A decade ago, a Palestinian farmer approached an Israeli soldier stationed in Qalqilya, a West Bank city located near the Green Line along the Israeli border, with an urgent appeal. The farmer’s land was about to be bulldozed to make way for Israel’s separation barrier, laying waste to his fig orchard. “I planted this grove for ten years, I waited ten years for it to bear fruit, I enjoyed it for one year, and now they’re uprooting it,” said the farmer, fighting back tears. The tears soon started flowing, not because the soldier was unsympathetic—watching the farmer break down as his trees were felled was “heartbreaking,” he later said—but because his orders were to protect the surveyors.
How degrading and demeaning has living under military occupation been to Palestinians such as that farmer? The testimonies collected in Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies From the Occupied Territories, 2000–2010 (Metropolitan; $32), a volume of 145 interviews gathered by the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, won’t tell you. What they will tell you, in grim and granular detail, is how degrading and demeaning upholding the occupation has been to Israelis. The book’s narrators are veterans of the Israel Defense Forces who were sent to serve in the occupied territories in the decade after the second intifada, ostensibly to prevent violent attacks by Palestinians. The wave of violence that engulfed Israel a decade ago was indeed calamitous, but anyone who thinks the IDF limits itself to confiscating weapons and punishing terrorists when patrolling the occupied territories would do well to consider what its own members say. “We go into the houses of innocent people. Every day, all the time,” says one soldier. Another describes tossing stun grenades into a village in the middle of the day, a policy known as “demonstrating a presence” that, according to the soldier, is often unconnected to a specific security threat and equally routine.
None of these soldiers are named, and many were interviewed only after they completed their military service, inviting the question of why, if they were so bothered by such things, they didn’t speak out and identify themselves at the time. One reason is that many weren’t bothered, owing to how habituated and anesthetized they became while carrying out orders. “I didn’t get that I was doing something wrong,” says a soldier whose unit set about wrecking the streets of a neighborhood one day by driving armored Hummers over cars, pulling out the passengers and beating them. “You could do whatever you like and no one asked any questions.” Another says he is most disturbed by “the things I have the privilege of doing on a daily basis and becoming immune to.”
Invading houses, harassing civilians, destroying private property, opening fire on unarmed targets: the blasé tone with which such acts are recounted chillingly conveys what wielding absolute power over a civilian population has done to an army that has long prided itself on its values. And yet that power is not quite absolute. There are limits, as when a soldier patrolling a neighborhood in Hebron spots a boy throwing a rock at another boy walking with his father. “If an Arab boy picked up a rock against a Jewish boy, then we’d probably have to handcuff him, blindfold him, send him wherever, follow the orders,” he says. But on this occasion, the soldier does nothing, since the perpetrator of the assault is a Jewish settler, whom he cannot threaten. “Look what they’re doing to us,” says the father of the Palestinian boy who was attacked. “Other than lower my head in shame, there’s nothing I can do,” the soldier says.
A decade ago, such a story might well have induced shame in most Israelis. This assumption is increasingly tenuous today. The Israeli left is small and deflated. Having watched Hamas gain power in the Gaza Strip and Benjamin Netanyahu’s popularity in Israel soar, many Israeli moderates have grown apathetic and resigned. Other former moderates have drifted into the ranks of the Israeli right, whose most strident members view the colonization of the West Bank with pride. If their dream of annexing this territory is realized, 69 percent of Jewish Israelis would deny granting Palestinians voting rights, according to a recent survey conducted by Dialog, and 74 percent would support separate roads for Jews—in effect, an apartheid system. Right-wing views increasingly pervade the IDF, where soldiers raised in settlements and educated in yeshivas dominate many of the units in the territories.
As Our Harsh Logic shows, the idea that there is nothing wrong with ruling permanently over millions of people deprived of basic rights is not universally shared in Israel. The book also shows the impressive freedom Israelis have to speak out about things their government would prefer to keep hushed. Yet here, too, there are worrisome signs. Like many Israeli human rights organizations, Breaking the Silence, founded in 2004, has seen the political climate turn increasingly inhospitable. In 2009, after the group published a book of controversial testimonies on Operation Cast Lead—a three-week invasion of the Gaza Strip that began in December 2008—Israel’s Foreign Ministry called on Spain, the Netherlands and other foreign governments to cut off funding for the organization. “There is no silence to break,” complained Netanyahu. “What are they talking about?”
Yet if this book is any indication, the biggest challenge Breaking the Silence faces today is not finding soldiers who will speak out or keeping itself financially afloat; it is being heard. The act of bearing witness can make an impact only if there is an audience, after all. What the soldiers in Our Harsh Logic are talking about is a morally untenable situation that has gone on for forty-five years. They have come forward to rouse the conscience of their fellow citizens. But is anybody listening?
Don’t miss our podcast interview with Breaking the Silence founder Yahuda Shaul.