JERUSALEM — I finished my military service as a fighter in the Israeli military's Nahal Brigade 11 years ago. That’s when, together with some friends, I founded the NGO Breaking The Silence. Since then, I’ve talked to hundreds of soldiers who've told me about their service in the occupied territories. From what the dozens of soldiers and officers who took part in last summer’s Operation Protective Edge told us, the rules of engagement have never been so permissive. Their testimonies reveal how the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) acted and help explain why the fighting left so many Palestinians dead.
But the testimonies only tell one part of the story. They don’t say that Protective Edge was the last in a series of regularly launched IDF operations in Gaza, after the 2008 Operation Hot Winter, Cast Lead in early 2009, and Pillar of Defense in 2012. They also don’t explain why it’s obvious to everybody that it’s only a matter of time before the next one is launched.
This succession of military operations in Gaza is the reflection of a strategy that senior IDF officials have dubbed “mowing the lawn.” Those who support this strategy describe it as an inevitable answer to the terrorist threat against Israel. It’s presented by these officers as a defensive tool aimed at shaking the powerful terrorist organizations that threaten the safety of Israeli citizens.
For them, the threat facing Israel is constant, and can never be completely eradicated. That’s why Israel must regularly “trim” the means used by those terrorists organizations and undermine their fighting skills. The launch of a new operation in Gaza every two or three years is not happenstance, but rather the long-term reflection of a cold and calculated logic.
Yet the last operation, like the previous ones, didn’t just affect the fighting infrastructures of Hamas and other armed groups. The main victims of this “mowing the lawn” policy are Palestinian civilians decimated by the perpetual conflicts. What does the future hold for a society that in the span of two months loses several hundred of its children and sees 18,000 of its homes destroyed?
When you look at the IDF’s methods and their results, it’s impossible not to realize that what they’re “mowing” isn’t the terrorist organizations’ potential but the ability of an entire society to live, develop and simply hold its head high.
The “lawn mowing” is, indeed, nothing more than one part of the mechanism through which Israel controls the Palestinian population, be it in Gaza or the West Bank. To preserve this control, Israel acts relentlessly, so as to make sure that Palestinian society remains weak and submissive.
As a soldier, I took part in countless operations aimed at making Palestinian civilians in the West Bank “keep their heads down.” This, of course, continues today. In the streets of Palestinian cities, at every hour of the day or of the night, security forces raid randomly selected civilians houses, install snap checkpoints inside densely populated civilian neighborhoods, so the Palestinian population knows that we, Israeli soldiers, are everywhere, always, thus creating among them a “feeling of persecution.”
Other methods, such as imposing a curfew in a village or arresting all the men there for an undefined period of time, enable the IDF to fix fear among the population and reinforce Israel’s control on them.
The difference between the soldiers’ mission in the West Bank and their mission in Gaza is the result of the different natures of Israel’s grip on the two territories. The West Bank has been submitted for 48 years to a total, direct and daily military control as well as a partial administrative control. In Gaza, although Israel hasn’t established a military control there since 2005, it still has a stranglehold on a certain number of the most basic aspects of the Gazans’ daily lives.
We control Gaza’s air space and territorial waters, as well as the movements of people and commodities to and from it and its registry of births, marriages and deaths. As a matter of fact, the regular assaults in Gaza are just another cog in the wheel of Israel’s indirect control over the enclave’s inhabitants, and another way of contributing to the dismemberment of Palestinian society.
We should remember that when we take away from the Palestinians the freedom to choose where to live their lives and the right to live in safety with a roof above their heads, we’re hurting ourselves. We’re destroying our values and humanity, but we’re also jeopardizing our security, and with it the hope of a life that isn't just about waiting for the next war to break out. Only freedom for the Palestinians can guarantee the freedom and safety of Israelis.
*Yehuda Shaul is the cofounder and a member of Breaking the Silence, an NGO that includes more than 1,000 former IDF troops working to put an end to Israeli occupation.