Public reading of soldier testimonies to be held in Tel Aviv on anniversary of occupation

 Avner Gvaryahu, spokesperson for the anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence: ‘We want as many public figures as possible to assume responsibility, in broad daylight, for the kind of stories every soldier knows to tell.’

Breaking the Silence, an organization made up of ex-IDF soldiers that seeks to expose the reality of the occupation, is organizing a public reading of soldier testimonies from the West Bank and Gaza in central Tel Aviv’s Habima Square. The event will mark the 10 year anniversary of the organization, which has taken a leading role in documenting Israel’s control over the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

“The Israeli public and the media are not willing to hear about what is taking place in the occupied territories,” says Avner Gvaryahu, an ex-IDF paratrooper who has been with BTS since 2007. “The story surrounding [the killing of two Palestinian teens in] Beitunia proved that. If this wasn’t caught on tape, the story wouldn’t have made headlines. The public’s reflex is to remove any responsibility from us. Nobody denies that two teens were killed, and yet this fact is not debated, and nobody needs to account for it.

Meretz leader Zehava Galon (photo: Yossi Gurvitz)
Meretz leader Zehava Galon will be among those reading testimonies in Tel Aviv (photo: Yossi Gurvitz)

“There is a better chance that we will hear about Britain’s Royal Family or what Obama wore today [in the media] than about a whole people whose future, present and past are linked to us. Our testimonies reflect a reality that is missing from the public debate. It’s not about a right-wing or left-wing media – people simply don’t want to discuss the occupation.”

The public reading will take place on Friday, June 6th and will last for ten hours, between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Among the dozens confirmed to participate are prominent academics, journalists, authors, actors, NGO workers, activists, ex-soldiers and politicians. Some of the more well-known participants are author Amos Oz and head of the leftist Meretz party, Zehava Gal-On. Journalist Amira Hass of Haarez will also read, as will +972’s Yossi Gurvitz. I recognize some of the names from various Israeli refusal movements among the participants.

“We thought it was time that those responsible for the reality in the West Bank – namely the Israeli public – break their silence on this issue. We want as many public figures as possible to assume responsibility, in broad daylight, of the kind of stories every soldier knows to tell,” says Gvaryahu. While planning the event, BTS workers did not know whether they would be able to get speakers. “We were overwhelmed with the responses we got and the number of people who wish for our society to wake up.”

Read Breaking the Silence’s testimonies:
Breaking the Silence: IDF’s treatment of Palestinian children
Read: Breaking the Silence: the occupation testimonies (part I)
The Occupation Testimonies (Part II): It’s not about security

In recent years Breaking the Silence has become a favorite target of attacks by the right; the organization is often cited by those advocating bans and restrictions on civil society organization who use international advocacy tactics in their effort to end the occupation. Recently, the right-leaning Institute for Zionist Strategist even started a “patriotic” watchdog group that would balance the work of BTS. The project, called “Blue and White Rights” is headed by Yoaz Hendel, a former spokesperson for Prime Minister Netanyahu.

“Breaking silence is a long and difficult process,” says Gvaryahu. “Israelis get bits of information on the occupation but very few really know the reality on the ground. Soldiers like us are also responsible, because we never spoke up during our service about what military control really looks like – neither with our families nor with our friends. It is very difficult to come home after two weeks of service and start talking about breaking into peoples houses, about the violence, the humiliation. It’s much easier to keep your silence. Israeli society doesn’t want to hear it, but we need to speak about the reality of prolonged occupation because recognizing it is the only road for change.”

A Palestinian prisoner held at a paratroops base in the West Bank (photo: Breaking the Silence)
A Palestinian prisoner held at a paratroops base in the West Bank (photo: Breaking the Silence)

Gvaryahu, who is now the spokesperson for the organization, is an unlikely candidate for a left-wing organization. He was raised in a national-religious family, and was named after a soldier who died in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Like his father, he volunteered for an elite paratroops unit. “I was drafted in 2004, full of faith and motivation. I served mostly around Jenin but I got to see a lot of the West Bank. I did what every soldier does – control the territory – patrols, arrests, searches. All of this was routine.

“I think it was the homes we entered – a routine in which a unit occupies a home for military purposes – that got to me the most. To see the scared people after having invaded their most private space, the kind of authority you hold in such situations – all this led me to break my own silence, to assume responsibility for what I’ve seen and done.”

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