A new series of testimonials, focussing on Palestinian children and youth, has been released by Israel Defence Force veterans group Breaking the Silence. It’s caused an incredible response in the Jewish community here, so I thought I’d offer some snippets of responses, as well as my own commentary.
First, here’s a description from Breaking the Silence (BtS) themselves on their latest book:
[It] reveals how physical violence is often exerted against children, whether in response to accusations of stone-throwing or, more often, arbitrarily. Such violence is often accompanied by harassment and humiliation … [along with] child arrests and cruel and indifferent treatment of children in custody. Despite Israel’s High Court of Justice’s ruling that sweepingly forbade the use of human shields, soldiers speak of commanders who continue to implement this procedure, at times using children for this purpose. The most disquieting tendency emerging … relates to the wounding and killing of children in the West Bank and Gaza, whether by ignoring them at the scene of events, or by targeted shooting.
Here’s an excerpt from Ruth Pollard’s coverage in the Age:
The Israel Defence Force’s arbitrary use of violence against Palestinian children, including forcing them to act as human shields in military operations, has been exposed by veteran soldiers in detailed statements chronicling dozens of brutal incidents.
The most disturbing trend that emerges from the soldiers’ testimonies relates to the wounding and killing of children in the occupied West Bank and Gaza by either targeted shooting or by failing to protect minors during military operations, the report from veteran soldiers’ group Breaking the Silence says.
There are two major issues here worth expanding on here.
Our role as Jews and Zionists in the Diaspora, and the role of the media
On this occasion, as if sometimes the case, these two issues are intertwined. Despite a fair and balanced report by Pollard (note it includes quotes from both BtS, as well as the prime minister’s office), the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, ostensibly the representative of all Australian Jews, released this shortsighted statement. It employs from the worst kind of moral disengagement. So often hasbara is about “but look over there” talking points. In this instance Danny Lamm accused Fairfax’s Pollard of ignoring the ongoing Syrian crisis — this despite the fact she’s spent the last little while inside Syria reporting. But don’t let the facts get in the way of a bit of propaganda.
The other issue, another mainstay of hasbara, is the “why didn’t you also criticise the Palestinians?” line. The reality here is because it wasn’t relevant. There’s no need to insert that line into every story that condemns a problematic aspect of Israel or its policies. I don’t expect, for example, each article about Palestinian extremism and incitement to include references to the chief rabbi of Tzfat. Hamas doesn’t claim to have the most moral army the world, or the best processes to deal with issues like these. Israel does. Israel claims to be a democracy. Democracies stamp out this kind of thing. They take time, but they also accept the criticism. Israel, as a mature democracy, needs to be able to accept this kind of thing. Fairfax was completely right to cover the story, and Ruth Pollard did so very well.
It’s worth linking now to Breaking the Silence’s statement hitting back at the ECAJ. A part of me wants to include it in full, because it’s written elegantly and precisely, and sums up so much that I want to say, and so much that I feel. I can’t emphasise enough how important I feel it is to read the whole statement. Here are just two paragraphs:
Now we veterans wonder how someone who purports to be a supporter of Israel can make such insidious allegations against us, questioning our loyalty and integrity. How can someone who is supposed to have our backs then attack us from behind? From where, we ask, does Dr Lamm draw the chutzpah to sling mud at us, soldiers who were lying in the mud to protect the country in whose name he swears from afar? We wonder what motivates a Diaspora Jew pretending to love Israel to discredit us, veterans who continue to risk our lives in its defense and give our time and energy to fortify its moral stature.
Concern for Israel and its democracy cannot be the factor driving an assault on its civil society. Attacks on Israeli veterans are certainly not motivated by love for Israel and its people, for these veterans are Israel. Dr Lamm’s assault, it appears, must have a different set of motivations. Instead of serving his community and lending support to Israel, he serves his political masters. A vocal opponent of the peace process, it seems that Dr Lamm has forgotten his place as a Diaspora community leader. We would never dare interfere with the internal affairs of his community, let alone in the audacious way in which Lamm interferes in ours.
Game. Set. Match.
Breaking the Silence, the IDF, and the occupation
It’s hard to swallow the real impact of these testimonies. While it’s not as if they have been hitherto unknown and undiscovered — as recently as last month Foreign Minister Bob Carr raised similar issues with Israeli authorities – coming from soldiers who have witnessed them gives additional credence to the importance of stamping out this kind of treatment of Palestinians, youth and children, as well as the population at large.
It’s important to note that such circumstances are not the norm in the Palestinian territories. They are aberrations that are extremely serious and need to be stamped out, and they certainly do not prove that Israeli morality has disappeared. What it shows is the consequence of a lack of movement towards peace in years and the subsequent need for the status quo to remain. It also highlights how integral the single, simple aim of these brave soldiers is: to end the occupation of the Palestinians.
There are few issues more complex or difficult to deal with in Israel today than this one. It also reflects the highly fractured and contradictory aspects of Israeli society. Israel does not deal in black and white — it is one where democratic and ethnocratic impulses regularly compete for superiority — and so it is important to understand these issues in the context of the shades-of-grey country it is.
The occupation has become so normalised for everyday Israelis that they are beginning to shut out the issues on the other side of the green line that separates its from the West Bank. Not talking about the issues, and a desensitisation to the realities of the occupation (different legal systems for Palestinians and settlers, poverty, oppression, corruption, etc.), is the cause of them. Importantly, Breaking the Silence provides Israeli society with the chance understand what its sons and daughters are doing on its watch and in its name.
Ending the occupation, removing settlements, and providing for the establishment of a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel will eliminate the circumstances in which these crimes occur. Not only will it give Israeli society the opportunity to reflect on the tragic deviation from Jewish values the occupation of Palestinians is, but it will also allow Palestinians the chance to share the dream of self-determination the Jewish people realised more than 60 years ago.
There’s no doubt this is difficult — you’d be mad not to be wrestling with these concepts — but as a democracy, Israel needs to be able to cope with legitimate criticism of its institutions from within, and this absolutely fits that category.