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Israeli Veterans’ Criticism of West Bank Occupation Incites Furor

Photo by Palestine Solidarity Project.
Photo by Palestine Solidarity Project.

A few years after Avihai Stollar had completed his obligatory army service — which coincided with the second intifada — he was approached by a member of Breaking the Silence, a leftist organization of combat veterans that says it aims to expose the grim reality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
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Mr. Stollar, who served as a platoon sergeant in an infantry unit south of Hebron, said he found himself recounting experiences that he said had seemed “logical” from the perspective of a soldier. As a civilian, he said, “Something opened up. I was in shock.”

These were not “Srebrenica moments,” he said, referring to the massacre of Muslims during the Bosnian war, but mostly the more mundane mechanics of Israel’s occupation, like banning Palestinian vehicles from certain roads to reduce the threat of drive-by shootings, and punishing violators, even though they might have had no other route.
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Mr. Stollar, 32, is now the research director of Breaking the Silence, and at the center of a furor that is laying bare Israel’s divisions over its core values and the nature of its democracy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the group from the podium of the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, last week, accusing it of “slandering” Israeli soldiers before audiences around the world. The defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, described the group’s motives as “malicious” and banned it from activities involving soldiers. Naftali Bennett, the education minister in the government that is dominated by rightist and religious parties, barred it from entering state schools.

The condemnations bolstered a new campaign by an Israeli ultranationalist organization, Im Tirtzu, which released a provocative video criticizing leaders of four leftist groups, including Breaking the Silence, for receiving financing from foreign governments and labeling them as foreign agents. President Reuven Rivlin was vilified for appearing recently at an Israeli peace conference in New York where representatives of the group also appeared.

Now some retired generals are leading a counterattack.

“Breaking the Silence strengthens the I.D.F. and its morality,” Amiram Levin, a former commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, wrote in an advertisement that appeared on Friday in the liberal Haaretz newspaper, referring to the Israel Defense Forces. A former chief of the Shin Bet security service and a retired major general of the Israeli police then took out similar advertisements.
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Breaking the Silence highlights what it views as the corrosive nature of the occupation of the West Bank on Israeli society by publishing the testimonies of soldiers, mostly anonymously. Abuses like looting and the destruction of Palestinian property, it argues, have become the norm.

Yet nearly half a century after Israel conquered that territory from Jordan in the 1967 war, the subject of the occupation is largely greeted with apathy in Israel. And the increasingly shrill debate about Breaking the Silence is less about the rights or wrongs of military rule in the West Bank and more about what kind of society Israelis want.

“Breaking the Silence is perceived as unfairly attacking the I.D.F. and its conduct,” said Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Jerusalem. “So they are putting themselves on a collision course with the most valued and respected institution in Israel and with the psyche of Israelis who feel they are in a struggle for survival.”

And at a time Israelis fear for their safety amid a wave of stabbings, shootings and attacks with vehicles by Palestinians, and in the absence of condemnation from the Palestinian leadership, Mr. Plesner added, “There is not much patience for the message that the I.D.F. is in the wrong.”

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