Two weeks ago, I confronted a personal dilemma: should I attend Avner Gvaryahu’s lecture at Tufts or should I go to a new initiative whose objective is to improve relations between Israelis and Palestinians in the region? Though the right answer was clear, it was a tough call. As someone who invests considerable effort to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a peaceful end and someone who pays the terrible price of this conflict, I felt a moral duty to hear Mr. Gvaryahu slandering the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and ask him some profound questions. However, for the same reasons, it was quite obvious that talking will not change reality on the ground; hence, I went to the forum that promotes deeds rather than speech. Nevertheless, it was important to me to share my message with those who also care about the people that live in the region, and I hope to also achieve that in this article.
I served as an officer in the IDF. Every time I listen to lectures by Mr. Gvaryahu’s organization, Breaking the Silence (BTS), it feels like they come from Mars. Avner, like myself, was educated according to the IDF moral code which is undergirded by the principle of purity of arms: “the soldier shall make use of his weaponry and power only for the fulfillment of the mission and solely to the extent required; he will maintain his humanity even in combat. The soldier shall not employ his weaponry and power in order to harm non-combatants or prisoners of war and shall do all he can to avoid harming their lives, body, honor and property”.
It is often argued that Israeli soldiers as a whole do not follow this code. This argument does not hold water. Just few weeks ago, the Commander of the IDF talked with Israeli high-school students and emphasized the need to remain human, even in face of the current wave of terrorism from the West Bank. Last year, Israeli activists founded, “My Truth,” an NGO, which collects and shares thousands of stories from Israeli soldiers about their experience in the military. These stories significantly contradict the reality portrayed by Gvaryahu and his colleagues.
I can also share my experience. I always educated my soldiers to follow the IDF code, and they regularly risked their lives in order to save Palestinians from Hamas. As a commander in the Israeli Air Force, I was also a witness to the number of operations aborted solely for humanitarian reasons, despite otherwise being in accordance with international law. After the last war in Gaza, the former American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, publicly repudiated some of the international criticism against Israel, arguing the IDF “did what they could” to avoid civilian casualties.
Does it mean that in wars civilians will not die? That there are no individual soldiers that violate our norms and rules? That we are always perfect and infallible? Absolutely not! And it is our moral responsibility to work hard to make sure these accidents will not happen; but claiming that this type of misbehavior is the common one, or even the formal Israeli policy, is both far-fetched and misleading.
How does everything I just described align with Mr. Gvaryahu’s message? It does not. So the onus of explaining this gap is on him. But every time I ask him or his colleagues about it, they mumble and retreat to their talking points.
Gvaryahu talks about morality. Yet, there is nothing moral in presenting horrible stories to an international audience, avoiding legal cooperation with the Israeli jurisdiction system which enjoys a high international reputation. No one can check if Gvaryahu tells the truth or assess the validity of his explanations. In his world, Gvaryahu and his colleagues are the legislators, the court and the police. This contradicts the democratic values upon which Israeli society was built. This why Gvaryahu’s organization lost the public support it had in Israel, particularly among the peace camp followers. If what Gvaryahu says is true, these soldiers should be sentenced to jail according to all Israeli standards. And if he protects them to promote his agenda or his organization’s interests, he has no legitimacy to talk about morality.
I am sorry that Gvaryahu decided to take this path and describe a complex reality in such a reductive way. Whoever asks people to choose sides does not seek justice or peace but to promote their own interests at the expense of the people who truly suffer. My experience with Tufts students is that they are eager to understand the complexity of the reality in the Middle East, and when they are offered an opportunity they come with great ideas and meaningful initiatives to improve the lives of the people that suffer from the conflict: Palestinians and Israelis. We have many of these initiatives running today. This is why I chose yesterday to do rather than to talk, and I hope my fellow students will do the same whenever faced with the choice.
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