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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom
Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
Former Israeli Soldiers Tell of Harassment of PalestiniansPublished on Thursday, June 24, 2004 by the New York Times
by Greg Myre
TEL AVIV - When Israeli soldiers opened an exhibit this month documenting some of their own misdeeds while serving in the tense West Bank city of Hebron, they caused a brief stir.
At a photographic institute in Tel Aviv, the soldiers, all recently discharged, offer video testimony of gratuitous harassment and abuse of Palestinians, like firing tear gas just to get a reaction. Hanging on the wall are dozens of car keys confiscated from Hebron residents, a punish
ment both common and unauthorized, soldiers say. And a photo taken by a soldier shows graffiti, presumably written by civilians, which reads, "Arabs to the gas chambers." Now, the Israeli military, which had expressed only mild dismay initially, has re-energized the debate surrounding the exhibit by confiscating the video testimony on Tuesday and calling in five soldiers for questioning on Wednesday.
The exhibit remains open, and the military said it took the actions not to suppress it but to investigate the abuses described by soldiers. The former soldiers maintain that the military is trying to silence them and to discourage others from speaking out.
The driving force behind the exhibit is Yehuda Shaul, 21, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, who recently completed his mandatory military service and then recruited his former comrades for the project.
The five soldiers, himself included, spoke about their actions when questioned by the military on Wednesday, Mr. Shaul said. But they refused to identify others who speak anonymously in the video. These soldiers are not pictured, and their voices are distorted, though the television screen presents the text of their statements. "When we made the video, we promised not to give their names," Mr. Shaul said. "We feel the army doesn't really want to deal with the serious issues, they just want to make other soldiers afraid."
The 90 photos, taken by soldiers during their Hebron duty, do not reveal abuses. They do show Palestinian detainees, blindfolded and handcuffed. There are Jewish children playing in the empty streets of a town where Palestinians have faced extended curfews.
But the video testimony from 29 soldiers describes a litany of improper actions by members of the Nahal Brigade, charged with protecting 500 Jewish settlers surrounded by 130,000 Palestinians.
Through long, sweaty days and the endless, chilly nights, the soldiers describe how discipline unravels, fatigue and boredom set in, and they experience a rush in exercising power over those with no recourse.
One soldier says a colleague would fire tear gas canisters "every time he climbed up to his post and came back from it.''
"If he saw a group of people standing and talking, he would fire the tear gas just to see them run and cough,'' the soldier added. "He got a big kick out of it."
The soldiers have been reluctant to speak to foreign journalists, saying they want their exhibit to be for internal Israeli debate.
But in a lengthy interview with Haaretz magazine, Mr. Shaul said the Hebron soldiers often used Palestinians as "human shields" despite an Israeli court decision forbidding the practice.
"Using a human shield means grabbing some fellow and sending him to open the door to a suspect's house, so if he shoots, this guy will take the bullets and not us," Mr. Shaul said. He was not aware of any Palestinians killed in this practice, but the risk was always present, he said.
Palestinians, meanwhile, have frequently fired on both the soldiers and the settlers in Hebron. A 10-month-old Jewish girl was killed in 2001. The following year, Palestinians killed nine soldiers and three security guards in one of the deadliest attacks on Israeli forces.
Mr. Shaul said soldiers would often hear Palestinian fire but were unable to locate the source. The Israeli reply would often be sustained blasts of fire at empty buildings, he said.
"The idea is that there should not be an event without a response, so you respond with a big spray of gunfire," Mr. Shaul said.
The military said the soldiers should have raised their concerns while still in uniform. In a statement, the military said it "educates its soldiers to behave according to moral standards in complex situations."
The exhibit, which has been drawing several hundred visitors a day in Tel Aviv, was busier than usual on Wednesday, apparently in response to the latest controversy, Giora Salmi, the curator, said.
Next week, the exhibit is scheduled to go on display at the Knesset, Israel's Parliament.