2021 Featured Activists: Avner Gvaryahu

(Part One)

Meet Avner Gvaryahu, Executive Director of Breaking the Silence

On the evening we speak for this interview, Avner has just returned from the West Bank city of Hebron, where Breaking the Silence had conducted six tours in one day.

“Being in Hebron and seeing the city center ‘sterile’ of Palestinians is no longer a shock like it was the first time I understood what was happening there,” he says, using a military term to describe an area cleared of civilians. “But I still feel it, even after all these years. Seeing the stones visitors put on Baruch Goldstein’s grave is depressing.

On the other hand, I’m encouraged by the Israelis and the Jews and others from around the world who come here to oppose this reality; and even more so by the local Palestinians who continue their nonviolent resistance against the occupation.”

Avner has been with Breaking the Silence for ten years and its director for more than four. He first encountered the organization when he joined their tour to the South Hebron Hills and afterward decided to give testimony about his own military service. These first-hand testimonies serve to explain to average Israelis the harsh reality of life under occupation. Like many who give such testimony, his path to that moment was circuitous.

Avner grew up in a religious family in Rehovot that, unlike many of their neighbors, he says, educated their children to think critically, to question reality and power dynamics, and to be involved in local and global politics.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995 was a turning point for the family.

“I remember going with my dad to what is now Rabin Square for the first memorial after the assassination and looking around and not seeing many kipot.

Between Duty and Conscience

Avner says he didn’t encounter Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza firsthand until he joined the army in 2004 as a paratrooper. His father was a paratrooper, he was named for a paratrooper who fell in combat, and he felt that now it was his turn, his responsibility.

Avner’s eyes were opened when, as the sergeant of a sniper team, he led teams that broke into Palestinian homes in the West Bank in the middle of the night.

“The army can take over any home, road, or land for military purposes and a big part of my service was to take over a house,” he tells NIFC. “The people in the house are innocent and you know it. You use the house as a military post so you can look out of their windows to see what’s happening. The military rationale is usually there but you’re breaking into innocent people’s houses, usually locking them in a room, closing the windows, disconnecting the phone, and often blindfolding and handcuffing the head of the house.

“Sometimes these takeovers are connected to a mission and sometimes not. Sometimes they’re just to demonstrate our presence, our control.

“I began to realize that beyond my responsibility to serve, it was my responsibility to add a voice that is critical of this reality that I was a part of.”

The first time he was asked to do this, Avner felt confused and ashamed but those feelings paled in comparison to the adrenalin pumping into him and the excitement he felt, he says.

“From what I understand today, and from testimonies of soldiers and commanders, I think that action was simply part of our training. It’s not uncommon for soldiers to train on Palestinian families.”

As breaking into Palestinian homes became a main feature of Avner’s service, the questions and doubts grew.

He thought that when he became a sergeant he’d have more control over the situation, and the realization that this wasn’t the case was a tough one for him. He says he saw that “the problem was not the individual soldier but the whole system of the occupation….

“One of the most powerful moments for me, and what pushed me to search for answers, was a night toward the end of my service when we took over a house of a physician in Nablus. We barged in and an old man is standing there trying to prevent us from entering, telling us in good English that he was promised we wouldn’t come. And we do what we’re supposed to do – we pin him to the wall, blindfold and handcuff him, and force him and his wife and daughter into a room.

“I felt really bad about the whole situation. So I went into the room, thinking I’ll show him how moral I am and put my gun aside, took my helmet off, un-handcuffed him and took off his blindfold – and we had a conversation. Despite the fact that I had just barged into his house with a gun, he was gracious and willing to speak to me. He explained what it’s like to be a Palestinian under occupation and put my action in that house in the larger constellation of events. That was really important for me.

“I was trying to control that specific situation and he said, ‘You’ll leave and other soldiers will come. We’ve been at this for so many years.’ And seeing the fear of his wife and daughter and understanding that this is the life of so many Palestinians all over the west bank was an ‘aha’ moment for me…

“Even people who were born and raised here don’t really know what this 54-year occupation is about and the effect it has on the victims and the victimizers. Everyone needs to know this in order to change the reality.“

Despite how close most Israelis live to the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinian territories exist behind a wall, both actual and psychological, that hides its reality from most Israelis. As we’ve seen in the past four elections, the fate of the West Bank and Gaza has all but disappeared as an item on the public agenda. Breaking the Silence was founded by soldiers to use their own experiences to raise up a mirror to Israeli society.

From Paratrooper to Human Rights Advocate

Avner signed up for a Breaking the Silence tour that confirmed his growing realization that he was “a cog supporting the settlement enterprise.” At first, he had to be persuaded to give a testimony, but he did and his involvement with the organization grew as the organization itself grew. Today, Breaking the Silence is one of the most well-known and effective Israeli human rights NGOs.

For example, Breaking the Silence succeeded just last month in ending the practice of arbitrary house invasions. Along with NIFC-funded partners B’Tselem and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, among others, their reports and campaign over many months compelled the IDF to suspend the practice. 

Becoming a high-profile advocate of human rights and against the occupation has made Avner a favorite target of ultra-nationalists and settlement defenders. He was targeted by ultra-nationalist groups like Im Tirtzu who labeled him a “foreign agent” on social media resulted in death threats against him. He sees this as part of “a right-wing strategy to delegitimize voices of Israelis who criticize government policy.”

Avner believes that the occupation is unsustainable and thus it won’t last forever. Breaking the Silence is committed to restoring the reality of the situation to the public agenda.

“What keeps us going is the support we receive. We have supporters here in Israel who think what we do is extremely important. And the support of the New Israel Fund is critical. It means we have a greater community fighting for justice and for a just solution for Israelis and Palestinians.”

Written and reported by Ruth Mason.

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