It didn’t take long for Yehuda Shaul to grasp the power structure in Hebron.
As a young combat solider serving in the infantry Nahal Brigade during the final months of 2001, Shaul was guarding the road connecting the Jewish sector of Hebron, known as H-2, with the Palestinian side of town, known as H-1. The Second Intifada was in full swing; six months earlier, a Palestinian sniper had murdered 10-month old Israeli Shalhevet Pass. That Friday afternoon a group of settlers was praying at Gross Square, part of a demonstration calling on the IDF to capture the Abu-Sneineh neighborhood, where the sniper,Mahmoud Amru had struck from.
“Two Palestinians came out of their neighbourhood carrying fruits and vegetables,” Shaul recalled in a recent conversation with Plus61J. “As soon as the settlers saw them pass, they ran towards them, shouting ‘he has a knife, he has a knife,’ and started beating them.”
Following army protocol, Shaul and his commander stood the Palestinians against a wall and searched them. There was no knife, but the settlers continued to kick and punch the Palestinian men despite the soldiers’ presence. The soldiers summoned the police; by the time they arrived the attackers were long gone. Shaul urged the Palestinians to stick around and file a complaint for assault, but he knew it would be futile.
“We were under the illusion that there was law and order in the [occupied] territories,” Shaul said. “We soon realised that our mission was not to protect the Palestinians from the settlers, but quite the opposite.”
Last month, Shaul’s organisation, Breaking the Silence, published a report titled The High Command – Settlers’ Influence on IDF Conduct in the West Bank. The report argues that far from serving as an even-handed policing force defending civilians on both sides of the conflict, the IDF serves as a partisan force for the settlers thanks to what Shaul dubs “a symbiotic relationship” between soldiers and settlement officials.
The report, based on soldiers’ testimonies, found “significant settler involvement” in IDF activities, including in operational matters. Soldiers also attested to “the obscurity or absence of explicit orders on how they are expected to act when faced with incidents of settler violence, theft, or destruction of property.”
The impetus for the report was the case of Sgt. Elor Azaria, an army medic caught on camera last March summarily executing a Palestinian stabber who had been neutralised by IDF fire more than ten minutes earlier, and was lying wounded on the ground. Footage from the incident shows settlers from the Hebron community intermingled with the soldiers on the scene, at times giving instructions to the soldiers, including Azaria.
The report, barely covered by Israeli media, emerged amid a government-led campaign to discredit and marginalise Breaking the Silence, a watchdog established in 2004 to document testimonials of soldiers who witnessed human rights violations during their service in the Palestinian Territories. Operating out of a small office in south Tel Aviv, and employing just over a dozen people, Breaking the Silence attracts intense public scrutiny.
Critics accuse the organisation of publishing anonymous testimonies that cannot be independently verified, of operating outside Israel rather than focusing its critique domestically and of receiving funding from foreign governments.
In June 2015, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely instructed Israel’s embassies in Switzerland and Germany to torpedo Breaking the Silence exhibitions in those two countries. Last December, Education Minister Naftali Bennett barred the organisation from presenting its findings in Israeli secondary schools, summoning principals who broke the ban for hearings at ministry headquarters. Days earlier, Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman blocked the organisation from entering army bases. More recently, during his meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked that Britain stop funding the organisation. In fact, as Yehuda Shaul noted in a column in The Guardian, the UK has not funded Breaking the Silence since 2011.
“Very few people in Israel know what the organisation actually does, and what its modus operandi is,” said Meir Elran, a retired deputy chief of military intelligence who currently co-heads a program examining society-military relations at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv. “It’s been stigmatised by the government – along with other human rights organisations – in a bid to rally the right behind the government.”
According to Elran, who participated in Israel’s peace talks with Egypt and Jordan, most Israelis think that Breaking the Silence is a “self-hating left-wing organisation that collaborates with the Arabs and our enemies abroad.”
Yagil Levy, a political science professor who studies the effect of the military on Israeli society at Israel’s Open University, argues that the Elor Azaria case has highlighted the changing demographics of the IDF’s combat units. These units are self-selecting, Levy says, because the army takes into account recruits’ preferences for where in the army they would like to serve. And in recent times greater numbers of religious soldiers and soldiers from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are requesting combat positions to wield power and control over Palestinians.
“The combination of a selective draft and an internal army hierarchy characterised by class is explosive,” Levy wrote in a recent article published in Haaretz. “The expectation of the army is to be victorious and protect the lives of its soldiers, not to respect the rights of enemy civilians. An army educating toward religious nationalism, not liberal values.”
According to Levy, Breaking the Silence has come to represent the remnants of Israel’s old elites. “There is a struggle over control of the army, which explains the extreme reaction [to the report],” Levy told Plus61J.
Some have claimed that Azaria’s violence, caught on camera, will be a watershed moment in the history of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Elran of INSS begs to differ.
“Mirrors tend to reflect back to people what they want to see,” he said. “There are those who are shocked by Hebron, with settlers setting the mode of action. Meanwhile, others will consider Azaria a hero who acted properly, and should have killed the man earlier.”
“The media doesn’t change people,” he concluded. “They make their mind up based on many other factors.”
This Plus61J article may be republished if acknowledged thus: ‘Reprinted with permission from www.plus61j.net.au ’
Breaking the Silence provided material in the first instance to the IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, and received a courteous reply (see translation of that correspondence here). And in January 2017 it published a full report.
The High Command: Settler influence on IDF conduct in the West Bank – Shovrim Shtika/Breaking the Silence report January 2017 [pdf – 139pp].
Ex Shin Bet head, ex IDF general defend Breaking the Silence December 19, 2015