‘Breaking the Silence’ documents testimonies of Israeli veterans of Palestinian Occupation

Testimonies of Israeli veterans who served in the Occupied Palestinian territories take us out of our comfort zones. The documentary Breaking the Silence does that by highlighting the voices of these soldiers turned activists. The film title is taken from the name of the organization they established to transmit what they have seen and experienced to a wider public. A Feb. 23 screening at the Los Angeles Peace Center included a post-film discussion between Japanese filmmaker and independent journalist Toshikuni Doi and an audience of U.S. veterans and peace activists. Speakers focused on the horrific and enduring impact of the Occupation on youth and their families from both sides of the checkpoints and walls.

Eighteen is the average age of combat soldiers everywhere. In the United States, there is no longer a compulsory two to three years of military service that Israel and many other governments impose on youth right out of school. Our government has to tell even deeper lies to maintain its poverty draft. Governments know youth at eighteen are susceptible to believing idealistic visions of duty, service, and heroism. To die for one’s country is still the ultimate in heroism, but the living who return home with moral and physical injuries are often feared, shunned and abandoned. And those who sent them off to fight to “defend the homeland” escape responsibility for the corruption of their consciences. “I was your soldier, your fist against the Palestinians,” cried one returnee to his parents, who could just as well have told that to the Israeli government itself.

Veterans who survived service in the Israeli-occupied communities, U.S. veterans from the war against Vietnam (see Winter Soldier), USSR veterans returning to Russia after occupying Afghanistan in the 1980s (read Zinky Boys, by Ukrainian journalist Svetlana Alexievich), and U.S. veterans from Iraq (read None of Us Were Like This Before by Joshua E. S. Phillips) have much in common. Recurring themes in their testimonies are the sense that they have returned home as different human beings, unable to pick up “normal” lives again or to sleep without nightmares. As one Israeli veteran put it, the lies and betrayal of his own government were more devastating than anything else. He envies the dead both because the dead will never be lied to again, and because the dead will never know they had been lied to.

Young soldiers who set up checkpoint controls throughout the territories said they could hardly comprehend that they were doing this “with the power to be wherever we want anytime we want.” Special forces soldiers felt either completely bored standing guard alone for eight hours, or completely terrified to be ordered in 2002 to invade and destroy the Jenin Refugee Camp of thousands of families—actually a “city” of buildings that had stood for many years. “We were obligated to cross moral borders every day,” said a former sniper stationed in Hebron. “You try to be normal but you can’t be anymore. When you get discharged you have to run away. You have to clean yourself.”

There are the thrills that attract the young, as well. It is “fun” to be able to drive a tank through a garden and over the tops of cars, said one veteran. “It was so easy to become a monster,” said another.

Parents add to the pressure young soldiers feel to obey army orders, to do their duty, to protect their family from “terrorists.” “You can’t be too sentimental,” said one veteran’s father. In Israel, the army is considered sacred. It is seen as providing security, making it hard to criticize the army’s destruction of Palestinian homes, orchards, and even their water supply.

Filmmaker Doi, who spent 30 years reporting from the occupied territories, shared an experience when screening his film at Columbia University. A Jewish American angrily interrupted him, crying out, “You are lying.” Here in Los Angeles, our discussion ended more quietly with the solemn insight of Michael Lindley from Veterans for Peace. When you return from war, he said, you don’t know who you are: “Who you are is lost.”

Breaking the Silence is available for community screenings. For more information, contact Tsukuru at the Pacific Asian Nuclear-Free Peace Alliance at forfuturefukushima@gmail.com, or call (323) 899-0463.

See here for one Israeli soldier’s testimony. See here for a video on the organization.


Cathy Deppe
Cathy Deppe

Cathy Deppe is an activist writing from Los Angeles.