Three retired security officials have spoken out publicly in support of Breaking the Silence, following a municipal decision to shut down an art gallery that hosted members of the group.
Former Shin Bet chiefs Ami Ayalon and Carmi Gillon, and former police commander of Israel’s northern district Alik Ron spoke on a panel titled The Gatekeepers break their silence at Jerusalem’s Barbur Gallery last Thursday, which mayor Nir Barkat had decided to shutter after it hosted a Breaking the Silence event on February 8.
Established in 2004 to document testimonials of soldiers who witnessed human rights violations or other misconduct during their military service in the Palestinian Territories, Breaking the Silence operates out of a small office in Tel Aviv and recently issued a detailed report documenting army misconduct during Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Never before have a group of such high-ranking security officials spoken out together on the same occasion in clear defence of the controversial group.
“I don’t think Israeli society lacks courage on the battlefield, but we do lack civilian and intellectual courage to safeguard this wonderful creation called the State of Israel,” said Ami Ayalon, who served as commander of the Shin Bet between 1996 and 2000, and won the highest military decoration, the Medal of Valour, for a naval attack on Egyptian forces in 1969.
“My words are not directed at the IDF. I believe the IDF is a moral army. But there is no such thing as a moral occupying army,” Ayalon said. “We send our young to an impossible situation and the image of the army changes as a result.”
Ayalon added that Israel is undergoing a process of “incremental tyranny”, fed by 50 years of fear from perceived Palestinian threats. In such a situation, the judicial system, the parliament and the media are less able to criticise government policy toward the occupied Palestinian Territories.
“In my mind, the true gatekeepers exist today in civil society,” he noted. “Breaking the Silence are [former] soldiers, they’re not service objectors or draft dodgers […] they put themselves in the most dangerous combat positions […] and all they do is tell us reality.”
Israelis, Ayalon added, typically hate their gatekeepers. “Gatekeepers reflect our image to ourselves, and the picture is very unpleasant.”
Carmi Gillon, who resigned his position as Shin Bet chief following the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, said his criticisms of Breaking the Silence wouldn’t prevent him from endorsing their right to appear on public platforms. “Shutting their mouth is totally unacceptable to me as a citizen reading the Declaration of Independence,” he said. “That’s why I’m here.”
Unlike Ayalon, who served as a cabinet minister for Labor, Gillon directed his criticism at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The occupation is simply a cancer,” said Gillon. “Luckily, we’ve developed chemotherapy that allows us to survive: the economic situation is good, life goes on with more or less terrorism, but the public is indifferent; it only awakens when people scare it. Netanyahu has a calculated agenda of scaring the public from one election campaign to the next.”
Netanyahu, Gillon went on to assert, seeks to become president of Israel with all the prerogatives of prime minister, and serve for seven years. “He wants to be left alone from all the [criminal] investigations, and be allowed to rule the country as he sees fit. It would be a regime not too different to fascism.”
Gillon said that like Prime Minister Rabin, his concern is primarily for the future of Israel and its moral character. “I live in fear for the future of my daughters and seven grandchildren,” he said. “Will they live in a liberal democracy? As of now, my answer is negative.”
“The occupation is causing us to lose our moral character, which Moses commanded us […] it has hardened our hearts, and made us bad people.”
“It is not only us who are to blame for the lack of peace; the Palestinians are disappointing as well,” he continued, “but the only way to extract ourselves from this endless loop, from this cancer afflicting us for fifty years, is to end the occupation. There is no other way. We must do this for ourselves and no one else.”
Two of the panelists, Gillon and Ron, endorsed a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, sceptical of the ability of Israeli and Palestinian leaders to bridge the gaps between them.
“We must first disengage, calm down, and one day – perhaps – the young generation of today will wake up and reach peace agreements,” said Gillon.
“With or without them, I want to reach a deal,” Ron said. “Let’s stop lying to the world and to ourselves. First, we must try to reach a deal. Can someone guarantee our success? No. But let’s take a chance. If that doesn’t work, let’s impose a deal [on the Palestinians]. Will it last? No one can promise us that […] It could last one year or five, and then fall apart. If it falls apart there’ll be a war, and we’ll beat them. I say this bluntly. But at least we will have tried.”
The panel was asked what could overcome Israelis’ fear. Gillon’s remedy was “hope” but Ayalon, disagreeing, said that only a combination of external and domestic pressure can force the government to change course.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Ayalon argued, decided to withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 2005 due to massive American pressure from the administration of George W. Bush, coupled with domestic grassroots pressure by The Geneva Initiative and Ayalon’s own The People’s Voice initiative, which garnered 450,000 Israeli and Palestinian signatures.
“It is extremely important for groups that consider themselves gatekeepers to produce ideas for a process of withdrawal. I don’t want a bi-national state. Such a state would become either South Africa or Syria.”
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Israel sunk in ‘incremental tyranny’, say former Shin Bet chiefs – Peter Beaumont – The Guardian 07.04.17
Ami Ayalon and Carmi Gillon speak out ahead of 50th anniversary of occupation of Palestinian territories.