against the military is something that for a lot of Israeli is very hard to receive. And then again, like I said, the responses of families, of friends vary. For a lot of people, immediately, they see you have some kind of traitor or snitch and that you’re saying things that somehow should be, you know, if the saying goes that the laundry that you need to do inside the house and not take it out.
SS: What about yourself personally? I mean, you’re out in the open. What has been the reaction of people around you – your family, your friends, your neighbors? What did they say to you?
AS: I guess that’s the sensitive point when we‘re talking about me personally. When it comes to my friends, for example, I guess the people that I grew up with, maybe even some of the people that served with me, then my friends are, actually, quite open, quite a few of them, for example, came with me or one of my colleagues to see the reality, I mean we guided tours to the occupied territories and that effected the opinion dramatically. We’re talking about a lot of people that didn’t really know the reality before they heard it either from my own stories or from other soldiers. When it comes to my family, for example, for my parents, I have to say that it’s still very hard them. I mean, in a sense, I think that my family is a very typical Israeli family, they are not religious or anything like that, I mean really typical in Israeli standard, liberal, left-wing. But they are still Israeli, still Zionist Israelis, and for them hearing me speak things, supposedly bad things about my military service, that is something that is very hard for them to contain. It’s in many ways a part of their identity, you know, its society of soldiers in a sense.
SS: Your website is filled with accounts of abuse in Palestinian territories by Israeli forces. What has been your personal experience? What have you seen there?
AS: Well, you have to basically pick a category. That’s actually quite hard for me to choose just one example of my service but if I have to choose one than I can…
SS: What about this? Just give me one of the most disturbing experiences that have marked you the most.
AS: I’ll give you one disturbing example that has definitely affected me. Actually, two days after we reached active duty I served the area of the city of Hebron in the southern area of the West Bank and two days after I reached this area, in July 2002, there was an attack.A settler’s family was killed by Palestinian gunman and our unit was basically ordered to close down the town from which the gunman came from – a town called Yatta. The problem was that we were very small unit, maybe 50 soldiers, and the town of Yatta is a home to maybe 70 or 80 thousand of Palestinians. So, imposing effective curfew on this town with 50 soldiers in the first place was basically impossible. So what did we do? We drove inside town, we stopped in the center of the town, you know, jumping out of the jeeps, for the time starting to shoot in the air, throwing stun grenades, tear gas canisters, closing down all the shops and more or less two streets. In those two streets it was complete curfew – we closed down all the shops, nobody was allowed to go, we were shooting in the air basically trying to make sure that everybody knows that the IDF is in town. Once the children started coming, I mean Palestinian children started coming throwing stones at us that basically gave us the excuse to retaliate, so we started shooting…
SS: …at the children?
AS: …rubber coated bullets which are basically pieces of metal covered…at the children…mostly rubber bullets, tear gas canisters, basically everything that we had. After sometime one of our commanders came to us and told us that he saw a child dancing on one of the rooftops. So he aimed this gun at the child, but child wouldn’t move, so he shot him with a rubber bullet, again I’m repeating it, rubber bullets are only covered with rubber, basically they are pieces of metal. And then he saw the child drop on the floor and then he got a bit nervous, he said “Maybe I’ve killed the child and then maybe I’ll get the trouble with the military police”. But after a minute he saw the child getting up, holding his stomach in pain and then he calmed down, saying “maybe I didn’t kill him, I’ve only injured him. So I’ll be ok!” And he was ok. To be honest, every one of us found this story very amusing. That was the routine for a couple of weeks. After a couple of weeks, I don’t know, the General Commander of the West Bank stops in the center of town next to the commander of our unit, they open the maps for maybe 5 seconds and that was it. We go back to the jeeps, go back to the military vehicles and drive back to the base – we didn’t arrest anybody, we didn’t catch anybody, there wasn’t even effective curfew, we only closed down, like, two streets and we didn’t really understand what we’re doing there in the first place. Afterwards we would go back and do the same type of missions, to go inside a Palestinian town just to make our presence felt, we were told that the mission to make sure that the Palestinians as a whole, not just the gunmen, everybody in town knows that the military is there and that they are terrified, that’s how they said in the briefing ‘to create a feeling of uncertainty among the Palestinian population’. I have to tell you now after interviewing 900 soldiers - that was not the story of just my unit, that’s the story that characterizes the nature of the military activity in the occupied territories.
SS: So, there was the actual order that the military gave you and your unit - to keep the Palestinian citizens in terror basically?
AS: Yes, it’s called “to show your presence”. It has various names – High Intensity Patrol, Happy Holiday – every unit has its own name. The bottom line is the same bottom line. And in the briefing pages, you know, when they brief you before the missions they give you more or less the same order to create a feeling of uncertainty among the Palestinian population.
SS: One of the girls on the website said she was hoping to bring a touch of humanity to her service but instead she turned into a monster. Is it so inevitable?
AS: I guess it is. You know, that’s the thing. You send 19 year olds, 18 year olds to control millions of people through the barrel of the gun. Most of us untrained, I have to say that I was trained for 8 months before I was sent to active duty for the first time. Out of these 8 months 7 months and 3 weeks had nothing to do what I was doing in the remaining of my service. I was trained as an infantry soldier to fight another army and this is the case for most soldiers, so you get to the West Bank or to, you know, around the Gaza Strip unprepared to deal with civilians, unprepared to control civilians. The only thing that you’re fed with is fear and hate, you know, you’re constantly told ‘Be careful of the Palestinians! If you turn your back to them, they will stab you in the back’. When I got to the West Bank I was told that we need to show the Palestinians that there is new sheriff in town. I’m quoting – ‘New sheriff in town’. So, that’s how it looks like, because the Palestinians are not equal, you’re not a police officer, you’re soldier who is controlling through his gun, millions of people. Unfortunately, that would be the outcome of it.
SS: Your organization, how long has it been around? Have you seen any results because for the moment ‘Breaking the Silence’ looks rather like a confession community for soldiers willing to clear their conscious from the sins of the military, right? It’s not like a political or social force, yet…
AS: First of all, we have been around since 2004, actually “Breaking the Silence’ started as a photo exhibit of soldiers that were discharged and decided to somehow bring the reality of the service to the Israeli public. So, they did an exhibit in Tel Aviv but doing the exhibit people were coming to them saying we didn’t serve the same unit, we didn’t serve the same region but we also have stories that we believe that the public needs to hear. So actually for the past nine years that’s our main project, you know, bringing those stories to the public. Now regarding the effect - that’s the hard question because when it comes to any type of, I guess, social or political campaign, I guess, quantifying the extent of your success is a very hard thing to do, you know, you never know who you affected and how you affected. To say that ‘Breaking the Silence’ would be the sole organization or body that would end the occupation - probably not, we’re a part of a bigger thing, we’re a part of a bigger movement, you know that is trying to change the reality that has beenon the ground for the past more than 45 years now. But we believe that we do have a big contribution and that when it comes to making more and more people aware of something which is somehow left outside of the discussion and that what is actually happening on the ground. You know everybody is talking about the peace negotiations, about Abbas and Netanyahu, walking in suits, and air-conditioned rooms in Camp David and Geneva when in reality most people have no idea about what’s happening in Calandia or Havurah, you know the checkpoints in the West Bank. We believe that that’s definitely our contribution to the debate, to the discussion and when it comes to this we did succeed in somehow getting this, I guess, deeper in the discourse.
SS: Are you guys being persecuted by your government, I mean your confession surely don’t incite much excitement to the authorities?
AS: Well, on the personally level no, I think we have the privilege that I guess mostly Israeli Jews have in the State of Israel, you know, to speak freely. When it comes to the organization that’s the different story, I mean the Knesset, the Parliament, even the government is trying to push forward legislation that would limit our ability to fund-raise, and they are putting pressure on our contributors and on our donors not to support us. And when it comes to our public face, they are doing everything in the power to delegitimize our voice, saying that we’re self-hating Jews that the testimonies are actually rumors, and all types of accusations that are completely incorrect and are only there in order to basically block our attempt to reach the Israeli public.
SS: If you ask an Israeli person, most of them will tell you that Palestinians are terrorists – you’ve been there, how many Palestinians are terrorists?
AS: Definitely the fringe of the fringe. And when we’re talking about the gap between what Israelis think – and not just Israelis, unfortunately, what a lot of people think – it comes to what’s happening on the ground in the West Bank, and what is actually happening, there is a huge gap: most of the people, when you talk about Palestinians, are obviously people like everybody else, who are just trying to live a normal life, but they are themselves targets of the military apparatus. And, in a sense, if I can point out one of our, I guess, most major publications – that’s our buy, you can find it now on Amazon and anywhere else, it’s called “Our Harsh Logic” – there we try to focus on the nature of the military and try to understand what is actually the mission of the soldiers on the ground, and in many ways, fighting terrorism is only a small portion of it. Soldiers are trying to prevent attacks on Israeli targets, but in a sense, what the military’s main mission is to control the occupied territory and to control the Palestinian people. Most of the missions that soldiers are sent on under the pretext of terrorism prevention are in many ways targeting the civilians that have nothing to do with actual attacks on Israeli targets. For example, the fact the military is practicing, at any given moment, in a Palestinian town, on Palestinian people, doing false arrests – which is basically like a normal arrest, when you drag somebody out of his house in the middle of the night, the only difference is that the person you are arresting is not really wanted for anything. This is practiced just for training the soldiers. Now, obviously, one of the reasons that it’s being done is in order to actually train the soldiers, which is problematic by itself… But I would say, that if you look at a whole, at the testimonies of the hundreds of soldiers you will see that the main mission around it is to deter the Palestinian society as a whole, not just the gunmen: men, women and children. Everybody needs to be afraid of you, because that creates effective control over the Palestinian population. Today, 20 years ago, and, unfortunately, if the reality continues, ten years from now.
SS: Do you think the Palestinians should be given the right to a state?
AS: Of course! I can only expect and hope that Palestinians would have the same rights like I do. We, in “Breaking the Silence” or even I personally – I don’t know what the best tangible solution is, one-state, two-state, three states, I don’t know. What I do know is that a reality of military occupation, a reality in which Israelis control Palestinians for decades, through the barrel of the gun is immoral and not right. By the way, it’s detrimental for the Israeli state as a democracy. If the best solution – or the only solution – is providing Palestinians with the right to have the same liberties as Israelis, to me obviously that’s what needs to be done.
SS: Recently we were speaking to the Israelis Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin, and when we told him about you, and “Breaking the Silence” and your stories, he told us in return that Israelis are getting killed and kidnapped by the Palestinians all the time and that Palestinians can freely enter Israeli settlements in the West Bank, while settlers cannot go in Palestinian villages, because they can get hurt – how much truth is in that statement?
AS: First of all, this statement is outrageous and ridiculous, because the bottom line is that Palestinians cannot enter settlements, unless they work there and their employer takes them to the farm, I guess, or the construction site in which they work. Otherwise, they cannot enter the settlement, they cannot enter the state of Israel, and in some places they can’t even get on the road that is used by settlers to move around. There’s a complete system of separation in which the military, and I guess the state of Israel, is trying to separate Israelis from Palestinians almost always at the expense of Palestinians. To claim that Palestinians can go freely in the settlements is a ridiculous claim. I invite our viewers to visit the city of Hebron in which in order to create some kind of buffer zone, sterile area around the settlement in the heart of the biggest Palestinian city in the West Bank, more than 15000 Palestinians were pushed out of their houses, and the center of Palestinian city became a ghost town, just to create some kind of empty buffer zone around the settlement. So, no, Palestinians cannot enter settlements. Now, the fact that Israelis got killed in the last 10 or 20 years…obviously much more Palestinians got killed, but it doesn’t change the basic fact here that the reality of occupation existed 10 years ago and 20 years ago, and 40 years ago, and in this reality both sides suffer – both Israelis and Palestinians. If we want to have people not getting killed over this debate, over this conflict anymore, we need to end the occupation – that would be the best solution for both sides here.
SS: Should the West Bank settlements be dismantled?
AS: Again, I don’t know. You’re going to the specifics that I honestly don’t know. The only thing that I know here is what it means to be an occupier. If people decide that they want to have one state in which the settlements and the Palestinian villages and everything stays in one country – it’s up to the government and the leadership to decide. What people need to understand that the ongoing reality in which you have half a million Israelis living inside the West Bank and the surrounding Palestinian population around them is under military occupation is not tangible and immoral. That’s the only thing that I know.
SS: Are there any settlers within your ranks, I mean – in “Breaking the Silence”?
AS: Yeah. Even within the 900 soldiers that testified to “Breaking the Silence” you will also find people that live east to the green line, they have their own reasons…
SS: But what do they say?
AS: Among the people that testified to “Breaking the Silence” you’ll find very interesting people. Some of them are coming from, I guess, ideological understanding that exposing the reality of occupation is essential in taking the step forward to ending the conflict. But some other people have other reasons; some of them are doing it for personal reason, for example, they have a bad concience about their personal actions or about actions that they witnessed. For them, it’s not a political issue, it’s a human issue, and they just want to get it off their chest, in a way. For others it’s about transparency. They are saying “I live in, for example, in a settlement, maybe I’m not even an anti-occupation activist, but I believe in transparency, I don’t see any problem with what I did in my service, and therefore I believe that it’s completely OK that the public will know about this.” That’s the part of this gap I mentioned, that the soldiers are doing everything they are doing, without them even knowing that they are doing the dirty job for the Israeli government, that afterwards, if it is doing headlines in Israeli media and definitely in the international media, the military spokesman or the government would deny even the existence of these actions and missions, they will say “nope, it never happened”. When the soldiers are on the ground and they are given briefing, nobody’s telling them to be quiet about this, and not tell anybody about this because it’s illegal or immoral. No, they think that everything they are doing is essential for Israeli security. Afterwards, when it gets to the PR people of the government, then it’s a different story.
SS: How is it possible to actually counterbalance to already deep hurt and hostile attitude to the Israelis by the Palestinians? You can’t just ignore years and years of humiliation, right?
AS: Well, the thing is that most Israelis receive their information from the mainstream media, and unfortunately, the mainstream media is not that interested in exposing the systemic nature of what I’m talking about. When, for example, the story about the abuse of the Palestinian makes it to the Israeli mainstream media, usually it’ll be framed as a rotten apple, as an exception. Then, immediately the military will say that the soldier or the soldiers who did it would be court-marshaled and that Israel has the most moral army in the world. And, then, when Israelis hear it and that is the framing, they say “Well, such a complex reality. The fact that we still have effective military police, the fact that we still are trying to deal with those rotten apples, with those fringes, with those exceptions, does not necessarily reflect on the system.” I think that is the gap where “Breaking the Silence” comes in, we’re saying “No, no! First of all, this abusive nature is systemic, and it’s definitely not the rotten apples, because if these are the rotten apples, then we’re all rotten apples.”
SS: Could the IDF strategy the way, you describe it, be serving completely opposite goals and incite people to stand up against it and even take up arms and engage in terror?
AS: Well, I don’t know. I’m not trying to legitimize any type of violence, not on the side of Israeli soldiers, not on the side of Palestinian gunmen – the only thing that I do know is, again, we cannot expect to have normal tangible, quiet, peaceful democracy, when we deny it to others. If this is the cause or this is not the cause of Palestinian violence – for me this is not even the issue. I’m trying to explain to the Israelis that the reality of occupation is not about their security, it’s counterproductive to their security.
SS: Avihai, if you were in command of the IDF, what would you do differently?
AS: That’s the thing, this is not about making the army better, and this is not about repairing the military. In a sense, the reason why “Breaking the Silence” is coming with those stories to the public and not to the military – a lot of people scrutinize us for it, they say “You should take those stories to the military, not to the public.” We say, we have no illusions in regards to this, we don’t think that you can educate a 19-year old to be a moral occupier. First of all because there’s no such thing as a moral occupier, and, second, if you point again to our book or to our conclusions in regards to the nature of the military mission, when the military mission is to control, to control Palestinian people – then obviously there is no way to correct it from within the system. This is a political decision, this is a public decision in a democracy, because in a democracy the public has the ability to decide what would be the government’s and the military’s mission – are we going to control, to continue controlling the Palestinian people, or not. This is not about being a general; this question should be “if I was a Prime Minister”.
SS: Thank you so much for this interview. This was Avihai Stollar from the IDF veteran’s group “Breaking the Silence”. See you in the next edition of the Sophie&Co.