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How we grew up: an Israeli veteran on the dehumanising power of military control

Yehuda Shaul writes of how he and his friends learned to glorify power, and lost their ability to see Palestinians as people whose lives are no less valuable. Now, he and hundreds of others are working to end the occupation.

Israeli soldiers in front of the barrier at the Qalandiya checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. Photo: Getty
Israeli soldiers in front of the barrier between Ramallah and Jerusalem. Photo: Getty

The current round of violence in Gaza has come to an official close. In Israel we have begun to summarise the events of the past few weeks and question the future. As summaries reenter the public discourse, I am reminded of past rounds of summarisation.  I try to grasp what has changed from one summary to the next.  From Operation “Defensive Shield” (2002) in the West Bank, to “Summer Rains” (2006) in the Gaza Strip – from “Cast Lead” (2009) to “Pillar of Defense” (2012) to the most recent operation in Gaza.

In 2002 a fighter jet dropped a one-ton bomb on the home of Salah Shehade, the former head of Hamas’ military wing, in a residential neighborhood. The bomb killed him in addition to 14 other innocent people, 11 of whom were children. The incident didn’t blow over quietly. Reservist pilots heavily criticised this type of operational activity in an open letter. The Supreme Court encouraged an independent inquiry into the situation, and as a result the government appointed a committee to investigate the operation. Throughout the last month we bombed dozens of houses inhabited by Palestinians – some targeted by the Air Force and others using artillery and mortar fire. These bombs killed hundreds of men, women and children. The bombing of the homes of Hamas members, who do not pose an immediate security threat to Israel, has become an explicit Israeli policy – even when it is known that innocent civilians are inside.

When Shahade’s home was bombed, there were people who questioned the morality of the action. Throughout the last month, over a decade after the aforementioned bomb, hardly anyone in Israel and among its allies around the world criticises the policy of bombing the homes of Hamas members. The lone voices that are heard speaking out against it are hastily silenced. After a month of fighting, over 2,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza. According to the UN, at least 1,400 of the deceased were civilian casualties, 458 of which were children. Israeli society remains silent.

What has changed? My reply begins with a memory from the year 2004, two months after I was released from my service as a soldier and commander in the Occupied Territories. During that period, my friends and I reflected back on our years of service and understood that as soldiers in the Territories we had each gradually erased our moral red line. We understood that in order to carry out our routine activities as soldiers, whose role is to control the territories and the civilian Palestinian population – we needed to erase the humanity of Palestinians along with our own humanity. And that’s what we did. This understanding led us to produce an exhibition of photographs and video testimonies of soldiers from Hebron, the city in which we served for a year. Our goal was to share with the Israeli public the things that we did daily there, in their name.

One of the many attendees of the exhibition, was Lieutenant Colonel Chen Livni, the Deputy Commander of the Nahal Brigade. We were all veterans of the Nahal Brigade and he had come to see what all the fuss was about. After a tour of the gallery, Livni said that he agreed with the facts that we displayed regarding the process combatants undergo in the Territories. However, he noted that he disagreed with us on one point. “You call this process moral corruption, insensitivity, or intoxication of power,” he said. “I call it growing up.” In response to Livni’s statement, one of my friends replied, “You’re right. That’s how people grow up in Israel. Which is the reason why we created this exhibition and are breaking our silence.” My friend was right. Adolescents in Israel grow up when they learn to impose military control over another nation.

Livni might have been right in this sense, as I would be obliged to say that 47 years as an occupying power have taught Israeli society a similar lesson to the one learned by every soldier who serves in the Territories. We have learned to glorify power, and have lost our ability to see Palestinians as people whose lives are no less valuable than ours. We have learned to avert our gaze from the tears of the hundreds of children who were killed over the course of the past month in Gaza. In addition to the dozens of families that were erased when one-ton bombs were dropped on their homes. The destructive images give rise to feelings of pride, rather than questions about the people for whom the rubble was once a home. The abject poverty in Gaza arouses contempt, instead of questions regarding the roots of poverty in a region that remains under Israeli control.

From 2004 to this day, my activism is guided by a refusal to accept Livni’s reality. This is not “growing up”, but rather brutalisation. In order to grow up, we need to stop thinking like occupiers, and to start thinking like human beings. As human beings, we can’t avert our eyes and close our ears. Most important, we cannot stop asking questions. Questions about our moral red lines as a society; questions about the moral price that we’ve paid, and will continue to pay, for the ongoing occupation; questions that are related at their core to the recognition of the value of all human lives in this region – both Israeli and Palestinian.

Yehuda Shaul is a co-founder and member of Breaking the Silence, an organisation of almost 1,000 Israeli veterans who work toward ending the Israeli occupation