20 Mar 2007 07:04:00 GMT
Israeli army veterans show dark side of occupation
By Bernd Debusmann, Special Correspondent
HEBRON, West Bank, March 20 (Reuters) -- Disenchanted Israeli army veterans have turned into guides to one of the bleakest places on the West Bank, the Israeli-held part of Hebron, to highlight what they say is the ugly face of occupation most Israelis never see.
Over the past 20 months, former soldiers have led some 2,500 people, in small groups of around a dozen, mostly Israelis, on grim show-and-tell excursions meant to explain the brutalising effect of daily routine in an occupied city.
Stops on the tours include the positions from where former squad commander Yehuda Shaul says he fired his grenade machinegun, night after night, into a densely populated neighbourhood from where Palestinians, night after night, fired on Jewish settlements.
"A grenade machine gun is an awesome weapon, but it is inaccurate," he says. "The grenades kill everything within a radius of eight metres, injure anyone within a radius of 16. So, at first you worry about hitting innocent civilians. After a while, you shrug off the worries and get used to it. In the end, you look forward to blasting away."
Burly, bearded and from an ultra-orthodox background, the 24-year-old Shaul was one of the founders of Breaking the Silence, a group of former soldiers who shocked Israel in 2004 with an exhibition of photographs and video testimony on harassment and abuse of Palestinians.
The exhibition, which ran for weeks in Tel Aviv and was briefly on display at the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) spawned the tours of Hebron, where many of the soldiers in the group served during the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising.
More than 4,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis have died in the intifada, which saw a sharp increase in Palestinian suicide bombings and hardened the mental wall between Israelis and Palestinians.
ERODING MORAL VALUES
"The tours have two goals," said Shaul. "Show the effect the occupation has on the occupied AND on the occupiers, the way it disrupts Palestinian life and the way it erodes the moral values of Israeli soldiers.
"The IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) blames excesses, when they come to light, on 'rotten apples'. But few soldiers end their West Bank tours with entirely clean hands. Israeli society prefers to keep silent about this."
Shaul spoke as he walked through the eerily quiet, deserted old city of Hebron, past shuttered shops and graffiti painted by some of the 650 Jews who live in four settlements in H2, the official name of the sector under Israeli control under a 1997 accord that effectively divided the city.
H2 takes up about a fifth of the area of Hebron and embraces what used to the bustling market of the Old City, the wholesale market, and Shuhada street, the main commercial artery in the days when 30,000 Palestinians and 500 Jews shared the area. Shuhada is now a "sterile street," where Palestinians are not allowed to walk.
H1, the rest of Hebron, is home to 150,000 Palestinians, few of whom ever cross the checkpoints that control movement between the two parts of the city.
"Kill the Arabs," says one slogan on a wall in the old market. "Arabs In", says another, over an arrow pointing to a garbage dump.
Shaul served 14 months of his three-year service in Hebron and says he began having doubts over the justness of what he was doing shortly before returning to civilian life. He began talking to other soldiers and found they had similar misgivings.
"This is how Breaking the Silence was formed. Since then, more than 400 soldiers have come forward and given video testimony of their experiences, evidence that the occupation is not the black-and-white story most Israelis think it is."
"REVENGE FOR 1929"
But in the black-and-white world of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both sides cite dates in Hebron's long history to bolster their views. For the settlers, a day of Palestinian infamy is August 23, 1929, when mobs killed 67 Jewish men, women and children and drove the rest of the community out of the city.
Shaul recalls an incident which added to his growing doubts -- young settler girls throwing stones at an elderly Palestinian woman, bent low by the weight of baskets she was carrying. He asked the girls what they were doing. "Revenge," said one. "For 1929."
For Hebron Palestinians, the date that best illustrates the mindset of the settlers is February 25, 1994, the day Brooklyn-born Baruch Goldstein used his army-issue Galil assault rifle to kill 29 Palestinian worshippers at the Cave of the Patriarchs, a site holy to Jews, Moslems and Christians.
The attack drew harsh condemnation from the Israeli government but, Hebron Palestinians point out, it backfired on the victims: to keep the two communities apart, the army closed Shuhada Street and the wholesale market next to the Avaraham Avinu settlement.
It is a compound of low, grey buildings and few Palestinians remained in their vicinity. The house of one who did, Hashem al-Azzeh, often serves as the last stop of Breaking the Silence's city tours. Al-Azzeh is not a loquacious man and prefers to convey his points through home-made videos.
One shows a throng of settlers invading his home (while he was absent), the other is of settlers stoning Palestinian school girls as Israeli soldiers watch.
"Israelis usually are really shocked when they see this," he says. "We are not."
(Editing by Sara Ledwith; email:firstname.lastname@example.org)