Why soldiers don’t ‘break the silence’ to the IDF

When Israeli soldiers admit their past abuses of Palestinians, as they did again this week, the occupation’s defenders often ask: Why didn’t you report this to the army at the time? A personal illustration of why it is a disingenuous question.   

I was 37, a new immigrant three and half years in Israel, drafted into the IDF for a month of basic training, and I found myself dumping a truckload of garbage on the edge of a Palestinian woman’s vegetable garden. She was screaming in Arabic at me and the other draftee doing the job, and the IDF driver sitting in the truck was screaming back at her in Arabic. I asked the draftee with me, a new immigrant from Morocco, what the driver was saying – I could pretty well imagine what the woman was saying – and he translated: “Shut up and go back in your house, you old whore.”

This was in 1989, and it was part of a clean-up of our army base near Ramallah in advance of a visit by a general. The other recruit and I were sent out in the truck to pick up all the big, bulky debris on the base that wouldn’t fit into garbage cans and dump it somewhere. The driver took us to this woman’s house, told us to start dumping the junk right there on the edge of the vegetable garden in front, and we did, no questions asked. In the distance some Palestinian boys started yelling “manyak” and throwing stones in our direction – none of them came close to hitting us, the boys cautiously stayed pretty far away. I felt sheepish, I knew that we were doing something wrong, and the other soldier did, too, but we emptied that whole truckbed of junk onto that woman’s garden. We didn’t say a word to the sullen driver, and when we got back to the base, we didn’t tell our commanding officers, either.

In those days my political ideas were not as left-wing as they are now, but they were close; I’d voted for Shulamith Aloni and Yossi Sarid’s Ratz party, I’d taken  part in every Peace Now rally at the start of the first intifada, I was totally against the occupation. But at the same time I felt very strongly that it was my duty to Israel and myself to serve in the army like everyone else. I tried as hard as I could in that month of basic training. And the idea of telling one of the officers about dumping the garbage on the woman’s vegetable garden was something I wasn’t ready to entertain. I didn’t want to be a “trouble-maker.” I didn’t want to “rat out” another soldier. I didn’t want to protest against the army, I wanted to be a part of it.

I bring this up in connection with a comment in Friday’s weekend supplement of Yedioth Ahronoth by columnist Yoaz Hendel, who served briefly as Bibi Netanyahu’s hasbara chief. He explains his “personal problem” with Breaking the Silence, which this past week published more testimony from IDF soldiers about how they and their comrades had routinely abused Palestinians. Hendel’s problem is that the soldiers didn’t report those abuses to the army right away, while they were on duty:

When violations occur, the soldier or commander is expected to take action to stop them, to report them. This is his personal and national responsibility. … The IDF can abide neither abuse of innocents nor soldiers who keep silent in real time. … All that’s required of a soldier in order to correct the situation is to report [violations] to the system – to the commanding officers, [or] to the Military Prosecutor’s Office.

This is a common attack on soldiers who go years before they can admit publicly the terrible things they saw and did to Palestinians: “Why didn’t they report it right away to the army?”

As if Hendel and Co. don’t know. A 20-year-old soldier serving in the West Bank is not going to turn himself or herself in, or his or her comrades, or his or her commanders, because of acts of cruelty or brutality they committed against Palestinians. It’s virtually unthinkable. Breaking the Silence’s Hanna Deutsch told Yedioth what it was like on occupation duty as a 21-year-old officer in the Nachshon Brigade:

The unit pride there is really strong and it’s hard to raise the slightest criticism. We all had it drilled into us, without end, not to think and to keep your mouth shut. Once I asked my commander if I could give some water to a few Palestinian prisoners who were sitting tied up in the sun. He gave me this look of contempt and I never dared open my mouth again. I became indifferent to people’s suffering, and even if I wanted to say something, I didn’t. By instinct, I kept quiet.

Of course she did. They all do. I did, and I wasn’t a malleable young recruit, I was a 37-year-old left-wing protester, and I didn’t dare open my mouth about the little act of humiliation I was told to carry out against that Palestinian woman.

Soldiers on duty do not break the silence. When they’re young, they’re typically too brainwashed to realize they’re even doing anything wrong to the Palestinians under their control. It’s only when they’re older, and when they’re out of that cult-like army environment, that they’re likely to be able to face the truth about the things they saw and did, and find the courage to go public about it. When Hendel, IDF spokesmen and others try to undermine these soldiers’ testimony by saying they should have given it to the army in “real time,” they’re just trying to shut them up now like the army did then. The occupation’s defenders pretend not to know this, but their pretense is transparent.