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Israel Troops Exhibit Tells of Harassment

Their photos and stark testimonials are the heart of a new exhibit that tells a story of the intertwined and violent lives of the military, Palestinians and Jewish settlers in the West Bank city of Hebron. After completing their three years of compulsory military service, a group of infantry soldiers decided Israel needed to know about what they call "the crazy reality" of their experiences in Hebron - a city where about 500 settlers live in three enclaves surrounded by 130,000 Palestinians.
Israel Troops Exhibit Tells of Harassment

Thursday June 3, 2004 6:46 AM
By GAVIN RABINOWITZ
Associated Press Writer

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) - The Israeli soldiers speak with embarrassment about throwing stun grenades at Palestinian children for fun, harassing a bride and groom, and standing by as Jewish settlers vandalize Palestinians' property.

Their photos and stark testimonials are the heart of a new exhibit that tells a story of the intertwined and violent lives of the military, Palestinians and Jewish settlers in the West Bank city of Hebron. After completing their three years of compulsory military service, a group of infantry soldiers decided Israel needed to know about what they call "the crazy reality" of their experiences in Hebron - a city where about 500 settlers live in three enclaves surrounded by 130,000 Palestinians.

The Hebron settlers include some of the most extreme among the 200,000 Israelis in the West Bank and often rampage through the city. The Palestinians of Hebron, who insist that all the settlers must leave, are also known for their extremism, targeting settlers and soldiers in shooting and bombing attacks.

More than 80 soldiers who served in Hebron got together to create the exhibit of photographs and video testimony, called "Breaking the Silence." Organizers said the idea of the exhibit was both to come to terms with their own actions and to serve as a warning to others.

It is only now that we realize we did some twisted things," Micha Kurz, 20, told the Maariv daily. "We can't be quiet anymore. We want every soldier to see this and to also talk about it. It must not be allowed to happen." The soldiers refused to talk to foreign reporters.

In the exhibition, pictures taken by the soldiers while on duty in Hebron cover the walls of a Tel Aviv photography school. Video plays in two corners of the room of soldiers, their faces blurred and their voices distorted, talking about their experiences and their regrets.

They talk of the gradual change the soldier undergoes, worn down by long hours, tension, and fear. They describe the process in which they stop viewing the Palestinians as humans. "I was taught that an eight-year-old child and a 90-year-old woman are first and foremost potential terrorists, then Palestinians, Arabs and only at the end - people," Kurz told the Yediot Ahronot daily.

The photographs range from jovial group shots of soldiers taken inside barracks to pictures of detained Palestinian men lying blindfolded on the side of the road, their hands bound. But mostly they show the way the soldiers view Hebron - through the sights of a gun. In one image, cross-hairs rest on the chest of a Palestinian standing on the roof of his home. Another shows the city through the eery green glow of a night scope.

They also show the effects of tense life in the city on the Palestinians. In an interview with Israel's Channel 10 TV, 21-year-old Yehuda Shaul, who initiated the exhibit, pointed to a picture of a soldier standing next to four small Palestinian boys. "It takes a moment to grasp what's going on in this picture, but it's insane," he said. "It's Palestinian children playing at being soldiers, body-searching each other. That's the way they live, that's what they absorb."

The soldiers tell of random violence and humiliation for the Palestinians. One recounts how a comrade of his threw a stun grenade at Palestinian children "just to relieve the boredom." Another tells of how his commander held up a wedding procession during a curfew, stopping the bride and groom, dressed in their best clothes, by taking away their car keys. He smiled as the bride cried. A board displays more than 60 sets of car keys. A small sign underneath says "In the West Bank, confiscating car keys is a common form of punishment."

The soldiers' focus is also very much on the complex relationship with the settlers - many of whom are hardline Jewish nationalists. Many of the pictures show settler graffiti calling for blood and revenge, another says "Palestinians to the gas chambers."

"Hebron is the craziest place, the most paradoxical the most illogical," a former platoon commander who served in Hebron, who identifies himself only as Noam, told Israel Radio. "The day you arrive, a little Jewish boy comes to bring coffee and thanks you for defending him, and the next day you are patrolling and you see the same boy with a group of other children throwing stones and beating with sticks an old Palestinian," he said. The soldiers also tell of confrontations with settlers as they try to destroy Palestinian property and seize their homes.

Hebron resident Anat Cohen defended the settlers and their relationship with the soldiers guarding them. However, she noted that Hebron "was a complex place." Cohen told Israel Radio that this particular group of soldiers was sympathetic to the Palestinians and had even given them military binoculars to spy on the settlers.

Military spokesman Capt. Jacob Dallal said the group was "people who are thinking and are aware of the complex dilemmas of the area in which they serve," and the army respected their rights to free expression. However, Dallal said it was regrettable that the soldiers only brought up their concerns after their discharge and did not deal with the issues during their time in Hebron.

Guardian Unlimited Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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