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Nadav Bigelman served as an infantry combat soldier in the Nahal Brigade and now works as a researcher for Breaking the Silence. Despite growing up in Jerusalem on Bethlehem Road, a road that can be followed to Bethlehem itself, he was only exposed to Palestinian culture and the reality of occupation when he ended up serving in the West Bank. In April, 2015 I sat down with Nadav to discuss Breaking the Silence and the military occupation in the Palestinian Territories.
What is the relationship between Israeli military and the settlers?
The relationship depends on which units serve where and which communities are in each settlement. In Hebron - where I served in 2008 - it was a much more radical, ideological and religious community. From there perspective, they have a true meaning on why they are there. The core thing to understand is that there is a separation of power in the West Bank. When I was a soldier, our main mission was to protect the settlers for several months, we are there to protect the settlers. Very quickly you found out that one of the problems are not only the Palestinians you are protecting the settlers from but actually the settlers you are supposed to protect. They can attack Palestinians with price tag attacks which were basically terrorist attacks.
When army units often come to evict specific illegal outposts or even arrest a settler who was suspected of attacking a Palestinian, a way to prevent them from doing that and make a lot of noise and disturbance in the area, these extremists would attack Palestinian such as refugees in a village or someone will wake up in the morning with "Death to Arabs!" graffitied on their wall. In some cases it can be a very extreme situation as with what happened in Duma not far from Nablus where Meir Ettinger (the head of an extremist group) burned down a home and killed an entire family. Only one child survived.
When you come as a soldier, and I can say that from my experience and the soldiers I and Breaking the Silence have interviewed, everyone has said that there are two kinds of law systems. The West Bank was never annexed to Israel, Israeli law does not apply there. We have 350,000 Israeli settlers, which does not including east Jerusalem which increases the number to 550,000, who are under the Israeli law system. The Palestinians, 3.5 million, are under military courts. So for example if you have an Israeli and a Palestinian illegally demonstrating in the same area or committing the same crime, the area would be declared as a closed military zone, they will be both be arrested by the same officer at the same time at the same place for the same crime. However an Israeli would be judged in the civilian court, they would have to see a lawyer, a right to an attorney etc. A Palestinian on the other hand would be judged in the military court at a different place and different time. The same people who arrest you judge you.
Why was Breaking the Silence created?
We started in 2004 after the second intifada during which many of us had served for several years in Hebron and other places during this deadly period of time for Israelis for Palestinians and for soldiers and armed units. Hebron itself was a very, very violent area, we're talking about dozens of casualties for both sides and in most situations the victims were innocent civilians. These soldiers felt, I felt it as well, that there was a very different reality from home and where we were serving and that people had no idea what was going on. Once they finished their military service they started a photo exhibit of pictures they took as soldiers and started interviewing each other for testimonies. After the photo exhibit in Israel, thousands of people came and wanted to see what we thought and what was happening there. We're not criticising the soldier at the checkpoint, we criticise the checkpoint.
Among these people, soldiers started to come and began to tell stories about entering people's houses in the middle of the night, firing on civilian populations and neighbourhoods without really knowing where you're firing. We have a lot of videos of these, descriptions and testimonies. Basically people started saying we are soldiers who served in different places but at the same time, more or less, Nablus, Jenin, Ramallah, south Hebron hills we saw exactly the same things. I think that was the moment we understood that Breaking the Silence is not their own personal story. Breaking the Silence is the story of the occupation of a generation, a story that must be told. At the end of the day, our criticism does not go to the army, the soldiers nor the officers on the ground. There is a draft in Israel, we send our children, our brothers, our sisters to the West Bank and Gaza and we're not taking responsibility for what is happening in the occupied territories. The easiest thing to do is to blame the soldiers. The ones who need to look in the mirror is us, everybody that sits in this cafe! We're not doing it enough. The government policies in the Palestinian territories for 50 years - everybody has taken part in it, left, right and centre of the political spectrum.
What do you think about those among the Israeli population who regard those with Breaking the Silence as traitors?
There is no doubt that Israel is going more and more to the right. Each election increasingly shows this. It is scary and it is dangerous and these attacks against Breaking the Silence in the last few months didn't come from settler extremists. It came from the top, from the government. The Prime Minister attacks us publicly, the Minister of Education, and the Minister of Defence Yiseraeli Allon called us traitors in front of school children.
There is horrible incitement, a large proportion of this is based on false information and lies inside Israel which scares the hell out of people. There are a group of people who denounce us as traitors, self-hating Jews, anti-Semites and spies. I can tell you that this week we had 23 public events for Israelis, over the last few months we have had hundreds of private Israeli donors and dozens of people have opened there doors to us and invite us to have talks. We have public figures, ex-generals, former Shin Bet members. They might not agree with everything Breaking the Silence have to say but they are saying we are an important element of Israeli democracy. If you take Breaking the Silence away, there would be a big problem developing across the country. We need to remember here that the issue is not Breaking the Silence. The issue is muzzling anyone opposed to the occupation. It is a problem and I think the more Israel goes to the right, the more the chasm widens and there is a line being drawn in society effectively saying "You are either with us or against us."
I'll finish with an example. The group that started the incitement a few months back is Im Tirtzu. They are a right wing activist group, a student movement started a few years back and some time ago there was a group of left wing activists opened a Facebook group called "Im Tirtzu is a Fascist Movement". Im Tirtzu sued them for liable and the report actually said there are fascist elements in that group. Their main PR person, Moshe Klucker, is the same PR person of the Jewish Home Party. So when I say it goes all the way up, it goes all the way up. Many people face this horrible incitement and they say "Okay we don't agree with everything that Breaking the Silence does, we have criticisms, but we're not with these extreme groups."
What do you think about the March 2016 shooting in Hebron?
What we always say is that when you look at testimonies of Breaking the Silence you don't see the extreme cases because that is not we're looking for. We're looking for everyday things. I don't know whether what happened in Hebron is an everyday thing. I think it an extreme situation. I think the issue here is not the soldier. Of-course he should be investigated and judged. The true issue here is that so many officials and public figures in the Israeli Knesset suggest that every Palestinian who poses a threat should be shot.
At the end of the day, these soldiers, 18, 19, 20 years old will hear all these terrible things all day long in the media and Elor Azaria (the soldier responsible) will basically do what ministers tell him to do based on what they say every day in the press. What Breaking the Silence is always talking about is that the problem is not the soldier on the ground (there are extreme actions and they need to be handled) but the environment and the political climate which allows these things to happen. In that way, I always want to show the mirror not to the soldiers, but to people in Israel living on our streets, to our friends, to our families, to our community because what happened in Hebron is the result of a very long period of incitement over the last few months against different human rights organisations and everyone who thinks a bit differently from the occupation.
How does Breaking the Silence counter the right-wing activists trying to destabilise the organisation?
We had four moles and found every one of them and we didn't publish one of their testimonies because they didn't pass our cross checks and verifications or the military censor. After this we didn't pass them and some of them slightly changed their names to get through our verifications. One of them was an activist with us. He was a young guy who said he had served in the territories who had returned home. Our organisation wants people to come and talk so we interviewed him but we didn't publish his interview.
In the mean time he started showing up to some of our events here and there. We discovered all the moles in the end because our researchers are very professional and very good at what they do. We have interviewed over 1000 soldiers, we have existed for over 12 years and there is not one testimony which is incorrect. Every testimony that is published is cross checked, verified and cross-compared with other human rights organisations, the Israeli army and charity press releases before going to censorship. Only if it passes all of that do we publish a testimony. We are very thorough with how we doing things and because of this we discovered four people giving false testimonies.
What is the most important question you would ask a settler in Hebron? What is the difference?
It is a tough question. I would ask him how does he or she live with themselves when there was a man called Baruch Goldstein, a doctor who lived in Hebron in the Kiyat Arba settlement on outskirts of Hebron that entered a mosque (The Tomb of the Patriarchs) in February, 1994 and gunned down and murdered 29 people praying and injured 100 more. He was buried in a park dedicated to Meir Kahane, the US-born rabbi who was a founder of the violent Jewish Defense League and later the leader of the fascist Kach party — which was so openly racist that it was eventually banned in Israel during the 1980s.
How can you explain that? Many of the settlers do not agree with these actions of course, even in Hebron - where it is very ideological - wouldn't agree with what Goldstein did. Like every society there is a thousand different positions and perspectives on issues.
I think that many have decided to live somewhere that can cost many people's lives. They're doing it and they're not hiding it for religious or historical reasons. There is a Jewish history in Hebron which has existed for hundreds of years, it cannot be ignored or denied. Not all settlers are radicals.
However, they are saying - for religious reasons - they want to live there and because of that 200,000 + Palestinians that live in Hebron live need to be under huge restrictions in their lives. How do they live with that? They truly think this is an argument about how Israel should look like. What are our boundaries?
We're not offering a solution? We're not advocating for a one-state or a two-state solution, people have different opinions. We're liberals, pluralist, this is what we believe in. Solutions are not our mandate. We are veterans. What we do say though is that if there is to be any kind of solution needs to be based on thing: ending the occupation, ending the concept of military regime over millions of people. You can do it in a two state solution, a one state solution, a three state solution, a four state solution, a confederacy. There are enough solutions from right and left. Our job is not to say remove the settlers. That is up to Israeli society, the Knesset. Our job is to say look at the cost of what happens there.
What are the consequences of the occupation lasting longer?
We will see what will happen. Through a narrow Israeli narrative (we can already see that the Palestinians society is being disrupted by violence), the concept of a sustainable occupation is not sustainable. It is one round of violence after another. In Gaza, what you can see is that each round of war is more violent and brutal than the one before. I interviewed dozens of soldiers that fought in the last round in Operation Protective Edge (2014) and I can say there were things which were said which I couldn't imagine. I interviewed soldiers who fought in Operation Cast Lead (2009) and it is becoming clear that the conflict is escalating. Regarding Israel, it is the troubling to see various NGO bills being passed and the Minister of Education banning us from schools. This is the product of an unsustainable occupation being sustained for so long. It goes back to the Green Line, it goes back to our society. The violence can not stop there. I am not saying that Israel is under a military regime, we are far, far away from that. There is democracy, but it is a democracy under attack.
There was a disengagement in Gaza and settlements were removed of course, however there was the attempt at peace failed. Israel still controls the Gaza Strip. There is a siege. We control everything that goes in and everything that goes out except the border at Rafah which leads to Egypt. There is no port to Gaza because we don't allow it to be built. Every child that is born in Gaza is registered into Israeli computers. We control and decide who can leave Gaza for the West Bank and who can leave the West Bank for Gaza. We control everything. I believe the settlements are another branch in the occupation. It is a big branch, it is a serious branch. But it is one branch. However they're many other branches for the occupation and Gaza is a different example of how the Israelis control Palestinians lives there.
They are those that argue that if we leave they will attack us, this is possible, but let me ask you this. Did fifty years of occupation bring us any security? Did fifty years of controlling millions of people, oppressing them and taking away every basic human right provide us with security? The occupation is a political option. You may like it, you may not like but it is an option. I think it is a twisted version of what security is. I think it doesn't provide us with security. I think real security, particularly in this region, is mutual security. If the Palestinian are not safe, I will not feel safe in Tel Aviv.
What is the main consequence for the soldier returning to normal life from the occupied territories?
I'm not a pacifist. I am not against the army. I am not against people being recruited into the army. I think Israel needs an army, a good one, a professional one. The army does not need to control millions of people.
We are not the victims here. The victims are the Palestinians being oppressed by us. These things backfire on you. It creates violence and generations upon generations of people that have the experience of arresting children, waking families in the middle of the night, and sometimes shooting at people. This does something to you. It returns home and the norms which are being held up in the occupied territories are slowly but surely returning past the Green Line to Tel Aviv and beyond.
To see soldiers in Hebron who have to deal with what they are ordered to do every day, my heart goes out to them. This is not something an 18 or 19 year old kid should have to do, deciding whether to shoot or not and seeing so much death and so much violence. It can't do good for any society no matter where you are. We are already very divided because of this occupation. This is the number one issue which divides us. There are many others of course, but the occupation (yes or no) divides Israelis. What is our state? What do we stand for?
How big a role do you think the Israeli media has played in incitement against left-wing groups?
Their role is huge, but I do not think there is a conspiracy. I think it is mainstream media and a need for ratings. If the public goes to the right they will follow that. It's bad journalism at times, horrible journalism. Many take items and reports which are ready, heavily edited from extreme right-wing activists and slap it on the front page. They do not follow up with research, they're few questions, what is there story, who funds them. This is quite serious to have bad journalism on the main news channels! It reflects the mindset of many Israelis. We don't have solutions for the occupation, our economy, our relationship with Palestinians, let's blame the left.
wHAT DO YOU THINK THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY CAN DO?
We are not saying that tourists coming to Israel should have a do-list after a tour in Hebron. We do believe they have an obligation to ask, to criticise, and criticise the occupation. It is not anti-Semitic to call out the occupation. I think it is exactly the opposite, I think it means you're pro-Israel. The number one thing I would like people to communicate is this. It is to differentiate between the occupation and Israel.
Israel is legitimate, it is respected, it has the right to exist and the Jewish people have a right to self-determination. The occupation does not. Prime Minister Netanyahu is trying to erase the Green Line and make Israel and the occupation one and the same. I refuse to accept that as a civilian and a veteran. Do not give up on differentiating between these two things.
Matthew C.K Williams