Testimonies posted on YouTube by campaign group describe routine harassment and humiliation of Palestinian civilians
Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
Transgressions by the Israeli army in the occupied Palestinian territories will be disclosed by a group of former soldiers in an internet campaign aimed at raising public awareness of military violations.
Video testimonies by around two dozen ex-soldiers – some of whom are identifying themselves for the first time – will be posted on YouTube. The campaign by Breaking the Silence, an organisation of former soldiers committed to speaking out on military practices, launches with English subtitles on Monday.
Some of the former soldiers describe the “neighbour procedure”, a term for the use of Palestinian civilians, often children, as human shields to protect soldiers from suspected booby traps or attacks by militants. The procedure was ruled illegal by Israel‘s high court in 2005.
Others speak of routine harassment of civilians at checkpoints, arbitrary intimidation and collective punishment.
Idan Barir, who served in the artillery corps, describes in his testimony how an officer forced Palestinian civilians to crawl in a “race” towards a checkpoint near Jenin in the West Bank during the 2000 olive harvest. Only the first three out of “teams” of eight were allowed to pass.
Another, Itamar Schwarz, says Palestinian homes were routinely ransacked in search operations. He describes the day of the World Cup final in 2002, when soldiers confined a Palestinian woman and child in the kitchen of their home for two hours while the unit watched the game in the middle of an operation.
Arnon Degani, who served in the Golani brigade, describes the distress of a young woman who tearfully pleaded to be allowed to pass through a Jenin checkpoint in order to sit an important exam. He gradually came to understand, he says, that the Israeli army’s intention was “to enforce tyranny on people who you know are regular civilians” and to “make it clear who’s in control here”.
“Part of the silence of Israeli society is to believe these are isolated and exceptional incidents. But these are the most routine, day-to-day, banal stories,” said Yehuda Shaul, of Breaking the Silence.
Identification of the ex-soldiers willing to speak out was important, he said, “so that Israelis understand that there are people behind these stories, that in a sense we’re all involved”.
The former soldiers were aware of the potential legal and social consequences of going public, Shaul added. “They understand that they risk being prosecuted for what they’re saying. But they’re doing it because it needs to be done.”
Since Breaking the Silence was launched in 2004, it has met with a hostile response from Israel’s political and military establishment, partly targeting the anonymity of some witnesses. There have been attempts to discredit supporters and block funding, and its leaders have been subject to interrogation. Censure increased after it published testimony by soldiers who took part in the war on Gaza in 2008-09.
Schwarz, 29, who served in the Nahal infantry brigade between 2000 and 2003, told the Guardian that he had gone public with his testimony “because to me it’s important that Israeli society is exposed to the moral price and moral experience that an Israeli soldier goes through in armed service”.
The events he describes are “things that are really little, but they tell you the big picture of the occupation”.
He said his army experience was “like a scar, I carry it with me. We have to talk about it, to put it out to the world. Only then can a society deal with the moral price.”
The Israeli Defence Forces said: “The allegations made by Breaking the Silence are unfamiliar to us. The organisation has been informed, on numerous occasions, of the option of filing specific complaints including personal testimonies and other evidence through the appropriate channels. This is to ensure that their allegations are subjected to a thorough and proper legal investigation. To date the organisation has refused to provide substantiated allegations, making it impossible to properly examine their claims.”