Demolishing Democracy: How Annexationism Is Bulldozing Israeli Institutions

[On January 27, 2020, just before the release of the Kushner Plan, J Street’s Debra Shushan interviewed former IDF (Isrtaeli Defense Forces) commander Yehuda Shaul, founder of the Breaking the Silence movement aimed at facilitating IDF veteran’s confronting and speaking about the true nature of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. This heavily condensed transcript of Shaul’s presentation provides essential highlights of his talk and answers to questions from the audience. The entire program may be viewed here.]

I grew up in what you would call the political right in Israel. I did my high school in a settlement. I joined the IDF and served the typical three years. I was an infantry soldier and commander. Out of two years [in the field] I was fourteen months in Hebron. I started having questions about things we were doing, but you are a soldier, and there is no real time for a thousand questions. The most important thing is this bond of comradeship of the combat unit. It doesn’t really matter what you think politically or morally. That’s the way the military works.

It was only towards the end of my service [I thought about the world around me from the perspective of a civilian rather than the perspective of a combat soldier. I could no longer justify most of the actions I took part in. The ways I had justified doing what we were doing stopped making sense. That’s when I felt I could not go through life without doing something about it. I turned to my comrades [and] found that we all felt the same. That’s how Breaking the Silence was born. [We realized that] people back home did not know what we were doing, [did not understand] what “doing the job” means.

[On my leaving the service in 2004] we opened a photo and video exhibition in Tel Aviv … and found ourselves in a hell of a huge mess. It was the first time a group of veterans organized themselves in this way. We were invited to present the exhibition in the Israeli Knesset–something that is unthinkable today–[and were joined by others from other units]. Here we are, more that 1,200 men and women who served.

The biggest lie in Israeli politics [is] the perception that everybody serves … but the truth is that not everybody serves. Put aside Palestinian Israelis, ultra-Orthodox, religious women, health issues, mental health, 40% of those who are supposed to be called do not serve. The second thing is that the majority of the army is not in combat. Hundreds of thousands [have served] in combat positions from ’67 to today, but it is much less than we think. Add to that the fact that soldiers don’t talk for various reasons [including fear of being judged]. The most important thing is that silence is a human epidemic. It’s very easy to look through a window at a different army, far from home, as we’re doing here, as humans putting on guns and helmets and becoming monsters. For an Israeli father or mother to accept that this is what we do is to accept that your son, your daughter, who is there now or who was there, your husband who was there or is in reserve duty, because it doesn’t end with the draft, this is your reality; so it just makes sense that the walls of silence would be higher.

When you think of occupation, you probably have an image of a soldier with a machine gun standing at post or a checkpoint but that is actually not military occupation. Military occupation means that everything you think of as government is military. Planning, judiciary–the Palestinians are under complete rule by the Israeli army.

If I look at all the testimonies of the occupation, I would divide them into three categories: [1] cases of soldiers breaking the rules of engagement: beating up detainees, looting. There is no dispute that these are immoral, illegal, problematic, wrong. Here the only dispute is how common they are. We argue they are more common than the official side would want you to believe. [2] Cases of illegal, immoral orders [from higher up].  One example from the second intifada was an order for the execution of everyone at a Palestinian police checkpoint; fifteen Palestinian policemen were killed, executed. [3] Official army tactics that are not necessarily illegal but definitely immoral. Example: What we call in the military, “making our presence felt.”  You break into a random house, wake up the family, search the place, noisily go back into the street and break into another house to create a sense or feeling of being chased or of being pursued in the Palestinian population. This is a tactic because the only way to rule a people forever is to make them feel fear.

[To understand Israeli politics and annexationism you must understand that] I don’t believe we have an Israeli right, center, left. The occupation is not a right-wing project but an Israeli project. I don’t care if you are neoliberal or a socialist, [I care] only what do you think about our relationship to the Palestinians. I divide the Israeli political sphere into four camps. The driving principle of the annexation camp is that all the land between the river and the sea needs to be formally ours. They want to copy the South African model of apartheid. A second camp is the control camp, driven by the national security concept, that wants Palestinians under direct Israeli control. The most progressive in the camp wing wants [Palestinian] state-minus, not a [truly sovereign] state; the conservative wing wants municipality-minus, more or less. For Netanyahu it is about population swap rather than land swap. The third camp is where I am, the equality camp in which equality is the driving factor. Some want two states and some a single secular democracy. The fourth camp wants a pure clean ethnic state from which all Palestinians must be evicted.

This is Israeli politics. Deal with it. For 52 years politics has been dominated by the clash between the annexation camp and the control camp. The control camp usually dominates Israeli politics. What people call the drift of Israel to right is the complete eradication of the equality camp from the political sphere. Labor did not mention occupation once on the recent election. A majority of the cabinet favors annexation without granting rights. The control camp is seriously challenged by the annexation camp for the first time.

I say 85% of the [reason for the change is Donald] Trump. We are on a dangerous road. Annexing only the settlement blocks [is the annexation camp’s worst nightmare]. Ganz is the priest of the control camp. [Once the annexation takes place and apartheid is formalized the pretense that one can distinguish between Israel and occupation becomes impossible.] 

I fear [that rather than openly call for annexation, which would be easy to oppose, the Kushner plan will call what is really annexation, a Palestinian] State giving to Palestinians fragments of fragments of the West Bank. They’ll say “two states.” Four “Trump parameters” are very clear: (1) permanence of settlements; [under] that condition there is no Palestinian state; (2) permanent security control of Israel from the river to the sea. That means permanent occupation; (3) trying to sell us the status quo, the reality on the ground, as the normalized solution; (4) not looking at Palestinians as a nation, as a group of people that have rights, political rights, self-determination, etc., just like us Israeli Jews.

This is an attempt to destroy the two state paradigm. A strong rejection is a necessity from the [U.S.] Democrats, from the E.U., from the Arab states, from progressives in Israel, We need to say very loud, “I believe in the rights of Jews to self determination, but I refuse to strip my Palestinian neighbors of the exact same right. That is undermining my [own] legitimacy. That is unacceptable. Palestinians should have everything we aspire to ourselves.

Israel controls both sides of the Green Line as one state but two regimes, a nominal democracy on one side and a military occupation on the other, with the extension of Israeli law to settlers in the occupied territory (a Chinese wall). That was the reality up to a few years ago. Now they are dismantling the Chinese wall brick brick by brick, annexation by a million cuts. Israeli laws and regulation to the occupied territories. Sovereignty is gradually extended until we are in a one-state [discriminatory] regime. We call Abu Mazin a president but he cannot drive from Ramallah to Nablus without a permit from nineteen-and-a-half-year-old officer in the civil administration of Israel. The level of democracy in Israel will go down to ten or five percent. The assault on democracy in Israel is about preparing Israeli institutions for the annexation. An independent judiciary won’t swallow it, an independent civil society will criticize it, an academia with free expression and thought is not good [for it], free media is not good [for it, etc.]. In order to formalize apartheid, it is not enough to crush Palestinians, you must transform Israel. About a year and a half ago the Israeli parliament passed the “Breaking the Silence Law” giving the Minister of Education the right to create a blacklist of individuals and organizations banned from taking part in educational activities in schools or on school premises. In February 2017 [on orders from] the highest level, physical attacks, cyberattacks, sending moles under cover to try to spread paranoia and mistrust in the ranks, using the legal system to try to shut us down. For Palestinians in the occupied territories it way worse, Visiting Theresa May in London Netanyahu told the press “I’ve asked the Prime Minister to stop funding Breaking the Silence and other subversive organizations.” Great Britain does not fund us. This is not the beginning of the occupation bleeding into Israel. We are just seeing the consequences now.

We need to stop talking about interests and politics and start talking about values. Netanyahu has a vision. If we don’t have a spine and care about the direction of the wind rather than what we believe we shall lose. No, we have a clear idea. I want to live in a state of Israel which is a democratic country where everyone is equal under the law. I want to be a soldier in a military of defense and not of oppression and occupation. Painting every criticism of Israeli policy as antisemitism is a means of exporting [the war over the annexation project] outside of Israel. Then we are not only taking over our democracy, but your democracy. For the settlers their political allies here are ideological. Our allies here have been talking but not doing, not implementing. We have not seen our allies pursuing an end of occupation. I want you not to be shy and apologetic in taking a principled position against occupation.

There is no equality camp without everyone who believes in equality. More Palestinians believe in equality than Israeli Jews because privileged people are loathe to give up their privileges. There is no equality camp without Palestinian Israelis. Trying to do that is like a civil rights movement in America without African-Americans. To change the direction of the country, we also need international actors. 

There are several [reasons why more soldiers won’t] break the silence. Part of it is resources, but there are different levels of silence one must break. First is standing in front of a mirror and understanding what we have done as individuals. Any army in the world that gets these orders will behave like the IDF if not worse. There is no moral way of carrying out an immoral mission. 

Will ending the occupation bring peace? I don’t know. What I do know is that rockets from Gaza didn’t start in 2005. The regular talking points “we left Gaza” [are hollow]. A child born in Gaza now will get their ID number from computers in the Israeli army. Is that called “We left Gaza?” Another thing I know is that the only way I would allow you to argue that what we are doing there is about security is if tomorrow afternoon all the settlers are in buses coming back to Israel, and we leave the army there. As long as we continue to build and expand [settlements] what we are telling Palestinians, us, and the world is that this is not security; this is a colonial project. My older brother served in an eighteen-year occupation of south Lebanon. We didn’t have settlements (although we tried). I will still argue to end the occupation, but at least then it will be an honest conversation about [defense]. I am not a pacifist, but the kind of country I would be willing to kill and die for would not be an occupying power. In the war for independence 1% of the Jewish population died and we didn’t blink an eye. 

Israel is my home and no have no choice but to fight until we prevail. I don’t believe it is hopeless. I believe we didn’t try enough, and it takes time. There is a saying that I’ll freely translate, “If it’s not for you to finish the job, that doesn’t mean you should take time off.” The driving force has to be ending what we see as wrong.

[Yehuda Shaul’s prersentation and answers as transcribed, condensed, and edited by Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D., Minaret of Freedom Institute]

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