"You don't see, you don't feel, and you don't look"
An Israeli Combat Soldier Breaks the Silence
By Daniel Sturm
09/04/06 -- The midday news showed
Israeli tanks shelling the Gaza Strip. In a Jerusalem coffee
shop, 23-year-old former combat soldier, Yehuda Saul, told me he
had made it his personal mission to speak out against the
Israeli army when its actions were immoral. The Canadian
American-Israeli veteran said that his "arch-conservative
family" had slated him for a career in the Israeli Defense
Forces (IDF). But during his third year of service the young
platoon sergeant witnessed a scene of looting and killing at a
combat mission in Hebron that had troubled him so much that he
decided to leave the army. In June 2004 Saul founded "Breaking
the Silence" (Shovrim Shtrika in Hebrew), an organization whose
350 members are all former Israeli combat soldiers who can share
similar experiences. "Breaking the Silence" is currently
preparing a world speaking tour and photo exhibition, offering a
critical look at the Israel military's occupation of Palestine.
Daniel Sturm: You criticize Israel's army, yet you served as a
soldier in the defense forces yourself. Isn't this hypocritical?
Yehuda Shaul: I think that I and every member of "Breaking the
Silence" deserve the attention of the public. From the first
diaper that my mom changed, it was obvious that I was going to
be an officer. It's not as if I woke up one day, when I was 18,
and said, "Hey, let's go and have fun in the Occupied
Territories." In a way, we are all ex-soldiers. When I was in
the Occupied Territories, you could have said that I was an
American soldier. After all, I owned an M-16 that wasn't
produced in Israel. I shot grenades that weren't produced with
Israeli money, but by American money. Everyone, and especially
Americans, have a responsibility to know what's going on in the
world. And since I am from here, I am talking about here.
Daniel Sturm: When did you first realize that "occupation
corrupts," as you say?
Yehuda Shaul: I grew up in a very right-winged family in
Jerusalem. I went to high school in a settlement near Ramallah.
When I was 18, there was no question of whether or not I would
join the IDF. The only question was how high I would climb.
Would I be in an elite commander unit, or just a regular
infantry combat soldier? That was the mind-set I joined the army
with. But what I took part in and witnessed in the Occupied
Territories opened my eyes.
Daniel Sturm: Could you explain?
Yehuda Shaul: In Hebron settlers put a poster on the wall that
called for soldiers to refuse to evacuate the settlements [as
had been agreed upon in the treaty]. The poster said something
like, "Soldier, commander, you must distinguish between good and
evil, between enemy and beloved." In the Israeli army we learned
that one must deport the enemies, meaning the Palestinians, but
never those who were beloved, meaning the settlers. When I
joined I had a black and white vision of right and wrong. Later
I learned that everything is gray.
Daniel Sturm: What happened in Hebron?
Yehuda Shaul: Hebron is the second largest city in the
Palestinian West Bank, with 150,000 Palestinians. Around 600
Jewish settlers live in the heart of the city, and 450 combat
soldiers guard them. Under the Oslo agreement of 1997 Hebron was
divided into two parts, with 120,000 Palestinians left under
Palestinian authority and 30,000 Palestinians left under Israeli
authority. At the beginning of the Intifada, from 2000 until
mid-2002, the Palestinians began shooting at night, from the
mountains down to the settlements. My company officer told us
that if they shoot, we have to shoot back. We had three
well-positioned posts in Palestinian neighborhoods. We posted
snipers and grenade guns. My post was at a former Palestinian
school in Hebron. Our mission was to target Palestinian houses.
I remember being shocked when I heard this. "You mean we should
shoot into the neighborhoods, where people live?" I thought
about the safety rules I had learned during training. In order
to shoot live grenades, no one should be within a distance of
one mile on each side of the target. And now I was supposed to
shoot into a neighborhood where people lived. The grenade gun is
not an accurate weapon. One grenade kills everyone within the
radius of eight meters, and injures everyone within the radius
of 16 meters. At night, after the Palestinians shot, we received
the order to pull the trigger. On the first day, during the four
to five seconds before the grenades hit, you prayed that you
didn't hurt anyone innocent. On the second day you are less
tense, and on the third day even less. And after a week, it's a
Daniel Sturm: Was this when you became critical of the army's
Yehuda Shaul: Not really. I first began to fully understand the
corruption after I was discharged. When you are a combat soldier
in the Occupied Territories, you can't see Palestinians as equal
human beings. Because then you couldn't hop through a roof in
the middle of the night, wake up a family, force the women into
one corner and the men into another, and tear apart the place.
At least when you stand at a checkpoint you see the shape of
human beings: One head, two hands, and two legs. But when I was
shooting live grenades into neighborhoods where people lived
every night - why, that was a computer game!
Daniel Sturm: Weren't your actions justified, considering the
violence the Palestinians were using?
Yehuda Shaul: You can't ignore that the Palestinians were using
violence. But what is our moral and legal boundary, as a society
or a nation? Can we really condone shooting grenades into
neighborhoods, as a way of getting back? When we realized we
were unable to prevent the Palestinians from shooting back at
us, we started a strategy called "making our presence felt." We
conducted silent patrols. We walked through streets, shooting
onto houses, and shoot off grenades in parks.
Daniel Sturm: At what point did you begin to sympathize with the
victims of this war?
Yehuda Shaul: The terminology of "victim" doesn't apply when
you're in the field. When in combat you don't see, you don't
feel, and you don't look. The name "Breaking the Silence"
therefore refers to two levels of silence. The first is the
personal level, where we realize what is really going on around
us. The second level refers to the silence of society. As I was
sitting in Hebron, firing grenades, my parents were just across
the street in Jerusalem, hearing on the radio the sentence that
every Israeli knows by heart: "IDF forces returned fire to the
sources of fire." Of course, there were no sources of fire! We
shot without ever finding any specific sources. But this is how
Israeli society and human beings around the world receive
Daniel Sturm: How have people responded to your criticism?
Yehuda Shaul: Very ambivalent. Some people understand me, some
don't. In the beginning, the IDF military police investigators
broke into our exhibition, confiscated some items and brought us
into interrogation. The idea was to frighten us and to declare
us as an extreme case of "rotten apples." For me, it's no longer
a question. I can't see myself acting any other way.
Daniel Sturm: Does the military occupation make any sense at
Yehuda Shaul: We all want to think that we are immune, that we
can perform an "enlightened" and civilized occupation of
Palestine. We want to believe that we are the most moral army in
the world. But the truth is, every time you have a case in the
press about Israeli soldiers shooting Palestinians, the example
is treated as if, "that's a rotten apple." If you were to send
every Israeli soldier who has abused a Palestinian during his
service to jail, every soldier who has served in the Occupied
Territories would have to stand in line. Because you can't serve
there without acting like an occupier.
"Breaking the Silence," contact information Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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