Inter Press Service News Agency Friday, October 03, 2008 16:45 GMT
MIDEAST: Breaking the Silence
by Cherrie Heywood
RAMALLAH, West Bank, Oct 2 (IPS) - An Israeli police commander has called
them "provocateurs", "militants", and, "lawbreakers". Earlier in the year
the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) decided that their presence in the city of
Hebron, 30km south of Jerusalem in the Palestinian West Bank, constituted a
security threat and banned them from the city, stating that any member of
the organisation caught there would be expelled forthwith.
They've been spat at, stoned and assaulted, but these former members of the
IDF, 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
The organisation's main aim is to break the silence and taboo surrounding
the behaviour of Israeli soldiers in the Palestinian territories in an
endeavour 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
The Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba in Hebron used to be the home of the
U.S. 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,"
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 U.S. 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
Territories, the soldiers soon got bored, and would invent games to amuse
"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
"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
Following the success of the Tel Aviv exhibition, BTS started organising
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 IDF 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
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 Palestinian
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
This followed the assassination of Phalangist leader and Lebanese president
Bashir Gemayal. The Phalangists, incorrectly, suspected Palestinian
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
(AIF) 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 IDF chief of
staff, Dan Halutz."
Halutz was responsible for ordering the dropping of a one-tonne bomb on a
crowded residential apartment building in a densely populated Gaza
neighbourhood in 2002. The bomb killed Hamas leader Salah Shehade. Amongst
the civilian casualties were 14 children. (END/2008)
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