Ex-soldiers break 'silence' on Israeli excesses

Haroon Siddiqui, Toronto Star

December 17, 2006

A young Israeli was in Canada last week raising ethical questions about the conduct of Israeli soldiers in the Occupied Territories.

Yehuda Shaul was born in Jerusalem to an American mother and Canadian father (from Toronto). Shaul went to school in a West Bank settlement and served in the army from 2001 to 2004. He did a 14-month stint in Hebron, guarding about 650 settlers living among approximately 150,000 Palestinians.

He is one of the founders of Break the Silence, a group of ex-soldiers speaking out about what they saw and did during their tour of duty in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

At 6-foot 1-inch, the heavy-set Shaul cuts an imposing but engaging figure with his beard, ponytail and the kippa. He smiles easily.

He had a lot to say during a vegetarian kosher lunch we shared in my office with his Toronto host, Judith Wiseman.

He came here after a tour of six American cities. In Toronto, he spoke at the Winchevsky Centre of the United Jewish People's Order and at the Quaker House. Then he was off to London, Ottawa and Montreal.

He recounted the moment when, three months before being released from the army, he was alone and wondering what he would do upon returning to civilian life.

It struck him, he said, that he had become "a monster," doing things that were not right. "It was a frightening moment."

He spoke to fellow soldiers. "They were feeling the same: 'Something's rotten here.' Israelis don't know what goes on here, and we must tell them.'"

Within three months of being discharged in March 2004, Shaul and friends mounted an exhibit, Bringing Hebron to Tel Aviv. It had powerful photos and video testimony by 64 soldiers showing and describing the treatment meted out to Palestinians by the troops as well as some of the settlers.

There were pictures of Palestinians bound and blindfolded. There was a photo of a settler carrying an assault rifle with a decal on the magazine clip: "Kill 'em all, Let God sort 'em out." Another was of graffiti on a wall: "Arabs to the gas chamber."

The exhibit drew 7,000 visitors and much media coverage.

Other soldiers who had served in the West Bank and Gaza came forward. More photos were gathered, as well as about 400 audio and video testimonies.

In them, soldiers talk about the total power of the occupiers over the occupied - throwing Palestinians out of their homes; making them stand for hours for disobeying the curfew or trying to bypass a checkpoint or even smiling or arguing at the wrong time, Shaul said.

"We can play with them. This is the mindset from which everything flows."

In Hebron, Shaul manned a machine gun. "It can shoot dozens of grenades a minute up to a distance of about 2,000 metres. We'd shoot 40 or 50 a day ...

"We had three high posts, two where we had kicked the Palestinian families out of and the third was a Palestinian school which we had closed down.

"The idea was that anytime they shoot, we shoot back.

"But the machine gun is not an accurate weapon. You just shoot in the direction of the target ... We have no idea how many we killed. I hope no one."

Shaul said some acts "flow from being afraid or being bored. You are there eight hours a night at the post. You just aim and shoot the water tank."

Or, "when you drive your tank or your APC (armoured personnel carrier), you bump into a streetlight. As you turn a corner, you bump into a wall. It's fun ... It's all about you. Nothing else matters ... Palestinians are no longer human."

Initially, Break the Silence members did not speak to foreigners, to avoid "airing our dirty laundry." But they have since changed their policy.

Two members toured the United States last year. Two exhibitions have been held in Geneva and Amsterdam.

The group (www.shovrimshtika.org and www.breakthesilence.org.il) exists to break two kinds of silences: "First, the soldiers keep quiet and, then Israeli society keeps quiet.

"We provide the tools for people to understand the deeply woven moral corruption and numbness of what we do (in the Occupied Territories). It's like a slide; once you start going down, you keep going down.

"There's no such thing as a benign or an enlightened occupation. You can't be an occupier and not be an occupier."

Shaul's overall message:

"The issue is not the right of Israel to exist but rather, does it have the right to occupy Palestinian lands and control civilians as it has for 40 years?"

Shaul said he has been well-received in North America, even though some did criticize him.

But, "you can't really criticize me because I am an Israeli who has served in the army."

He's much more: a courageous citizen of Israeli democracy.

Haroon Siddiqui, the Star's editorial page editor emeritus, appears Thursday and Sunday. hsiddiq@thestar.ca.

Copyright 2006 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd.