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Israeli Soldiers' Photographs Show Animosity All Around in Hebron

An exhibition that includes allegations of improper conduct sparks controversy.

June 20, 2004|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

TEL AVIV — The photographs paint a landscape of hurt and hatred: bleak, rubble-strewn streets, vicious anti-Arab graffiti and jarring reminders of a Jewish child's killing.

They portray the West Bank city of Hebron, where tensions between Jewish settlers and Palestinian residents often reach the breaking point. But mainly the images convey the discomfort of a third group in the middle: young Israeli soldiers sent to patrol the city.

Snapped as keepsakes, the photographs -- some artful portraits, many amateurish snapshots -- have been gathered into a public exhibit called "Breaking the Silence," which is drawing sizable crowds and plenty of media notice.

The show, hosted by the photography school at Tel Aviv College, opened this month and runs until June 25.

The display, assembled by four former soldiers in their early 20s, consists of 86 photographs taken by them and fellow Hebron soldiers. Included, too, is a two-hour videotape of testimonials by 30 others describing an exertion of authority over Palestinian residents in Hebron that at times seems almost wanton.

The taped statements sparked controversy because they include allegations of improper conduct, albeit no brutality, by Israeli soldiers.

One soldier recalls watching three colleagues pose with a pair of slain Palestinian gunmen whose bodies were propped up for the snapshot. Another talks of blocking an Arab bride and family members, in formal dress, from driving to her wedding -- sending the party home for no reason. Several soldiers describe feeling drunk with power.

In this sense, the soldiers behind the exhibit say, the display bears dim similarities to the scandal surrounding Americans' mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, where abuses were photographed.

Army officials announced that they would investigate alleged excesses. The military "educates its soldiers to act according to high moral standards and will continue to investigate and take serious measures in exceptional incidents," an army statement said.

The photographs brim with concertina wire and menace -- both abundant in Hebron, where about 900 religious settlers, guarded by Israeli soldiers, live in the midst of 150,000 Palestinians. Since Israel's pullout from Hebron in 1997, tensions have eased little, with occasional Palestinian sniper attacks against Jews and outbursts of settler violence against Palestinians.

The former soldiers say they want Israelis to witness the rigors of patrolling Hebron, and the bruising effects on young recruits of working in a place where animosities and guns are ever-present.

"I am bringing Hebron to Tel Aviv," one of the former soldiers, Yehuda Shaul, 21, told the daily Yediot Aharonot newspaper. "I said to myself that I could not remain silent."

The former soldiers have declined to be interviewed by foreign journalists so as not to anger fellow Israelis by airing abroad what they see as a domestic debate.

But the group's comments to the Israeli media have added to a broader discussion about the moral dimension of serving in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, seized by Israel during the 1967 Middle East War.

Last year, a group of air force pilots signed a letter saying its members would not take part in sorties in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Later, 13 members of a special commando unit announced that they also would decline to serve in those territories. A 2-year-old group called Courage to Refuse has called upon other troops to do the same.

The former soldiers behind the exhibit make no such plea. But they hope that the photographs become part of the debate.

"If the soldiers say, 'This is how I feel,' there's no arguing with that. You have to accept it," said Giora Salami, dean of the photography school.

One photograph shows a group of Jewish boys ripping bricks from a Palestinian's abandoned home. Others show adult settlers ambling with assault weapons. Several images focus on the anti-Arab messages painted on doors and walls. "Arabs to the Gas Chambers," one reads in English. "Kill the Arabs," says another, in Hebrew.

There are signs, too, of Palestinian violence against Jews.

There is a photograph featuring the shrine built in honor of a 10-month-old Jewish girl, Shalhevet Pas, who was killed by a sniper while in her stroller in 2001. The slaying stirred outrage among the Hebron settlers and the rest of Israel. Another image shows a tattered poster citing a 1929 massacre in Hebron that killed 67 Jews.

In the images, the soldiers are always close. Photographs depict troops mugging playfully and on patrol, guns ready. Some were photographed through a rifle's telescopic sight, heightening the sense of a combat zone.

Although military officials have generally voiced support for the exhibit, they say the soldiers should have reported problems at the time.

Some visitors complain that the exhibit has harmed the army's image. But the former soldiers report a mostly positive response, especially from parents with children in the army.

Noam Arnon, a representative of the Hebron settlers group who visited last week, praised the photographs despite some unflattering images. He said the most hateful graffiti against Arabs had been painted by outside "provocateurs" and condemned by Hebron's Jews.

On a recent evening, the former soldiers chatted with visitors making their way around the exhibition hall. Several guests harbored worries.

"My son is about to enlist. I know him. I think I can trust him to be humane," said Aya Carin, 47, from outside Tel Aviv. "But it's possible that what these soldiers who organized the show say is true. Perhaps when you get there, you slowly lose it."

*

Special correspondent Tami Zer contributed to this report.

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