Tuesday, 4 December 2012

A Soldier's Story

As part of our training as Ecumenical Accompaniers we had the pleasure of meeting Avner Gvaryahu. Avner is a 27 year old Israeli citizen; 1st generation on his mother's side and 9th generation on his father's, from an Orthodox Jewish community. He is '...proud of the state my family helped build, in some ways'. Like his father before him, and as his little brother will likely do too, he served in the Israeli armed forces, rising to the rank of Sargeant in a paratroop regiment. In a country where national service is mandatory and seen as an important rite of passage for young men this is not unusual. What makes Avner different is that he advocates against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and shares his experiences of the realities of life as a soldier within an army, which he says is,

 'controlling 4 million people by force'

Avner  represents Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli veterans who collect and share testimonies from soldiers, create discussion and increase resistance to the occupation  within Israel?. Formed during the Second Intifada*[1], which saw heavy losses to both Israeli and Palestinian combatants and civilians. They describe themselves as 'Pro Israeli, Pro Palestinian and anti occupation'. They are one of the key Israeli peace groups with whom EAs liaise and Avner met with us to talk about their work, his experiences and attitudes to the army and the occupation within Israeli society.

Breaking the Silence have collected over 800 testimonies and recently published a book "Our Harsh Logic" that collects a number of these under key categories that are common parlance in a society that 'like it or not' according to Avner, is very militaristic, digging down to see what, for example 'separation' means in practice. Whilst this would commonly be understood as separating Israelis and Palestinians from one another to increase security, in practice it means

 'separating Palestinians from each other... from their own families and from their own land.

Avner feels that by sharing their personal experiences he and others are helping challenge some of the biggest taboos in Israeli society, and in particular dominant beliefs about the nature of the occupation.

'the story of how we control the Palestinians, the exact thing that Israel does not want to talk about. The story is not new. The only thing that is new is US. Palestinians have been saying these things for years.'

 He says of his military service, which predominantly took place around the Palestinian cities of Jenin and Nablus

'You feel that you can be the one to do things differently. I felt that I was going in with my eyes open..but when you step in (to the military) you become part of the system. Very early on you realize that there is no moral way to do something immoral'

Israel says that the occupation is necessary to ensure security  and peace prior to the achievement of an equitable settlement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that, consistent with its obligations under international humanitarian law, the actions if it's soldiers are to maintain law and order in the OPT. Avner claims otherwise

'To the army it is a zero sum equation. Either Israel or Palestine...the army acts as if there is no end in sight...sooner or later they (Palestinians) are all the same to you as a soldier...When you have an occupation and you see the other as an enemy there is no way to have a just legal system'

                                          Avner Gvaryahu and I in East Jerusalem

He told us he  participated in mock arrests and house searches as 'training' and witnessed thefts, beatings and shootings committed by IDF soldiers. He feels that most IDF activity day to day is intended to cultivate fear and maintain control by 'having our presence felt'. Furthermore he feels that the manner of the occupation indicates a lack of political will to make peace, amongst Israeli leaders

'If we wanted peace we wouldn't demolish villages in Area C and push Palestinians towards area a and b'*[2]

This is far from the noble and vital role that young Israelis are raised to feel that they will play when they serve in the military, an image linked to the concept of Israel as perpetually embattled and threatened and one that Avner ultimately feels is hurting Israel.

' its 2012 and we are still living in 1929. There is something destroying our society from the inside. We are becoming so xenophobic and closed minded'

What he is very keen to stress is the role of Breaking the Silence, not to build sympathy or understanding for soldiers but to contribute to ending the occupation itself

'We are not the victims, we are here to share another side of the story that is not often hard. It's not about catharsis. It's about changing the reality. The most important thing that I can do as an Israeli is end the occupation.'

I am barely a year older than Avner. If his life were mine I wonder if I would have acted similarly, or differently. Whilst a committed anti-militarist, if I had grown with the same upbringing and context as him, would I really have done anything differently when my call up came? And having witnessed and been part of a brutal and unjust system, would I have had the courage to speak out against it? Finally I think about the next generation of young Israelis and wonder if there is a cycle here that can and will be broken. I asked Avner if he had talked to his brother about his experiences and what difference it might make. He said

'He wants to be a combat soldier. I have tried to talk to him but he is sure. He says 'Why are you telling me these things? You felt exactly the same when you were my age.' and he is right.'

To find out more visit www.breakingthesilence.org.il

[1] The Second Intifada ('uprising' in Arabic) was an intensified period of Israeli-Palestinian violence that claimed over 3000 Palestinian and over 1000 Israeli lives.
[2] Areas a,b and c are administrative units within the West Bank. Area C makes up around 60 percent of the whole West Bank and is under full Israeli military law.

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