While delivering her keynote speech at the opening of the J Street Conference on Saturday night, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said, “I believe that there is one thing [Israelis and American Jews] should unite behind. I know that Israeli soldiers will do everything they can in order to avoid loss of innocent life. I know it for sure, because they are our children… I know the values that they were raised with and I know they apply these values when we send them to defend our families.”
The contrast between her words and my experience as an Israeli soldier made me shift uncomfortably in my seat.
It is easy to be galvanized by Livni's righteous rhetoric of soldiers raised with humanistic values humbly marching to secure the State of Israel. I was one of these soldiers. I served as a sergeant in an elite sniper unit of the paratroops. Back then, I truly believed I could be a humane and benevolent soldier. I was determined to be the good guy. And yet I managed to follow orders when directed to use a Palestinian as a human shield, even though I knew the Israeli Supreme Court had already officially barred the practice.
My work with Breaking the Silence has helped me wrestle with how I managed to do that. Over the past decade, we have collected testimonies from over 950 soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories. The soldiers’ stories reveal that good people commit grave injustices when faced with an impossible reality. Israel has a right to its security, but currently our security policy depends on the insecurity of the Palestinian population we control. The goal of the IDF is to stem the resistance of an occupied people by intimidating them into submission. When we are taught to mitigate risk to our fellow soldiers by endangering the lives of Palestinians, even the most moral soldier will find it impossible to act morally in the Occupied Territories. Soon enough, putting Palestinians in harms way becomes easier than you ever imagined.
The raw stories of soldiers serving in the territories allow us a peek into this ordinarily unthinkable reality. Late one night, an IDF captain finds himself in a small West Bank village interrogating potential witnesses to several shots fired at a nearby settlement. The effort proved fruitless, with the locals alleging they had not seen or heard a thing. “Then the battalion commander arrives and says words that I’ll never forget,” the soldier recounted. “I can quote him. I mean, I remember it with full certainty. He said, ‘Okay, guys, enter the houses so they'll understand. Make them understand.’"
“That night was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I enter a house, there's a woman there. Again, I'm covered with mud, and I can imagine I looked really scary… I ask her, ‘Where is the man of the house?’ No one understands anyone. Then I see some mattress covered with a blanket. The blanket is moving as if in some earthquake, and I—I don't know, maybe he's hiding in there. I ask my soldier, ‘Go quickly, see what's under that bed.’ Finally he grabs that blanket [and] I counted eight on one double mattress, eight children held together—dying of fright. Looking at us as if the next moment I'm going to do I don't know what. Each hiding behind the other's back. Like little cubs, hiding.” He continued, "There’s a whole village here that woke up at two o’clock in the morning. I think 90 percent of them didn’t know why.”
In the IDF, such missions are routinely referred to as hafganot nochechut (“demonstrations of presence”). We demonstrate our presence to remind the occupied population who is in control. We entangle them in a web of fear, of helplessness and anguish. Then they become subservient— or so goes our logic. We avoid harming innocent civilians not by narrowing our focus to the most dangerous among them. Rather, as soldiers we learn to perceive all Palestinians as potential threats, so at the end of the day none are truly innocent after all. And we treat them as such; from boys of age seven to elders of age 70. We beat them. We humiliate them. We strip them of their humanity. How can it be possible to act morally under such circumstances?
Inhumane treatment of Palestinians is thus not the exception but the norm. Knowing this turns Livni’s claim, to be standing on the side of the Israeli soldier, on its head. In fact she is using us, and the myth of the moral Israeli military, to continue sending troops to perform routine, morally bankrupt behavior which perpetuates the 46 year-old occupation in her name and in the name of countless others.
Israel’s chief negotiator is not fazed, however. At a recent press conference, Tzipi Livni nailed a quote rich enough to perhaps one day be emblazoned on her tombstone. “History is not made by the cynics,” she proclaimed, “it is made by realists who are not afraid to dream.” But in her rush to inspire the growing masses of the “constituency for peace" at J Street, Livni made a crucial miscalculation. She underestimated her audience, believing they were naïve enough to buy the trite myth of the IDF as “the most moral army in the world.” But in the audience were hundreds, if not thousands, of J Street members who had personally gone on Breaking the Silence tours through Hebron and the South Hebron Hills. They witnessed the consequences of the Israeli occupation with their own two eyes.
This new generation of progressives, from Israel and all over the world, no longer tolerate leaders who lack the courage to see the reality of the occupation for what it is—an impossible, immoral abomination. We at Breaking the Silence invite Tzipi Livni to stand by her own words and not be afraid to make history. If she fails to live up to this challenge, the new generation will find its leader— sooner or later.
The bottom line is that if the youth of tomorrow want justice for both Israelis and Palestinians, there is no way to avoid taking responsibility for what we have all, in part, helped create. We must look in the mirror and not be afraid to confront the unconscionable reality that is Israel's military occupation.