It’s August in the Ein Beit Ilma refugee camp in Israel’s West Bank. Argentina is playing Nigeria in the World Cup. “Listen man,” says an Israeli soldier to his lieutenant, an Argentina fan “here and there, this house and that house, they’re all the same, but here they have a TV, man.”
They raid the house, shut the occupants – a Palestinian family — into a side room, and watch the game.
“You can be a good guy who can find himself doing things that bad guys do,” says Oded Na’aman of his three years of service in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).
The incident in August, though not his own, is commonplace.
Na’aman explains that things like this are normal-it’s so easy to become “numb to such cruelty and behavior.” The IDF, he says, is guilty of a wide range of abuses, from raiding civilian homes to allowing Jewish settlers to poison Palestinian wells.
Part of an organization called “Breaking the Silence,” Na’aman is one of a group of former Israeli solders who are speaking out against what they feel are the injustices done by the IDF in the name of Israel.
They have toured throughout Israel, Europe, and are now in the United States.
Last week, Na’aman came to USM to give two slide-lectures based on a photography exhibit, also titled “Breaking the Silence,” that is currently showing at Harvard.
The exhibit and presentations are meant to shed some light on the IDF’s involvement in the Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, and their systematic mistreatment of Palestinians.
Na’aman is anxious to tell his experiences to a broad audience – and is the first to point out that he took part in the very injustices he is now speaking out against.
As an Israeli soldier stationed at checkpoints in Hebron – a city south of Jerusalem in the West Bank – he had complete control over Palestinians.
The Palestinians lived in so much fear that they would do whatever the soldiers told them to. Many soldiers, including Na’aman, eventually became addicted to the power.
In Israel, both men and women are required to join at the age of 18, men staying for three years, women for two. This military service is part of the ethos of Israel, says Na’aman, playing into the attitude that it’s crucial to defend the country from the ‘perceived threat’ of Palestinians and terrorism.
Na’aman, however, was quickly discovered another reality when he began his service in Hebron.
“When you get there, you find out that your job is to defend offenders,” he says of the Jewish settlers in Hebron.
The city is the only ‘mixed city’ in the West Bank, divided into two areas, one under Palestinian control and the other consisting of Jewish settlements.
He explains that the Jewish settlers want to take over all of Hebron, and have a systematic approach to it.
At the slightest sign of Palestinian violence, says Na’aman, the IDF can evacuated the entire affected block of Palestinians.
The Jewish settlers then send in their children to tear down one wall of a Palestinian store.
With the wall missing, the entire block of buildings is deemed unsafe, and the IDF is required to tear it all down.
Na’aman wants to make it clear that the Jewish settlers living in Hebron and the West Bank are of a different mindset than the general Israeli public.
He says that where he grew up, just outside of Tel Aviv, he was never exposed to the same thinking that he came to know in Hebron.
He also says that it all went unspoken amongst the soldiers while on duty, and it was never talked about with families at home.
“You don’t ask your child, ‘well what cruel thing did you do this day,'” says Na’aman.
He explains that the whole occupation and settlement issue is something that is “talked about, but not really talked about.”
When the IDF is pressed on some of the injustices and treatments of Palestinians, they deny that it happens.
Hence the creation of “Breaking the Silence.”
At his first presentation at USM, given to the history and political science classes of Eileen Eagan and Lynn Kuzma, Na’aman was pressed by several audience members about the Israeli-Palestinian issue as a whole.
One woman commented that Palestinians have had 40 years to resolve the current conflicts and have been given many chances to find solutions.
While remaining calm and welcoming to dissenting opinion, Na’aman made it clear that this is not what Breaking the Silence is about. The group does not exist to offer solutions or political opinions, but to give a voice to the soldiers.
The group is only trying to do what it says, break the silence about what is being done in Israel’s name.
When a man in the audience questioned the truth of his accounts, Na’aman said that more than 500 soldiers have given similar testimonies about their experiences, so there is no denying the truth.
“I have no problem with people who disagree with me. I have a problem with people who try to cover up reality,” says Na’aman. “Reality should be acknowledged for what it is.”
He feels that no political discussion can ignore the soldiers’ point – that the reality of what is happening must be acknowledged first.
It is important, Na’aman says, to expose the reality that soldiers are vicitims as well as victimizers. His group seeks to undermine the dichotomy of the “good vs. evil” argument against Palestinians in Israeli society.
“Breaking the Silence” was first exhibited in Israel in 2004. The American tour has included Philadelphia and Boston, where it is currently on display at Harvard’s Hillel Center.
Local sponsors include the USM History and Political Science Departments and the Maine Chapter of Veterans for Peace. For more information, see http://www.shovrimshtika.org/index_e.asp.