Photo Essay: Former Israeli soldiers speak out against the occupation

Photo: Violeta Santos-Moura

By Violeta Santos-Moura

Over the last few years, a group of Israeli combat veterans have begun to speak out about their experiences working in the occupied Palestinian territories and challenging Israel’s military occupation. According to former 1st Sergeant Avihai Stollar, Breaking the Silence is trying to show how long-lasting martial rule over a civilian population is “morally wrong and stands at the heart of the conflict.”

Stollar, speaking on behalf of the group, says that the fundamental problem is the assertion — claimed by Israel’s political establishment—that the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories is a security necessity. They also say that, unlike what they believed as 18-year-olds during their compulsory army service, the mission they were sent on was not to “ensure Israelis’ safety.” It was also not “to fight a foreign army.” Instead, they were sent by consecutive Israeli governments to “perpetuate control over the Palestinians’ territories and its civilian population.” The international community considers this illegal.

The group’s overall political aim is clear: to help end the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. To achieve this, they have spent more than 10 years collecting hundreds of testimonies of soldiers who have served in the occupied Palestinian territories.

This series exposes the former soldiers’ personal lives, their political selves and their stories by shedding a light on who these young men and women are, what they did and their place within Israel’s society.

Left: 1st Sergeant Nadav Weiman, Nachal Brigade Reconnaissance Unit, Jenin [West Bank], poses for a photo with a sniper rifle during his military service. [soldier’s personal archive, between 2005–08] Right: Nadav poses for a portrait at the laundry facilities of a shelter for adolescents in Tel Aviv where he works as a youth counselor. Nadav lives with his wife in Tel Aviv. [Violeta Santos-Moura, 2013]

Nadav Weiman is one of the former soldiers who decided to take part in the project and break the silence.

“I had made a conscious decision that I wanted to change the … the occupation, to do things differently. I wanted to be the good soldier who does things the right way and doesn’t abuse people [or do] bad things. And while serving, I thought I was fulfilling my creed. I was nice and did things differently, and so on and so forth,” Weiman says.

“But after I got discharged, I thought about it and realized that … all my courtesy is meaningless because you can’t be an enlightened occupier. You can’t do things “differently.” There’s no good way to break into a house with a weapon in the middle of the night. Any way you do it is bad. If you point a rifle at someone, if you physically or mentally calculate how to catch someone and kill them, there’s nothing good about that.”

Photo: Violeta Santos-Moura, 2011

Two Palestinian women pass by an Israeli army checkpoint in the Palestinian city of Hebron, or Al Khalil in Arabic. It’s the only Palestinian city with a fortified settlement in its center guarded by hundreds of Israeli soldiers.

Left: 1st Sergeant Nadav Bigelman, Nahal Infantry Brigade, 50th Battalion — Hebron and Rantis [West Bank], guards a house his unit would usually take over to rest there, during patrol at the Abu Sneina neighborhood of Hebron. [soldier’s personal archive, between 2007–2010] Right: Nadav in the balcony annex of his student apartment in the northern city of Haifa, where he completed his graduate studies in history. [Violeta Santos-Moura, 2013]

Nadav Bigelman, another former soldier, describes his experience of going on patrol and being told to photograph residents.

“During patrols inside the casbah, we’d do many “mappings.” Mappings mean going into a house we have no intelligence on. We go in to see what’s inside, who lives there. We didn’t search for weapons or things like that.

The mappings were designed to make the Palestinians feel that we are there all the time. We go in, walk around, look around. The commander takes a piece of paper and … makes a drawing of the house, what it looks like inside, and I had a camera. I was told to bring it.

They said: ‘You take all the people, stand them against the wall and take their picture.’ Then [the pictures are] transferred to, I don’t know, the General Security Service, the battalion or brigade intelligence unit, so they have information on what the people look like — what the residents look like.

I’m a young soldier, I do as they say. I take their pictures, a horrible experience in itself, because taking people’s pictures at 3 a.m … It humiliated them, I just can’t describe it. And the interesting thing? I had the pictures for around a month. No one came to get them. No commander asked about them, no intelligence officer took them. I realized it was all for nothing. It was just to be there. It was like a game.”

Photo: Violeta Santos-Moura

Carrying cameras, Israelis Yaniv Mazor (left) along with Guy Butavia (right) document potential military and settler harassment of Palestinian shepherds, who are barred by soldiers from taking their sheep to grazing land belonging to their village.

As a measure of co-resistance with Palestinian communities, and more than a decade after his military service, Yaniv often escorts Palestinian shepherds in lands occupied by Israeli settlements and the Israeli military.

The three soldiers in the picture were sent from the nearby settlement of Otniel to expel the shepherds and their sheep. The soldiers shadow Yaniv and Guy in an attempt to limit their ability to document the eviction of the shepherds from the pasture, which the settlers claim as theirs and which the soldiers closed as a military zone at their request.

Left: A shirt belonging to Sergeant Gil Hillel, Military Police — Hebron [West Bank], is pictured. This typical “Sof Maslul” shirt commemorates the end of the military course. [soldier’s personal archive, between 2001–2003] Right: Gil sits in her garden with her dog Tuv in the kibbutz where she lived with her fiancée. Currently Gil works for the NGO Shatil, dedicated to the promotion of civil society initiatives related to women’s rights, religious pluralism, shared society and participatory democracy, among other issues. [Violeta Santos-Moura, 2013]

Gil Hillel, a former sergeant and member of the military police, reflects on her choice to speak out:

“I chose to give my testimony on my service in Hebron because I understood after a very long process that being at a position of power as an occupying nation, an army … I personally paid a very heavy price and I am part of this society.

I decided to break the silence because I want us, as a country, as a society, to examine the reality that we live in. I want to look it in the eye and say, ‘OK, we’re a conquering nation. So this is what it looks like. This is how it is in the field.’

I have no solution, I have no other option. I have nothing to propose as an alternative option, but I still have to show what’s happening in the field.

We’re sending our children, our friends, our brothers, our fathers, our sisters … When we send them to the field, this is what they do, whether we like it or not. I came to the field from a humane place. I didn’t even want to be conscripted. When I was conscripted, I said to myself, ‘OK, I have to do this, so I’ll go to the most combat-focused unit there is and I’ll give it my touches of humanity.’ And I turned into a monster and I can’t look myself in the eye … and I’m not alone. There is no escape from becoming that violent, aggressive creature which I have become. I ask that anyone who sees my testimony, just to think about it, it’s the reality. It’s not just mine, it is like this for everyone in the field and anyone who is given such limitless power in their hands. It’s what we turn into, it’s our society.”

Photo: Violeta Santos-Moura [cellphone photo], 2014

An Israeli citizen is seen at the entrance to a cell where he was jailed at a military prison in the occupied West Bank for refusing combat deployment in Israel’s military offensive on the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014.

During this war over 2,200 Palestinians were killed, the majority civilians. On the Israeli side, 66 soldiers and 6 civilians were killed.

Left: 1st Sergeant Yehuda Shaul, Nahal Brigade 50th Battalion — Hebron, Ramallah, Bethlehem, other cities [West Bank], poses for a photo at the Wailing Wall compound in Jerusalem, the most sacred place for Judaism. [soldier’s personal archive, between 2001–2004] Right: Yehuda poses for a portrait at the city of Hebron. This is what used to be Hebron’s economic core. It is now a fortified Israeli settlement, where the presence of approximately 500 to 1,000 entrenched settlers, surrounded by over 170,000 Palestinians, is ensured by Israeli military presence. [Violeta Santos-Moura, 2014]

Yehuda Shaul is a co-founder of Breaking the Silence.

“In a way, I consider my activity in Breaking the Silence as a standing service. In a way, I haven’t left the army. And I’m not being cynical because I work a lot. I say it with the understanding that it is my civil, moral, Jewish, humanitarian duty, whatever you want to call it. I live here, this is my home and I have to be involved. I have to take responsibility for what may be the most significant thing that our society is involved in, which is control over the Palestinian territories,” Shaul says in an interview.

“A military occupation that continues for 40 years, with all that entails, all the damage and everything that it does to them, everything that it does to us … and my job is … our job in Breaking the Silence is to make sure that our society doesn’t run away from responsibility and doesn’t cover up the ramifications of this reality.”

Former Israeli combat veteran Avihai Stollar looks through a photo album from his military service. Photo: Violeta Santos-Moura

The photographs and testimony above comprise just a small portion of the interviews; for more information, see here.