Choosing to see
Former Israeli soldier Avner Gvaryahu tells Symon Hill how he came to oppose the occupation of the Palestinian territories
“I really felt that I was joining the army in order to be the good soldier,” says Avner Gvaryahu (pictured). “The good soldier at the checkpoint, the guy that could smile at the Palestinians.” As a 19-year-old joining the Israeli Defence Force, he wanted to “be that good person in a bad situation”.
Eight years later, his view is very different. Avner is a firm opponent of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territories. He insists: “It’s impossible to behave morally in an immoral situation.”
But Avner Gvaryahu is no enemy of Israel. He grew up in Rehovot, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, to a religious zionist family that had lived in the area for nine generations. The day he joined the paratroopers remains one of the proudest moments of his life.
Sitting in a restaurant in West Jerusalem, Avner talks passionately about the moment that “broke this sort of bubble I had around me” and triggered his change of heart. The first mission he led as a sergeant involved a “straw widow”, a Palestinian house that is taken over by the Israeli army – for anything from a few hours to several days – as a base for observation or snipers.
“You enter a house in the middle of the night, wake up the whole family, put everyone in one room, take away the cellphones, lock the windows,” explains Avner. “If they want to go to work, impossible. If they want to go to school, impossible.”
On this occasion, Avner and his colleague heard screaming as they neared the house. “We both take our rifles and we break the window. Inside the house, we were standing there with our rifles and our flashlight and on the floor there’s an old lady lying there, probably just heard us coming and was petrified, fell out of her bed.” Her family were standing nearby. He realised at that moment: “It doesn’t matter how good I see myself. They see me as the ultimate evil.”
Finishing his army service after three years, Avner was “left with too many questions”. He found himself joining Breaking the Silence, a group of ex-soldiers who publish testimonies of their time in the occupied territories. They aim to draw attention to the realities of occupation. International Christian groups are among their supporters; Breaking the Silence is an official partner of Christian Aid.
Avner admits that their message is something many Israelis “don’t want to hear about”. He has lost friends because of his campaigning, while some other friendships are maintained by avoiding discussion of politics. Of the 25 soldiers who were in his army unit, he estimates that around five or six agree with him, while 10 strongly disagree. The rest “just want to forget about it”.
Members of Breaking the Silence are routinely labelled as traitors by more militant right-wing Israelis. But Avner is clearly proud of his roots. “It’s important, from my perspective, for Jews to be in the Holy Land.” He insists his views are “very much connected to Judaism, the Judaism that I believe in, being a light to the nations and understanding the responsibility we have. For me, the only way is to strive for equality.”
As I speak of the attitudes of Christian groups in Britain, he reacts against the term “pro-Israeli”. He argues: “The question should not be, ‘Are you pro-Israel or are you pro-Palestine?’ The question is: ‘Are you pro-occupation or are you anti-occupation?’”. He insists that “true friends” of Israel need “to come out and say that”.
In recent years, two British denominations – the Methodist Church and the Quakers – have faced accusations of antisemitism for backing a boycott of goods from Israeli settlements. “I don’t think they’re being antisemitic,” says Avner very quickly when I mention it. He emphasises that members of Breaking the Silence have varied views on boycotts. He invites British supporters of the occupation to “come with us on a tour of Hebron”, a West Bank city where Palestinians are banned from certain roads that are reserved for Israeli settlers. He insists: “It’s not about security, it’s about control.”
What does the future hold? Avner got married two years ago and has just completed a degree in social work. Soon he will be called up for a month’s reserve duty in the Israeli army. He is undecided about whether to refuse. If he does so, he is likely to go to prison.
“It’s extremely difficult for me to say I don’t want to serve,” he explains. “Even though morally, I can’t see myself standing at a checkpoint again.”
Avner says: “Everywhere in the world, people have a choice, whether to see what’s going on around them or to stay inside familiar systems.”
“I don’t think people want to oppress other people,” he says. “They just want to live their lives. If living their lives means that they oppress other people, sometimes they’ll live with that. The question is, when will that price be too high?”
Symon Hill is associate director of the Christian thinktank, Ekklesia
This article was published in the February 2013 edition of Reform.