Breaking the Silence – new testimony from women soldiers

What has been revealed is not new, and it is not a surprise.  It is no longer a shock, but it is still sickening.

There are many who will, nonetheless, argue that this is distorted and not true — who will hurl accusations and denunciations, and try to damage those who collect this testimony as well as those who report it.

But, these are stories that have been told, and must be faced: the Israeli group of veteran members of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), Breaking the Silence has just published a new collection of testimony from women — soldiers, military policewomen, and female members of the Border Police — recounting what these women say is routine, habitual, “normal” and expected mistreatment of Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and at the Erez crossing into the Gaza Strip.

According to an article published on the Israeli YNet website, the testimony shows that female soldiers are not more “sensitive” than their male counterparts.

To the contrary, and by their own testimony, the women have sometimes been quite remarkably cruel.

Breaking the Silence says, in an introduction to this new collection of testimonies, that its goal is “to stimulate public debate about the moral price that Israeli society as a whole has been paying in which young soldiers face a civilian population on an everyday basis and control its live” — in other words, about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.

Breaking the Silence states that “In contrast to widely-held beliefs, the mosaic of testimonies that only continues to expand proves that we are not dealing with a fringe phenomenon that touches only the bad apples of the military, but a gradual erosion of ethics in the society as a whole … This is an urgent call to Israeli society and its leaders to wake up and evaluate anew the results of our actions“.

This 136-page report comes just as the Israeli Government reported to UNSG BAN Ki-Moon on the results of the Israeli military internal investigations (some of which are still continuing) into the conduct of its forces during a massive Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip just over a year ago.

Some testimony collected by Breaking the Silence about what happened during the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza was included in the Goldstone report, commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, which presented nearly 600 pages of collected evidence, and called on both Israel and the Palestinians to conduct their own impartial and independent investigations into what happened.

Haaretz reported today that “In the report that Israel handed to the UN on Friday, it emphasized that its system of investigating alleged war crimes is comparable to the systems adopted by other democratic nations. ‘To date’, the Israeli report states, ‘the IDF has launched investigations into 150 separate incidents arising from the Gaza Operation. Of the 150 incidents, so far 36 have been referred for criminal investigation. Criminal investigators have taken statements from almost 100 Palestinian complainants and witnesses, along with approximately 500 IDF soldiers and commanders’.” This Haaretz report is published here.

[A few days ago, Haaretz reported that “Israel’s response to the UN is expected to include a progress report on the IDF’s
investigations into 140 incidents that occurred during Operation Cast Lead. Of these, 35 were investigated or are being investigated by the IDF’s Criminal Investigations Division. About 8 Gazans testified at the Erez checkpoint in connection to the incidents, with the
mediation of international humanitarian organizations. In the wake of the Goldstone report, which dealt with more than 30 incidents, the IDF initiated 11 CID investigations. Two of them turned out to be different reports of the same incident and were closed when the Military Advocate General’s Corp concluded that no crime was committed. The other nine cases are still being investigated”. That Haaretz report was published here.
]

Since publishing testimonies from soldiers who participated in the unprecedented Gaza military operation that lasted from 27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009, Breaking the Silence has been subjected to criticism because it operates, in part, on funding from foreign donors — the innuendo is that the funding comes from outsiders who have an anti-Israel agenda.

The Goldstone report itself has collected a significant number of reactions of outrage from writers and commentators around the world eager to defend Israel, and in support of statements from Israeli military commanders defending the IDF as the “most moral army in the world”.

Breaking the Silence states right up front that, indeed, the European Union and the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation have sponsored this new collection of testimonies.

These testimonies are the first with a specific gender perspective, gathered from direct interviews with female soldiers.

The YNet article, published Friday 29 January, reported that the stories from women soldiers “include systematic humiliation of Palestinians, reckless and cruel violence, theft, killing of innocent people and cover-up”.

YNet added that “In the framework of the latest project, Breaking the Silence gathered the testimonies of more than 50 female soldiers who served in various posts in the territories … ‘The girls have greater difficulties in telling the story, because they’re the minority to begin with’, the organization’s director Dana Golan says … ‘We discovered that the girls try to be even more violent and brutal than the boys, just to become one of the guys’, she said”.

Here are a few highlights from testimonies reported in the YNet article:

    “Some of the gravest stories come from Hebron. A Sachlav female soldier [Sachlav Military Police are a unit of the Army, or IDF] female soldier spoke of one of the company’s hobbies: Toy guns. ‘Those plastic pellets really hurt… we had a bunch of those… you’re sitting on guard and ‘tak‘ you fire at a kid, ‘tak‘ – you fire at another kid’ … Some of the testimonies from Hebron deal with the difficult position the soldiers find themselves in, between Palestinians and settlers – who they say are even harder to handle. Some of the female soldiers were shocked with the level of violence the settlers’ children used against the Palestinians. ‘They would throw stones at them, the Jewish kids’, a Nahal female soldier said, ‘and the parents would say anything… you see this every day’ … Doesn’t it seem strange to you that one child throws a stone at another child? ‘Because the one child is Jewish and the other is Palestinians, it’s somehow okay… and it was obvious that there would be a mess afterwards. And you also don’t really know which side you are on…I have to make a switch in my head and keep hating the Arabs and justify the Jews’. Another female Sachlav soldier told the story of the time an eight-year-old settler girl in Hebron decided to bash a stone into the head of a Palestinian adult crossing her passing by her in the street. ‘Boom! She jumped on him, and gave it to him right here in the head… then she started screaming “Yuck, yuck, his blood is on me“. The soldier said the Palestinian then turned in the girl’s direction – a move that was interpreted as a threat by one of the soldiers in the area, who added a punch of his own: ‘And I stood there horrified … the Arab covered the wound with his hand and ran’. She recalled another incident with the same child: ‘I remember she had her brother in the stroller, a baby. She was giving him stones and telling him: ‘Throw them at the Arab’.”
    “Another female soldier’s testimony, who served at the Erez checkpoint, indicates how violence was deeply rooted in the daily routine: ‘There was a procedure in which before you release a Palestinian back into the Strip – you take him inside the tent and beat him … it’s not something you do everyday, but sort of a procedure. I don’t know if they strictly enforced it each and every time … it took me a while to realize that if I release an illegal alien on my end, by the time he gets back to Gaza he will go through hell … two or three hours can pass by the time he gets into the Strip. In the case of the kid, it was a whole night. That’s insane, since it’s a ten minute walk. They would stop them on their way; each soldier would give them a ‘pet’, including the commanders’.”
    ” ‘There’s a sense of violence’, a border policewoman in the Jenin area [in the northern West Bank] said. ‘And yes, it’s boring, so we’d create some action. [In the collection of testimonies, it actually says this: Testimony 16 – “There is still an air of violence and yes, ‘things get boring so let’s invent an incident.’ Breaking the Silence: What do you mean?
    Soldier: I don’t know, make up an incident. Get on the radio and report: Stones have been thrown at me on this street. And then you detain someone and start questioning him. Eventually he’s released, or not, depending on the person who invented this incident, if he’d identify him or not. There was this (Border) policewoman who’d say, I’m bored, let’s say someone is throwing stones at me. She’d be asked, who? “I don’t know, some two guys in grey shirts, I didn’t see exactly.” So two guys in grey shirts would be caught, and she’d be asked: “These guys?” Naturally, when they’re caught, they’re beaten up too. “These guys?” “No, I don’t think so.” Well, there you have a whole incident. People got beaten up. And nothing had happened there that day”.
    “A female Seam Line [meaning, right next to The Wall — now there are Seam Line areas on both sides of The Wall] Border Guard spoke of the chase after illegal aliens: ‘In half an hour you can catch 30 people without any effort’. Then comes the question of what should be done with those who were caught – including women, children, and elderly. ‘They would have them stand, and there’s the well-known Border Guard song (in Arabic): ‘One hummus, one bean, I love the Border Guard’ – they would make them sing this. Sing, and jump. Just like they do with recruits… The same thing only much worse. And if one of them would laugh, or if they would decide someone was laughing, they would punch him. Why did you laugh? Smack… It could go on for hours, depending on how bored they are. A shift is eight hours long, the times must be passed somehow’.”
    “Even small children did not escape arbitrary acts of violence, said a Border Guard female officer serving near the separation fence: ‘We caught a five-year-old…can’t remember what he did…we were taking him back to the territories or something, and the officers just picked him up, slapped him around and put him in the jeep. The kid was crying and the officer next to me said ‘don’t cry’ and started laughing at him. Finally the kid cracked a smile – and suddenly the officer gave him a punch in the stomach. Why? ‘Don’t laugh in my face’ he said’.”
    ” ‘Crossing the checkpoint, it’s like another world… Palestinians walk with trolleys on the side of the road, with wagons, donkeys… so the Border Guards take a truck with the remains of food and start throwing it at them… cottage cheese, rotten vegetables… it was the most appalling thing I experienced in the territories’.”
    “Other testimonies raise concerns as to the procedures of opening fire in the territories, particularly crowd control weapons. A female Border Guard detailed to protocol she called ‘dismantling rubber’ – the dismantling of rubber bullets from clusters of three to single bullets, and peeling the rubber off of them. She also said that, despite the clear orders to fire in the air or at the demonstrators’ feet, it was common procedure to fire at the abdomen. A female Border Guard officer in Jenin spoke of an incident in which a nine-year-old Palestinian, who tried to climb the fence, failed, and fled – was shot to death: ‘They fired… when he was already in the territories and posed no danger. The hit was in the abdomen area, they claimed he was on a bicycle and so they were unable to hit him in the legs’. But the soldier was most bewildered by what happened next between the four soldiers present: ‘They immediately got their stories straight… An investigation was carried out, at first they said it was an unjustified killing… In the end they claimed that he was checking out escape routes for terrorists or something… and they closed the case’.”

The YNet article on the new collection of testimonies is here.


In addition, these accounts are taken from the report itself:

    Testimony 10
    Name: *** – Rank: First Sergeant – Unit: Oketz (search dogs) – Location: General

    Breaking the Silence: You spoke earlier about the attitude of soldiers at the checkpoint.
    Soldier: I’m an outsider there, since I don’t do routine security patrols, I don’t do eight-hour shifts at the checkpoint, I don’t do all of that. So in a way I’m more objective at the checkpoint, I regard myself less as someone who’s really getting burnout from being there so much and is sick of it all, seeing all that really takes place at the checkpoint, sees more Arabs and responds accordingly. There were many guys there, especially at checkpoints with Border Patrolmen and such and you’d see how they talk. You’d tell them: Okay they’re Arabs, but still these are humans… Total disrespect. They’d make fun of them, harass them.

    Breaking the Silence: For example?
    Soldier:Nothing specific, just a general dismissing

    Breaking the Silence: Was your dog ever used to humiliate Palestinians?
    Soldier:To humiliate them? I was told to “come, scare them.” I didn’t agree, it seemed unreasonable to me. If it’s just to stand there at the checkpoint, say after the dog has worked really hard and it’s tired, and I know it wouldn’t smell anything, and still I stand by for deterrence. But not to deliberately scare Arabs.

    Breaking the Silence: I know that being inspected by a dog is humiliating.
    Soldier:No, it wasn’t… The problem is that people were very sensitive about dogs. They said, I’ll open up the whole car for you, just don’t bring the dog in. Because they (Muslims) see it as a really unclean animal. But we wouldn’t use dogs on the people themselves, we’d just check their belongings. After all, it’s just a car, what’s a car? I mean, just the vehicle. Not their person. And we’d try not to dirty up stuff, if possible, inside the car. Still, it’s an inspection you have to carry out. (…) Or, say, until I realized this, there were vehicles where soldiers would tell me, “Go on, check it.” And there wasn’t too much stuff inside. I said, Listen… “Check it, check it.” And it was just someone the soldiers wanted to harass, so they used me for this and it took me a while until I realized this. At first I couldn’t figure out why they were sending me to these people.

    Testimony 22
    Name: *** – Rank: Sergeant – Unit: Sachlav – Location: Hebron

    Soldier:Our girls got rather polarized, on both sides of the spectrum. Some came out and said plainly: ‘Enough, I’m no combatant, I’m cut out to be a secretary,’ and that’s what they became. There was one who was re-assigned as a driver and was just driving the company Jeep. She didn’t do guard duty, she handled no one, she was always there in the Jeep with the commanders. Others went psycho, and became worse, tougher than the guys.

    Breaking the Silence: What does that mean?
    Soldier: An Arab says something to her that he shouldn’t, for example – she calls some four guys from her company to come handle him. A Safari-load of guys comes down to beat him to a pulp, and then she detains the Arab.

    Breaking the Silence: Do you recall a specific incident?
    Soldier: I’ll tell you an interesting story. I was standing in the post and we were about to be replaced, one of the girls there was very extreme in her views and stuff. And it was this time, I don’t remember exactly why but we were on alert, with a bullet in the chamber. We had to be on standby with a bullet in the chamber the whole time. Gun cocked, bullet in the chamber and a finger next to the trigger. Not on the trigger. And then there was this 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. He tried to attack me.” We look at him and he’s shot in the belly, and we tell her – I mean
    he has a bullet hole in his stomach – we ask her: What did he do? How did he attack you? What do you mean he tried to attack you? The soldier who was there with her was all confused and didn’t know what to say: “Whatever she says, whatever she says.” Something like that. This all happened when I was already there for quite a while. And she told some story about her 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 just doesn’t add up. And what happened to that other soldier that he’s so afraid to talk? Then there were inquiries and stuff. Apparently she had asked to see his ID and he approached to hand it to her and he got too close
    – that’s what came out in the last briefing we had. She then shoved him off with her rifle and a bullet shot out right in his belly. Now, first thing we hear, instead of ‘Oh no! What have I done!’ – we hear her saying “He tried to attack me.” This girl finally admitted he really got too close to her, and the bullet was already in the barrel and she shoved him away in the belly so he got shot in the belly.

    Breaking the Silence: She admitted it?
    Soldier: Yes. Eventually, at the inquiries she did. And she was not prosecuted, I think. She left that company. She was kicked out. Yes, she was re-assigned to the Military Police. That was her punishment.

    Breaking the Silence: What happened to this person?
    Soldier: I don’t know. He was driven away in a Palestinian ambulance… This incident shocked me. A girl shoots a guy in the belly and the first thing she says is ‘he attacked me.’ What did the guy attack you with? His ID? He was holding his ID, what did he attack you with? (…) I remember that right after that soldier shot the Arab in the belly and we all got there, I kept asking her: What do you mean, what did he try to do to you? And everyone – at some point suddenly the commander who was with me, who got there very quickly, said to me: “What do you want? What is this? Just stop it! Stop asking her what she means! Enough of this!  what’s there not to understand?” And I said, okay.… That was the greatest fear, to end up in jail because of them, because of the Arabs. I’ll go to jail because of them? So I’ll shoot a guy in the belly, I’ll spit in his face, but 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 pretty much says that, I think. It means everyone was pretty much aware of what went on there, and that it’s not right.

    Breaking the Silence: But people did it all the time.
    Soldier:Yes.”

The YNet article on the new collection of testimonies is here, and the full document of new testimonies from women soldiers collected by the Israeli organization Breaking the Silence is here.

There are more stories published in this testimony — three more of them can be followed below:

Testimony 49
Name: *** – Rank: Sergeant – Unit: Sachlav – Location: Hebron

Soldier: There’s this toy pistol that shoots these tiny pellets, right? It shoots these plastic pellets that really hurt you? Soldiers would call a kid over, cock a weapon in his face and say: get me that kind of pistol. Not even ask, order him. The kids would get us these pistols. You’d give the kid 15 shekels and he’d be happy and get you such a gun. Bags of 100 pellets would cost us 3 shekels. We had plenty of these pistols in the company, lots. And it was pretty idiotic of the kids to buy them for us, because
many of the soldiers would then use them on the kids. You’d sit on guard duty and – pop – shoot a kid, pop – shoot a kid.
Breaking the Silence: With these pellets?
Soldier: They really hurt. They’re bad-bad-bad. This went on until a rule was passed in the company to prohibit this. Whoever bought them would be prosecuted. We once had this case where someone jokingly shot a kid with several pellets like that. He called out to the kid and pointed this toy pistol at his head and these two soldiers got their picture taken. Then some time went by, and we were at the post, I was on guard duty with the guy who had played with the kid, and suddenly this ‘witch’ comes to
us, a Palestinian reporter who was really well-known. So she comes to him, calls out to him, I have no idea how she knew his name, she calls to him and shows him his picture pointed that pistol at the Arab kid’s head. She asked him: ‘Where shall I take this, Yedioth or Ma’ariv? Ha’aretz? BBC?’ He went like that with these pictures. And we got back to the company pretty upset that she was going to get him into jail or something. It was a toy gun, and he was sure to end up in jail. He told our commander about this. So they went out, a special patrol, to look for her in Hebron, for this reporter. She was no sucker, and I think she was paid to get those photos,
because they came with the pictures and she wouldn’t have given them. I think they paid her for the pictures. I’m assuming this. They said she handed them over. But surely they wouldn’t have beat her up, she has a big mouth, and just to get those pictures like that, why should she hand them over? She had a gold mine right there. It sounded strange to me, her just handing them over. Perhaps they threatened her. I have no idea, but they came back with the pictures, with all the pictures she had shown us, and it wasn’t publicized anywhere. She didn’t give them just part of it. It was not printed.
Breaking the Silence: And the pictures made the rounds in your company?
Soldier: No. They were destroyed that very day.
Breaking the Silence: What did the company-commander have to say?
Soldier: That if this reaches the army spokesperson, we’ve had it. That’s what the company commander
said.

Testimony 51
Name: *** – Rank: Sergeant – Unit: Erez Crossing – Location: Gaza Strip

Soldier: I was in the battalion war-room, the Erez Crossing Battalion, commanding seven companies, which is a lot of soldiers. So you get there at 3 o’clock and there are thousands of people waiting, and a soldier yells in Arabic to open the door. It’s a huge iron door. Think about it, it’s nighttime, and cold and stinking and everything there is made of concrete and metal. It’s a horrid place. It looks like, I don’t know how to describe it, horrible. So he yells to open.
Breaking the Silence: And what happens to the people?
Soldier: They all rush in, shoving each other and falling all over each other and running forward to the first checking post. When they run, there are soldiers standing above them with their rifles drawn. In the top position. I was there with my commander.
Breaking the Silence: What ages are these people?
Soldier: Mostly older guys. They don’t get permits when they’re younger. At that time they didn’t get a permit if they were under 24 and without a family. There were these very strict regulations. But these are mostly older men, very poor, tattered clothes, poor. All I remember is that they looked really ragged and terribly poor, they always looked really miserable, holding these plastic bags, with some food for the day. And that’s it. They would all run together and like first come first serve. Then they would start getting checked. Now this checking took place at about three or four posts. At the first one was a soldier facing them with his rifle, telling them to pivot, check them. After that there’s the metal detector, this kind of gate. So the guy has to go through.
Then the soldier tells him to pivot and checks him, he goes through this other metal door to the next stop. There were the crossing inspectors, checking their permits, sitting in the booth, and being shown the permits and magnetic cards. And that’s where all the jokes took place. The permit was this sheet of paper… We had a DCO representative sitting with us all the time, but the Palestinians couldn’t reach him because he was on the Israeli side. So he was there with the DCO and I really don’t know how the Palestinians got their permits issued to them, I think they had to go to the DCO who did it. But he sat beside us and they had no access to him. Good question. Anyway this whole thing with permits was in the hands of the DCO. It’s taken care of by the weakest person around, who is the DCO, and the DCO officer, too, has the lowest rank there, no one pays any attention to him whatsoever. And I remember their commander. He was the weakest authority there. (…)
Breaking the Silence: First station – the gate is opened, Palestinians run some six meters, go through the inspection. Second station – permits. And third station? Now they walk through that iron cage?
Soldier: Yes. They are still in the cage. They have one more check towards the end, I don’t know why, the last one, and then they’re out. Then they come out into the parking lot where the buses wait for them… At Magen 12 , the inspections really and truly include body searches. There was this thing with women, I don’t remember where the women’s inspection booth was. There were often complaints from the women soldiers having to inspect women.
Breaking the Silence: The women (Palestinians) never complained?
Soldier: They must have. But who ever heard them? No, there was a lot of criticism about that, you know, there were all these horror stories about women, and some of it was part of the joking around. Women who are totally concealed and they’re stripped for inspection. They’d take off their shoes and belts and it was a sort of humiliating situation. Yes, as in every checkpoint. We must say there were much fewer women who came there than men, of course. But say at Magen 12 there was a special chamber for inspecting women. Every woman who arrived would be sent right to that room. There they would be totally stripped. I know they were because the women soldiers told about this with real revulsion, like they really had to inspect them, under
their clothes and all.
Breaking the Silence: To what extent were they stripped?
Soldier: I don’t know if they even kept their underpants on. Well, definitely they took everything
off under their dress and all.
Breaking the Silence: And the woman-soldier remained with the woman inside this room?
Soldier: Yes, the soldier would check her inside. They had rubber gloves.

Testimony 95
Name: *** – Rank: First Sergeant – Unit: Border Patrol – Location: Seam Zone

Soldier: Most of the time I saw violence around Katzir, before the fence was constructed, then it was simply routine – emptying the children’s plastic bags and playing with their toys. You know, grabbing the stuff and throwing the toys among us like balls.
Breaking the Silence: The children cried?
Soldier: Constantly. They cried and were terrified. I mean, you couldn’t miss it.
Breaking the Silence: Adults cried too?
Soldier: Sure. To humiliate them. One of our goals was this: I made him cry in front of his child, I made him shit in his pants.
Breaking the Silence: You saw cases of people soiling their pants?
Yes.
Breaking the Silence: Why?
Soldier: Especially at beatings, beating them to a pulp and threats and yelling, where the guy is terrified, especially in front of the kids. They would yell and threaten and terrify so you’re afraid for your kids too. There was this once, again, an adult detained with his child, a tiny kid, about four years old. The child was not hit, but the Patrolman was annoyed that the adult was taking the kid with him so he’d be shown consideration, and told him: You’re taking the kid along so as to be pitied, let’s show you what’s what. And he beat him to a pulp, yelled at him, said: “Why, I could kill you right in front of your kid, maybe you’d feel more…” That’s horrifying. And again, there are lots of ‘respect’ stories.
Breaking the Silence: And he wet his pants for sheer fright?
Soldier: Yes.
Breaking the Silence: In front of his child?
Soldier: Yes. There are lots of honor [sic – maybe it should read ‘horror’] stories like, I made him shit in his pants, I made him do that, such talk was routine, not anything special…
Breaking the Silence: Where would this be told, in the dining hall, in the presence of the officers? Openly in public?
Soldier: Openly in public. I think that if an officer says he didn’t know, he’s lying. At least the senior officers knew. Again, the platoon-commanders dealt with this less, but the company-commander, the deputy company-commander, the operations officer – they encouraged this even in a big way. Again, not directly, they didn’t actually come out and say, go on, beat them up, but there was this legitimacy, otherwise it wouldn’t have happened. Again, the fact is that in Jenin there were less cases of this kind, and not just because there was less work with the population, I think.

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