Palestine/Israel News and Information

“Breaking the Silence”: The eyes that see all


Orig. Heb:

Eng. trans. in Occupation Magazine:

The Eyes that See All

Their eyes are opened, they deal with the distress that stays with them for months, they devote hours to voluntarily compiling testimonies, they summarize an era. ‘Breaking the Silence’ [Shovrim Shtika] in a farewell column.

Chen Kotas-Bar 12 April 2005

For the past four months we have presented here testimonies of soldiers who decided to break the silence: they told of plunder and abuse, about old men who died because of a mistake, about a family that was removed from their living room so that so that soldiers could watch a football match on television. They described moral misgivings, the distress that accompanies them for months after their release, about the memories that the period of service engraved in their hearts, the marks on their conscience that have not healed, and what they call ‘srita’ [a psychological problem or trauma] in their language.

‘Why have you only remembered now?’, the question comes again and again. The witnesses spoke of their eyes being opened, about how only afterwards did they understand what they had done, about being part of a group, about the fear of being seen as an informer by their friends. It was accepted, some of them said. And you don’t go against what is accepted.

Only last week, in a plane to New York, a young man sat next to me, a former soldier in the Border Guards. Three months before he had returned from the US after travelling there for half a year. For three months he sat in a room, depressed. Now he is travelling again, to find himself. ‘We, who were there, in the Territories,’ he told me, ‘it will take time for us to recover. I don’t know what to do with my life. What happened there keeps coming back to me.’

We may be in quiet times now – hard to say peace – that make us say, ‘enough’. Maybe we are not really able to include so many stories that are uncomplimentary to us: about friends, sons, husbands, neighbours across the street. It was hard for me too. We want to read about the moral IDF, the IDF that cares about the civilian population. We do not really want to break the silence.

The ‘Breaking the Silence’ organization was set up by a handful of soldiers and officers from elite units in the IDF. Their work is voluntary, from a sense of mission. Instead of travelling abroad or going out with friends, they devote entire days to breaking the apathy of those of us sitting at home. One may perhaps disagree with the way they chose to act, but it is very hard not to appreciate them. Because they care. Because they are doing something. The documentation work they do has value. It is not just a collection of random statements along the way. It is the summing-up of an era.

Among the hundreds of responses that have been received by the ‘Breaking the Silence’ column over the past months, there were many angry responses. Some of the respondents claimed that it is a political column. This is the time to say that that is not the case. ‘Breaking the Silence’ is an apolitical organization. Nor did the author of the column have political or anti-military pretensions; on the contrary. At the beginning, when I wanted to write about myself, I considered the self-description ‘wife of a man who serves in the Reserves.’ Because this column at the end of the day is intended to place a mirror in front of our faces, even when they are not pretty, to see what happened to us along the way, to verify that we have remained human beings. We are leaving the column, but ‘Breaking the Silence’ continues to speak.

‘We did not want to be that kind’

To conclude we chose to present excerpts from a diary, as they were written on the scene, in real time:

From the diary of an infantry combat soldier: ‘Sitting in a niche in one of the stinking alleys, waiting with guns cocked for footsteps that might be heard. I run scenarios in my head of what will happen if it’s an armed person, what will happen if it’s just a boy, and what will happen if it’s a man going to get food for his family after long months of curfew. But no footsteps are heard. Only our rhythmic breathing and the rustle of the combat gear we are wearing. At once I get up and give the signal to keep moving out of the Casbah. After eight minutes we’re already sitting in a filthy room in Gross Square, eating the cake that A’s mother made and cigarette smoke fills the room. Time to think a little before continuing the patrol.’

‘I remember one time, in another world, bright green hills after the rain in Tel Arad, and the nice innocence of soldiers angry over a stretcher-trip in a ploughed field. And it wasn’t important that this was in an IDF training-ground, and it wasn’t important that the Bedouin who had ploughed and sowed knew that they might not get to reap, all that was unimportant. What was important was that we were soldiers, and we were trampling and crushing a field that had been planted with sweat and blood, and we didn’t want to be that kind of soldier. And today those same soldiers stand for eight hours in a position and enforce a curfew for months, those same sensitive, innocent, beautiful soldiers conduct searches and run across the roofs of the Casbah. They destroy and shatter every shred of privacy. The same soldiers now sat on the filthy floor of the Casbah, so far from home on a cold night, in a strange city, and were silent. And we didn’t want to be that kind of soldier.’

‘Trying to stay focussed’

From the diary: ‘Again we went in through gate 7. Turning first to the right, to the stairwell, and I tell the officer that I was already here, an hour ago. He replies that it doesn’t matter, we have to comb through the house. I go up and see the family, all sitting still stunned from the bursting of the door that we had done an hour before. The company commander says there’s a suspicious door here, that we have to burst open, and I approach him and quietly say, ‘we already searched here.’ He says with a raised voice, ‘there’s a suspicious door here that we have to burst open’, and brings the explosives. We go under the stairs, another explosion, the ground shakes under our feet, and this time the door flies two metres in the air and sticks in the wall.’

‘The mother started to shriek and wail and the father inside asked if we were finished. I’m about ready to vomit, looking the father straight in the eyes. They tell me again to go to the crossroads. I go outside, we jump from roof to roof. We split up, each one to a different corner, I go with the medic and we lie in a corner facing the closed school, I see in front of me classrooms empty of children, just a pile of chairs and tables. I’m about to piss in my pants. In the house below me the yelling starts. Noise of turning rooms over and searches. We go up to the roofs and enter the house of a family that I know because I was already here a million times in recent months. The commander says that we have to blow open one of the doors and we all move aside, there’s an explosion and the whole house shakes. Just an empty storeroom. We move on to the next house.’

‘I’m sitting in a position, trying to keep my head down, not to dream, to stay focused. But I start to think about home. What film is showing in the cinema, and how I’m supposed to go home in four days, to see my girlfriend and family. I’m reminded of a song by Meir Ariel, ‘Quiet Night’, and I just hope that the night will be quiet, and I continue to think about home, and how it will rain, and we will drink instant coffee, and we will look outside and see the rain that brings colour, and here it just adds a shade of grey and floods all the accumulated filth. I noticed that the people on the street don’t go with umbrellas, just with keffiyas, and they lower their heads, as if they can escape from the rain and the filth and my eyes, behind the binoculars, that see all.’

About ‘Breaking the Silence’: They are not refusers. They are not politician. They love the State. They are just soldiers who were there, which is here, and decided that it cannot go on. That someone has to get up and shout: wake up and see what’s happening to us.


Translated from Hebrew by Mark Marshall

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