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'Breaking the Silence' on West Bank Abuse

Israeli Soldiers' Exhibit Depicts Mistreatment of Palestinians by Troops, Settlers in Hebron

 

By Molly Moore

Washington Post Foreign Service

Thursday, June 24, 2004; Page A17

 

TEL AVIV, June 23 -- Military police on Wednesday interrogated three Israeli reserve soldiers who organized an exhibit of photographs and videotapes chronicling mistreatment of Palestinians by troops and Jewish settlers.

 

A statement issued by the military said the three men were ordered to provide testimony as part of an investigation into the "allegedly violent crimes against Palestinians and damage to Palestinian property" depicted in the show.

 

"The army wants to keep us quiet and scare us away," Micha Kurz, 22, said after what he described as seven hours of questioning by investigators. "They're not going to shut us up, because we have a lot to say, and they're not going to scare us off."

 

Soldiers said police raided the exhibit at Tel Aviv College late Tuesday and confiscated a videotape in which young troops expressed anguish over their behavior.

 

Kurz, Yehuda Shaul and Yonatan Baumfeld, who finished their mandatory three years of active duty three months ago, assembled more than 80 provocative photographs taken by troops assigned to the volatile West Bank city of Hebron and created a video of soldiers describing humiliation and abuses suffered by Palestinian civilians at their hands, as well as those of Jewish settlers.

 

The exhibition, called "Breaking the Silence," is the most graphic example yet of concerns being voiced by influential Israeli soldiers and officers over the tactics and techniques of the armed forces' occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Last year, reservists from the military's top commando unit, respected pilots, four former chiefs of Israel's powerful domestic security service and hundreds of other soldiers went public with concerns over the military's ethics.

 

In a letter to visitors posted at the entrance of the exhibit at the college's Academy for Geographic Photography, the soldiers said: "We decided to speak out. Hebron isn't in outer space. It's one hour from Jerusalem."

 

The photographs in the exhibit capture the hatred of Jewish settler graffiti -- "Arabs to the Gas Chambers!" -- and the callousness of soldiers lounging on a coffee break while a 15-year-old Palestinian sits blindfolded and handcuffed on a nearby chair, a position the show's organizers said he was forced to endure for 16 hours. The youth was accused of throwing stones at soldiers.

 

In one of the most arresting pictures, two stick-wielding Palestinian boys play a game of "hands up," pretending they are Israeli soldiers lining up four other Palestinian children, including a female toddler in a pink suit, against a wall. An Israeli soldier stands nearby, grinning, an assault rifle cradled in his arms. Another picture shows settler children ripping down the brick wall of a Palestinian shop.

 

The voices of soldiers on two television screens in the gallery buttress the photo display. Although some of the soldiers allowed their faces to be shown in the film, none of their names are used.

 

One soldier described an evening when he and his men came upon a Palestinian wedding party driving through Hebron during a military-imposed curfew.

 

"We get out of the jeep," he says. "You see the groom, you see the bride, the father. As they go out [of their car] you see on their faces the fear."

 

The deputy commander did not want to allow the wedding party to pass, according to the soldier, who adds: "He wants to spoil everything, so they go home. He takes the car keys.

 

"The bride is crying, the father of the groom is really begging," he continues. "You see on their face how they are anxious about the most significant day in their life. On the other hand, I can see the deputy commander looks at them and does not see them as humans."

 

But the soldiers aim some of their starkest criticism at the Jewish settlers who live in central Hebron, closer to Palestinian neighborhoods than any other settlement in the West Bank.

 

"The settlers whom we were meant to protect rioted, occupied houses and confronted the police and army both physically and verbally," the soldiers wrote in their letter to visitors.

 

"Whatever is done in the name of religion is allowed," a soldier says on the videotape. "To break into shops, that is allowed. As a soldier I really felt a problem because I came from a family that has values, morals."

 

Photographs that appeared benign took on an ominous edge when organizers described the events preceding or following the snap of the shutter.

 

In one such photo, a smiling, red-bearded settler grips a gun in one hand and guitar in the other. The guitar is plastered with stickers. One reads, "Either us or them. Arab enemy." A uniformed soldier holds his own rifle as though it were a guitar and grins for the camera.

 

Giora Salmi, director of the Academy for Geographic Photography, explained that on his way to play the guitar for the soldiers, the settler shot out the tires of several Palestinians' cars.

 

Salmi said thousands of people have visited the exhibit, including numerous soldiers and their families.

 

The photographs also illustrate a soldier's view of war: the cityscape as seen through a bullet hole in a window; a young Palestinian man captured in the crosshairs of a sniper rifle as he feeds his pigeons on a rooftop; Palestinian schoolchildren seen through the anti-grenade grill on the window of an army jeep.

 

On Wednesday, Liat Mor, 18, who will begin her mandatory army service next year, stood transfixed before the photos. "It's pretty shocking," she said. "You know it's a different universe. That's why I'm here -- to get prepared."

 

She scrutinized a close-up of a blindfolded Palestinian man. "I don't think it will help," she said.

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It is high time that Israel be held accountable for it's role in the unrest in the Middle East. For the most part, they have been the true cause of problems in the region. Most Arab nations blame the USA for our blind and unconditional support of Israeli policies and actions.

 

If Israel would leave the occupied territories, much of the disputes would be over.

 

Just so we are clear here, I am not at all anti-semetic. But I am totally in opposition to the actions of the Israeli Gov.

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did i miss something in my old age? please explain how israel is the source of "most" of the problems in the mideast. how was israel responsible in any way for saddam invading iran and the resulting ten year war with over a million people dead? how was israel responsible for saddam invading kuwait and the resulting "gulf war"? how is israel responsible for the terror in saudi arabia?

 

now i did hear on NBC news that the saudi government believes that jews and zionists are behind al queda and bin ladin is doing the jews work of destroying the saudi kingdom! so i guess there are delusional people who see jews and zionists behind every event. a few months ago, one of the arab leaders said that the palestinian/israeli conflict was delaying reform in the arab governments; i think that's a great story to tell the people in the gulf area that have no relationship to palestine or israel; i've got a bridge to sell those folks.

 

yes, there is a severe conflict between israel and palestinians that may not get settled in our lifetimes. however, to blame "most" of the areas troubles to that conflict is a bit much. i've long been in favor of a palestinian state in the west bank and gaza; several times i've seen israel reach out but palestinian leadership fail in their response; it will take two to dance and i see no movement on the palestinian side to make any agreement with israel.

 

i'm surprised that there has been no public arab press on the fact that the united states has an open press that allows the abu ghraib prison story to be told; the israeli article above shows the same press in israel. can you imagine such stories in saudi arabia about their government? syria? iran? etc.? if there is a positive side to the mess, it shows that this country has an open press and the power of that openess. i wonder if the "arab street" is picking up on that and asking "why not here?".

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One doesn't have to subscribe to the Saudis' (and other Arabs') crazy hatred of Israel to recognize that Israel has hideously mismanaged the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, and has aggravated the situation there in recent years. It's true that Israel has attempted many times to make peace with the Palestinians, but it has also played games with them and Israel's occupation has often been brutal. All of that is going to make achieving a final peace infinitely harder, and there will be bad blood between the Palestinians and Israelis for a very long time, I'm afraid.

 

It's not anti-Semitic to criticize the actions of Israeli governments and politicians, as long as the criticism doesn't turn into wholesale attacks on Israel's right to exist, or on all Jews everywhere. And the comments posted in this thread so far don't do that.

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my remarks were addressed to the claim that the israelis are the "...true cause of problems in the region." they bear great responsibility for the palestinian/israeli conflict (as do the palestinians themselves); there is no innocent party there. what i find amazing is the claim that israel is the basis for all the areas ills.

 

so much of the trouble in the region would occur without there being an israel. the kurds have been mistreated by everyone and that issue long predates israel. the unelected leaders of the arab world who mistreat their people would do so if there was no israel. the corruption of governments in the area would be there as well. the border disputes between arab countries would still be there. the attitudes toward women, gays, ethnic minorities, would be there israel or no israel.

 

israel has been used by despots in the area to deflect critism and focus the daily anger of the people away from the true cause of their ills. the fact that the people have bought this is amazing. no wonder iraq's neighbors do not want to see a free and open iraq. such a democratic arab country might give the citizens of the area a glimpse into what their own lives might be like with a "regime change". take your pick from our friends the saudis or states like iran and syria, a democratic iraq is the last thing they want to see. in a democracy, the people might see that israel is not the cause of their problems and focus instead on their own leadership.

 

myths die hard. the "israel is the root cause of all our ills" myth will take a long time to vanish. now is a good time to start.

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I agree that SouthBeach's remarks are utterly absurd. No Arab country was a democracy before Israel came into existence. No Arab country has become a democracy since Israel came into existence. Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979 after 12 years of hot and cold war; it was a dictatorship before 1979 and has remained a dictatorship since 1979. Israel has done nothing to prevent any Arab government from creating a democratic political system or an economy that offers opportunity to its people. For the causes of these problems, the Arabs must look to themselves.

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