The dark-haired 22-year-old in black T-shirt, blue jeans and
red Crocs is understandably hesitant as he sits at a picnic
table in the incongruous setting of a beauty spot somewhere
in Israel. We know his name and if we used it he would face
a criminal investigation and a probable prison sentence.
The birds are singing as he describes in detail some of what
he did and saw others do as an enlisted soldier in Hebron.
And they are certainly criminal: the incidents in which
Palestinian vehicles are stopped for no good reason, the
windows smashed and the occupants beaten up for talking back
– for saying, for example, they are on the way to hospital;
the theft of tobacco from a Palestinian shopkeeper who is
then beaten "to a pulp" when he complains; the throwing of
stun grenades through the windows of mosques as people
prayed. And worse.
The young man left the army only at the end of last year,
and his decision to speak is part of a concerted effort to
expose the moral price paid by young Israeli conscripts in
what is probably the most problematic posting there is in
the occupied territories. Not least because Hebron is the
only Palestinian city whose centre is directly controlled by
the military, 24/7, to protect the notably hardline Jewish
settlers there. He says firmly that he now regrets what
repeatedly took place during his tour of duty.
But his frequent, if nervous, grins and giggles occasionally
show just a hint of the bravado he might have displayed if
boasting of his exploits to his mates in a bar. Repeatedly
he turns to the older former soldier who has persuaded him
to speak to us, and says as if seeking reassurance: "You
know how it is in Hebron."
The older ex-soldier is Yehuda Shaul, who does indeed "know
how it is in Hebron", having served in the city in a combat
unit at the peak of the intifada, and is a founder of
Shovrim Shtika, or Breaking the Silence, which will publish
tomorrow the disturbing testimonies of 39 Israelis –
including this young man – who served in the army in Hebron
between 2005 and 2007. They cover a range of experiences,
from anger and powerlessness in the face of often violent
abuse of Arabs by hardline Jewish settlers, through petty
harassment by soldiers, to soldiers beating up Palestinian
residents without provocation, looting homes and shops, and
opening fire on unarmed demonstrators.
The maltreatment of civilians under occupation is common to
many armies in the world – including Britain's, from
Northern Ireland to Iraq.
But, paradoxically, few if any countries apart from Israel
have an NGO like Breaking the Silence, which seeks – through
the experiences of the soldiers themselves – as its website
puts it "to force Israeli society to address the reality
which it created" in the occupied territories.
The Israeli public was given an unflattering glimpse of
military life in Hebron this year when a young lieutenant in
the Kfir Brigade called Yaakov Gigi was given a 15-month
jail sentence for taking five soldiers with him to hijack a
Palestinian taxi, conduct what the Israeli media called a
"rampage" in which one of the soldiers shot and wounded a
Palestinian civilian who just happened to be in the wrong
place, and then tried to lie his way out of it.
In a confessional interview with the Israeli Channel Two
investigative programme Uvda, Gigi, who had previously been
in many ways a model soldier, talked of "losing the human
condition" in Hebron. Asked what he meant, he replied: "To
lose the human condition is to become an animal."
The Israeli military did not prosecute the soldier who had
fired on the Palestinian, as opposed to Gigi. But the
military insists "that the events that occurred within the
Kfir Brigade are highly unusual".
But as the 22-year-old soldier, also in the Kfir Brigade,
confirms in his testimony to Breaking the Silence, it seems
that the event may not have been exceptional. Certainly, our
interview tells us, he was "many times" in groups that
commandeered taxis, seated the driver in the back, and told
him to direct them to places "where they hate the Jews" in
order to "make a balagan" – Hebrew for "big mess".
Then there is the inter- clan Palestinian fight: "We were
told to go over there and find out what was happening. Our
[platoon] commander was a bit screwed in the head. So
anyway, we would locate houses, and he'd tell us: 'OK,
anyone you see armed with stones or whatever, I don't care
what – shoot.' Everyone would think it's the clan fight..."
Did the company commander know? "No one knew. Platoon's
private initiative, these actions."
Did you hit them? "Sure, not just them. Anyone who came
close ... Particularly legs and arms. Some people also
sustained abdominal hits ... I think at some point they
realised it was soldiers, but they were not sure. Because
they could not believe soldiers would do this, you know."
Or using a 10-year-old child to locate and punish a
15-year-old stone-thrower: "So we got hold of just some
Palestinian kid nearby, we knew that he knew who it had
been. Let's say we beat him a little, to put it mildly,
until he told us. You know, the way it goes when your mind's
already screwed up, and you have no more patience for Hebron
and Arabs and Jews there.
"The kid was really scared, realising we were on to him. We
had a commander with us who was a bit of a fanatic. We gave
the boy over to this commander, and he really beat the shit
out of him ... He showed him all kinds of holes in the
ground along the way, asking him: 'Is it here you want to
die? Or here?' The kid goes, 'No, no!'
"Anyway, the kid was stood up, and couldn't stay standing on
his own two feet. He was already crying ... And the
commander continues, 'Don't pretend' and kicks him some
more. And then [name withheld], who always had a hard time
with such things, went in, caught the squad commander and
said, 'Don't touch him any more, that's it.' The commander
goes, 'You've become a leftie, what?' And he answers, 'No, I
just don't want to see such things.'
"We were right next to this, but did nothing. We were
indifferent, you know. OK. Only after the fact you start
thinking. Not right away. We were doing such things every
day ... It had become a habit...
"And the parents saw it. The commander ordered [the mother],
'Don't get any closer.' He cocked his weapon, already had a
bullet inside. She was frightened. He put his weapon
literally inside the kid's mouth. 'Anyone gets close, I kill
him. Don't bug me. I kill. I have no mercy.' So the father
... got hold of the mother and said, 'Calm down, let them
be, so they'll leave him alone.'"
Not every soldier serving in Hebron becomes an "animal".
Iftach Arbel, 23, from an upper-middle class, left-of-centre
home in Herzylia, served in Hebron as a commander just
before the withdrawal from Gaza, when he thinks the army
wanted to show it could be tough with settlers, too. And
many of the testimonies, including Mr Arbel's, describe how
the settlers educate children as young as four to throw
stones at Palestinians, attack their homes and even steal
their possessions. To Mr Arbel, the Hebron settlers are
"pure evil" and the only solution is "to remove the
He believes it would be possible even within these
constraints to treat Palestinians better. He adds: "We did
night activity. Choose a house at random, on the aerial
photo, so as to practise combat routine and all, which is
instructive for the soldiers, I mean, I'm all for it. But
then at midnight you wake someone up and turn his whole
house upside down with everyone sleeping on the mattresses
But Mr Arbel says that most soldiers are some way between
his own extreme and that of the most violent. From just two
of his fellow testifiers, you can see what he means.
As one said: "We did all kinds of experiments to see who
could do the best split in Abu Snena. We would put
[Palestinians] against the wall, make like we were checking
them, and ask them to spread their legs. Spread, spread,
spread, it was a game to see who could do it best. Or we
would check who can hold his breath for longest.
"Choke them. One guy would come, make like he was checking
them, and suddenly start yelling like they said something
and choke them ... Block their airways; you have to press
the adams apple. It's not pleasant. Look at the watch as
you're doing it, until he passes out. The one who takes
longest to faint wins."
And theft as well as violence. "There's this car accessory
shop there. Every time, soldiers would take a tape-disc
player, other stuff. This guy, if you go ask him, will tell
you plenty of things that soldiers did to him.
"A whole scroll-full ... They would raid his shop regularly.
'Listen, if you tell on us, we'll confiscate your whole
store, we'll break everything.' You know, he was afraid to
tell. He was already making deals, 'Listen guys, you're
damaging me financially.' I personally never took a thing,
but I'm telling you, people used to take speakers from him,
whole sound systems.
"He'd go, 'Please, give me 500 shekels, I'm losing money
here.' 'Listen, if you go on – we'll pick up your whole
shop.' 'OK, OK, take it, but listen, don't take more than 10
systems a month.' Something like this.
"'I'm already going bankrupt.' He was so miserable. Guys in
our unit used to sell these things back home, make deals
with people. People are so stupid."
The military said that Israeli Defence Forces soldiers
operate according to "a strict set of moral guidelines" and
that their expected adherence to them only "increases
wherever and whenever IDF soldiers come in contact with
civilians". It added that "if evidence supporting the
allegations is uncovered, steps are taken to hold those
involved to the level of highest judicial severity". It also
said: "The Military Advocate General has issued a number of
indictments against soldiers due to allegations of criminal
behaviour ... Soldiers found guilty were punished severely
by the Military Court, in proportion to the committed
offence." It had not by last night quantified such
In its introduction to the testimonies, Breaking the Silence
says: "The soldiers' determination to fulfil their mission
yields tragic results: the proper-normative becomes
despicable, the inconceivable becomes routine ... [The]
testimonies are to illustrate the manner in which they are
swept into the brutal reality reigning on the ground, a
reality whereby the lives of many thousands of Palestinian
families are at the questionable mercy of youths. Hebron
turns a focused, flagrant lens at the reality to which
Israel's young representatives are constantly sent."
A force for justice
Breaking the Silence was formed four years ago by a group of
ex-soldiers, most of whom had served in Israel Defence
Forces combat units in Hebron. Many of the soldiers do
reserve duty in the military each year. It has collected
some 500 testimonies from former soldiers who served in the
West Bank and Gaza. Its first public exposure was with an
exhibition of photographs by soldiers serving in Hebron and
the organisation also runs regular tours of Hebron for
Israeli students and diplomats. It receives funding from
groups as diverse as the Jewish philanthropic Moriah Fund,
the New Israel Fund, the British embassy in Tel Aviv and the