By Benzion Sanders
I was one of the panelists at the Breaking the Silence event at Temple Sinai in Washington last month (“Israel and U.S. Jews must break their shared silence,” Voices, Dec. 12). I never thought that after sharing experiences from my IDF service with fellow Jews I would be accused of helping to “kill Israelis and destroy Israel” (“Here’s how to destroy Israel,” Letters, Dec. 19).
I served in Sayeret Nahal, the special forces reconnaissance unit of the Nahal infantry brigade. I spent the first 14 months of my service in intensive training, after which my unit was deployed to the West Bank, where I served for eight months. We were then sent into the Gaza Strip during operation Protective Edge and today I am still periodically called for reserve duty in the West Bank.
We made it clear to everyone at Temple Sinai that we hadn’t come to talk about the “rotten apples” of the IDF. The testimonials we shared, like the testimonies of over 1,200 IDF veterans collected over 15 years by Breaking the Silence, do not describe isolated incidents; they describe the daily experiences we faced as soldiers, having been tasked with controlling a civilian population of millions of Palestinians against their will while
protecting Israeli settlers living in their midst.
This is not hearsay. These are our experiences, which we took an active part in, and feel we cannot remain silent about. As Americans and Jews, we believe this is no less than an affront to the values we were raised on — that everyone is created equal and endowed with inalienable rights; and that our faith commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Do we really believe these values disappear the moment we cross the Green Line?
While sharing my personal testimony, I described how we were ordered to “make our presence felt” to the Palestinian population, to set up “flying checkpoints” that searched random cars “to show the Palestinians who owns the place.” I described how settlement
expansion has meant the closure of roads to Palestinians and other restrictions on their movement. I described the absurd reality in which I confronted, in full combat gear, an older Palestinian couple picking herbs from their own village’s olive trees; I’ll never forget the look in their eyes. I described a 15 year old being thrown to the ground and strip-searched while on his way to buy cigarettes for his father, all because of the “suspicious” hooded sweatshirt he was wearing.
During the 2014 operation in Gaza, in addition to witnessing the death and injury of soldiers from my unit, I also found myself standing over the corpse of a 77-year-old Palestinian Bedouin woman in her makeshift home. The sight of her lying lifeless, face down in the sand is etched deep in my memory. I later heard that when human rights organization B’tselem published names of Palestinian civilian casualties, they were censored by Israel’s public broadcaster. It pained me to discover that I could be sent to participate in an operation in which I would see dead Palestinian civilians but the Israeli public on whose behalf I was ostensibly sent was being prevented from hearing about them.
Like thousands of “lone soldiers” who join the IDF every year, I chose to make Israel my home and serve in its army because it’s the country I love. I am now active against the occupation for the very same reason: I want to defend my country and ensure it has a viable future. The occupation is tearing Israel apart, and it is up to us — not just Israelis and Palestinians, but also Diaspora Jews who have Israel’s best interests at heart — to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Benzion Sanders, 28, served in the Nahal Brigade’s reconnaissance unit and today lives with his wife in Jerusalem.