Breaking the Silence faces the reality in the Occupied Territories

Breaking the Silence is an Israeli NGO that has gathered together 900 men and woman who all have two things in common. They served in the army and they gave a testimony to another member of Breaking the Silence. The main goal of Breaking the Silence is to increase the domestic debate within the Israeli society, but also in the international community. As soldiers who have served their society, the members of Breaking the Silence feel that they have the duty to expose the reality of the occupation in the West Bank, to tell the society that sent them there what is being done on their behalf. The idea is to raise awareness amongst the Israeli public about the oppression taking place twenty minutes away from their home, and yet worlds away.

Most Israelis don’t have any contact with the occupation before wearing a military uniform, and only 70 per cent of Israelis actually serve in the army. The members of Breaking the Silence started providing an insight on how the occupation works in 2004 when a group of veteran soldiers who had served in Hebron put together an exhibition of photos taken during their military service. This project came from feeling that the gap between what they knew, saw and did in Hebron and what their friends and family thought they were doing was too large. The exhibition was held for a few months in Israel in cities such as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. The Minister of Education also invited the exhibitors to the Knesset. Thousands of people came to that exhibition wanting to hear their point of view. Some soldiers or ex-soldiers who had also served during that time in the West Bank attended the exhibition and by confronting their testimonies, the members of Breaking the Silence realized that the situation of Hebron was generalized all over the West Bank, across different units, in Jenin, Ramallah, Bethlehem and East Jerusalem. They realized their stories were not just the stories of their personal experiences in Hebron, but actually the story of the occupation. Today, Breaking the Silence continues to spread the word in two different ways: by interviewing soldiers who give testimonies so as to create a collection, either on booklets or on video, and by taking visitor groups to Hebron and to the South Hebron Hills to tell them not only about their experiences of the occupation, but also to give a broader perspective on how the occupation functions.

Making your presence felt

Pressuring the Palestinians to move out of an area is done by various methods of control of population. As long as the army is making its presence felt, it reminds the population that the Jews are here to stay and that the army is in control.

One method is known as house mapping. The idea is to gather information about the Palestinian society all over the West Bank. Breaking the Silence interviewed 900 soldiers who all testified about having done similar missions in all the units. House mapping always takes place at night, to make sure people are home, choosing a household that is not related in any way to terrorism.

Our guide Nadav Bigelman, a former soldier and now student in Haifa, shared his experience of house mapping. One night, his unit left the base around midnight and his officer told him to bring along his private camera. They entered the first house, knocked on the door, woke up the family members, put them in one room, men, woman and children and launched a search of the house: taking everything out of the closets, knocking on the walls to check if they are hollow, breaking them to see what is inside. While the soldiers were busy proceeding with the search, the officer took a piece of paper and started writing people’s names and ID numbers, and drawing a basic plan of the house. Then, he asked Nadav to take pictures of all the people, because the army needs as much intelligence material as it can, by putting the picture together with the names and ID numbers. That night, Nadav’s unit mapped five or six houses and at the end he had about 25 pictures of Palestinians. The next morning Nadav expected someone to come and collect the photographs, as he considered it very important intelligence material. After a week he asked his officer about it and was told not to worry, someone would come and get it. After a few weeks Nadav realized that his officer had thrown away everything he wrote: the names, the IDs, the drawing, etc. The real purpose of these so-called security interventions was for the army to make its presence felt. The army doesn’t care about these particular people and their house, but about what the neighbors of the house are thinking: they should know that the army is there, that maybe the week after it will be their turn.

Breaking the Silence tour of the South Hebron Hills

The tour of the South Hebron Hills exposes the constant pressure exercised on Palestinian villagers to move out of the South Hebron Hills area, within Area C, into a zone of higher Palestinian population density located in Area A, through harassment by settlers, by the army, and a misuse of international law. The tour conducted by Breaking the Silence focuses on two particular stories of the South Hebron Hills: the one of the Palestinian village Susiya, and the one of Firing Zone 918.

The story of Susiya

The people of Susiya used to live next to Arad which is further south in the Negev, and following the war of 1948 were moved to these hills as refugees. Today, Susiya is also known as a Jewish settlement with its houses neatly rowed with red tile roofs. The settlement was built in 1983 and in 1985 an archeological site was created nearby. The Palestinians were moved away from both sites and lost agriculture land. The Palestinian village of Susiya is entirely under demolition order although an illegal Jewish outpost is visible inside the archeological zone. Today Palestinian Susiya consists of a group of tents and caves separated from the Jewish Susiya by a security buffer zone that keeps expanding with the Jewish settlement expansion by adding mobile homes. A buffer zone is now covering the location of 30 water wells. Palestinians need permission to fetch water. Even when obtained, an IDF escort will drag its feet to bring the Palestinians to the wells. While soldiers typically spend 6 months in the area, the settlers have been living there for years. They are the ones who inform the army that the buffer zone needs expanding when the settlement is getting too close to the Palestinian village.

An Israeli-Palestinian non-profit organization sponsored by German donors, COMET (Community Energy Technology), provides renewable energy services to off-grid Palestinian communities using sustainable methods: the Palestinian tent village is equipped with wind turbines and solar panels. Having electricity means political survival: it allows buying refrigerators, storing milk products, selling them in Yatta and therefore surviving longer. During the Second Intifada, the road to Yatta was often closed forcing the villagers to take an hour long detour instead of the 15-minutes drive.

Eviction orders are often initiated by a right wing NGO called Regavim (clod of earth). Around 1999, after one such eviction order for 80% of the village, the Palestinians took the case to the Israeli Supreme Court. The Supreme Court gave them permission to live there, as a temporary order, but they could not build and develop the village. If they needed to build a school, a well, or a road, they had to obtain permission from the Civil Administration. In June 2013, another demolition order was declared. Today, 400 people live in Susiya. Their NGO connections allow them to maneuver at the Supreme Court, extending their respite, 3 months at a time.

Nasser Nawaj’ah is an inhabitant of Palestinian Susiya and an activist with B’tselem. Since he was away on the day of the visit, his brother gave us a 10 minute talk. “When the people of Susiya were expelled in 1986 and the government gave our land to settlers, we had to start a new life, using cisterns of water [rather than wells]. Settlers grab the area one piece at a time. If a piece of land is not used for 5 years, it may be claimed by settlers. It is like a game. They use Ottoman or Jordanian law, whatever suits. They try to make our life harder and harder until we leave. Nearby settlements have electricity, water, but not our village. The water we buy in Yatta to fill the cisterns is expensive. A cubic meter normally around 8 to 10 NIS costs us around 35 NIS. We need that water for farming and for our sheep. Settlers are sometimes violent; they may set a tent on fire, uproot trees or attack our women and youth. We call the Israeli police but they ask us for the names of the settlers that acted. A man went to harvest the land early in the morning, when the sun was not too hot. A security guard for the settlement tied his hands and legs, and shot him. The court arrested him only because he killed a Palestinian with hands and legs tied. The whole system is Israeli: the settlers, the army, the police, the Supreme Court, the lawyers.”

Soldiers have been trained to fight conventional warfare, and to protect settlers, Israelis, Jews, not Palestinians, continues Bigelman. When a settler is aggressive towards Palestinians, the soldiers first try to separate both sides. Soldiers cannot arrest a settler; they call the police which won’t do anything. “Price tag” aggressions by settlers are a daily occurrence. But most settlers are not ideological settlers. They come for the cheap housing market.

Firing Zone 918

The story of Firing Zone 918, similar to the one of Susiya, shows how Israel takes over land on which Palestinians are still living. Around the 1980s this area was declared by the army a closed military zone for training, and Palestinians here used to live quite well, the training didn’t interfere with their lives. This changed at the beginning of the nineties, at the time of the Oslo agreement. When Israel realized that a Palestinian State was becoming reality, the government thought now is the time to get as much land as it can. From then on, demolition orders were placed upon the houses of 12 villages, stating that all the residents were illegal. A big eviction took place in 2000, and NGOs started working intensively with the Supreme Court to defend Palestinian villagers. In 2001 the Supreme Court authorized 82 families to stay under a temporary order awaiting a Minister of Defense final decision that came in 2010: four villages were authorized to stay out of twelve. In June 2013, it was established that after the 2006 war with Hezbollah, the army needed this land for training and that it was not economical to train elsewhere, far from the military base. Families were evicted from their farms and allowed to come on weekends and holidays. Another reason used by Israel to evict people from the zone is that many of the families have two houses: one in Yatta and one in the village which they use seasonally to work their land, therefore why do they claim the land is theirs if they have another home in Yatta? This is actually the way of life of the population in this region: part of the year in the village, part of the year in Yatta. NGOs are keeping the pressure, and use the services of lawyers to denounce the evictions as illegal. B’tselem and Breaking the Silence organized a petition of writers denouncing the eviction as illegal.

Breaking the Silence, an organization welcomed by the Israeli government?

In 2011, a bill was presented to the Knesset to prevent NGOs from receiving more than NIS 20,000 a year from foreign donors and impose severe taxations on NGOs receiving foreign donations like those who defend the rights of Palestinians. The bill was criticized by the left and the international community as anti-democratic and fascist. Under international pressure, the bill was postponed but is currently being revived by right-wing Knesset members.

All articles published on Breaking The Silence’s web site undergo military censorship. If a military secret is found, the article is taken out. The government claims that the settlers’ problems are isolated cases, bad apples that can be dealt with, but Breaking The Silence claims that the problem is the system. The NGO doesn’t believe the army needs to be educated. Ending the occupation is the issue. Without the work of NGOs, the oppression would be worse. They strive to improve the conditions of the occupation. The rules of engagement have changed after the second intifada and the Gaza War of 2009 thanks to soldiers’ testimonies.