‘Breaking the Silence’ on West Bank Abuse
Molly Moore

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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