“Breaking the Silence:” Women Soldiers Speak Out – by Stephen Lendman
“Breaking the Silence is an organization of veteran Israeli soldiers that collects anonymous testimonies of soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories during the Second Intifada.” They recount experiences that deeply affected them, including abusing Palestinians, looting, destroying property, and other practices “excused as military necessities, or explained as extreme and unique cases.”
They disagree in describing “the depth of corruption which is spreading in the Israeli military” to which its society and most Western observers turn a blind eye. Since 2004, “Breaking the Silence” collected over 650 testimonies, including from combat veterans. Most remain anonymous to avoid recriminations, but feel compelled to go public – to “demand accountability regarding Israel’s military actions in the Occupied Territories perpetrated by us in our name.”
Last year, a collection of 54 damning testimonies from 30 Israeli soldiers was published. On January 31, a new publication was released titled, “Breaking the Silence: Women Soldiers’ Testimonies,” a collection of 96 stories from dozens of women who served in the Territories since 2000.
On January 29, Israel’s ynetnews.com reported that “Female soldiers break their silence,” revealing accounts of “systematic humiliation of Palestinians, reckless and cruel violence, theft, killing of innocent people and cover-up.”
On July 15, 2009, Reuters reported that participating IDF soldiers in the recent Gaza conflict said “they were urged by commanders to shoot first and worry later about sorting out civilians from combatants. Accordingly, they (said, they) went into Gaza with guns blazing,” with comments like the following typical of others:
— “If you’re not sure, kill;”
— “Better hit an innocent than hesitate to target an enemy;”
— “In urban warfare, anyone is your enemy; no innocents;” and
— “They kept repeating to us that this is war and in war opening fire is not restricted….There was a clear feeling, and this was repeated whenever others spoke to us, that no humanitarian consideration played any role in the army at present.”
In his book titled, “The ‘Good Soldier’ on Trial: A Sociological Study of Misconduct by the US Military Pertaining to Operation Iron Triangle, Iraq,” Professor Stjepan Mestrovic documented disturbing evidence of illegal US rules of engagement (ROE); namely, that commanders order troops to commit war crimes, citing an Army brigade colonel saying kill every military-aged Iraqi on sight, even civilians posing no threat.
Yet when the truth comes out, low-ranking soldiers are blamed, prosecuted, and punished to absolve superiors up the chain of command to the top. Mestrovic correctly observed “that a crime becomes a ‘war crime’ when it involves the government, which is to say, when a crime is the result of unlawful social policies and plans.”
According to noted sociologist Emile Durkheim, “The immorality of war depends entirely on the leaders who willed it – the soldier and even those government officials who had no part in the decision remain innocent.”
It’s true in America, Israel and all sides in times of war.
Anonymous Testimonies of Female Combatants
Like their male counterparts, courageous female soldiers went public, “shed(ding) additional light on what happens in the back yard of the State of Israel,” that what once was “exceptional,” is now the norm. As a result, Israeli society is sliding down “an ethical slope together with the entire military system.”
A Border Patrol First Sergeant said:
“Somehow, a female combatant has to prove herself more, on the ground too. Again a female combatant who can lash out is a serious fighter. Capable. A ball-breaker. There was one with me when I got there, she’d been there long before, she was – wow, everyone talked about what grit she had, because she could humiliate Arabs without batting an eyelash. That was the thing to do.”
She had a good reputation in her company until in the field and wasn’t tough. Too “wimpy,” (she said), unlike “guys (who) need to prove themselves less in this respect….We (talked about) tough female combatant(s) having no problem beating up Arabs….Take a look at that one, a real ‘ball-breaker,’ see her humiliating them, slapping them, what a slap she gave that guy! You hear this kind of talk all the time.”
A Hebron Regional Brigade/Education Corp officer said she witnessed two soldiers “pacing around a detainee – blindfolded, his hands shackled behind his back. Suddenly I see that one of the guys simply approaches him, and without any warning, knee-kicks him in the head.”
She leapt at him saying, “You’re coming with me now,” but he didn’t understand how a female soldier could order him around. Her rank concealed under a fleeze jacket, “He shoved me off, this was a big guy – he pushed me away and ran into the barracks.” Complaining to the deputy commander, she was told “Let it go, it’s pointless.” She had a hard time accepting it.
A Border Patrol First Sergeant recounted incidents of violence, including harassment, keeping Palestinians on their feet, in formation made to sing and hop, and if anyone laughs he gets punched. “It can last for hours” against anyone, including women, children and the elderly. “Some (of us) had absolutely no restraint and abused anyone.”
A Gaza Division Education Corps Officer described the “everyday routine of combat service,” saying only in retrospect did she realize “to what extent I had not been a human being out there….it’s like a movie with a lot of death around you, an unreasonable reality, with soldiers doing inhumane things to others….doing irrational things to other people.”
Another Border Patrol First Sergeant recalled chasing a Palestinian who was ordered to halt when he began running. Even though he wasn’t a threat, they shot and killed him. “An investigation was carried out. First they said it was really an unjustified killing. He was a child about nine years old….Eventually the army claimed he was doing something (like) checking escape spots for terrorists….And that was that, the file was closed.”
An Erez Crossing Sergeant said “there was this procedure, before you released a Palestinian back into the Strip, you’d take him into the tent and beat him up.” Commanders took part….even if I let an illegal go at my side of the checkpoint, until he’d get to Gaza he’d go through hell. (He’d) be stopped along the way and every soldier would take his turn beating him. Commanders, too.”
A Border Patrol Seam Zone (between the Green Line and Separation Wall) First Sergeant recalled “patroll(ing) the Fence and a group of tiny children were standing near (it) and throwing these little stones at the vehicles of the fence construction firm.” They weren’t harming anyone, but the commander ordered, “Okay, load rubber ammo,” so she loaded and explained that bullets come in units of three, and soldiers peel off the rubber “because that hurts more.” It also kills or badly wounds.
She fired low, in the ground near their feet, angering her operations officer who took her gun and said, “You don’t know how to shoot.” She responded, “Where do you want me to shoot? He came along, fired….Straight at the belly. Fortunately he missed. But he fired straight at their belly, and of course they ran.”
A Jenin Border Patrol First Sergeant said she felt guilty about not having said anything about what went on, but believes “it wouldn’t have made any difference….There is still an air of violence so when “things get boring….let’s invent an incident.” Make one up. “Get on the radio and report: Stones have been thrown at me on this street. And then you detain someone and start questioning him….Naturally, when they’re caught, they’re beaten up” even if nothing happened.
An Etzion Regional Brigade Sergeant said stone-throwers “get beaten up and taken to brigade headquarters….They beat the hell out of (them) or take (them) to division headquarters….If kids throw stones, all the shops in the village would be shut down.”
A Hebron Hills Border Patrol First Sergeant spoke about daily roadblocks and her position as a crew commander. “You’ve got to throw your weight around, show authority….I mean, I’ve never raised a hand against (Palestinians). There are other ways to make them understand. Once we were blocking a certain road and there were about ten vans with 20 – 30 passengers each. (They) have to stand waiting….everyone gets off with their belongings, their permits, and they’re checked one by one. (At times) there were detector dogs, trackers, explosive and weapons detectors that would join us.”
She’d “start checking them (all). They would wait inside the cars.” Everyone is checked on the police computer to learn who’s authorized to drive. Those who aren’t are detained and turned over to the police. They’re fined and if they don’t report to a traffic police station in two day “there would be an arrest warrant against (them) and more fines.” The idea is to teach them a lesson and make them pay so “they’d not mess with us any more.”
A Hebron Sergeant complained that she wasn’t cut out to be a combatant, then explained that when “An Arab says something to her that he shouldn’t, for example – she calls some four guys from her company to come handle him (and they) beat him to a pulp.” She then detains the person.
She said once when she was on alert, there was a boom. “We heard a shot and of course I was on patrol so we ran over to see what happened, and there’s a girl soldier standing like this, facing an Arab bleeding on the ground, and she says something like: ‘He tried to attack me.’ We look at him and he’s shot in the belly (and) we ask her. What did he do? How did he attack you?”
She was confused and didn’t know what to say, then “told some story about asking him for his ID and he wouldn’t show it, and then he attacked her and somehow she tried to get away and turned around and shot him in the belly, something of that sort. You look and see an Arab who’s been shot at point-blank range and he’s holding his ID. And you say to her: Listen, this is impossible. Your story doesn’t add up.”
Apparently he approached to hand her his ID. “She then shoved him off with her rifle” and shot him in the belly. Instead of saying what have I done, we hear her saying he tried to attack me. This girl finally admitted he really got too close so she shot him….And she was not prosecuted….She was re-assigned to the Military Police. That was her punishment.”
The commander tried to cover up the incident. He said “Just stop it! Stop asking her what she means! Enough of this! She’s telling you he tried to attack her, what’s there not to understand?”
So you can shoot someone, spit in their face and never get caught. “I think that this determination ‘never to get caught’ really shows that what I’m doing is wrong – so I mustn’t get caught….It means everyone was pretty much aware of what went on there, and that it’s not right.” But soldiers do it all the time.
Another Hebron Sergeant talked about Palestinian children fearing Israeli ones because they threw stones at them as they passed by. And their parents said nothing. It became routine. “Since the one (throwing stones) was Jewish and the other Palestinian, it seemed all right….And the Palestinian had done nothing. I know this kid’s parents teach him to hate Palestinians. I’m a Jewish Israeli soldier, and I’m supposed to be against the Arabs who are my enemies, (but I think) the Jews are wrong. So wait a minute, no, I have to switch my mind and go on hating Arabs and justifying the Jews. But wait,” it’s not okay.
So “on the one hand you’re angry at your own people for being here….On the other hand, you also hate the Arabs because they kill your buddies and give you a hard time.” So you end up hating everyone. “I’ll swear” and spit at Arabs….it was a cool thing to do. I mean I can’t go around boasting of having arrested anyone, or be proud of having caught a terrorist….But I can spit at them and humiliate and ridicule them.”
Another Hebron Border Patrol Sergeant recalled going on a weapons search mission at 2AM. “So we entered these people’s home, the father opens the door for us, in his robe, and the mother and grandmother and two little kids woke up too….The kids were absolutely horrified. The soldiers turned their whole house inside out, I never imagined it like this….you can open a drawer and throw all of its contents out, and leave it like that….The soldiers go on, opening and trashing and trashing just about everything in the house….And we didn’t find a thing. Nothing.”
They spent a hour “and were going nuts because (we) were certain, (we) had information, I don’t know what, (we) were confident (we) were going for a find. So (we) trashed and trashed and left not one thing in its place. Then we went on to the second house, and I couldn’t understand why we do it this way. And that was the first moment I realized why we are looked at like that, and why we are so hated. You enter in the most disgusting manner, without a drop of humanity….And the owner keeps pleading, saying don’t do this to me….I just wanted to get out of there, just get out.” When the men entered, they kicked the father in front of the kids.
A Hebron Sergeant told of an Israeli girl who saw an Arab walk by so “she grabbed this huge rock and ran toward him, leapt and boom! She banged his head with it….And this man was just an old man walking along the street. Then she started yelling: ‘Yuck, his blood is all over me, so sickening!’ (Then a soldier) charged at him (for yelling at the girl) and punched him as though he was threatening (her). I stood there in absolute shock.”
A Hebron Medical Corp Lieutenant recalled cases where Palestinians were denied aid. “In Hebron, on the seam-line when a Palestinian got hit, the first procedure was to summon the Red Crescent….The medics of Kiryat Arba – Hebron do not approach Palestinians to give them aid.” Once, she acted on her own initiative, spoke to the division medical officer in charge, “and he yelled at me, no way! We don’t confirm such events. So I still activated MDA Kiryat Arba, sent them in after all, in other words lied to them and said it was authorized, and yes, go on, take the guy in. I got yelled at on every possible echelon later on….The division medical officer (told her) to forget it. Who cares….Yes….Right. He’s a doctor.”
A Seam Zone First Sergeant told about women combatants slapping Palestinian women. “There were two of them who really enjoyed hitting out. But the guys, too, had no problem slapping women. If she would scream they would (say) shut up and slap her. It was routine violence there. Again, there were guys who didn’t, but everyone knew about this.”
A Border Patrol First Sergeant was teamed “with some guy, we stopped someone (and) the soldier said: What are you laughing at? The guy was not laughing, (but the soldier said) I’m not a Border patrolman, let’s fight. Obviously the guy is not going to hit him back, only pleaded and pleaded with him to let him go.” The soldier kept taunting him to punch back, so “he pick(ed) up his rifle and start(ed) using it to hit the guy….This was routine there.”
A Gaza Erez Crossing Sergeant described it, saying “It’s constructed as a vast compound with lots of concrete ledges, but not too high. The checkpoint is huge. It’s a giant installation you can see from very far off….you can always see the Palestinians moving around….It seemed to me like a jail….there are these metal pens, with people, soldiers scattered along several strategic points. Everyone’s armed of course….It’s all metal doors, a highly upgraded checkpoint as it were, hardly any human contact at all.”
Palestinians queue up when the gates open at 3AM. “There’s already crowding around one AM, they’ll wait and quarrel and all. Because they’re not told how many will be allowed in….Back in the good old days….tens of thousands came through….(Now) there are no humanitarian work permits….In short, regulations have gotten much tighter since I got there.”
A Gaza Education Corp Lieutenant said she was shocked by a video showing “some old Palestinian farmer who got too close to the (Separation) fence, and you simply see the tank shell coming and blowing him up….It doesn’t make sense and it’s inhuman.” There were many other cases like it. “Cases where Palestinians didn’t mean to infiltrate or anything like that, as it came out in inquiries after the fact, but were shot” for being under suspicion….it looked to me like some kind of video game, you’re not really seeing a human being.” It’s like “it’s not happening.”
A Golani Brigade Sergeant said she attended a class to learn some Arabic, basic things like “open fire instructions (and) Stop! Stop or I shoot!” Five minutes “into class time, a guy stands up (and said to the instructor): “Listen, cutie, forget it….We don’t talk. We shoot. Then maybe we talk.” They see no one as innocent, so all Palestinians are fair game.
A Menashe Regional Brigade First Sergeant spoke of abused detainees brought in, soldiers guarding them, ordering them around, kicking them. “There were two detainees shackled, blindfolded, the works, surrounded by at least fifteen guys who were harassing them…It’s fine, because they’re Arabs so they’re terrorists.”
An Erez Crossing Sergeant said “It’s terrible at the checkpoint….Palestinians came with bags of clothes, they’d be ripped….women are stripped” to their undergarments by female soldiers but not gently….they do this all the time.” Some are entirely stripped. It’s very degrading.
A Qalandiya Checkpoint Sergeant called her checkpoint duty “very shocking. I had a hard time….I felt uneasy from the first, found it difficult to think about.”
A Hebron Sergeant said “one girl….slapped an Arab. He answered (her) rudely, so (she) gave him a slap in the face….the mere thought was just shocking. Other girls said they had done it and threatened them. One aimed her rifle at his face and coked it right there. I was shocked that they were my friends….guys do it often, cocking their rifles while threatening children, grownups, everyone.”
A Gaza Lieutenant said that to cope you have to see humans as not quite human. “It means if you want to function, you have to protect yourself somehow. You mustn’t feel too much. You have to be quite mechanical, quite detached. So I don’t think (of Palestinians) as bad people or beasts” or our soldiers who abuse them. “I don’t justify it for a second, but I think I would go crazy under such circumstances….I can imagine why a soldier might….beat up people, go home and beat up the whole world….because they’ve lost it much more than we have….They’re constantly in this state of tremendous anger that is directed toward anything.”
A Hebron Sergeant said a soldier on this post attacked an Arab boy and broke his leg. “I don’t know who, and I don’t know how it happened, but I do know that two of our guys got him into a Border Patrol jeep, and hardly two weeks later this kid was moving around with his two arms and two legs in plaster casts, in a wheelchair.”
A Hebron Medical Corp Lieutenant described her experience as “Lots of blood. A nightmare….I only wanted to erase everything. Later, after a while, it began to pop up again.” In the Territories, it’s “a different world, different rules, different manners.”
An Erez Crossing Sergeant said inspections are frustrating and scary. “I know the Border patrolmen take out their frustrations on the Palestinians. They are armed, it’s the easiest way out. The slave with the scepter, kind of. I mean, you have the gun, the Palestinian doesn’t. Usually he’s holding stuff because he’s been at the checkpoint since 2 in the morning, and he hasn’t seen his wife for three months already and he can’t even remember his kids’ names.” Still the Border patrolmen make fun of them behind their backs. And they humiliate them and tear their belongings. “I think it’s horrible. I thought it was horrible then, too.”
A Hebron Sergeant said “we were the good guys. The Border patrolmen were the bad guys. They would settle accounts in a big way. As for hitting – they were on jeeps the whole time, less on foot, so they would simply take people into their jeeps and beat them to a pulp. You’d see a jeep pass by and a person thrown out of it suddenly….thrown into the street…..They would check someone right next to me and do it brutally….They were about dominance.”
A Seam Zone First Sergeant said another patrolwoman with her talked about women combatants being more violent than men. Some kids came along with bags, and she called them out to come over. “She opened their bags and found this kind of fly-swat inside. So she (told them to run) up and down the hill in ten seconds. They’re scared….So they ran (but she) hit him with that fly-swat. The kid began to cry.”
But she kept harassing them and threatened to beat them up. Finally she let them go. Guys did it, too, so she asked them “why are you beating up this kid….treat him like a human being so he won’t want to blow himself up on you tomorrow. There were guys who did listen, not everyone wants to beat up Arabs. But there was definitely that atmosphere and it was totally routine.
An Erez Crossing Sergeant explained ways of harassing Palestinians, such as saying: “You want to pass tomorrow? Bring me a pack of cigarettes” or food or something else to take from them. “It was the norm.”
“You go down to the checkpoint and your bullet-proof vests have “Death to Arabs” written on them. “Stuff like that.” You do all sorts of things to humiliate them and brag “about all the loot” you bring back. “The Arabs are the enemy. The more you make them suffer, the better.”
A Hebron Sergeant said “There was this one single time I harassed an Arab brutally….There were lots of soldiers punishing Arabs,” making them do all sorts of things, including threatening them with pointed weapons or making them wait for hours.
A Jenin Sergeant said she was with her squadron-commander who shot a kid riding a bicycle near the Separation Wall. Other soldiers killed another boy when he got scared and ran away. She related other incidents of firing rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators. She herself was on standby and didn’t shoot.
Other incidents involved shackling, blindfolding and slapping boys who threw stones, then “dry them out in the sun.” Property was also destroyed and concussion grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets used freely against demonstrators.
A Hebron Sergeant said some commanders and soldiers talk about human dignity, “that it’s really important. But when it comes to facts on the ground, it’s all bullshit. People behaved as they pleased.” They disregard people, shove them, curse them, harass them in other ways.
A Hebron Sergeant said soldiers’ “brutality comes out in the toughest situations. And I think the Border patrolmen I lived with for half a year were people whose very language is violence. They also communicate violently with each other. Verbal aggression, plenty of dirty talk (and) that’s how they behave….Whether it’s the Palestinians or each other….The rules are just for appearances. There are no rules.”
Whenever there’s an incident investigation, it ends with no conclusion. Some of the things gotten away with are awful because you’re in a position to do anything you want – harassing, beatings, shootings, anything, including against children. “It’s horrifying,” but goes on all the time.
Abuses in Times of War
The above abuses happened during the second Intifada. During wars they’re far worse. On February 3, The (London) Independent’s Donald Macintyre quoted an Israeli commander saying: “We rewrote the rules of war for Gaza.” As a result, civilians were freely targeted. People posing no threat were shot or attacked by drones or helicopters. A junior officer said the policy followed the 2006 Lebanon war to assure “literally zero risk to the soldiers.”
It was Israel’s Dahiya Doctrine, named after the Beirut suburb the IDF destroyed in the conflict. The idea was to treat civilians the same as combatants, an approved plan according to Northern Command General Gabi Eisenkot at the time. Southern Command General Yoav Galant used the strategy to “send Gaza decades into the past,” with no regard for the safety or welfare of civilians or the entire infrastructure of the territory. Major General Giora Eiland said it was to destroy “the national infrastructure and (inflict) intense suffering among the population.”
Dahiya tactics were central to the overall war strategy to inflict mass civilian deaths, injuries, destruction, and human suffering on 1.5 million Gazans. Israel waged its most brutal offensive since its 1948 War of Independence. Still under siege, Gaza is prevented from recovering, and its people keep suffering.
Israel alone requires men and women to perform military duty. In February 1948, all 19 – 25 year old married and single males became obliged to serve. In August 1948, conscription of single and married women without children became mandatory – to “tak(e) care of the (IDF’s) special needs (serving as) nurses, signal operators, drivers, clerks, quartermasters, cooks, and more.” Additional roles today include intelligence, technology, combat support, and as volunteer combatants.
During Israel’s War of Independence, women performed combat service. Afterward, they were exempted until the late 1990s. In 2001, its first female fighter pilot graduated. In the 2006 Lebanon war, 14% of female reserves saw combat duty, many as medics.
During the British Mandate, the Haganah operated as a paramilitary force. In May 1948, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) replaced it, comprised of the Army, Air Force and small Navy.
Today, Israel’s 1986 National Defence Service Law is the legal basis for conscription. It requires all Israeli citizens and permanent residents to serve, both men and women. However, the Ministry of Defence has discretion under Article 36 to exempt non-Jews, except the Druze. Israeli Arabs may volunteer, but they’re not encouraged, and very few do. Reserve service is also required up to age 51 for men and 24 for women.
Exemptions are possible for reasons of:
— educational requirements;
— religion (Orthodox Jews are exempted);
— family considerations;
— married or pregnant women or those with children;
— persons convicted of crimes;
— the undereducated until they complete at least eight years of school; and
— other considerations at the Defense Ministry’s discretion.
Israeli law rejects conscientious objection rights for men and only partly accepts them for women on the basis of religion. Those refusing to serve may be prosecuted and imprisoned.
Yet, as a UN Charter signatory, Israel is obliged to comply with the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Its Article 18 guarantees everyone “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” So does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights under Article 18 stating the same thing.
By rejecting conscientious objection and requiring those claiming it to serve, Israel violates international law and a fundamental human right afforded everyone under it. As a result, under Article 35 (a) (2) of the National Defence Service Law:
— failure to fulfill an obligated duty is punishable by up to two years imprisonment;
— evading military service is subject to five years in prison;
— refusing to perform reserve duties calls for up to a 56 day sentence, renewable if the objector refuses repeatedly;
— helping someone avoid military service is punishable by a fine and up to two years in prison; and
— disobeying call-up orders means facing up to five years imprisonment, although sentences rarely exceed 12 months.
Convictions are usually for the following reasons:
— refusal to obey an order;
— absence without leave;
— desertion; or
— refusal to be mobilized.
Continued refusal can mean discipline or court-martial, and repeat offenders face re-imprisonment, in violation of Article 14, paragraph 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stating:
“No one shall be liable to be tried or punished again for an offence for which he (or she) has already been finally convicted or acquitted in accordance with the law and penal procedure of each country.”
Of course, international laws, including the UN Charter, Geneva and Hague Conventions, and Nuremberg Principles prohibit premeditated aggressive wars (and participation in them), defining crimes of war and against humanity, exempting no nation ever, under all conditions without exceptions.
Under Nuremberg’s Principle VI, “crimes against peace” were defined as:
— “planning, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances;” also participation in a plan or conspiracy to commit these violations;
War crimes included, but were not limited to:
— “murder….ill-treatment of prisoners of war….killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity.”
Crimes against humanity included:
— “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts done against any civilian population, or persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds when such acts are done or such persecutions are carried on in execution of or in connection with any crime against peace or any war crime.”
Throughout their history, Israel and America committed grievous crimes of war and against humanity, yet neither country has been held accountable under international law so they repeatedly commit them with impunity. So far, that is, until their eventual day of reckoning because things that can’t go on forever won’t.
Stephen Lendman is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization. He lives in Chicago and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and listen to the Lendman News Hour on RepublicBroadcasting.org Monday – Friday at 10AM US Central time for cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on world and national issues. All programs are archived for easy listening.