Grim image of Israeli occupation

Veterans show dark side of presence in territories

March 31, 2007|By John Murphy | John Murphy,Sun Foreign Reporter

HEBRON, West Bank -- Yehuda Shaul stopped abruptly in the middle of a litter-strewn park in this West Bank city to point to a Palestinian school that he and other members of the Israeli army once commandeered so they could shoot at Palestinian gunmen. Shaul operated a grenade machine gun, a lethal though highly inaccurate weapon.

"Anything hit within a radius of 8 meters is killed. Anybody within 16 meters will be injured," he said. "When I first learned of my mission, I freaked out."

But the young soldier did as he was told, firing as many 100 rounds per night into a crush of Palestinian homes, not knowing whom he might have wounded or killed.

"It was like playing a video game," he recalled.

Part confession, part condemnation of Israeli military policy, Shaul's walking tour of Hebron is a rare journey into the troubled conscience of an Israeli army veteran and the grim realities of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories.

A bearish-looking 24-year-old with a head of shaggy black hair topped with a skullcap, Shaul is the founder of a group of former Israeli soldiers who have sought to prick the conscience of the Israeli public with their tales of military service.

Called Breaking the Silence, the organization first came to the public's attention in 2004 when it created an exhibit of photographs, videos and testimonies of the routine injustices, humiliations and harassment of Palestinians at the hands of Israeli forces. The exhibit, displayed in Tel Aviv and the Israeli Parliament, stirred widespread debate about the consequences of Israel's occupation.

Now the veterans are trying to focus Israelis' attention on Hebron, the historic burial site of Abraham - the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam - and one of the gloomiest and most dysfunctional cities in the West Bank.

"When I realized something was wrong here, we decided to do something about it," says Shaul. "We ... have a moral obligation to speak out."

About a 45-minute drive south of Jerusalem, Hebron is the only place in the West Bank where a small community of Jewish settlers lives in the heart of a Palestinian city. Since 1997, Hebron has been divided into two sections. Some 150,000 Palestinians live under Palestinian control in an area known as H1. Israel controls about 20 percent of the city in an area known as H2, where 650 Jewish settlers live among 30,000 Palestinians near Hebron's Old City.

With the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, Hebron became the scene of a deadly mix of suicide bombings, shootings, stone throwing and other fighting between Palestinian militants, Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers.

"No one is innocent here," says Shaul, who spent 14 months of his three years of compulsory military service in Hebron. "Breaking the Silence exists to give testimony, to tell the story."

But Shaul says his time in the military taught him that the story always has the most tragic ending for the Palestinians, who suffer from curfews, checkpoints and other restrictions even when Jewish settlers are responsible for the violence.

"The Palestinians always pay the price," he said.

During a three-hour journey through the narrow streets of this ancient city, Shaul sought to highlight the hardships created by Israel's occupation of Hebron that often go unnoticed by Israeli society.

In Hebron's Casbah, the main marketplace, more than 2,000 Palestinian-owned stores have been shut down by the Israeli army for security reasons, turning what had been the throbbing heart of the city into a ghost town. On many of the shuttered shop doors, there are spray-painted signs that say "Arabs Out."

Shaul pointed to pockmarked Palestinian homes in neighborhoods where Israeli soldiers often came to crush cars, shoot out street lights and destroy property even when there were no Palestinian gunmen.

"We were told we should make our presence felt," he said.

Stepping up a rocky footpath, Shaul followed the trail used by Palestinians who are barred by Israeli forces from walking on Hebron's main street for security reasons. One twisted pathway led to the front door of Hashem al-Azzeh.

Al-Azzeh's home is on the side of a hill below the Jewish settlement of Tel Rumeida, home to about 15 Jewish families. Al-Azzeh described how his settler neighbors have cut his phone line, electricity and water and have regularly tossed rubbish onto his property.

His nephew showed off a mouthful of broken teeth - shattered, he says, after a settler filled his mouth with stones.

"They understand what they are doing. They are trying to expel us and turn Hebron into a Jewish city," said al-Azzeh, as he sipped tea in his living room.

Since 2000, hundreds of Palestinian families have left the Israeli-controlled section of Hebron to escape settler violence and the tight restrictions placed on the Palestinian population.

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