Breaking silence over the horrors of Hebron

An exhibition of remarkable photographs taken by Israeli army conscripts has caused consternation and drawn admiration. Donald Macintyre reports from Tel Aviv

Even if you didn't know who had taken the pictures, it would be a remarkable exhibition. A record of two short periods in Hebron, the images linger obstinately in the mind's eye long after you have turned away: the comradely group portrait of the smiling, hopeful, young men, 18 and 19 mostly, in an Israeli army unit; the Palestinians blindfolded by the side of a deserted street at night; the grim-faced Jewish settler with a Galil assault rifle slung casually over his shoulder; the stone memorial to Shalhevet Pass, a 10-month-old baby killed in a shooting attack in March 2001 by Palestinian militants, with an epitaph that reads: "Here the innocent baby Shalhevet was murdered. God will avenge her blood"; the white-painted sign scrawled on a wall which says - in English - "Arabs to the gas chambers"; the Palestinian children playing a game in which one pair are Israeli soldiers lining the others up against a wall, just as they have seen their fathers and brothers lined up.

Even if you didn't know who had taken the pictures, it would be a remarkable exhibition. A record of two short periods in Hebron, the images linger obstinately in the mind's eye long after you have turned away: the comradely group portrait of the smiling, hopeful, young men, 18 and 19 mostly, in an Israeli army unit; the Palestinians blindfolded by the side of a deserted street at night; the grim-faced Jewish settler with a Galil assault rifle slung casually over his shoulder; the stone memorial to Shalhevet Pass, a 10-month-old baby killed in a shooting attack in March 2001 by Palestinian militants, with an epitaph that reads: "Here the innocent baby Shalhevet was murdered. God will avenge her blood"; the white-painted sign scrawled on a wall which says - in English - "Arabs to the gas chambers"; the Palestinian children playing a game in which one pair are Israeli soldiers lining the others up against a wall, just as they have seen their fathers and brothers lined up.

But what makes the exhibitionBreaking the Silence, on show at a college in Tel Aviv, so out of the ordinary is that it is the work not of professional photographers but of soldiers. It is a work that has stirred concerns and drawn admiration at the highest levels of Israeli society.

Yesterday military police raided the exhibition, confiscating items from it. An army spokesman insisted that the raid was not to stop the exhibition or to punish the soldiers for going public, but to see if there is a case for court-martialling soldiers who mistreated Arabs.

On Sunday the exhibition will move to the Knesset at the invitation of Ilan Shalgi, chairman of the parliamentary education and culture committee. Forty photographs will be on show there, with full approval by the parliamentary authorities, until 5 July.

The pictures were taken by young Israeli conscripts as they conducted daily, dangerous patrols of Hebron. Five hundred Jewish settlers, some of the most extreme in the West Bank, live in three enclaves in the city, surrounded by 130,000 Palestinians in a relationship of mutual hatred and frequent violence. They look to the army for protection.

The idea of the exhibition did not occur to the soldiers until they had left the army (for most of them that moment came earlier this year). The photographs were taken strictly for private consumption. "Some pictures I took because I knew I couldn't handle what I was seeing at the time and I wanted to think about it later," says Jonathan Boumfeld, 21, "and some I took just as souvenirs."

But, in the words of the leaflets they sent out to advertise the show, they then discovered that the memories captured in these "souvenirs" were "common to all of us who served together ... In coping daily with the madness of Hebron, we couldn't remain the same people beneath our uniforms. We saw our buddies and ourselves slowly changing.

"We were exposed to the ugly face of terror. A suicide bomber who doesn't hesitate to try to kill a group of children. An innocent family killed while at the Sabbath table. Countless engagements, bereaved families, innocent civilians injured, chases and arrests ... The settlers whom we were meant to protect rioted, occupied houses, and confronted the police and army both physically and verbally."

To understand the photographs fully you have to join one of the daily tours of the exhibition with one of the soldiers who took them. They have decided against interviews with foreign reporters, because, says Micha Kurz, who left the army three months ago, "we think it's more important to speak to the Israeli public about what is happening".

Mr Kurz, 20, stops in front of a charming-looking picture of small Jewish children playing happily in the street and describes how he relieved the boredom one day by watching three girls of about six or seven playing hopscotch. When the girls saw two Palestinian women carrying their shopping home, they began throwing stones at them. "When I asked why they did it, the kids said: 'You know what they did in 1929.' " The children, parroting a reference to a massacre of Jews by Arabs in Hebron that year, could hardly have understood what 1929 meant. Yet, adds Mr Kurz, "when the soldiers complained to the settler parents that we are supposed to be looking for terrorists and we end up chasing your kids, they would say: 'We agree. Stop chasing the kids.' "

A settlers' wall slogan on one picture exhorts: "Know the difference between right and wrong. Know the difference between friend and enemy." But, says Mr Kurz, neither distinction is so easy if you are an Israeli soldier in Hebron.

The soldiers weeded out pictures of bloodshed because the idea was to encourage the Israeli public to think about the routine of its army presence in the West Bank, what Mr Kurz calls "the soldier's life on a daily basis".

One shows Baruch, a smiling, hippyish-looking settler with a guitar slung over one shoulder and an Uzi over the other. "In the morning he would come and kid around with us, and play Bob Dylan songs," Mr Kurz said. "In the winter he would bring hot soup and in the summer cold lemonade. Then in the afternoon we would be chasing him because he would be throwing stones at Palestinians."

In front of another picture of a young Palestinian seen through telescopic gun sights, he says it was disturbing the first time he had a target in his power like this, "but by the third time you don't even think about it". All this, he says, is part of a process of moral "attrition", in which the allegedly clear distinction between right and wrong becomes "foggy".

He points to another photograph, a wide-angled view of the Palestinian district of Abu Snena, taken from the military post that overlooks it. That Abu Snena harbours militants is not in doubt. This is the base from which, as well as shooting at soldiers, the murderers of Shalhevet Pass fired their weapons.

Mr Kurz points to one of the empty buildings used by militants, at which, strictly speaking, the army is supposed to confine its fire. "You are quite likely to miss first time; you might hit houses to the left or right before you hit the target." Again, he says, "after a while you don't think about it any more".

Much of this sense of moral attrition is reflected in a series of anonymous testimonies by soldiers published (in Hebrew) with the exhibition:

"I'd go into a [Palestinian's] house and say, 'Look, I want all the children to go into one room now, I want to check out your house.' And I think: if it was the other way round, I don't know what I'd do. Really. I'd go nuts if anyone came into my house [like that]. I tried to imagine my parents, my family, what they'd actually do, if people with guns came into a house with little kids [in it] - little kids, four or five years old - and pointed weapons at them and said, 'OK, get moving everyone!' I found that part really hard... ."

"The day I understood that I simply enjoyed the sense of power, I was ashamed of myself. I don't believe in it, I don't think it's right to do anything [bad] to anyone, and certainly not to someone who hasn't done you any harm. But you can't help but enjoy it. People do what you tell them. You know it's because you've got a gun. You know that if you didn't have a weapon and if you didn't have your comrades beside you, they'd jump on you and beat you up and stab you and kill you - [but] you begin to enjoy it. Enjoy is not even the word. You need it. Then, when someone suddenly says 'no' to you, [you think], what do they mean, 'no'? Where did you get the cheek to say 'no' to me? Forget for the moment that I think that those Jews [the settlers] are crazy, and that I want peace and for us not to be in the territories - what do you mean by saying 'no' to me? I'm the law! I'm the law here! It's then you begin to understand that you like it ...."

"And this is where a soldier's maturity and discretion comes in - something I'm not sure always exists. There are a lot of catastrophes here, because the moment you give an 18-year-old such power, he can do dreadful things... ."

"The crazy thing is that you're standing there, a soldier in the Israel Defence Forces, OK? You've got a gun, loaded and cocked and what - are you an idiot? How dare you not listen to me? I can shoot you at any moment. I can just beat you with my gun butt, and chances are my platoon commander will pat me on the shoulder and say, 'Man, finally you've done something properly.' I'm just a kid, I hardly know anything about life, the only power I've got is my uniform and my gun, and because of this, I get to decide."

"What I'm used to here, that's to say, democracy, vanished in Hebron. The Jews did what they liked, whatever they liked, quite simply, there are no rules."

"What I understood in the end, after six months there, [was] that actually we have to protect the Palestinians from attacks by the Jews there, not protect the Jews... ."

"The people whose houses you go into, there's no difference, they're not people of a different kind. These people are even physically like my grandfather ... the old man who has to beg you to let him through the checkpoint, or who shows you an X-ray picture and you don't understand why ... ."

Yehuda Shaul, 21, a bearded ex-soldier whose original idea the exhibition was, said that others in the military who had seen the photographs had told him: "You have taken the words out of my mouth." But Mr Kurz admits that many others after their military service "travel, smoke a lot of grass, put everything behind them as fast as they can."

During a group discussion at the exhibition with - mainly sympathetic - members of the public, the soldiers were several times asked why they hadn't complained at the time if they were being asked to do unacceptable things - a point also made officially by the Israeli military.

Noam Arnon, a prominent settler from Hebron, went even further when he sought to take over the discussion, accusing the soldiers of engaging in a "sick process of self-exposure" and attempting to pursue a political goal, which was "to expel the Jews from Hebron". He added: "You failed if anyone failed."

But these criticisms surely miss the point of the exhibition, which is to try to confront the Israeli public, as the soldiers confronted themselves only after their service in Hebron, with the day-to-day issues arising from the Army - and settler - presence in the West Bank. "This is not political opinion," says Mr Kurz. "We are not left or right. These photographs are facts."

He adds: "My mother didn't even understand. And if my mother didn't see it, then Israeli society can't see it." What had his mother said when he started to recount his experiences of Hebron? He pauses and replies: "She said: 'Oh.' "

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