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Exhibit of Photos and Testimonials Shows Soldiers’ Troubles in Hebron

June 24, 2004
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Off a small, quiet courtyard in a southern corner of Tel Aviv, a one-room exhibit of photographs and video testimonials tells the story of one group of soldiers’ army service in Hebron, which they call “the hardest and most confusing place of all.” The testimonials and photographs — of Palestinian terrorist suspects blindfolded, Israeli children trashing a Palestinian store, a smiling soldier holding his machine gun like a guitar — present an everyday reality that the soldiers say turned their moral universe upside down.

The exhibit has attracted national and international coverage. On Tuesday, among the steady stream of visitors — who included a Japanese television crew and Israeli teenagers and families — were Israeli Military Police who raided the exhibit, confiscating a videotape of soldiers’ testimonials and a folder of articles on the exhibit.

The four reserve soldiers from the infantry brigade who organized the exhi! bit, entitled “Breaking the Silence,” were interrogated by the military on Wednesday.

More than 80 soldiers from the Nahal brigade’s Battalion 50 contributed to the exhibit.

The exhibit was spearheaded by Yehuda Shaul, 21, a burly and charismatic fervently Orthodox reservist from Jerusalem who spent 14 months in Hebron as a soldier and officer. He apologized to visitors Tuesday for having to cut short a tour.

“We have to go meet with our lawyer,” he said. The army “is scared of us telling our story. They want us to stop.”

Military officials denied that the army was trying to shut down the exhibit. Instead, they said, the materials suggested that soldiers had abused Palestinians, and the army wanted to investigate the incidents with an eye to possible prosecution.

Hebron is a complex place, army spokesman Jacob Dallal said, but the soldiers “have as their responsibility a duty to act in a certain way and uphold a certain standard. If there are incidents i! n which they acted in ways that were unlawful, they’re accountable for it. Hence the police are investigating.”

The exhibit reportedly is scheduled to appear next at the Knesset.

Shaul, whose father is Canadian and whose late mother was American, intended to work in Canada after finishing his compulsory military service, but said he couldn’t go abroad before telling what he and his friends had gone through.

He soon found that others who served in Battalion 50 also wanted to share their experiences. Shaul began sifting through their photo albums, selecting pictures for the exhibit and interviewing other soldiers with a video camera, often with their faces blurred and voices distorted to protect their identities.

Created in the 1950s to help set up new kibbutzim, the Nahal brigade is known for attracting left-leaning, idealistic soldiers, many of whom grew up in youth movements.

Shaul says he thought he had a strong moral compass before entering the army, but “in Hebron, you forget what is right and what is wrong.”

“It’s ! not because you are a bad soldier,” he explains. “It does not matter how much you are educated. You spend time in the territories and you change . . . we lost ourselves.”

In the testimonials, soldiers speak of the confusion inherent in their mission. They are told to protect the Jewish settlers who live in the city, where some 500 Jews live in uneasy proximity to 130,000 Palestinians. Often, however, they end up protecting Palestinians from the settlers.

Hebron is the second-holiest city in Judaism, but the Israeli settlers there are considered among the most hard-line in the West Bank, known for assaulting Palestinians and storming through Palestinian areas, destroying property and spraying Arab-owned buildings with graffiti. Scrawled on one wall that was photographed was, “Arabs to the gas chambers.”

The Palestinians in Hebron, who oppose any Jewish presence in the city, also are known to be violent, often shooting at settlers and soldiers.

Shaul describes! soldiers’ interactions with Palestinian children, who are viewed with a mixture of suspicion and affection. One photograph shows a soldier smiling at a group of Palestinian boys pretending to be Israeli soldiers: They have lined their friends against a wall and pretend to search them.

Shaul also spoke about what it was like to shoot for hours on end into neighborhoods from the top of what was once a school. Often, he said, the soldiers were not returning fire, but were shooting randomly.

He said it often felt unreal, “like a video game,” and that “we did it without asking questions.”

In their testimony, soldiers speak of guilt feelings from the perverse pleasure of having power over others — of raiding homes, confiscating car keys, firing tear gas just for fun, leaving teenagers who break curfew to sit blindfolded for hours.

Daniel Robinson, a graduate student who served in the battalion in Lebanon in the 1980s, said the exhibit reminded him of the chaos of any war, whether just or unjust.

“Part of the problem is the whol! e power trip of it,” he said. “You have guns, explosives — you can do anything.”

Robinson spoke of the fog of battle that the exhibition addresses.

“You don’t know what’s happening in real time,” he said, “and you’re supposed to operate as a moral being, and you’re 19 years old.”

Lt. Col. Amos Guiora, commander of the Israel Defense Forces’ School of Military Law, said that most Israeli soldiers are doing the best they can.

“I think we’re doing an incredible job under extremely difficult circumstances,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t mess up on occasion. On the issue of morality and conflict there is no better ‘school’ to study that than here.”

Guiora pointed to interactive software the army has developed to train soldiers and commanders in an 11-point code of conduct for operating in an armed conflict.

Through Hollywood movie clips and scenarios taken from real life situations in the West Bank, soldiers are instructed how to handle themselves ! in various situations.

“If you mistreat an innocent civilian, the e nd result may well be that instead of him remaining a good guy, he becomes a terrorist,” Guiora told JTA. “We address this head-on, that there is a clear relationship in how you behave and what your action may lead to. We address issues that are part and parcel of a soldier’s daily dilemma.”

For his part, Shaul no longer is speaking to the foreign press after being criticized for “airing Israel’s dirty laundry.” But in an interview with the daily Ha’aretz, he said the exhibition’s message is not political.

“It’s beyond politics. It’s a true and honest look at reality,” he said.

Among those visiting the exhibit was Ori Vilin, 20, released recently from the army. He served seven months in Hebron and brought his parents to the exhibit.

“It’s good that this is on display; now people can see how it actually is there,” he said.

His mother, Orna Vilin, gazed at the photographs and sighed.

“I didn’t realize it was so awful,” she said.

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