Do they achieve their goal? Do they convey a clear message that Israel must not continue destroying Palestinian life? I participated recently in an event that convinced me to the contrary: in their emergence from the skeleton-cluttered closet of Israel’s army, they may even be said to have harmed the struggle against the Occupation.
The event took place at Café Yaffa in Jaffa in January 2005. Members of “Breaking Silence” came to inform the public about their deeds in the Territories and about their feelings after doing them. The evening mixed songs, performances and confessions. From time to time a member of the group would open his heart, reading stories he had written while serving in Hebron. The audience applauded what, to my mind, seemed a catharsis for the purging of sins. I thought of TV Mafioso Tony Soprano, who, after murdering people all day, reclines on his therapist’s couch to cleanse his soul.
These soldiers tell their stories and confess their sins, then return to carry out orders – gritting their teeth, pained by what they are doing. The members of “Breaking Silence” avoid responsibility. They pity themselves for being forced to do such terrible things, and they seek the pity of their audience, while their Palestinian victims remain in the background.
“Breaking Silence” is counter-productive for the struggle against the Occupation. It weakens the effect of the most radical and necessary step: refusal. It does this by drawing the lines within the game of Israeli “democracy” (i.e., it is all right to protest as a citizen, but as a soldier one must go wherever they send you). Because these soldiers have spoken, the society can cluck its tongue, repent of its sins and sleep well at night, for – Behold! We are moral! Our children aren’t torturers and killers: it hurts them to do what they do, and they beg to be relieved of these onerous duties!
The military authorities could hardly have hoped for a better gift. Not by coincidence, soon after “Breaking Silence” got its first publicity, the Chief of Staff called on soldiers to indeed “break silence” and speak out when “terrible things” happen. In this way the establishment “swallowed up” what little effect the group’s reports might have had, legitimizing the Occupation with the old, mendacious belief in its “enlightened” nature. One is encouraged to report and denounce any “deviant” actions, in order to continue the routine.
Even if we suppose no malicious intent to diminish the group’s effect, even if we suppose that the Chief of Staff and other top figures really do believe that by confession the army can keep itself clean (the most moral army in the world, after all – but when was it ever!?), nonetheless the effect is diminished, the message swallowed and dismantled, the damage done, and the oxymoron of enlightened occupation sinks ever deeper into the public mind.
During the event at Cafe Yaffa, I put a question to the group’s spokesperson: “Now that you’ve seen the evils of the Occupation, now that you’ve discovered, to your own dismay, how easy it is – even for you, who are more honest – to commit immoral acts, will you go back to serving in the Territories or will you refuse?” They avoided the question, calling it “irrelevant” and “aggressive.” Some in the audience claimed that “Breaking Silence” acts within the framework of democracy, whereas refusers put themselves outside it.
If the group’s members would clearly refuse to return as soldiers to the Territories, their stance would have moral significance. Instead, they seem to believe, if we judge from their actions, that only by continuing to serve can they hope to reach the heart of the Israeli consensus, sidestepping the widespread popular opposition to refusal.
This position lands them in a contradiction: On the one hand, they exhibit the evidence of war crimes, but on the other, they don’t refuse to take part in the system that perpetrates them. This contradictory state of affairs is called, in Israel, democracy.
From the viewpoint of international law, the acts to which these soldiers confess don’t accord with the rules for occupying armies. Exposing the evils won’t clear their guilt. On the contrary, in any future tribunal, it will be obvious that they understood the significance of what they were doing.
The refusal of reservists like me has ceased to trouble the government. The military authorities have simply stopped calling on reservists to carry out acts of oppression in the Territories. For this they rely on the regular army. Precisely for this reason, the regular-army soldiers in “Breaking Silence” could have great influence. If they were to join the refusers, they could provide the needed catalyst for transforming refusal into a major factor, moving the authorities to choose paths of peace over those of war and oppression. I say to them, therefore: Proclaim that you won’t go back there. Announce in a clear, firm voice that you cannot remain human and moral while oppressing another people. Fine words about democracy and conscience amount to nothing if you leave them at home when the army calls. Announce that the deeds of this Occupation do not accord with international law, morality or human rights. And above all, don’t expect others to do the deciding – or the refusing – for you. Take responsibility! Only then will we be able to stop the Occupation.