Exhibition at Neimënster

Voices from inside the Occupied Palestinian Territories

Former soldiers want Israel to take responsibility

(CS) When he was just 18 years old, Shay Davidovich found himself carrying a loaded gun, chasing after a small Palestinian child on his first day on duty as a draftee in the Israeli army. Ten years later, Shay is part of the organisation Breaking the Silence that aims to show what everyday life is like in the Occupied Territories from the point of view of the soldiers serving there.

Breaking the Silence was formed in 2004 by a group of veteran combat soldiers who had served in Hebron during the Second Intifada. “When they were discharged from the army, they felt they had something to say about it,” explained Shay who is in Luxembourg until May 3 to present a travelling exhibition by Breaking the Silence at Neimënster.

The soldiers wanted to bridge the gap between what the general public knew of the conflict and what was actually happening. “They wanted to bring Hebron to Tel Aviv.” Since then, around 1,000 former conscripts have given testimony for the organisation, which also runs tours to the West Bank and educational programmes with young people in Israel to prepare them for the realities of military duty.

Shay is one of the soldiers who gave testimony.

Unanswered questions

From 2005 to 2008 he carried out his obligatory military service. “I got out of the army and was very confused about the time I spent in the West Bank,” he told wort.lu/en. “I didn't know what to do with all this information, the things I did, the questions I couldn't answer.” 

Shay Davidovich
Photo: Joaquim Valente

His strategy, like that of so many young veteran combatants, was to try and forget. “I went back home, I went to university. I didn't want to talk about it or deal with it,” he said. “That time was behind me.”

In 2012, Shay was called up as a reservist. Following his return he went on a tour with Breaking the Silence and experienced a very different view of what life under occupation is like, speaking to Palestinians and hearing their stories.

“As a soldier, everything around you is about security. Every Palestinian is a potential terrorist.” Thus, on his first day, Shay chased that Palestinian child, only realising during the pursuit that he was running after a kid, maybe five years old. “Something just didn't make sense. Something like this wouldn't happen in a logical place,” the 28-year-old said. But the Occupied Territories defy all “normal” logic.

The photos on display at the Neimënster exhibition, taken by soldiers on duty, show blindfolded Palestinians, women being searched at check points, soldiers posing with tied up civilians. The testimonies they are accompanied by speak of everyday abuses, of tactics to wear the locals down, to make the presence of the army and their power felt, from 2am house searches to random pat-downs in the street.

Taking responsibility

What for an outsider is shocking, for Shay “sadly” is unsurprising. “You have a lot of power as a soldier. At a check point, for example, you have the power to detain a Palestinian because you think they look suspicious, because you're bored or tired or angry at someone,” Shay commented. “You can imagine these 18-year-old kids – some people who have this kind of power will abuse it.”

The exhibition, however, aims neither at vilifying the soldiers and their actions nor at exonerating them from what they did. For Shay, it is about taking responsibility as an individual but also as a society. “I was sent there for the Israeli society to carry out these missions,” he said, adding that it is their responsibility to know what is being done in their name. 

There are circles of responsibility.

Not all of Israeli society wants to hear what Breaking the Silence has to say. At a reading of testimonies during last year's war in Gaza, the activists were attacked. “They had batons, they were throwing things at us. People were chased home,” Shay recalled. “It was terrifying.”

But the people behind the organisation, whose hope is to help bring the occupation to an end, do not want to be seen as victims. “We are the victimisers of the Palestinians,” Shay said, adding that he is neither anti-Israel nor pro-Palestine but pro-human rights, pro-equality and pro-peace.

Responsibility for what is happening does not, however, stop at the border of Israel. “There are circles of responsibility,” Shay commented. “We need to get involved with what happens around the world. If we see something we disagree with, we need to speak out against it.”

Taking action

The conflict between Israel and Palestine involves many more countries and stakeholders, he said. 

The government of Luxembourg has long been a supporter of a two-state solution. Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn has repeatedly spoken out against the Israeli government's settlement policy and blockade of the Gaza Strip. The Grand Duchy supported a UN Security Council draft resolution by Jordan seeking a two-state solution and parliament recently recognised Palestinian statehood, welcoming Mahmoud Abbas on an official visit, where it was revealed that Palestine would soon have a diplomatic representation in Luxembourg.

Politics, however, is not enough. “You need to take responsibility as civilians,” Shay said. That is what he asks of teenagers going into their military service, of the people of Israel. “I'm also asking it from other people, also here in Luxembourg. Try and figure out what you can do. There's no doubt that the occupation will be over at some point, maybe in ten, maybe in 20 years,” Shay explained. “It's our mission to make it end as soon as possible.” 

A need to break the silence.

The result of the recent election – a victory for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – was a disappointment for Breaking the Silence. “The morning of the results, we sat in the office and we were sad,” Shay said, “but then we got back to work.” The elections, after all, are only one step in a long process. “As long as there is an occupation, there will be Breaking the Silence, because there will be a need to break the silence,” Shay concluded. “We're here and we're not going anywhere.”

Exhibition until May 3

The exhibition at Neimënster was organised in collaboration with the Luxembourg Committee for a Just Peace in the Near-East (CPJPO) and continues until May 3. Every day between 2pm to 9pm, Shay Davidovich will be at the gallery to give guided tours and talk to visitors about the exhibition and Breaking the Silence. For details visit neimenster.lu

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