Avner Gvaryahu - Breaking the Silence HARDtalk


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Avner Gvaryahu - Breaking the Silence

Interviews with newsmakers and personalities from across the globe. Stephen Sackur speaks to Avner Gvaryahu, a former Israeli Defence Force soldier.


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website. And you can reach me on

Twitter as well.

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Now on BBC News, it is time for

HARDtalk.

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Welcome to HARDtalk,

I'm Stephen Sackur.

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The Israeli Defence Force sees

itself as an institution which binds

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the nation together.

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Most young Israelis serve

in its ranks after leaving school.

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It claims to combine

defence of the state

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with a sense of moral purpose.

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My guest today served

in the IDF but he sees

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an institution in denial,

Corroded and corrupted

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by the military occupation

of Palestinian communities over

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a 50 year span.

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Avner Gvaryahu and like-minded

soldiers turned dissidents say

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they are breaking the silence.

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Are they patriots or traitors?

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Avner Gvaryahu, welcome to HARDtalk.

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Thank you.

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I think it's fair to say,

the IDF is probably the most

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sacrosanct institution

in all of Israel.

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Was it hard for you to cross a line,

to break the taboo and speak out

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against what the IDF is doing?

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Breaking the silence, I think,

in any context isn't easy.

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Definitely in the Israeli society,

it's not a natural thing in that

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sense, to break that

kind of silence.

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But I think that myself,

like over 1000 soldiers,

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are a part of breaking

the silence, former soldiers.

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It was much more difficult for me

to keep my silence than to break it,

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and it's true that there are prices.

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But the truth of the matter is,

I care too much for my country

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and my society to keep silent.

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And although there are push

backs, we will persevere.

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You broke the silence

after you'd put your uniform

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away and left the IDF.

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Were you silent while you

were a serving soldier?

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Well, I didn't feel

that I was silent.

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I remember occasions

where I brought up what I was doing

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in the nights in Nablus and Jenin

when I was back home.

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I thought I wasn't silent when I

asked my soldiers what they thought

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about these operations.

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But it actually took me

a while after my service

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where I actually thought that

I could put my military service

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behind me, to realise that I,

myself, was also silent.

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That I, myself, was also not really

frank when I was looking

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myself in the mirror.

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So you were, to use that phrase,

a good soldier, you followed orders

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and you did things, which...

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and I'm now asking,

rather than stating.

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I'm guessing you did things

which your moral conscience told

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you you should not be doing,

but you did them anyway and did not

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speak out against them.

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That's true.

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I mean, I was the sergeant

of a snipers team, and one

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of the team missions we carried out

in Nablus, in Jenin

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or in the surrounding areas of those

two cities was a mission

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that we call The Straw Widow.

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Straw Widow is when you take

over a Palestinian home,

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every house in the West Bank

actually has a number.

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Each and every house has a number,

so we would open up the maps

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and look at the specific house that

looked into the right place

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that we had to enter,

a city centre or a road.

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And after, we would verify

that the House has the best

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parameters, windows and geographical

area, we made sure the people

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in the house were innocent.

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So we would enter the house

of an innocent Palestinian home

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in the middle of the night.

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The first mission that I carried

out, the adrenaline was pumping.

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The second, the third, the fourth,

when it started to calm down,

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I realised I was sitting

in someone's living room,

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bedroom, children's room,

that was when it started to break.

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And you are dealing

with people in fear?

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Constant fear.

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But I had to save

the fear is two sided.

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I was also full of fear.

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But I would say that

what motivated me eventually

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to break my silence was the piercing

eyes of young Palestinians,

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when I was barging into their house

in the middle of the night,

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I could always justify it to myself.

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But those eyes, the anger,

their fear was what eventually

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helped me overcome that.

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A house of a physician in Nablus,

for example, that I entered

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in the middle of the night,

taking him, his wife

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and his daughter, and

pushing them in a room.

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If they wanted to use

their bathroom or their kitchen,

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or use their phone, they needed

permission from me.

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That specific house in Nablus stayed

with me for a while because that

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physician himself was kind enough

and generous enough to sit down

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and explain to me what it means

to be a Palestinian.

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And that experience,

when I was sitting there in a house

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in Nablus made me realise what I'm

actually doing as a soldier,

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to millions and millions of people,

me, myself, not someone else,

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not a different unit.

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A veneer, and I thought

I was a good moral soldier,

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but I was actually helping in change

the occupation in that sense.

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I just want to be clear,

are you saying that the very act

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of going into the house

of an innocent Palestinian family,

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to you, was and is totally

unacceptable, and corrosive,

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and doing serious damage

to the sort of moral values

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of Israel's army and,

indeed, the nation state?

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Or are you saying that that's just

the tip of an iceberg of behaviour,

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much of which is much

worse than that?

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Yeah, I would say that when you look

at the past 50 years,

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entering the 51st year,

look at the past 13 years that

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we've been collecting

testimonies from soldiers,

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and you have different

kinds of testimonies.

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So like the Straw Widow that

I just talked about,

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I could talk about the flying

checkpoint or entering houses

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for searching, or checkpoints,

or making our presence felt,

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instilling fear into

the Palestinian population.

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Or the actual order's war,

instilling a sense that

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they're being chased,

showing there's

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a new sheriff in town.

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There's a constant system...

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It's the imposition

of a basic power dynamic.

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The message being, "We're

in control, we're in charge

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of you and your lives,

and we, in essence,

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can do what we want."

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That's true.

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And I would say, in that,

you have mundane routine

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operations of just having...

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You know, standing in a checkpoint,

or walking through a city centre

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or village, and you can have cases

in this military occupation

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of violence, destruction of poverty,

of humiliations of Palestinians.

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We've collected dozens

of these testimonies.

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That's not the problem

of occupation, it's a symptom.

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The problem is the idea

of controlling millions of people

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by force indefinitely.

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And that's where the state

of Israel is going.

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That's where the government

is actually taking us,

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and indefinite military occupation.

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But this, in the end, what you're

outlining as your critique

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of what is happening in Israel,

and that the IDF as the agent

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of occupation is doing

is essentially political.

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I mean, you're saying,

if I understand you correctly,

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that the very act and policy

of occupation is corroding

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Israel's value and must end.

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But the truth is, time after time,

after time, the Israeli public votes

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in elections for parties

which sustain and believe

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in that occupation.

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That's true, but when you look

at this democracy, it's basically

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a democracy that is controlling

and ruling millions of people

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that don't have a right

or say in that democracy.

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So between the river and the seat,

you have about 13 million people,

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where half of them do not go

and elect anyone.

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So a big part of our mission,

and that's where we spend,

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as Breaking The Silence,

the vast majority of our

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energy and time, speaking

to our fellow citizens.

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All across Israel, we're actually

the leading organisation

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in the anti-occupation camp

in the sheer numbers

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of people that we meet.

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But we also recognise

that the houses that we entered

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were not houses of Israelis,

and the occupation is not

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an internal Israeli issue,

it's an issue that affects

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millions of Palestinians.

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And obviously, the international

community is involved as will.

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And I want to come back

to the politics of this in some

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detail, but just to stick,

for now, with testimony,

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because Breaking The Silence

is all about gathering together

0:09:030:09:05

the voices of soldiers,

former soldiers, who are no longer

0:09:050:09:08

prepared to be silent

about what they've seen.

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I just want you to be very

clear with me about some

0:09:100:09:13

of the other behaviours,

because you've talked

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about the day-to-day goal

routines of occupation,

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but the other behaviours,

like for example, testimony

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about looting, stealing,

Israeli soldiers stealing from

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inside Palestinian family homes.

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Other testimony about deliberate

acts of violence, striking youths,

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striking people in their own

homes, beating them.

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Also, firing rubber bullets,

transgressing the limits that

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are supposed to be imposed

on the firing of those bullets

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and undoing the packaging,

so they do more damage.

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All of these aren't just

about the routines of occupation,

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they suggest to me an army that has,

within it, significant

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numbers of soldiers,

who want to do bad things.

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I mean, you can choose

to look at it like that.

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I think it's more complex.

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But isn't it important to be honest

that there are Israeli soldiers,

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if this testimony is true,

many say it's not, but if it's true,

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there are people in the IDF

doing very bad things.

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Yeah, I could say more than that.

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I was one of those soldiers

doing very bad things.

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I saw it with my own eyes.

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I was part of it.

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I was violent.

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And I think, in that sense,

it's not about pinpointing

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a specific soldier individual,

and I don't think there

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are Israeli generals

waking up in the morning,

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saying, "How can I make the lives

of Palestinians miserable?"

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But there is a system that for now,

51 years, is constantly thinking,

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how can we maintain the status quo?

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Or I would say , let's

take it a step further,

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how can we entrench it?

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The Israeli-occupation, I think,

has built in the mindset

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of the Israeli society.

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The that basically says

it's a zero-sum game.

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It's either us or them.

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And in order for us to feel secure,

they have do feel insecure.

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And when you have an entire

army or a vast majority

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of the Israeli army,

which is in charge of maintaining

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that military control,

so the mission is control.

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The symptom is exactly

what you talked about.

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Now, those symptoms will not

disappear until we end occupation.

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But the problem is not only how

you act once you enter a house,

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that's exactly why I mentioned

the Straw Widow.

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Because for me, the issue

is the fact that you

0:11:200:11:23

can enter any house.

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It's not how you smile or treat

the Palestinian in the checkpoint,

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but the fact that you can control

the lives of millions and control

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these checkpoints and pass permits.

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Can you afford the luxury of this

delicate conscience of yours,

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when there is, what ever you say,

there is a struggle,

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a struggle which involves violence

on both sides between Israel

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and the Palestinians.

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Most definitely.

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I'm not a pacifist.

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And I was shocked at,

friends of mine were injured,

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soldiers of mine were injured,

good friends of mine

0:11:540:11:57

were killed as well.

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It's not about being naive,

it's about looking forward

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and understanding, from our personal

experience, that in every house,

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in every checkpoint,

in every land grab, in every

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unauthorised settlement

that was just approved, for example,

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by our Minister of Defence just

recently, we are dooming us

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and our neighbouring Palestinians,

who are not going anywhere,

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to another cycle of this.

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And in that sense, I'll just say one

thing, I think that there is a very

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important distinction

between a long-lasting conflict,

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the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

definitely has two sides to it

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and a lot of bad blood.

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But in the Israeli-Palestinian

conflict, there's one issue,

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the Israeli occupation,

that is one-sided.

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And it's our responsibility in sense

to want to end it, and to end dit..

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But the point is, you are

politicising the IDF,

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you are quite plain that you believe

as a political objective,

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deep occupation must be ended.

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And yet, day-to-day, the IDF has

to be people by soldiers,

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who are not political,

but who loyally follow the orders

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of their commanders.

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And the chief of staff,

Gadi Eisenkot, said back in May,

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26 in, he said, "The IDF soldiers

must know beyond a shadow of doubt

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that the whole nation supports them

and stands behind them,

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even when there are differences

of political opinion."

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Yeah, I mean, I'm not

here to criticise the IDF.

0:13:160:13:19

Well, that's exactly what you do.

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So I'll tell you why I don't

think that's what I do.

0:13:300:13:33

What I do is I criticise the mission

the IDF got to carry out.

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And in that sense, the problem that

soldiers are facing has

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to do with the decisions

of the government.

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You can be a right wing soldier

or a left-wing soldier,

0:13:430:13:46

but you're carrying out a mission

of the most right wing, messianic,

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religious government...

0:13:490:13:57

But you can't be an effective

soldier if you look at your comrades

0:13:570:14:00

just down the line and you know

that his political views

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might lead him to say

he won't do certain things,

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because it's against

his moral principles.

0:14:060:14:08

Armies don't work like that.

0:14:080:14:14

No, you're right.

0:14:140:14:15

You're right.

0:14:150:14:16

But I think, more importantly,

democracies don't work in a way

0:14:160:14:28

where they control other people

by force for so many years...

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Well, democracies generally

get governments voted

0:14:310:14:33

by a majority of the people.

0:14:330:14:35

You have to live with the fact

that your government in Israel,

0:14:350:14:38

includes within it, people

like Senior Minister Avigdor

0:14:380:14:40

Lieberman, who has said

of you and your group Breaking

0:14:400:14:43

the Silence, "They are no different

from," and he quoted,

0:14:430:14:54

Ehud Adiv or Mordekai Wadudu,

some of the most famous traitors

0:14:550:14:57

in Israel's history.

0:14:580:14:58

How do you feel about senior

government ministers

0:14:580:15:01

labelling you a traitor.

0:15:010:15:06

I think it's absurd,

especially when you look

0:15:060:15:08

at the military record

of Avigdor Lieberman per se.

0:15:080:15:11

But I had to say that I always ask

myself the question,

0:15:110:15:14

what was the moment

I became a traitor?

0:15:140:15:16

Was it the moment I was standing

in a house in Nablus,

0:15:160:15:19

and I had a question popped

into my head if I was

0:15:190:15:23

doing the right thing?

0:15:230:15:24

Was it on my way back to the base,

when I was reading a book

0:15:240:15:28

and saying, "Wow, this is actually

questioning what I'm

0:15:280:15:30

doing right now"?

0:15:300:15:31

Or was it the discussion I had

as a soldier with my family?

0:15:310:15:35

This moment when former

soldiers turn into traitors

0:15:350:15:37

is just unacceptable,

Because The Truth Of The Matter Is

0:15:370:15:39

is just unacceptable,

because the truth of the matter

0:15:400:15:42

is that Breaking The Silence is not

a group of people that served

0:15:420:15:45

in the past, but there

are people serving today that

0:15:460:15:48

will be our testifiers.

0:15:480:15:49

So in that sense, Avigdor

Lieberman is calling his

0:15:490:15:52

own soldiers traitors.

0:15:520:15:52

There are soldiers who don't agree

with his policies...

0:15:530:15:55

But only a very tiny minority

are influenced by you.

0:15:550:15:58

The vast majority are not.

0:15:580:15:59

You have, perhaps, a thousand voices

gathered in Breaking The Silence,

0:15:590:16:02

of the many tens and tens

of thousands of Israelis,

0:16:020:16:05

who over that span of time,

have served in the IDF.

0:16:050:16:08

It comes to the point made

by another minister, Deputy Minister

0:16:080:16:11

of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Hotovely,

who says, "A subversive

0:16:110:16:13

organisation," that is her

description of you, "A subversive

0:16:130:16:16

organisation based on lies

that is actively trying to besmirch

0:16:160:16:18

Israel's good name and that

of the IDF."

0:16:180:16:21

is the best example.

0:16:210:16:22

Hotovely is basically calling

for a de facto one state that

0:16:220:16:25

will become an apartheid.

0:16:250:16:26

And Hotovely is supporting

not the state of Israel

0:16:260:16:29

or its soldiers but the occupation.

0:16:290:16:31

And what we're trying to besmirch,

and we are trying to besmirch

0:16:310:16:38

something, it's not Israel

but the occupation itself.

0:16:380:16:40

But the point is, as a citizen

of Israel, you've every right

0:16:400:16:44

to whatever political opinion

you want to hold, but what critics

0:16:440:16:47

of your organisation see is a group

that actually tries to win recruits

0:16:470:16:50

from the serving IDF,

and which undermines the coherence,

0:16:500:16:53

the unity of Israel's

most important institution.

0:16:530:16:59

Just this last week,

we published a book of testimonies.

0:16:590:17:02

I have it here.

0:17:020:17:08

And we published an entire

collection of soldiers that

0:17:080:17:11

choose to explain why

they broke their silence.

0:17:110:17:13

For the past two years,

there's been a smear campaign led

0:17:130:17:18

from the highest echelons

of the Israeli government,

0:17:180:17:21

and still, soldiers

choose to speak to us...

0:17:210:17:23

OK, let's get real, then.

0:17:230:17:35

Let's make this personal.

0:17:350:17:36

You have a younger brother.

0:17:360:17:37

He, I believe, is serving

in the IDF today.

0:17:370:17:40

That is true.

0:17:400:17:44

Is he a member of your organisation?

0:17:440:17:46

No, he's not.

0:17:460:17:47

He's a serving soldier.

0:17:470:17:48

We can have argument around

the table, but he's not a member

0:17:480:17:51

of Breaking The Silence.

0:17:510:17:52

Your brother, I don't

know which unit he's in,

0:17:520:17:55

where he is serving today,

but if he's in the West Bank,

0:17:550:17:58

he's probably doing

the sort of work you did -

0:17:580:18:01

going into innocent people's houses,

setting up roadblocks.

0:18:010:18:03

One could say, doing everything

that the occupation represents

0:18:030:18:05

in terms of imposing power

on the Palestinian people.

0:18:050:18:08

Is your message to him that,

as a man of conscience,

0:18:080:18:11

he shouldn't be doing that?

0:18:110:18:12

My message to him, and this

is what I told him before

0:18:120:18:15

he served, is that he has

a responsibility to know.

0:18:160:18:18

My dad was a paratrooper.

0:18:180:18:20

I was a paratrooper.

0:18:200:18:21

My younger brother you mentioned is,

today, a paratrooper.

0:18:210:18:27

In that sense, the mission

of Breaking The Silence

0:18:270:18:29

is not about talking

about an individual decision.

0:18:290:18:32

It's about the

governmental decision.

0:18:320:18:36

And at the end of the day,

they'll continue to be brothers,

0:18:360:18:39

sisters, and numbers of Israeli

society that will continue to go

0:18:390:18:46

and maintain this occupation,

unless there is an overall political

0:18:460:18:48

decision in that sense.

0:18:480:18:49

To break the chain, you had to rely

on individuals to act

0:18:500:18:53

with their conscience.

0:18:530:18:54

What do your brother

and your father think

0:18:540:18:56

of your stand and your message?

0:18:560:18:57

I'm glad and proud

that they support me...

0:18:570:19:00

What about your cousins,

who live, I believe,

0:19:000:19:02

in Jewish settlements on occupied

land in the West Bank?

0:19:020:19:04

But like every other

family, we have arguments,

0:19:050:19:07

including relatives of mine,

which I love dearly.

0:19:070:19:09

And we disagree.

0:19:090:19:10

You've been called a traitor, you've

been called all sorts of things.

0:19:100:19:13

Have you received threats?

0:19:130:19:14

I have.

0:19:140:19:15

How do you cope with that?

0:19:150:19:16

I think that the way I cope

is by looking around my fellows,

0:19:160:19:20

men and women, who are part

of Breaking The Silence.

0:19:200:19:22

Many of them have

also been threatened.

0:19:220:19:24

There was actually an individual

who was caught with about 20

0:19:240:19:27

gallons of gasoline,

trying to burn our offices.

0:19:280:19:29

There were people that

actively tried to attack

0:19:300:19:32

us in demonstrations.

0:19:320:19:32

Private phone numbers of members

of our family were published online.

0:19:330:19:36

It's not easy to be a Breaking

The Silence member these days.

0:19:360:19:39

But with that said,

there is unbelievable support

0:19:390:19:41

within the Israeli society.

0:19:410:19:42

It's true, we're not

in the heart of the Israeli

0:19:420:19:45

consensus to say the least.

0:19:450:19:48

No, you're not.

0:19:480:20:03

You're a fringe, your an extreme,

and it gets down to your

0:20:030:20:06

relationship with your own country.

0:20:060:20:07

Your country has repeatedly

voted for governments

0:20:070:20:14

which sustain the occupation.

0:20:140:20:15

Currently, your prime ministers says

he doesn't believe in a two

0:20:160:20:18

state solution negotiated

with the Palestinians.

0:20:190:20:24

At what point are you going to say,

"I can no longer live in this

0:20:240:20:28

country, where most of the people

seem to be so far removed from my

0:20:280:20:32

own view of what is the right,

proper and just solution

0:20:320:20:35

to the conflict with

the Palestinians?"

0:20:350:20:36

Never.

0:20:360:20:36

I'm an Israeli patriot.

0:20:370:20:38

I love my country, and I will fight

to make it a better place.

0:20:380:20:41

The fact is that although there

is a campaign against us,

0:20:410:20:46

led by this current administration,

there are thousands of Israelis

0:20:460:20:49

who support us, including former

heads of Secret Service,

0:20:490:20:56

including high-ranking military

generals, opinion makers, artists.

0:20:560:20:58

In that sense, we are in

the middle of a struggle.

0:20:580:21:01

We're in the struggle for

the essence of the state of Israel.

0:21:010:21:04

Isn't the essence...

0:21:040:21:05

Just one more point.

0:21:050:21:13

I think in that sense, the fact

is that the Israeli opposition,

0:21:130:21:16

and the Israeli political sphere has

refrained from taking a hard line

0:21:160:21:19

against the occupation.

0:21:190:21:20

And that's part of the reason

that organisations like

0:21:200:21:23

Breaking The Silence have become de

facto, one of the only opposition

0:21:230:21:28

is to the occupation.

0:21:280:21:29

In the end, you and your case

case are not winning

0:21:290:21:37

the argument in Israel.

0:21:380:21:39

I just wonder why you think that is.

0:21:390:21:41

Why is it?

0:21:410:21:42

Because most Israelis

serve in the military.

0:21:420:21:49

You say, oh, they're in denial,

they don't want to see,

0:21:490:21:52

they don't want to see the reality.

0:21:520:21:54

They know the reality.

0:21:540:21:55

Their sons serve, they probably

served themselves in the occupation.

0:21:550:21:58

They do know the reality,

but they don't agree with you.

0:21:580:22:01

No, but I would say this,

even though I'm a minority voice,

0:22:010:22:04

my responsibility is to speak out.

0:22:040:22:06

Breaking The Silence

is difficult exactly

0:22:060:22:07

because it's against the stream.

0:22:070:22:15

A deadly because it's not easy.

0:22:150:22:17

We knew from the get go.

0:22:170:22:18

We knew from the moment that each

and every one of us broke

0:22:180:22:22

the silence and spoke out,

it would not be easy to access.

0:22:220:22:25

But in that sense, when you look

around, and when you look

0:22:250:22:28

at Israeli leadership today,

the only path they're leading

0:22:280:22:31

us is to a destruction

of the state of Israel.

0:22:310:22:34

And in that sense, we might be

a minority, but you cannot,

0:22:340:22:37

you cannot accept to hear voices,

and target them or ban them

0:22:370:22:40

as legitimate or illegitimate,

because the amount of people

0:22:400:22:42

who support them, but because of

the essence of the claim.

0:22:430:22:45

And the essence of the claim

of Breaking The Silence

0:22:460:22:48

is that we are in the 51st year

of control over people who do not

0:22:480:22:53

want to be controlled by us.

0:22:530:22:55

That means that our future is just

more rounds of violence.

0:22:550:22:59

And in that sense, we're

actually actively fighting

0:22:590:23:04

for their not to be a solution.

0:23:040:23:06

Tzipi Hotovely, who you mentioned,

Avigdor Lieberman,

0:23:060:23:08

who you mentioned, who is a settler

himself, by the way,

0:23:080:23:11

Netanyahu is actively trying to make

sure that there'll never be

0:23:110:23:14

Palestinian freedom.

0:23:140:23:15

There will never be any ability

for Palestinians to do exactly

0:23:150:23:18

what my ancestors did,

create a homeland for themselves.

0:23:180:23:20

In your heart, do you accept this

is a battle you're not going to win?

0:23:200:23:24

You can fight it, and

you're determined to,

0:23:240:23:26

but you're not going to win.

0:23:260:23:31

I think we'll have to wait and see.

0:23:310:23:34

We'll end there.

0:23:340:23:34

Avner Gvaryahu, thank you very much

for being on HARDtalk.

0:23:350:23:37

Thank you.

0:23:370:23:38

Thank you.

0:23:380:23:52

The Israeli Defence Force sees itself as an institution that binds the nation together. Most young Israelis serve in its ranks after leaving school. It claims to combine defence of the state with a sense of moral purpose. Avner Gvaryahu served in the IDF but he sees an institution in denial - corroded and corrupted by the military occupation of Palestinian communities over a fifty-year span. Avner Gvaryahu and like-minded soldiers turned dissidents say they are breaking the silence. Are they patriots or traitors?