Breaking the silence challenges the Israeli army

An Israeli soldier overlooks Palestinian worshippers praying outside the Ibrahimi Mosque in the West Bank city of Hebron, September 2008. (Mamoun Wazwaz/MaanImages)

RAMALLAH, West Bank (IPS) - An Israeli police commander has called them “provocateurs,” “militants,” and “lawbreakers.” Earlier in the year the Israeli army decided that their presence in the city of Hebron, 30 kilometers south of Jerusalem in the Palestinian West Bank, constituted a security threat and banned them from the city, stating that any member of the organization caught there would be expelled forthwith.

They’ve been spat at, stoned and assaulted, but these former members of the army, many of whom served in Hebron, are determined to expose what is being done in their name and in the name of Israel’s security.

Breaking the Silence (BTS) was co-founded in 2004 by Yehuda Shaul, 26, an Israeli soldier who served for nearly three years in the volatile city of Hebron.

The organization’s main aim is to break the silence and taboo surrounding the behavior of Israeli soldiers in the Palestinian territories in an endeavor to enlighten ordinary Israelis on what happens behind the scenes as their sons and daughters, husbands and wives serve the Jewish state.

Hebron is an especially tense city as clashes break out frequently between the city’s approximately 600 illegal Israeli settlers, protected by over a thousand Israeli soldiers, living amongst a Palestinian population of about 170,000.

The Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba in Hebron used to be the home of the United States doctor and immigrant Baruch Goldstein, who mowed down 29 Muslim worshippers as they prayed in the Ibrahimi Mosque during the holy month of Ramadan in 1994. Survivors beat him to death.

BTS has used the anonymous testimony of more than 500 Israeli soldiers who served in the Palestinian territories to hold photo-exhibitions as well as conduct fact-finding tours of Hebron for the Israeli public.

Jerusalem-born Shaul was so horrified by what he witnessed and the kind of person he felt he was turning into that he decided to do something about it. “As the term of my military service was drawing to a close, I started questioning who I was and what I wanted from life as a civilian and what I had become,” recalls Shaul.

“It’s a very terrifying moment because, in one second military terminology and way of thinking doesn’t apply to you any more, and in one second you lose the justification for 95 percent of actions you took part in over the past two years and ten months,” said the former soldier.

Shaul began talking to many of his fellow soldiers about their mutual experiences. “We all felt that something wrong was going on around us. We started talking about what we’ve done, and that’s how BTS got started,” said Shaul.

The group kicked off their campaign with a photo exhibition Bringing Hebron to Tel Aviv in 2004 which was attended by thousands. The exhibition was put up at Harvard University in the US in 2006.

Shaul explains how many Israeli soldiers changed, and eventually grew accustomed to abusing Palestinian civilians.

Following the initial excitement after first arriving in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the soldiers soon got bored, and would invent games to amuse themselves.

“You aim your rifle at kids and see them through the scope of your rifle and take a picture. The rifle is no longer a killing machine, the rifle becomes a part of your game, a way to pass time,” said Shaul.

Another game would involve detaining Palestinians for many hours “to educate them” if they broke a curfew to get food. Hebron was under curfew for 500 days from 2002-2003 during the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada.

“If you call on a Palestinian to show his ID and you don’t like his reaction, you then detain him for as long as you feel like. It just depends on which side of the bed you woke up on that morning,” he said.

At other times the soldiers would randomly spray a suburban area indiscriminately in response to gunshots from the area. Testimony from other soldiers included actions such as tanks randomly driving over parked Palestinian cars even when they were not in the way and the road was wide enough for the tanks to pass.

Stealing from Palestinians and assaulting them in their homes while soldiers conducted searches happened regularly.

“Over time,” Shaul says, “the Palestinians stop being people and simply become objects.”

Following the success of the Tel Aviv exhibition, BTS started organizing weekly tours for the Israeli public in Hebron. More than 5,000 people have participated in over 300 tours during the last three years.

But these tours have been interrupted and marred by attacks by Israeli settlers. The army responded by banning BTS from the area earlier this year. Following a successful appeal to the Israeli high court BTS had the ban overturned, and the tours resumed.

But the resumption of the first tour in June was stopped yet again as Israeli settlers blocked the path of the bus and poured scalding water over several tour participants while the police stood by.

None of the settlers were charged.

Angry Israeli intellectuals and left-wing activists, including internationally renowned Israeli author Amos Oz, signed a letter of protest which was published in the Israeli daily Haaretz. They demanded that the Israeli police enforce law and order in Hebron and make the settlers accountable.

BTS follows in the footsteps of another group of peace activists, Yesh Gvul (Hebrew for “There’s a Limit”). Yesh Gvul comprises Israeli soldiers who refuse, on the basis of moral objections, to serve in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Yesh Gvul was established in 1982 following Israel’s disastrous invasion of Lebanon when more than a thousand Palestinian civilians were massacred by Israel’s Christian Phalangist allies in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.

This followed the assassination of Phalangist leader and Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel. The Phalangists, incorrectly, suspected Palestinian involvement.

Israeli troops were later found to have surrounded the camps, preventing any escape, and fired flares into the night making it easier for their butcher allies. Israel was also largely held responsible for arming, training and financing the Phalangists.

While hundreds of Yesh Gvul activists have been jailed for being conscientious objectors, Ofer Neiman, 37, a computer science lecturer from Jerusalem, was kicked out of an intelligence unit of the Israeli Air Force where he served.

“I refused to be part of an intelligence unit which provided information on the possible bombing of civilian targets in the territories,” Neiman told IPS. “I also began a campaign of letter writing to the then [army] chief of staff, Dan Halutz.”

Halutz was responsible for ordering the dropping of a one-ton bomb on a crowded residential apartment building in a densely populated Gaza neighborhood in 2002. The bomb killed Hamas leader Salah Shehade. Amongst the civilian casualties were 14 children.

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2008). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.

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