“BREAKING SILENCE” is a movement of soldiers who have served in the Occupied Territories and have decided to tell the Israeli public what they have done and seen. The group began organizing in the spring of 2004. Some 65 soldiers who had served in Hebron contributed testimonies and photographs. They approached photographer Miki Kratsman (who travels every week to the Territories with journalist Gideon Levi) and asked his help in mounting an exhibit to show the real nature of the Occupation. The College for Geographical Photography in Tel Aviv hosted the show, starting on June 1, for two months. Thousands came to look and listen. The exhibit was then brought to the Knesset at the initiative of MK Ilan Shalgi (Shinui). It later traveled to the Seminar of the Kibbutzim.
“In our daily confrontation with the madness of Hebron,” the soldiers write in the exhibit’s catalogue, “we couldn’t remain unaffected beneath the surface of the uniform. We saw our friends and ourselves changing little by little… We decided to speak out. Hebron is not on another planet. …We decided to bring it to Tel Aviv.”
“This is not a left-wing or right-wing exhibit,” writes one of the soldiers on the group’s website. “When a settler sprays graffiti on a wall in Hebron saying, ‘Arabs to the Gas Chambers,’ the political context is no longer important.
The movement has provoked much discussion in the mainstream Israeli media. In interviews, the initiators have said that they are attempting, by means of these testimonies, to rid themselves of nightmares.
Today “Breaking Silence” continues to gather testimonies on video and audiotape. Yehuda Shaul, one of the founders, told Challenge: “We have interviewed some 200 soldiers about their service in the Territories. We only interview people who approach us. There are dozens more waiting, but we don’t have enough teams to take their testimonies.”
“We are trying to convey to the public,” Shaul continued, “the personal and collective price that Israeli society is paying for what is being done in the Territories. Of course we’re not the main victims, but when all is said and done, the question of what happens to us as a society is a vital one, because military service in the Territories is a formative experience for thousands of youth. It’s our duty to ask: What happens to them when they do what they do to the Palestinians? How is it possible that guys who got a good upbringing, average types, not deviants, get to the point of doing such deviant things? Our answer is that the problem lies in the situation. At the place where you’re stationed, it appears sane: all the procedures, the orders. The most banal thing in the world. But we’ve reached the conclusion that as a soldier, anyone who serves in the Territories gets sucked in. There you lose the ability to distinguish what is the case and what isn’t. Everyone who’s served there has been screwed up. When you let a mere boy rule over people, he gets screwed up. We have to admit that we did those things, and we aren’t exceptions.”
We asked, “If you claim that the problem is the situation itself, then maybe the thing to do would be to change the situation by refusing?”
Shaul: “Refusal is a solution, but not for us. We organized in order to present a problem, not a solution. This problem was not on the public agenda before. We want Israeli society to face reality. We’re holding a mirror to its face. No mother has come to grips with the fact that the son she kisses then goes and poses for a Kodak moment next to a corpse.”
“And what’s your own personal solution?”
“I don’t think that’s relevant now. When the society still doesn’t grasp the problem, how can it see the solution?”
Like Yehuda Shaul, the other members of “Breaking Silence” declare that they are not refusers. They are prepared, they say, to return and serve their country as soldiers in the very same places.
“Courage to Refuse,” the soldiers’ organization that has led the refusal movement in Israel for the last four years, finds encouragement in the existence of “Breaking Silence.” Arik Diamant, director of Courage to Refuse, told Challenge: “At first we protested. Every couple of years some new group pops up that has just ‘discovered America.’ But after several months of media exposure, including scoops that embarrassed the Chief of Staff, they have justified their place in the public eye.
“I don’t have complaints against them. They’re a trailblazing organization. They’re the B’tselem of the soldiers. Every time you hear one of their stories, you expect them to say, ‘We refuse!’ But they don’t. Nevertheless, one can view their movement as a supplement to refusal.”