Breaking the silence: Israeli soldiers with a tale to tell

In the West Bank, Heather Kathryn Ross meets members of the military who want to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories.

Former Israeli soldier and Breaking the Silence guide Avner Gvaryahu (second from right) argues with a military officer at an impromptu checkpoint near the settler outpost of Avigayil.

Heather Kathryn Ross

Half a dozen soldiers and police block the roadway, milling in front of their armored jeeps, periodically checking weapons or wiping sweat from their foreheads. Our tour bus is the only vehicle not passing through the makeshift checkpoint, about 25 kilometres from the city of Hebron. That this seared land pierced by thorn bushes and barbed wire twined like tumbleweeds is among the most jealously guarded in the world is hard to believe.

Sightseers are unusual in the West Bank, especially in the rural South Hebron Hills, but human rights group Breaking the Silence (BTS) regularly brings visitors here to see the Israeli occupation in action. Our guide, Avner Gvaryahu, explains that our last stop – near the illegal outpost of Avigayil – has been declared a ‘closed military zone’ for fear of an attack from the Jewish settlers who live there. Why not arrest the settlers if they attack us? he asks rhetorically. Why not use the assembled soldiers to guard our bus instead? According to Gvaryahu, it’s all about maintaining control.

‘We [BTS] have a political agenda – ultimately, the end of martial law. It’s easier for them [IDF soldiers] to maintain the status quo,’ Gvaryahu says. ‘This is the game we play.’ Gvaryahu leaves the bus determined to parlay with the soldiers. He asks to speak to a commanding officer and then begins to snap Facebook pictures with his cell phone and record a video of the police blockade for BTS’s online supporters. Meanwhile, we wait.

Speaking our stories

Breaking the Silence began in 2004 when soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) 50th Nahal brigade – who served in Hebron during the second Intifada—wanted to reconcile what they had done in the name of their country with what the public knew. It started with a photo and video exhibition at a Tel Aviv gallery, but has grown to incorporate the personal testimonies of more than 700 former members of the IDF who served in the Occupied Territories. ‘We try to create a discussion within Israeli society,’ Gvaryahu explained. ‘We want to bring our stories to the heart of Israeli consensus and to the outside world.’

Gvaryahu studied at yeshiva (Jewish religious school) through the 12th grade [aged 18]and was drafted into the Israeli Defense Forces following a year of volunteer service with the Israeli Scouts movement. He served as a paratrooper in the West Bank from 2004-07 and attained the rank of staff sergeant, but now at age 26 he studies social work in Tel Aviv and does outreach for Breaking the Silence.

‘It was easy for me to see Palestinians as the enemy; that was the prism I was looking through. In school I was taught that the whole of Israel was given to the Jews’

The organization offers tours into and around Hebron, ‘to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis and are engaged in the control of that population’s everyday life.’ One of the places Gvaryahu served during his IDF tenure – where he came in close contact with Palestinian villagers – was the encampment of Susiya, seven kilometres southeast of Yatta on the southern edge of the West Bank.

Earlier in the day, he brought us to meet the Nawaj’ah family in Susiya to show us just how Israeli law, settlement expansion and military imperatives impact the lives of rural Palestinians. Susiya is a regular stop on BTS tours and as soon as we arrived, three young boys ran out to greet us, kicking a soccer ball and grinning for pictures. Gvaryahu pointed south to a group of red-roofed houses perhaps a kilometre from where the children were playing: the Jewish settlement of Susiya.

He told us he had been assigned to guard the settlement during his service and had been trained to see the Palestinians living in tents nearby as intruders and potential threats: ‘When I was looking down on this family, it was easy for me to see them as the enemy; that was the prism I was looking through. In the school I went to I was taught that the whole of Israel was given to the Jews.’

Nasser a-Nawaj’ah, a field researcher for Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, ushered us into one of the long canvas tents anchored with cinder blocks that serve as Susiya’s meeting houses and family dwellings. Inside, two representatives of the NGO Action Against Hunger (ACF), who had just concluded a meeting with Nawaj’ah, provided context for the lack of development in his village.

A question of control

Ammar Imraizig of ACF explained that Susiya is in Area C – a zone defined by the Oslo Accords that encompasses 59 per cent of West Bank land – in which the Israeli government controls access to civil services, including potable water. During the summer, Susiya residents pay nearly $10 per cubic meter of water – about five times what Israelis pay. Imraizig is the programme manager for ACF’s clean water initiative in Susiya, and he is working to help residents get water affordably by building a filling station closer to the village. However, he told us, settlers have contaminated Susiya’s existing wells, and his requests for construction permits to replace them have thus far been denied.

A view from Palestinian Susiya toward nearby Susiya Settlement. Villagers in Susiya face constant harassment from settler groups and threats of eviction from Israeli forces.

Heather Kathryn Ross

Soldiers’ testimonies recorded by Breaking the Silence verify Imraizig’s claim. A lieutenant in Civil Administration, who chose to remain anonymous, told BTS: ‘Poisoning wells, that happens [in the South Hebron Hills] plenty. There was this story of settlers throwing dead chickens into the Palestinians’ well… There was nothing to do. We brought them water tanks,’ the soldier said. ‘Most of those wells aren’t legal and they should actually be destroyed, but wells are not destroyed mostly. For their benefit.’

In order to legally build any public or private structures, improve existing ones, or bolster infrastructure, Palestinians in Area C must obtain permits from the Israeli government. According to a 2008 World Bank report, 91 Palestinian construction permits were granted in Area C out of 1,624 requests made between 2000 and 2007 – an approval rate of only six per cent. During that same period, 4,993 demolition orders were issued against Palestinian buildings and 1,663 were carried out. Because water pipelines, wells, cisterns and filling points also require permits, which are rarely approved, Palestinian access to water is restricted, by and large, to wells dug before 1967.

According to the Palestinian Water Authority, Palestinian extraction of water in the West Bank is limited to 17 per cent of what exists in the area’s aquifers; Israel extracts the other 83 per cent for use by West Bank settlers and other Israelis or for sale back to the Palestinians. In 2009, Amnesty International reported that Palestinians in the Territories – many of whom are farmers and herders who depend on water for their livelihoods – each use an average of 70 litres of water per day. This is well below the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendation of 100 litres per day, and a quarter of what an average Israeli consumes. The World Bank reports that nearly 60 per cent of communities in the Hebron governorate, including Susiya, have no access to running water at all.

Nawaj’ah’s lament

Nawaj’ah continued where Imraizig left off, relaying the recent history of Palestinian Susiya. In 1986, 500 families lived in Susiya proper, but when the ruins of a Jewish synagogue from the Roman period were discovered nearby, the Israeli government evicted them in order to build an archeological park on the site. When they tried to return to the land they owned near the park, Nawaj’ah said, they found that Susiya Settlement, established in 1983, had expanded to include much of what used to be their village.

Nawaj’ah and the other villagers began to build houses and cisterns on the nearby agricultural land where they were relocated, but because they had no building permits, the Israeli civil forces demolished the structures several times over in the 1990s and early 2000s. Today, the remaining 24 Palestinian families in Susiya live in tents perched on a rocky slope between the archeological park and the settlement, surrounded by government-sponsored privilege. Nawaj’ah lamented, ‘Even the illegal settlements get electricity and paved roads and, of course, water.’

A principal issue in discussions of settlement building and right of return – which have stalled Arab-Israeli peace negotiations in the past – is that of land ownership

The Israeli military is the enforcement arm of this legal regime, in charge of property demolitions and the policing of settlement borders. One of the military’s primary objectives is to protect Israeli settlers and their property, and to this end, officers on the ground take direction from Settlement Security Coordinators – civilian liaisons who are themselves settlers. Despite documented incidents of theft, vandalism and assault on the part of settler groups against Palestinian villagers (some of them children on their way to school), soldiers do not exercise force against settlers for fear of penalty.

‘I saw the settlers from Susiya beating up the Palestinians. And we tried to prevent it but it wasn’t possible…You don’t have authority over the settlers at the end of the day, that’s the issue,’ a First Sergeant from the Lavi Battalion told BTS. ‘You can try and separate them and try not to get hit. Anything else you do… you don’t know whether you’ll end up being punished.’ Violence is by no means restricted to settler groups, but the military’s response to Palestinian threats is markedly different. Through regular ‘demonstrations of presence’, the IDF make their presence felt in Palestinian towns as a preventative measure. Avichay, of the Lavi Battalion’s Kfir Brigade, told BTS about regular incursions into Palestinian Susiya: ‘We got in at night… and started going into houses, checking IDs, turning over mattresses, making sure nothing was hidden, peeking into tents, and getting out,’ he said. ‘It was… our way of introducing ourselves, introducing the new authority in town.’

Another soldier recalled purging Susiya following the murder of settler Yair Har Sinai by a Palestinian man near the village in July 2001: ‘We secured bulldozers and wheel loaders that simply flattened those hamlets… These were tiny little shanties, the poorest you could imagine, usually containing a sack of rice, a few wretched pots, pieces of tin used as partitions, sometimes a little corral with some livestock… We let every family have 10 minutes, no more, to take out whatever they could. I remember the sealing of two wells with a wheel loader. It simply came and covered it up with rocks and dirt.’

Across the green line

Settlers can acquire government building permits with relative ease, and even in the case of illegal outposts, settlers’ dwellings are rarely slated for demolition. As of 2008, there were approximately 150 authorized and 100 unauthorized settlements ‘across the green line’ (beyond the ceasefire line established between Israel and Jordan in 1949). By 2007, the settler population in the West Bank had reached 461,000, with an estimated 57 per cent residing in East Jerusalem. Settlers in the Hebron area of the southern West Bank are particularly adamant about their right to the land because Hebron is home to the Tombs of the Patriarchs, a site revered as the burial place of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the second holiest site in Judaism after the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

A canvas and brick dwelling in the village of Susiya. Because villagers cannot attain permits to build permanent structures, they live in make-shift tents like these.

Heather Kathryn Ross

In 1929, a group of Arab rioters killed 67 Jews in Hebron, an event that resonates with the Jewish community in the West Bank to this day. Survivors of the 1929 attacks were relocated to Jerusalem, but settlers today feel that all Jews have the right to return to Hebron – a Palestinian city of 163,000. However, Gvaryahu noted, this right of return does not extend to Palestinians who fled or were expelled from what is now the State of Israel following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, nor to those residing in Susiya in 1986 when the ruins of the Roman-era synagogue were unearthed.

If settlers want to acquire the land they can use the ‘barrel method’; settlers plant trees in empty oil drums and place them at the corners of the parcel. If they can keep the trees alive for 10 years and pay associated taxes, the land is theirs

A principal issue in discussions of settlement building and right of return – which have stalled Arab-Israeli peace negotiations in the past – is that of land ownership. Israel took over the West Bank in 1967, but never officially annexed it, instead placing the area under martial law. The Oslo Accords, signed in 1993, put the Palestinian Authority (PA) in charge of governance in major West Bank population centres and dictated that the PA should gradually assume control over Area C, which includes key infrastructure supporting Palestinian cities, all major road networks, and the majority of the West Bank’s natural resources and agricultural land. However, little of this land has actually been transferred to PA control in the interim 18 years, and none at all since 2000.

Today, the Israeli military still controls Area C, and 38 per cent of its land has been reserved by the government for security purposes or to serve the settlements. Even titled land can be requisitioned by the government of Israel for military or security reasons or for ‘public need’. In practice, much of this land is used to expand settlements or to construct roads to serve them. Both legal and illegal settlements are afforded military protection, and the IDF establish a ‘special security area’ around each. The security area around Susiya Settlement is three times the size of the settlement itself. Once these buffer zones are in place, settlements begin to expand through the gradual seizure of nearby farmland. The World Bank reports that between 1987 and 2005, the West Bank settler population grew by 150 per cent, while the land area controlled by settlements grew by more than 400 per cent. The idea, in Gvaryahu’s opinion, is for as much land as possible to be in Jewish hands when a permanent agreement is finally reached regarding governance of the Territories.

The ‘barrel method’

Most Palestinians in the South Hebron Hills are like Nawaj’ah’s family – they subsist by farming and shepherding small flocks. Because joint land ownership is common in Palestinian communities and registration of private land is costly and time-consuming, the majority of Palestinian property in the area is not formally titled, leaving it vulnerable to seizure. According to its interpretation of Ottoman-era laws, the Israeli government can confiscate any parcel of land that has been uncultivated for three years (often because it lies within a ‘closed military zone’ or is rendered inaccessible by roadblocks), or whose owner is not included in the Israeli population registry. If settlers then want to acquire the land they can use the ‘barrel method’; settlers plant trees in empty oil drums and place them at the corners of the parcel. If they can keep the trees alive for 10 years and pay associated taxes, the land is theirs. We drove by dozens of such plots along Route 60, bizarre reminders of the struggle for equity and ownership occurring on a daily basis in the West Bank among those who scrape their livelihoods from the bare earth.

Why have Israeli citizens and government leaders not done more to address the festering tensions and legal disparities that make up the social fabric of life in the Territories? Gvaryahu told us that the separation of the day-to-day lives of most Jews – even those in the Territories – from what goes on in villages like Susiya is complete. ‘I have many friends who live [in the Territories] who are moral people, humanists, and they still manage to disconnect,’ Gvaryahu said. Maintaining this distance will only become more difficult as the Palestinian Authority’s bid for state recognition wends its way through United Nations Security Council negotiations this month.

A way through

Back at the roadblock near Avigayil – after nearly 45 minutes of negotiation – Gvaryahu returns to our bus with a smile on his face; we’re going up. ‘I told them they had no cause to stop us,’ he says. The tour bus, escorted by police, lumbers up the ridge to a lookout point between the Avigayil outpost and the village of Al Mufaqara – a fortress and a hovel, facing off on the hilltops. We are instructed not to leave the bus. The panorama before us has a surreal quality, viewed at a distance and from behind glass. ‘As part of the system, you feel powerless. We think we will come out here and tell the story and things will change, but the bottom line is there is a limit,’ Gvaryahu says. ‘We have to talk about the terrible price our society pays.’

Multimedia links from B’Tselem:
Nasser a-Nawaj’ah arrested near Susiya:
Settler attack on Susiya residents:

Heather Kathryn Ross is a recent graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, currently working for VIA Magazine in Emeryville, CA.