“I was part of a machine that spread a lot of devastation and fear,” concludes a soldier as he reflects on his role in Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. His words are part of actual testimony gathered by an Israeli group, Breaking the Silence, and published in a book titled Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies from the Occupied Territories, 2000-2010. A play that was recently part of the Capital Fringe Festival in Washington DC, “It’s What We Do,” animated the soldiers’ sentiments and recollections of serving in the occupied Palestinian territories, using verbatim accounts. Written and directed by Pamela Nice, the play showed the soldiers, as she says, in “roles as instruments of injustice against Palestinians.” Their words shed light on how the Israeli military carries out the policies of Israel’s government.
Generations of these soldiers have been acting as enforcers of a military occupation that turned 50 years old this year, one that should have been—according to the Hague Regulations—a “temporary situation.” Instead, after the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when Israel launched a preemptive strike and defeated the armies of Jordan, Egypt, and Syria and took over and occupied thousands of square kilometers of Palestinian territory (in addition to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Syria’s Golan Heights), the Israeli government initiated a far-reaching institution of military occupation that has become a way of life not only for the long-suffering occupied Palestinian population, but also for the Israeli armed forces themselves and the Israeli public at large.
“We did what we were supposed to do”
It is true that historically, in wars across the globe, soldiers have acted cruelly toward civilians—sometimes while following orders, other times while acting on their own. There are many recent examples, including American military personnel killing innocent Afghans or torturing Iraqi prisoners. Why, then, should the world look differently at Israeli soldiers?
The answer is that the world should look at all soldiers the same way; no soldier, in any war zone, must be allowed to perpetrate crimes that compromise the human rights of civilians in areas under his or her control. In fact, soldiers should serve as protectors of civilians in areas that they occupy, and not as abusers. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, “Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War,” spells this out clearly. In Resolution 1322, the United Nations Security Council affirmed that the Fourth Geneva Convention applies to the occupied Palestinian territories.
Importantly, the United States is enabling the expansion of Israel’s military activities—and of militarization in the Middle East in general. Such US support undergirds the perpetuation of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands through massive military infusions that will continue with an unprecedented ten-year Memorandum of Understanding between Washington and Tel Aviv, signed in September 2016 and taking effect in FY 2019. This MoU allocates $38 billion in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and missile defense assistance to Israel, making it “the leading recipient worldwide of U.S. FMF.” Although almost all bilateral aid to Israel comprises military assistance, Washington also historically buttresses Tel Aviv’s policies in world forums, like the United Nations, thus making any meaningful international condemnation of Israel’s occupation policies a rare event. Israel’s armed forces, therefore, enjoy far-reaching powers and have created an environment of impunity for soldiers who enforce the occupation.
“Every Palestinian is a potential terrorist”
For their part, Israeli soldiers are carrying out a government policy that treats all Palestinians as suspects at best and terrorists at worst, thereby justifying any and all of Israel’s policies in the occupied territories. These include insidious ways of restricting Palestinians’ movement, such as 98 fixed checkpoints (and hundreds of “surprise flying checkpoints”) and a 26-foot tall wall, over 200 miles long at present, that separates Palestinians from their families, farmlands, workplaces, and schools. Israel regularly carries out house demolitions and takeovers and arrests and imprisons thousands of Palestinians, including 500-700 children under the age of 18 who are arrested, detained, and prosecuted each year. These policies hold profound consequences for Palestinian society. More than 125 illegal settlements on Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have been deemed as having no legal validity by the United Nations. In addition, Israel has imposed a decade-long air, sea, and land blockade of the Gaza Strip, during which time it has prosecuted three brutal wars in Gaza, rendering the area so de-developed and deteriorated as to be described by the United Nations as “unlivable” by 2020, if not before.
Israel’s is a deep occupation. Its breadth and depth require a military machine far exceeding anything one could imagine to be perpetrated by a state and experienced by a population of over 4.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem. It is the longest occupation in modern history.
Divide, de-develop, discriminate
In addition to the policies articulated above which greatly circumscribe Palestinian rights, this military strategy to suppress an entire nation has necessitated a geographical division of the West Bank into discrete areas of control: Area A (18 percent of the West Bank) under full Palestinian Authority (PA) civil and security control; Area B (22 percent) under PA civil authority but Israeli security; and the largest, Area C (60 percent), under full Israeli civil and security control. These divisions place overwhelming restrictions on Palestinian movement in territories that have been illegally occupied, with continuing land confiscation for military zones and settlement building—another indication that Israel envisions a situation of permanent domination and rule.
Economically, the effects of occupation are also profound. Last year, the UN Conference on Trade and Development stated that without the Israeli occupation, the Palestinian economy would be “at least twice as large.” It noted that, “It is estimated that the occupation of Area C costs the Palestinian economy the equivalent of 35 percent of GDP ($4.4 billion in 2015).” Moreover, the unemployment rate is high: in the first quarter of 2017, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics reports it at 27 percent among labor force participants over the age of 15, with the rate in the Gaza Strip alone at 41.1 percent (this unemployment statistic from Gaza has been described as the highest in the world).
During the same time, the number of Palestinians employed in Israel and in the Israeli settlements, with and without permits, increased to 139,600, representing 10 percent of the Palestinian labor force. Over half of them work in the Israeli construction sector. For Palestinians, these opportunities for work are valuable as they are desperate for employment; and for Israelis, Palestinian labor is cheap. Such is a two-way economic dependency that further ingrains the deleterious effects of occupation and siege.
It is noteworthy that Palestinians and Israelis residing in Areas A, B, and C are subject to two different systems of law—Palestinians in military courts, Israelis in civilian courts. Such institutionalization of discrimination, and of the entire occupation infrastructure, bolsters the understanding by Palestinians and the international community that Israel’s military hegemony in Palestine is a deeply entrenched form of apartheid, one that will be there for a long time.
“The settlers do whatever they want and the soldiers are forced to protect them”
Israel has built an extensive network of settlements that has captured a large share of the West Bank’s land and water resources, as well as swaths of land for roads to be used only by Israeli settlers and soldiers. The settlements, usually built high on hills that overlook Palestinian towns, house many right-wing and powerful settlers who regularly abuse Palestinians. A prominent example is in Hebron, the only Palestinian city in which there is an Israeli settlement in the heart of the town. In confrontations between settlers—who are legally allowed to carry arms, making them feel that their actions are sanctioned—and Palestinians, the Israeli military regularly refrains from protecting Palestinian civilians from increasing settler violence, which includes raids, assaults on persons and on places of worship, and destruction of property. In fact, the soldiers often protect the settlers themselves and enable them to wreak havoc on Palestinians’ everyday life. T
his tacit acceptance and support of pernicious settler behavior sends a message that the Israeli government will not hold any of the 650,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem accountable, neither for their illegal presence on Palestinian land nor for their belligerent behavior. Together, these policies have created a landscape for continuing dispossession and repression of the Palestinian population, by both the military and the settlers.
“What are you going to do?”—and Palestinian agency
At the end of the play, “It’s What We Do,” the soldiers are each asked, “What are you going to do?”—now that they have divulged their feelings about the awful experience of policing and suppressing the rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Each one of them answers differently: one walks off indecisively, in anger; the second communicates that she feels empowered and wants to be proactive; and the third—as director Pamela Nice explained to this writer afterward—tries to defend himself and “wants to say, ‘What can I alone do?’ But the ghosts of the Palestinians he mistreated…confront him.” Nice notes that the point of the last scene, in her perspective, “is that the Palestinians are not going away, and they will continue to confront the soldiers (and Israelis). They will not let them off the hook.”
Living with such severe and oppressive conditions, it is no wonder that Palestinians use their right to resist injustice. In fact, this is a right that is backed by the UN General Assembly, which states in Resolution A/RES/37/43 that it, “Reaffirms the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle….”
Although the world has historically witnessed Palestinian armed resistance, more pervasive at present is nonviolent resistance such as prisoners engaging in hunger strikes and Palestinians praying in the streets to protest Israeli limitations on access to holy sites. Palestinians have also been engaging in a civil-society-led boycott of Israeli institutions to push Israel to abide by international law. But even with such nonviolent resistance, which historically and in other parts of the world is celebrated and supported, Palestinians are treated as exceptions to the rule.
This “Palestine Exception” has even made its way to US advocacy for Palestinian human rights, most notably illustrated at present by the legislation introduced in Congress criminalizing support for any boycott activities of Israel. So even free speech or First Amendment-protected actions by Palestine advocates are being met by serious consequences. Many see these developments as further broadening Israel’s impunity. Without punishment or any meaningful accountability, why should Israel change its policies and end its ruthless occupation of Palestinian land?
“We did what we were supposed to do…. We committed crimes”
Indeed, for over five decades and in order to keep a restive population quiet, the Israeli government and military have honed their repressive policies. Any kind of resistance by Palestinians is met with force and increasingly unjust punishments. A Palestinian-American lawyer remarks that, “Over the years, experts, independent commissions, NGOs, the UN, and even the US State Department have documented the numerous and massive violations of Palestinian human rights committed by Israel; yet the violations continue and, arguably, have become more egregious, with no accountability to the victims and no repercussions for Israel.”
To be sure, the occupation is so deep and longstanding that it has become virtually “normalized” in the international community, with little expectation of Israel changing its policies, not to mention moving toward ending the occupation at all. On the contrary, it has become so entrenched that Israel has been making a case for the last few years that the Palestinian territories are not actually occupied by the Israeli military, basing such views on the Levy Commission Report of 2012, which states that Israeli construction in the territories is legal. Although the Israeli government has not officially adopted the findings of the commission, reports from inside Israel describe the government as quietly implementing its recommendations—“that the state legalize unauthorized Jewish outposts, and proposed new guidelines for building in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank).”
It is clear to anyone who studies Israel and Palestine that the Israeli government has had no intention to end its deep occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and its punishing siege of Gaza. In fact, the roots of Israel’s occupation over the last 50 years have become thicker, longer, and more profound, as evidenced by its continuing and dangerous political decisions implemented by a formidable military machine.
In this context, all discussions about “peace” are immediately upended by the fact of the military occupation of Palestinian lands and the continuing siege of the Gaza Strip. For any change to take place, Israel must own up to international law and start to dismantle what has become an egregiously deep occupation, and end its blockade of Gaza, before any steps can be taken toward a meaningful resolution of the conflict.
 From Israeli soldiers’ testimony in the play, “It’s What We Do,” by Pamela Nice.