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Israeli Army Veterans Speak Out Against Occupation on North American Campuses

Tal Sagi and Nadav Weiman of Breaking the Silence discuss their experiences.

Democracy Now! speaks with two former Israeli soldiers who are members of Breaking the Silence, an anti-occupation group of Israeli army veterans. The group’s education director, Tal Sagi, describes growing up in a settlement and joining the military without understanding what occupation was. “We’ve been told that this is security and we have to control millions of lives and we don’t have other options,” says Sagi, who says Israeli society is not open to ending the occupation. “We’re trying to say that there are other options.” We also speak with Breaking the Silence deputy director Nadav Weiman about why the group is touring U.S. colleges and calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. “We stood in checkpoints. We raided homes. We attacked Gaza from the air. We fought from the ground,” says Weiman. “So, when you bring reality, you bring real conversation about the occupation, and you bring real conversation about Gaza.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman in New York, with Juan González in Chicago.

The official death toll in Gaza has topped 33,400, including over 14,000 children, with over 76,000 people wounded. Over 1.7 million Palestinians have been displaced, around 70% of Gaza’s population, while famine is setting in. The International Court of Justice has ruled there’s plausible case Israel is committing genocide in Gaza. Meanwhile, violence by Israeli soldiers and settlers against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank has also exploded, with over 450 Palestinians killed in the last six months and at least 14 villages and towns forcibly depopulated.

Among those speaking out against the violence are Israeli soldiers themselves. Breaking the Silence is an anti-occupation group led by veterans of the Israeli army. The group was founded in 2004, 20 years ago, in the aftermath of the Second Intifada.

We’re joined right now by two members of Breaking the Silence. Nadav Weiman is the group’s deputy director. He served in the West Bank and Gaza from 2005 to 2008. And Tal Sagi is the group’s education director. She served as a soldier in Hebron, one of the largest cities in the West Bank.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Nadav, let’s begin with you. Why are you in the United States and then headed to Canada? And your reaction as you listen to these numbers mounting in Gaza, where you were an Israeli soldier, though albeit many years ago, over 33,000 Palestinians dead?

NADAV WEIMAN: Yeah. So, we are over here to speak about what is happening in Gaza and in the West Bank, because we believe that what is happening in the West Bank, it’s not a secret that belongs to us as soldiers. It’s something that the international community should know, because the international community is a part of it. And we saw the discourse happening over here in the States about what is happening in Israel and Palestine, and that’s why we did a campus tour the last two weeks — Tal was here with me — spoke in a lot of campuses all around, met a lot of students, because the conversation about the occupation happens everywhere, right? And we, as former soldiers, we want to be a part of it and saying supporting Israel, it’s not supporting the occupation. Supporting Israel is supporting peace for Israelis and Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Tal, talk about your experience in the military and why you chose to be a part of Breaking the Silence. And how many former Israeli soldiers, or even current ones, do you feel, share your point of view? Occupation, I have to say, in the U.S. media, is actually rarely talked about right now.

TAL SAGI: So, it’s not only here. We are not talking about it, either. And, actually, I grew up in a settlement in the West Bank, and I served in Hebron in the West Bank. And while serving, I was a tour guide. I used to take groups of soldiers for tours in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. And I didn’t know what occupation is, while taking these tours in this huge Palestinian city, surrounded by soldiers, and there are settlements in the middle of the city. And I didn’t know that the city is under military control, while I’m taking part of this military control, while I’m a settler myself. I didn’t know where is the Green Line or what is the Green Line or anything about these things. So, it took me a lot of time to realize that.

But the fact that I didn’t know that is not a mistake. We don’t know these things. As Israelis, we are not — we’re never taught these things, because, you know, it’s something that for years we’re taking part of and we’re doing, and we don’t want to stop controlling millions of lives of Palestinians for so many — we’re doing it for so many years, and we don’t want to stop, because we want to make sure that we have the control over the land. And we see now also how we don’t have any other future. That’s all we get. We have been told that this is security and we have to control millions of lives and we don’t have other options. And we’re trying to say that there are other options. But it’s really hard to say to the Israeli society, because we don’t know that there are other options.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Tal, you said that you didn’t know that you were participating in the occupation. What were you taught in school in Israel about the Arabs and the Palestinians around you?

TAL SAGI: So, I knew Palestinians from the other side of the fence. The settlement that I grew up in was surrounded by fences separating the settlement from the Palestinian villages around us. And I know — I knew that they’re not allowed to go into the settlement. I knew that I can go into the Palestinian village. And we never had any interaction, even though we lived so close to one another, and I could see everything that is happening in the other side of the fence and hear everything that is happening there. And I knew that they are my enemies. I knew that they all want to kill us. That was the only thing I knew about Palestinians. And also we called them Arabs, like they’re all one big Arabs and like one big enemy. So that was the only thing I knew about them.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Nadav Weiman, I wanted to ask you: What’s been a reception that you’ve received on the — especially on the college campuses, given the fact that any discussions about Israel and Palestine have been so charged in recent months, not only the reception from the students, but from the administrations at these various colleges?

AMY GOODMAN: You know, Nadav couldn’t hear you, Juan, but Juan’s question to you was: What is the reception of the students and the administrators in all the college campuses? You’ve organized this with J Street. Talk about what kind of reception you’ve gotten.

NADAV WEIMAN: Yeah. So, it was quite interesting, because our lecture managed to bring together Israeli students that came to study here in the U.S., Jewish American students and also Palestinian Americans. And I think that when you speak about the reality firsthand — right? We did it. We stood in checkpoints. We raided homes. We attacked Gaza from the air. We fought from the ground. So, when you bring reality, you bring real conversation about the occupation, and you bring real conversation about Gaza.

So, the responses were quite amazing. There was really in-depth question and very interesting conversation around what is happening now, but what the future holds for us, and also, very important, what the U.S. can do to stop the war at the moment and to release all hostages and to enter as much humanitarian aid as possible to stop the humanitarian crisis and the starvation in Gaza at the moment. So the responses was very, very good, I’ve got to say.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let me ask you about what has been the response since October 7th to Breaking the Silence, your group of former soldiers in Israel, speaking out on behalf of both Palestinians and those who are anti-occupation within Israel?

NADAV WEIMAN: So, from the very beginning of after October 7th — I’ve got say, October 7th, for an Israeli activist against the occupation, was very hard. You know, yes, I ran with my children and my wife to the shelter in Tel Aviv. But immediately, we started call to all of our testifiers, activists, donors in the Gaza envelope. And eventually, some of them didn’t answer. And two of them were murdered on October 7th, and one of them was a very good friend of mine. And this is how we started, right? You know, the blood was boiling. Everybody was angry.

But then, on October 8th, we became a revenge army, and we started to do — and we started the airstrikes in Gaza. And, of course, that we in Breaking the Silence, we know how it works, right? We know how airstrike looks like. We know how fighting in Gaza looks like. So, after a couple of weeks, we and other NGOs in Israel, we called for ceasefire, to release all hostages, to enter humanitarian aid into Gaza. And obviously, obviously, the right wing in Israel is against it, because the right wing in Israel believes that we need to continue fighting. And I don’t even understand the goals of the fighting now in Gaza. I think the number one goal is to release all hostages. So, yes, there was some aggression against Breaking the Silence. But in couple of months, we will publish our report with hundreds of testifiers that would come to us. Then we expect another wave of violence.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Tal Mitnick. In January, the 18-year-old, who refused Israeli military service, was sentenced to 30 days in a military prison. Democracy Now! spoke with Tal after he was released about what he witnessed while incarcerated. He then went right back into prison.

TAL MITNICK: Actually, inside prison, the only source of news that we got was one newspaper called Israel Hayom. And every day on the newspaper, there will be pictures of the soldiers that died. And I remember feeling like — I feel sad, very sad for the soldiers and the families that have to take this great burden of losing someone close to them, but I know that while seeing soldiers dying, I know that this means that there are much more Palestinian civilians dying, which we don’t see in the newspaper.

AMY GOODMAN: Who else are you serving time with in that prison? Who else is there?

TAL MITNICK: Sadly, a lot of the other people there don’t — they are deserters, which means that they served time in the military, and then at some point, for some reason, they went back home and did not come back. Most of these people desert because of socioeconomic reasons, if it’s having to take care of their siblings or go work for their family. And when they come back and turn themselves in, we’re now seeing a very heavy sentencing of those deserters as a part of the fascist persecution and the fog of war. People that went to work for three months to feed their family are now being sentenced to half a year in military prison.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Tal Mitnick, 18 years old, has been sentenced and sentenced again to military prison. How common is it for a soldier to say no, a refusenik, as you call them?

NADAV WEIMAN: Not common at all. I served in the Israeli special forces. We were 12 in my team. I served in a snipers’ team. And standing in front of your friends in mid-operation or before operation and say, “Hey, no, we have to stop, because it’s against the Fourth Geneva Convention, or it’s against international human law,” it really doesn’t happen, because a unit — doesn’t matter if it’s a platoon, a company or a team — it’s a family. And standing in front of your family members, your brothers, saying “no,” it is very hard. This young man, that did it before his army service, I think it’s quite unique in the Israeli society. We have a couple of those each year, but the general soldiers and general public, they go to the army as they were requested by the state of Israel.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Nadav Weiman, you served in the IDF in both Gaza and the West Bank. Could you talk about your experiences there and how that shaped your views of the occupation?

NADAV WEIMAN: Yeah. So, I served between 2005 to 2008 in a special forces unit. And me and my team served just after the Second Intifada, but when the IDF really pressured the Palestinian population like we are in the Second Intifada. So we arrested a lot of people. We searched for all kinds of things. But mainly we did sniping operations.

You know, when you want to do sniping operations inside Palestinian cities or villages, you don’t have a hill or a forest to take cover in. So, what we used to do is something that is called “straw widow.” It’s a codename in the IDF of taking a private Palestinian family’s house and turning it into a military post. You choose a house that looks best for you. Maybe it’s tall. Maybe it has big windows. Then you call the Shin Bet. You make sure that every one of the family members are innocent, are not connected to terror. And then, in the middle of the night, you come. You sneak into the neighborhood. You break the door down. You grab everybody from their beds, because then they cannot really resist you, put them in one room, and then use one of the rooms — the parents’ bedroom, for example — as our sniping post. We put our sniping rifles. And after that, if one of the family members wants to eat, they want to drink, they want to take medicine, they want to pray, they need authorization from us, because it’s our house. It’s not their house anymore. And then you shoot from their houses. The minute you do that, the armed convoy come, and you go back to the base. But that’s the West Bank.

In Gaza, when I did the same thing, “straw widows” in Gaza, in 2008, you don’t infiltrate. You don’t do it quietly in the middle of the night. When we approached the houses, the fenced-off houses of Gaza, after cutting the fence and walking over there, a tank came and rammed one of the walls of the house and knocked it down, because they told us that every house in Gaza is booby-trapped. And then, when we got inside the house, we took all of the men, from 16 years old until 80 years old, and we put them on a truck, drove them back to Israel for interrogation. And then, when we put our sniping rifles on the rooftop, we saw there was lots of new greenhouses that we didn’t see in the aerial photograph. So we called the D9 bulldozer, that smashed everything down so we will have a clean line of fire. And I think that’s the difference between the ongoing occupation with settlements and checkpoints in the West Bank and the occupation by siege that we have in Gaza since 2007 and the level of brutality or firepower that we use over there.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, there’s clearly a lot to talk about here, and we’re going to ask you to stay for a few minutes for a post-show. Nadav Weiman is deputy director of Breaking the Silence. Tal Sagi is education director. They’re on a tour on college campuses around the United States and Canada and making their way to the Canadian Parliament.

That does it for our show. I want to wish David Prude a happy birthday!

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Democracy Now! produced with Mike Burke, Renée Feltz, Deena Guzder, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Hana Elias. Our executive director is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Jon Randolph, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, for another edition of Democracy Now!