Breaking the Silence is an organisation of Israeli military veterans who served since the start of the Second Intifada (September 2000), and have taken upon themselves the imperative to expose the Israeli public to everyday life in the Occupied Territories, a reality which is rarely reflected in the media. Breaking the Silence was founded in June 2004, and has since acquired a special standing in the eyes of both the Israeli and international public and media for its unique role in making heard the voices of soldiers who had previously remained silent.
I contacted Ben earlier in the week with regards to a tour of Hebron with the Breaking the Silence (BtS) group. I informed him I was going on it and if I could use the opportunity to align VfPs solidarity with that of BtS and the overall Occupation of the West Bank. He gave me the green light and asked me if I would write a short report on my personal experience of my time here.
One of my main motivations to travel alone for a few months was not only to learn a significant amount about myself but hopefully more about everyone I encounter on my journey whilst simultaneously promoting a universal message of ‘Peace’. You can learn a lot about the world through a myriad of mediums but nothing can substitute that of first hand experience and the observations that come with it.
After three weeks in Jordan I headed west to Israel. My platform for exploration for the week was the city of Jerusalem. After one hundred and one questions at King Hussein/Allenby bridge crossing about my motives for visiting Israel, I manged to make it through.
The first thing that hits you about Israel is the sense of ‘militarisation’. The fences, checkpoints, roadblocks, barbed wire, groups of teenagers wandering in packs of 4 all armed with assault rifles and i-Phones. This was highlighted perfectly by the immigration clerks sheer shock and surprise at why I left the military. Whilst I thought this was a great opportunity to promote our stance on the military and war in general, I didn’t think it was going to aid my entrance into the country, so I settled for the ‘To travel the world’ through gritted teeth response.
I spent the first half of the week visiting Ramallah and Bethlehem. This was my first real introduction to ‘The Wall’. This monolithic monstrosity that separates Israel and the West Bank. Is it a ‘Security fence’, ‘Separation fence’ or an ‘Apartheid Wall’? Depending on who you speak too will determine the title of this great looming divider. One thing for sure is it’s not bringing those lined either side of it any closer together or finding a resolution for the ongoing Occupation and Annexation of the West Bank. This acts as not only a physical barrier between those on both sides but as a mental one. Could you imagine growing up as a child, on either side and trying to understand the reasons behind it and then attempting to overcome this division?
I briefly visited Aida Refugee Camp, situated 2km’s north of Bethlehem. Aida Refugee Camp was established in 1950, following the “Nakba” (“catastrophe”) of 1948. Initially, Palestinian refugees were promised the right of return to their original homes by UN Resolution 194. At first Palestinians in Aida Camp lived in tents and then small single-room containers set up by UNRWA. Over 60 years later, Palestinian refugees now live in houses which they have built for themselves. There are approximately over 5,000 refugees residing in Aida Camp, more than half of whom are children. As Aida’s population continues to grow, the physical size of the camp remains constant and it is now enclosed on two sides by the Israeli apartheid wall. Many problems faced by residents today are regular invasions by the Israeli occupation forces, severe water shortages, lack of medical facilities, overcrowding and no open spaces.
This was my first experience in a refugee camp and whilst I had a different expectation of it, the conditions that these people live in, or should I say, struggle through isn’t something that I will forget very soon.
Leaving Israel and entering the West Bank is generally a painless task. It’s only on the return journey where things get a little more complicated. At the checkpoints back into Israel, all Palestinians are made to vacate the bus and go through a security turn style. Depending on the time of day, there could be hundreds of people going through this process and you can imagine the time delays and toll it takes. This is an every day thing for them to have to go through. Thankfully when we arrived there was only one bus and it’s passengers to go through. 15 minutes later we were on the road again.
It was on this journey when I met a young Palestinian girl named Jamila. She was 23 and a student at university and was looking forward to graduating this year as a teacher in Arabic education. We spoke about a number of different topics but primarily about the Occupation and the Wall. It was extremely refreshing to hear someone who has grown up surrounded by so much conflict, division and violence to not only wear a smile upon her face but also to harbour no animosity, hatred or vengeance onto anyone for the environment she lives in. She told me it’s bigger than Arabs/Jews or Palestinians and Israelis. She said the change has to come from all those involved and she hopes to be a component in that by making a change starting with educating the future generations.
I signed up for the tour of Hebron on Wednesday and I really couldn’t wait for Friday 13th to arrive. Luckily enough I’m not superstitious.
Upon arrival at the location of departure I was greeted by Avner, one of the guides of the tour and also an ex-IDF soldier. He served as a paratrooper in Nablus, Jenin and Hebron. It was towards the end of his service that he started to really question not only his role in the IDF but also that of the Occupation. He decided to learn more about the situation and this was when he booked himself on a BtS tour. He went along on the tour and visited one of the local villages and he came face to face with someone that he had arrested as a soldier and this was the turning point for him.
We all boarded the buses and headed for Hebron. The guide we were appointed for the day was Yehuda. Imagine an Israeli ‘James Gandolfini’ with a huge beard and that’s Yehuda. Yehuda was also ex-IDF and he served as an infantry combat soldier and then as a commander between 2001-2004, which was a particularly tense period in the West Bank because of the 2nd Intifada (2000-2005). He served 14 months in Hebron so he was well experienced with the area and the history of it. It was also towards the end of his service and the transition towards life as a civilian that he really started questioning the part he played in the IDF and in the West Bank. He said that he grouped together a number of his men and he told them he how he felt about everything and that was when he realised that they all felt the same.”Those that send us into the occupied territories have little to no understanding of what we do” he said.
“They were happy to send us from Tel-Aviv to Hebron, so we decided to take Hebron to Tel-Aviv”. He finished his service in March 2004 and in June 2004 along with 64 troop testimonies, they created an exhibit in Tel-Aviv which was visited by over 7,000 people. This was the inception of BtS and he was one of the original founders of it.
By this time we had made it to Hebron, it took just over an hour and he explained the history and the local geography of the surrounding area along the way.
Hebron is the second largest city in the West Bank and the only one which has an Israeli settlement inside it. The tour explores the results of the principle of separation and the military control in the city. It’s more commonly known as the ‘Ghost Town’. This is somewhat surprising considering it’s inhabited by approximately 190,000 Palestinians, 850 settlers and 650 IDF soldiers.
The tour included the following itinerary;
- The Cave of the Patriarchs
- The grave of Baruch Goldstein in Kiryat Arba
- Shuhada Street
- The wholesale market
- The four neighborhoods of Jewish settlement in Hebron
- The Tel Rumeida neighborhood
- A visit to a Palestinian family in Tel Rumeida
- The new settler house on the ‘Path of the Worshippers’ (‘House of Peace’/’Contested House’/’Hot House’)
It was apparent from the beginning that the term ‘Ghost Town’ was applicable here. It felt like the old wild west just before a showdown, it was devoid of any activity and the only presence to be seen was that of the IDF which were providing us with protection for the day just incase the settlers decided be violent towards us.
Yehuda told our group about his experience during his time in the IDF but highlighted various reasons as to how and why Hebron is the way it is today. Hebron is the only Palestinian city in the West Bank with a Jewish settlement in its centre. For years, the army has implemented a policy of separation and discrimination between Israeli settlers and the Palestinian majority. Citing the protection of a few hundred settlers living in the heart of the city, the army severely restricts the movement of tens of thousands of Palestinian residents. These restrictions have led to destruction of the commercial centre and to mass abandonement of the area by its residents. Hundreds of shops have closed, thousands of people have been left without a livelihood, and many hundreds of families have been forced to leave their homes. The city centre has become a ghost town, where only Jews are allowed to move about freely.
They’ve managed to do this via a number of different techniques. One of those techniques is ‘Sterilisation’. This is the method of preventing Palestinians from using certain roads and routes around the city. To the point that if you live on the street or road you have to find an alternative method of transit. One of those roads in particular is that of Shuhada St. The occupants had their front doors welded shut whilst occupying the properties and then had to climb out of the windows and over the rooftops to get out. The locals applied for permits to use the road and this continued for 6 years before the government had realised they’d made a mistake. Two days later the ruling was overturned and re-instated.
Welcome to the home of Mohammad Hamed Abu Asiha in the heart of the Old City of Hebron. He has owned the land here for over fifty years but now, it is surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements, Beit Hadassah and Beit Romano and above that by an Israeli military base, wall-to-wall with their home. Steel bars surround the home, not only sliding down the windows, but all over the place, covering it from every side and corner, covering its doors, covering its external yard and topping its walls, making it look like a box, at first you might it is a big cage for birds, and maybe some animals, but if you look closer, you will find 15 members of Abu Aisha family living there, in their home, that was transformed into a prison due to illegal settlement activities, and extremist, fundamentalist Israeli settlers.
Reema Abu Asiha said that nobody is able to visit them, her parents, brothers, sisters, relatives, nobody is allowed to visit them; nobody can.
“When my sons and daughters got married, nobody was allowed to come, we had to move the wedding reception to the houses of their uncles”, Reema added, “Even when we need to fix our home, we have to apply for a special permit from the military, yet, we are not allowed to bring construction materials in”. “Heading home or leaving it requires a permit, a permit from an army that occupies the city, an army that is not there to protect, but to oppress you. This special permit is only required because they can’t climb out the windows, onto the rooftops and out of the back because there’s a military outpost there.
She continues, with tears flowing down her cheeks; her eyes glossing and her lips moving in pain, “I lost two fetuses in the past, one in 1988, when the ambulance could not enter the area, and I had to walk to hospital while in labor.
A year later I became pregnant again, twins this time, we filed all needed documents, coordinated with the Red Cross one month before my due date, yet, when I was in labor, my husband called the ambulance, but due to Israeli restrictions it took them more than two and a half hours to arrive, by then, my twins were dead”.
‘Sterilisation’ is the perfect term to illustrate this kind of behaviour towards the Palestinians still residing within Hebron.
One of the other tactics used is that of curfews. They were used predominantly during the Second Intifada (2000-2005). There were over 377 full days of curfew and over 500 of night curfews. The day curfews last just over a week, you’re then allowed out for a couple of hours to buy supplies then have to return back home. I can only draw a comparison to that of being in prison. Released for time in the yard dictated to by the prison guards.
The other main reason for the disintegration of this once bustling city full of people living harmoniously is that of settler violence. One of the things I found astounding about Hebron is that whilst the Palestinian populace is under ‘Military law’, the same can’t be said of the settlers, who fall under that of ‘Civilian law’. This is one of the clear distinctions for life in the West Bank for the Palestinians. If we look back to the Goldstein Massacre of 1994 in the Cave of Patriarchs, where he killed 29 people and injured another 125 we can find evidence of this distinction. Over 10 officers went on record and said that even if they were present when the massacre took place they would have been prevented from intervening due to their rules of engagement. They would have had to wait until his weapon had jammed or ran out of ammunition and then be taken down non-lethally. The level of protection granted to the settlers is clear for all to see compared to that of the indigenous population.
Would that same tolerance be shown towards someone of Palestinian origin? I will leave you to formulate your own conclusion on that.
Overlooking the city of Hebron from atop a hill is a military base. Yehuda tells us that the ‘Mission Statement’ of the base is inscribed on the wall on the inside. From one of the testimonials they’ve received from a soldier who served there, it reads as ‘To distrupt the day to day activities within the neighbourhood’.
As we closed in on the end of the tour we stopped at the Youth Against Settlements centre where we had the pleasure and equal disgust at hearing testimonies from a local family. Their accounts of violence at the hands of the settlers was difficult to listen too.
One of those accounts was from a young girl named Sundaz. Now 21 years old with the strength and determination of someone who’s overcome a lifetimes supply of adversity. At the time, she was 16 years old, her younger brother was 10. He was attacked by a settler and they were both arrested. She said she felt lucky for getting arrested because this was the first time that she had been able to travel down Suhada St in her life albeit in the back of a IDF vehicle.
BtSs overall message according to Yehuda is that “Military should be an instrument of defence and not of occupation, we aren’t pacifists, we just believe that every country should have the right to govern itself. What are our moral boundaries and what are our redlines? At what stage do we stop standing behind our military?”.
Something Yehuda had said to me about the occupation earlier had stuck in my mind. He said “It’s not about building 1000 houses, it’s about every single millimetre. The systematic procurement of land over time. That’s what this is about”. I find it extremely difficult to find a counter argument to his point. Regardless of the attempts of the IDF/Government to state otherwise, you can see this land fracturing over time and then occupied by settlers. I’ve tried to look at this situation as neutrally and un-biased as possibly but having spent time in the West Bank, it’s hard not to take sides.
I met a guy called Liam Grant on the bus journey back from Ramallah earlier this week. He’s a volunteer from Australia with a Swiss organisation called EAPPI. He’s been out here just over 2 and a half months where he’s been working in the West Bank, he’s coming towards the end of his 3 month program. Rather than try and capture the essence of what I’ve experienced this week, I’d rather finish this report with a poem he’s recently wrote about his time in Palestine.
For the Girl Who Has Never Seen the Ocean
Cumulus clouds expand and contract in the sky’s loom.
She stares them down. She stares them down and the mountains
They swoon before her innocence,
before her dark eyes that pierce and gleam like sun off a fetid pool.
She sits upon her throne, a school
now merely twisted lumps of metal and concrete,
a wound from the earth, a place to plant her feet
and watch valley walls rise to a sapphire roof.
What is this thing in the grown, that must own or despise the innocence of youth?
Destroy passion and compromise hope. These pour off kids like grace, like joy off of starlings
weaving between golden shafts of light. This dark, grown-up thing covers her sight,
covers here future in apathy and disillusion.
This fierce Bedouin, barefoot upon her school in ruin. In her valley
which has swallowed a thousand graves in its rich soil
who’s tents have seen a thousand births and caves that hold a thousand stories.
Her father tries to tell her some, but she has now only worries of what her life
And her children’s lives will become.
But late at night, as she lies curled on her mat, between mother and sisters
The wind whispers through the tent flaps, the smell of ocean on its tail
She dreams of climbing these valley walls, like her father and uncle used to.
She dreams white sails of distant ships skimming upon the sea she has never seen
She hears the foam capped waves whip the rocky shoreline
as gulls wheel and spin and dive dissolute into the murky brine.
This chaos makes sense.
This uncontrollable thing, so deep and dense,
Smothers many lives under its surface, but nurtures many more.
It cannot be tamed, not even by the shore that holds it.
The ideologies of the grown own, occupy and oppress. They devour the girl’s youth.
They bind her to these valley walls. But truth, like the ocean cannot be bound,
only found in chaos and ever-shifting waters.
And justice, like water, always flows downwards.
Finding the lowest places to lay – and oh, this valley lays low.
Sitting in the unjust low, the still-point of the broken world, she waits
with the patience of the oppressed. The chaos of wild things
churning in her chest, burning in her fierce eyes
This girl, who has never seen the ocean.
Daniel Lenham served in the Royal Air Force, he is now a member of Veterans For Peace UK.