“This is basically a prolonged military occupation,”
The killing of more than 100 Palestinians by the Israeli Defence Force during recent protests in the Gaza Strip is the latest example of routine violence and abuse by the military and part of an aggressive strategy to control the occupied territories.
That is the view of a former Israeli sergeant and paratrooper who now serves as the executive director of Breaking the Silence, a not-for-profit organisation founded by former soldiers known for documenting “the reality of everyday life in the occupied territories”.
The bloodshed earlier this month saw demonstrators shot dead by Israel Defence Force (IDF) snipers and, according to Avner Gvaryahu, is emblematic of IDF abuse against Palestinians.
“It makes no sense to bring a sniper rifle to an unarmed protest,” Gvaryahu said from Tel Aviv.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 104 Palestinians, including 12 children, were killed by the Israeli military during the recent demonstrations.
Another 12 Palestinians including two children were killed in what were classified as ”other circumstances”. The OCHA said 12,600 Palestinians were injured during the demonstrations along with one Israeli soldier.
“I am not a pacifist,” Gvaryahu says. “I believe in a right to self-determination for Israel and I believe in Israel’s right to self defence but I don’t think what is happening in Gaza is self defence. I think it is occupation defence.”
“This is basically a prolonged military occupation,” he says.
“Yes, there are borders to defend but the vast majority of the friction and the combat is in the West Bank. The military does semi-police work there but with limitless power. We are controlling people who do not want to be controlled by us.”
Since it was founded in 2004 by soldiers who served in Hebron, Breaking the Silence has received thousands of testimonies from IDF veterans documenting Israeli military interactions with Palestinians in the occupied territories.
In one account, an infantry soldier participating in 2014’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza recalled that commanders told them ‘Don’t be afraid to shoot , and “There were no uninvolved civilians.”
A female officer detailed an incident near the Gaza Strip where an “old Palestinian farmer who got too close to the fence by mistake” was killed. “You simply see the tank shell coming and blowing him up,” she recalled. Other female officers recalled how they felt they needed to go beyond what was expected of male soldiers to prove themselves. Being a ”ball-breaker”, capable of “humiliating Arabs” earned them immediate kudos.
A sergeant who served in Ramallah in 2007 said: “Soldiers got out with army clubs and beat people to a pulp. We were told not to use it on people’s heads. I don’t remember where we were told to hit but as soon as a person on the ground is beaten with such a club, it’s difficult to be particular.”
An air force captain recalled: “We see a tsunami in Thailand and we’re all very saddened by what happens to all the civilians the day after. You know, they don’t have a home. But we’re carrying out a f…ing tsunami 70 kilometres from Tel Aviv and we aren’t even aware of it.”
Gvaryahu says that commanding officers tell soldiers who are new to an area “to show there is a new sheriff in town”. ”A soldier is given orders to instil in the Palestinians a sense that they are being chased,” he adds.
Gvaryahu says he underwent his own awakening during a night mission where his unit took over a Palestinian house.
“You pick a house, you kick in the windows, you barge in the house, you wake up the family. You usually handcuff the head of the family and you throw the family in a room and say if they want to use their own house they need permission from you.
”There are good soldiers, bad soldiers, moral soldiers, and immoral soldiers but the problem is not the soldier,” Gvaryahu says. “The problem is what the soldiers are ordered to uphold.”
Breaking the Silence’s research is funded by individual donors and international organisations and governments including Switzerland’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Norway’s embassy in Tel Aviv, Christian Aid, and the European Union. Unsurprisingly, its published testimonies divide opinion across Israel and Jewish communities around the world.
“Our view is far from being a majority view in Israel but it is also a view that cannot be totally dismissed,” Gvaryahu says.
Efforts to discredit Breaking the Silence have gone beyond the expected media counterpoints and online videos. Rightwing activist group Ad Kan unsuccessfully attempted to infiltrate the group and plant false testimonies. Other groups have taken to social media to counter Gvaryahu’s accounts, including an open letter claiming to be by soldiers of his same army unit.
Veteran accounts published by BTS are vetted and approved by the IDF censor but that didn’t stop Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claiming the testimonies crossed “a red line”. In 2016 the Israeli government made unsuccessful attempts through the courts to force BTS to reveal the identity of one of its sources.
“I am proud they see a group of young former soldiers working out of a small office with less than 20 workers as a critical voice that they have to respond to,” Gvaryahu says.
In an email an lDF spokesperson said its rules of engagement vary ”in accordance with the circumstances on the ground, the nature of the threat, lessons learnt, and intelligence gathered in contending with the violent riots and attacks from Gaza.”
The spokesperson said Hamas, the de facto governing party in Gaza designated as a terrorist organisation by Israel, Australia and the United States, incited violence and used “riots” as cover for carrying out attacks on Israel.
”When dealing with violent riots, the IDF uses live fire as a last resort, when all other means have not been successful in contending with the threat. The use of live fire… is approved by a commander in the field who assesses the threat in each individual case. Only in the case of an immediate threat, may the soldiers use live fire.”
The IDF did not respond to requests to comment on testimonies published by BTS.
Gvaryahu says killing Palestinians had far reaching consequences for those on both sides of the fence. “Taking someone’s life is a big responsibility. We know from our experience that killing someone is not something that leaves you.
“It is immoral and irresponsible to put snipers with live ammunition in front of unarmed protesters. There have to be other tools as well. If you walk around with a hammer in your hand everything begins to look like a nail.
“I care deeply about Israel,” Gvaryahu says. I love my country. I wake up, go to sleep, eat and drink thinking about how to make this place better.”