- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 9, 2004

TEL AVIV — A group of former Israeli soldiers is shining a rare and troubling spotlight on the behavior of Israel’s troops in the West Bank city of Hebron, making their case with an exhibition in a Tel Aviv gallery this week.

Titled “Breaking the Silence,” the display of photographs and video testimonials illustrates the dehumanizing life of an Israel soldier in Hebron, a flash-point city where several hundred militant Jewish settlers live amid more than 140,000 Palestinians.

Images show Palestinian teenage boys bound and blindfolded as punishment for rock throwing, Jewish settlers vandalizing Palestinian shops and groups of smiling teenage Israeli soldiers posing for a group picture.

Discussion in Israel of the abuse of Palestinians by soldiers was amplified by the indictment of three border policemen this week by the state prosecutor on torture charges.

“Israeli society doesn’t know what’s going on in the territories — and in Hebron specifically,” said Yehuda Shaul, who organized the exhibition months after the end of a multiyear term of compulsory army service.

“This is about what the soldiers experience and what happens to the soul of the soldier. Red lines are always being distanced and not criticized.”

The images on display lack the graphic viciousness of photographs documenting abuse of Iraqis by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison.

Nevertheless, the questions raised by the exhibition and the indictments are equally as troubling in a country where the military often is praised as aspiring to achieve “purity of arms.”

One infantryman featured in the exhibit says he was forced to dehumanize the Palestinians in order to stay sane during his tour of duty.

“What resonates is that they speak of the banality of the occupation, and the ritual which makes you less human and see the other side as something that doesn’t count,” said Ilana Dayan, who interviewed the soldiers about their service for a news magazine she hosts on Israel’s Channel 2 television station. “They spoke about the fact that they all come back with a kind of a scar.”

Several soldiers featured in the exhibit said they were reluctant to be quoted by foreign reporters for fear of being accused of airing the country’s dirty laundry in media outlets abroad.

In recent years, reserve officers who have signed letters refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have raised a storm of controversy in Israel.

But Mr. Shaul and the group behind the exhibition are not being viewed with the same severity.

On the day after the opening, Lt. Col. Chen Livni, the deputy commander of the brigade in which the soldiers served, visited the show.

“The urban environment is very complex. I know the situation is very problematic for the soldiers,” said Col. Livni, who added that he would consider sending officers in training to the exhibit. “It portrayed just one side of reality. The other side is the suicide bombers. We have terrorists using civilian population as a base.”

Hebron, a city holy in both Jewish and Muslim traditions, is charged with a history of bloodletting on both sides.

Like Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, the conflict centers on competing claims of ownership over the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the traditional burial place of the biblical forefathers.

The city has been a magnet for Jewish settlers who are among the most fervent in their conviction of holding an exclusive title to the biblical Land of Israel.

David Wilder, a spokesman for Jewish settlers in Hebron, accused the soldiers of trying to lay the groundwork for a campaign to evacuate Israelis from Hebron.

“We’ve seen a continued politicization of the army. It’s something that [the army] has always tried to avoid, but unfortunately, that’s what happening now,” he said. “People have political ideologies, and they will utilize whatever tools at their disposal to prove their point.”

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