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These Israeli military veterans are against Gaza occupation

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

While war rages in Gaza, a group of Israeli military veterans are challenging their government's policies in the West Bank. The group is called Breaking the Silence. They argue Israel's continued occupation of Palestinian territories makes their country less secure, not more. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Nadav Weiman wears wire-rimmed glasses and a GoPro camera clipped to his jacket as he steers his four-wheel drive up into the West Bank South Hebron Hills.

NADAV WEIMAN: We're going to climb really high now. You can see the almonds is blooming.

BEARDSLEY: The 38-year-old former Israeli special forces sniper served all over the West Bank in the mid-aughts. For the last 12 years, he's worked with Breaking the Silence, an organization of veterans trying to educate Israelis on the true nature of their military occupation of the West Bank. Weiman says Israelis are taught to believe it's for their security.

WEIMAN: And because of that, I don't care how we do security because I can drink coffee here in Tel Aviv because I have brave soldiers guarding me in the West Bank.

BEARDSLEY: But he says, in the name of security, Israel controls every aspect of the lives of the 3 million Palestinians who live there. He used to set up sniping positions in people's homes.

WEIMAN: So you ask me, what bring me to break my silence? It's a long process. But the first time you interact with Palestinians inside their homes - you see a kid peeing in his pants while you're dragging him from his bed, you know, you traumatize them for life.

BEARDSLEY: The group, begun in 2004, now has more than 1,400 testifiers. It holds around 700 educational events a year, from public tours to talks in private homes and at pre-military academies. Breaking the Silence is funded with private donations.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

BEARDSLEY: The organization's Tel Aviv headquarters has tight security. Its members have been attacked by settlers and right-wing extremists. I meet 33-year-old Luiz Aberbuj in the Tel Aviv office. He broke his silence in 2019.

LUIZ ABERBUJ: I grew up inside of a Zionist socialist youth movement. It was one of a very important part of the construction of my identity.

BEARDSLEY: This Brazilian fell in love with Israel on his first visit at the age of 18. He moved here and proudly enlisted in the Israeli army. He says his wake-up moment was more surreal than violent. It came as he and other soldiers were frisking Palestinian males of military age at a checkpoint outside a Jewish settlement in the contentious city of Hebron.

ABERBUJ: We've been there for hours doing that, and everything was OK. But suddenly, something that we didn't expect happened.

BEARDSLEY: A school bell rang, and children flooded toward them, so they lined up the kids and checked their backpacks, too. At that moment, a European activist yelled out that they should be ashamed.

ABERBUJ: At that moment, this activist, he really touched my ego, right? And I tried to justify to him, like, what we're doing, right?

BEARDSLEY: You were talking back to him.

ABERBUJ: I was talking back to him. But then I paid attention that I was actually also answering to myself.

BEARDSLEY: Checking school kids was not the army he'd envisioned. And then a group of pro-settler Japanese evangelicals brought them pizza and told them they were doing holy work.

ABERBUJ: This moment for me was, like, kind of a huge slap on my face because I understood that something was really, really wrong. Until today, I can't grasp how this kind of actions and the level of control of the Palestinian population - how is it positive for Israel, and how this brings us security?

BEARDSLEY: Breaking the Silence guide Joel Carmel stands at a lone graveside on a windy hillside overlooking the city of Hebron.

JOEL CARMEL: It says, he gave his life for the people of Israel, the Torah of Israel and the land of Israel.

BEARDSLEY: He's talking about Baruch Goldstein, an American Israeli settler who gunned down 29 Muslim worshippers in a Hebron mosque in 1994. Goldstein is considered a mass murderer, and his grave is not in a Jewish cemetery. But it's become a pilgrimage site for some settlers who consider him a hero. Carmel grew up in London, the son of a rabbi. He says as a young Jewish person, he felt his job was to protect Israel.

CARMEL: Whenever Israel was criticized - right? - we were the first ones to send letters of complaint to the BBC and to any other news source which we thought as being unfair to Israel.

BEARDSLEY: As an Israeli soldier, he took part in mapping missions, which involved going into Palestinian homes to get more information - always in the middle of the night. What his commander said jarred him.

CARMEL: He said, we go in in the middle of the night because we want to show them who's boss. And by going in in the night, we don't just show the people whose house we go into. The whole village wakes up, and everyone in the village then knows who's in charge of this place.

WEIMAN: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Back in the South Hebron Hills, former sniper Nadav Weiman walks with one of Breaking the Silence's Palestinian partners. He says like most Israelis, he met his first Palestinian during military service - down the barrel of a gun. He wants a different future for his children.

WEIMAN: That's why it's so important for me to break my silence all of the time, to show there's a different kind of Israel. I can love Israel, really fight for this place, for the future of this place and the future of my kids. But to be against the occupation.

BEARDSLEY: Weiman says ending the occupation of the West Bank is the only chance for real peace and security for Israel.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, the West Bank.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIRTWIRE'S "AMPHIBIAN CIRCUITS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.