Monday, November 30, 2020

Veteran IDF soldiers continue ‘Breaking the Silence’ despite Israeli government crack down

By Ruth Regan - April 02, 2018
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Breaking the Silence] [Tourism] [IDF] [Susiya] [South Hebron Hills]

Fourteen years ago, Ido Evans-Paz was a young IDF combatant soldier. While stationed at the southernmost point of the West Bank, in 'Firing Zone 918’, he detained a small group of men, some of the many thousand driven to cross illegally into Israel for work every day.

He blindfolded, cuffed and lined up the men, who he remembered were “old enough to be my father.” Then, following procedure, he called the situation in to his superiors. A high ranking officer arrived and informed Paz he would be taking over proceedings.
Paz remained on the scene to witness the officer force the men to strip, and run between two lines he drew in the sandy ground. “You didn’t finish on time, do it again,” the officer instructed, counting down five menacing seconds each time.
Paz knew this was wrong.
His first instinct was to shout for the officer to stop.
Then he thought how this would be perceived as divisions within their military to the Palestinians.
He could fire his gun.
“But why risk jail for Palestinians? I don’t care about Palestinians?,” he remembers thinking to himself.
In the end, he whispered urgently into the officer’s ear.
“Come on, stop it! They did nothing to you and you’re torturing them.”
The incident ended and Paz returned shaken to his base where he reported what happened to his commander. He was told he had done the right thing and this would be followed up. Paz never heard anything about the incident again.
There is a hint of Paz’s voice quavering as he recalls this story to a bus load of strangers.
Fourteen years later and Paz is back in the West Bank leading a tour with Breaking the Silence (BTS), an Israeli organisation founded and run by veteran Israel Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers.
Since the Second Intifada (2000-2005) they have collected testimonies of ex-soldiers and exposed acts conducted against Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Alongside publishing testimonies, running school and pre-military workshops and hosting lectures, BTS run tours in the city of Hebron and around the South Hebron Hills.
Paz began the tour by laying out how desperate he had been to become a combatant soldier. He was full of “moor’al”, he told the group, a Hebrew term to mean “poisoned with love for the military, but in a positive way”.
“I really wanted to serve in the army and protect my country, my friends and my family … For me, it was an opportunity to finally fight the bad guys,” he said.
It wasn’t until about eight years after serving that Paz’s outlook changed and he “understood something is deeply, deeply wrong with what I did.”
“You can call me a late bloomer,” he said.
Paz’s current tour was due to take place around the segregated streets of Hebron, but last minute military training forced it to relocate to the South Hebron Hills. While Paz could not say for certain whether this enforced change was specifically targeting BTS, he alluded to this being the case.
Touring the scenic region, fraught with the tensions caused by settlers living in close proximity to Palestinian villages and their vastly differing treatment by the state, the group received political context as well as first-hand perspective from Paz about his time serving in the very villagers the group were standing in.
Graffiti in Susya, where a small Palestinian village is surrounded by settlement and archaeological site, and faces daily military harassment and scrutiny.
The group met a Palestinian activist in Susya; were shown olive groves where trees were ripped up by settlers; routes to school where kids are endangered by settler violence and even had an antagonistic encounter with a South African settler living in an illegal outpost, renowned for his violence to Palestinians.
The group are shown a water hole in Susya which the IDF drove a car into in order to contaminate the drinking water, as part of their continued efforts “to make our life miserable and expel us from the area,” explained activist Naser Nawaja.
Clearly threatened by BTS’s exposure of the violence of occupation, Israel has attempted on numerous fronts to silence these testifiers.
Two years ago, the Knesset passed a 'transparency bill’ clamping down on NGOs which receive more than half their funding from overseas. This was seen as specifically targeting left-leaning organisations such as BTS, critical of Netanyahu’s government. A parliamentary committee has now been set up to further investigate their funding.
Netanyahu also requested British Prime Minister Theresa May “stop funding” the organisation.
Last year, Netanyahu cancelled a meeting with Germany’s visiting Foreign Minister when he in turn refused to cancel a meeting with BTS.
A BTS spokesperson has even been targeted by police interrogation, following a complaint by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
Israeli schools have become the latest ideological battleground, with legislation advancing to both ban organisations deemed anti-IDF from schools, while at the same time integrating the importance of national service into the education system. With school a vital arena for state building, organisations such as BTS threaten the very foundation and narrative upon which the Israeli nation is based.
Paz recalled how the heightened government attention in 2016, when Knesset members declared BTS traitors and enemies of the state and Netanyahu threatened to open a secret service investigation against them, led to a rise in attacks. “It happened all at once. It influenced the entire atmosphere in Israel and there were incidents when we had to pay for guards to stay in front of our office,” he said. BTS staff faced aggression and physical attacks when handing out their collections of testimonies on the street. “I can see a very good correlation when the government is talking about us, the attacks rise up,” Paz said.
Remaining steadfast, Breaking the Silence claim that silencing efforts only serve to strengthen and bring attention to their work.
With their unique vantage point, BTS have played a crucial role in opposing their own apartheid state. Earlier this month, it was BTS informants who exposed the IDF’s creation of an extensive database which gathers personal information from Palestinians, such as their telephone numbers and license plates, by demanding it at early morning checkpoints.
Breaking The Silence member Ido Evans-Paz translates for Naser Nawaja, resident and spokesperson for Palestinian village Susya, explaining their life under occupation in Area C.
BTS is also not without criticism from the Palestinian perspective.
“They have participated in a violent occupation and committed horrible acts, yet the suggestion is that by speaking about it or admitting to it, this absolves them,” said Tilly Mandeville, working for a Palestinian human rights firm. “Plus as an organisation they don’t seem to support Israelis who actually want to object to occupation,” she added.
Yara Al Afandi, a Palestinian activist, believes these individuals, like all soldiers serving in the occupation, should be held accountable for their actions.
“They should be imprisoned and they should go through a just juridical system for the abuses they did as soldiers,” Al Afandi told Palestine Monitor.
Instead, “they are treated as heroes […] going on national and international tours. They are being celebrated for doing the right thing, the moral thing,” she continued.
While these critics acknowledged the courage and sacrifice it takes veterans to testify, they felt critical of the pedal stool they are placed upon vis a vis Palestinian activists who also fight the occupation on a daily basis.
“I do think it is important for soldiers to speak against the oppressive system that forces them to serve in an illegal army at a young age, and it’s important to hear the experience of these soldiers,” Afandi said. “I acknowledge the courage it takes them to speak out and I do understand the consequences of their actions.”
However, “it frustrates me that our struggle, our political situation and all the human rights abuses we face are only taken seriously when an Israeli affirms them.” This whitewashes the Palestinian struggle, Afandi said, because “their courage becomes the centre of attention rather than the actual case.”
When Paz was asked why so few Israelis arrive at the same conclusion as the small percentage (about 1200 people to date) that testify to BTS, Paz answered, “it’s hard to look in the mirror and say to yourself that you look ugly.”
**Some names have been changed to protect privacy (Tilly Mandeville)
Lead Photo: Breaking The Silence guide Ido Evan Paz (34) contextualises the politicised geography of the West Bank, while they are stood in the “seam zone” in the southernmost point of the West Bank. Inside the Green Line, this is technically part of Palestine, but already having passed a checkpoint, in practice it has become part of Israel.

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