HAARETZ - ISRAELI NEWS
By AVIV LAVIE
During 14 months of service in Hebron, Yehuda Shaul could not bear the moral erosion he saw in himself and his comrades. Now the ultra-Orthodox 21 year-old has organized an exhibit of soldiers' photographs to bring the reality of the territories home.
"I had a friend who had a weapon with a launcher and everyone with a launcher was given riot-dispersal equipment. He was given a lot of tear gas canisters and he loved to shoot all this gas, so he would also steal it from other people who had tear gas launchers and fire it every time he climbed up to his post and came back from it. If he saw a group of people standing and talking, he would fire the teargas just to see them run and cough. He got a big kick out of it." (testimony of D., a fighter in the Nahal brigade who served in Hebron and was demobilized three months ago.
Yehuda Shaul still can't put his finger on the exact moment in which "it all clicked" for him. Maybe it was the day when some settler girls were sitting and playing a few meters away from his post, in Gross Square in the heart of Hebron. An elderly Palestinian woman passed by, loaded down with baskets, and the girls "picked up rocks and started stoning her. When I asked them, `What are you doing?,' they said, `How do you know what she did in 1929?'"
Or maybe it was after Operation Defensive Shield ended, when he returned from Ramallah to Hebron and to the corner post known as "the pharmacy" because of the nearby store. He went up to the second floor of the building, where there was a clinic that soldiers had taken over during the operation. He found a nauseating sight: "Everything was turned upside down. The windows were broken, syringes were scattered on the floor and excrement was smeared over everything."
And there was also the morning when, in his role as sarsap (acronym for company deputy sergeant-major) in Battalion 50 of the Nahal, he brought food to the position set up by the IDF inside a Palestinian home overlooking the Al-Sheikh neighborhood. "I left a few bags of garbage on the sidewalk and when I came back down I saw Palestinian children rummaging through the bags and taking out the remains of our food. I took the bags from them, because orders say that you have to make sure there are no confidential documents in the garbage. I had to do this, but only afterward did it hit me that all that interested me at the time was the papers, and not the fact that these kids were searching for food in the trash."
The more Shaul sifts through his memories, the plainer it seems that there was no particular single moment in which his view of the world changed. A year and two months of serving in Hebron, first as a soldier and then as a commander, became a nightmarish collage of sights, sounds and feelings, which gradually led him to conclude that "It's a situation that screws up everyone. Everyone goes through the same process there of the erosion of red lines and a sinking into numbness. People start out at different points and end up at different points, but everyone goes through this process. No one returns from the territories without it leaving a deep imprint, messing up his head."
Shortly before he was discharged - three months ago - Shaul decided that he had to do something with this - to bring it out, to tell the world, his parents, the citizens of Israel, what the soldiers do who are sent in their name to maintain the occupation, and what this mission does to them.
"[After the army] everyone travels to India and South America, they take the psychometric exams and hey - just continue on now and everything will be fine - we've forgotten the territories. I was supposed to be in Canada now working in a roof-tiling business - I have Canadian citizenship, too - but I realized that I could not go on unless I did something. I felt that I had to stand before society and tell my story and my friends' story."
As soon as he started to work toward this vision, Shaul found that many soldiers who served with him were just waiting for the moment when someone would ask them to tell what was in their hearts. Psychological baggage that had accumulated over three years was unloaded either on paper or in front of the camera. Shaul: "A lot of the guys used to take pictures in Hebron. I started to think of people who used to go around with a camera. I found their telephone numbers, got on my motorcycle and went all over the country to meet with soldiers and look through their photo albums with them. I brought the pictures to photographer Miki Kratsman and we came up with the idea of making a display: We wanted to bring coils of barbed wire, standard-issue combat gear, broken doors - to bring Hebron to Tel Aviv. Miki said we should do an exhibition and suggested that we videotape soldiers giving their testimonies. The director Avi Mughrabi taught me to work with a camera and I became semi-professional at it."
It's a little surprising that the soldiers agreed to cooperate. This kind of thing has hardly ever happened before.
"Not only did they cooperate, they did it gladly. There was only one who refused, arguing that `it would give Israel a bad name in the world.'" The results of the collection and documentation effort can now be seen at the gallery of The Academy for Geographic Photography in Tel Aviv's Yad Eliahu neighborhood. The exhibition, entitled "Breaking the Silence," is not a typical museum event. In the afternoon hours, the gallery fills with visitors, and Shaul and other recently discharged soldiers greet them and try to give each person a detailed explanation, to place the photographs and video testimonies in their precise context.
In the middle of talking to God
"There were times when we got up in the middle of the night in some house that we'd seized - this was in the eastern casbah, we took over some guy's house - and there were really nights when we'd wake up at two in the morning, go out, put on lots and lots of grenades - this kind of grenade that you put on your weapon and that makes a lot of noise, and we'd walk among the houses and shoot and yell and make terrible noises - all just to frighten our enemies ... and that's it. I don't know if we really just made some kids cry in the middle of the night or if it really had some psychological effect on someone who wanted to hurt us." (G., a fighter in the Nahal brigade who served in Hebron and was discharged seven months ago).
Ever since Shaul appeared in a segment of the "Fact" current events program on Channel 2, it's been hard for him to walk down the street without being bombarded with reactions.
It may be surprising that a group of soldiers telling about their exploits in the territories is headed by a 21-year-old ultra-Orthodox man, but this is just another chapter in Shaul's atypical life story. He was born in Jerusalem to a Canadian father and an American mother, the third of 11 children. His mother died when he was a child. He attended a yeshiva high school in the settlement of Ma'ale Michmash, where he lived in a dorm and only returned to Jerusalem on weekends. He describes the yeshiva as "having a modern Orthodox approach that invited students to ask lots of questions, so I took the opportunity to ask as much as possible."
Up until 11th grade, he says, "I was right-wing, even far-right. About 50 percent of us went into the army and I was very eager to enlist. I'd absorbed all the myths - that the army is the most important thing there is and that you have to take part in it, that the army and security unite everyone. I saw my enlistment as an opportunity to become an Israeli, because up to then, I wasn't really an Israeli."
It was in the middle of 11th grade that he started to have his doubts. "Something inside me started to crack. I encountered ways of thinking that were new to me. I discovered [Yeshayahu] Leibowitz, [Aviezer] Ravitzky. I still wanted to enlist, but I hoped that I would be mature enough that the army wouldn't change me. Three weeks before the end of 12th grade, I left the yeshiva - which is why I now need to complete matriculation exams in English and literature. I took a backpack and went off to walk the Israel trail alone, to think."
How far did you walk?
"The whole trail, from Dan to Eilat. Everything came up there. I developed for myself a rational religious approach with the need to ask questions at its center - not to say, `God said,' which is basically the same as `Father said' or `society said.' You could say that I'm a hybrid. I define myself as `I' and don't clearly belong to any particular stream. Religiously, I'm closer to the pluralistic parts of Orthodoxy. From my ultra-Orthodox background I took the aversion to nationalism, and the viewpoint that the integrity of the `Whole Land of Israel' is not yehareg ubal ya'avor, not something to sacrifice your life for at all costs. I was worried about what could happen in the army, but I thought that if I was given a clearly illegal order, I'd know how to refuse it."
And did you?
"I very soon found that you get worn down by the routine and that when you're in the midst of it, it's almost impossible to point to the moment in which the black flag goes up. It takes something very extreme for that to happen."
How have your friends from the yeshiva reacted to your current activity? Have they come to the exhibition?
"The guys I'm still in touch with came. Some understand what I'm doing and some also identify with it. I also have secular friends, friends from the army and from high school. I think that what we're doing here transcends politics. It's beyond politics. It's a true and honest look at reality."
When Shaul enlisted in Nahal, he was following in the footsteps of his older brother, who later became the only member of the family to give up religion. When Shaul entered the army in March 2001, the intifada had been going on for six months. Before long, he was in Hebron, and ended up serving there for 14 months - as an ordinary soldier, a squad commander and a sarsap. On one of his first days there, he got a reception that helped him understand just where he had landed: "Next to Gross Square, the settlers had erected a protest tent in memory of Shalhevet Pas, the baby girl who was killed. Some people were davening mincha [reciting the afternoon prayer] there. Two Palestinian teenagers were passing by on the sidewalk - they were about 15 years old - when suddenly, in the middle of talking with God, the settlers started to beat them up. One of the settlers yelled, `Watch out, he has a knife!' and then you, as a soldier, have no choice but to right away stand the terrified kid up against the wall and search him. Of course, there was nothing, and by the time the police got moving, the settlers had disappeared."
In the few months since Shaul was last in Hebron, the city has been turned into a ghost town. The streets surrounding the Jewish neighborhood are off limits to Palestinian traffic. The gates of the casbah have been welded shut. The wholesale market that used to buzz with activity is completely shuttered. Some of the shop doors are locked, others have been broken down by settlers - who in a few instances even used the shops to live in or turned them into storerooms.
Hebron is proof that when the cannons roar, the muses needn't be silent: The City of the Forefathers is blooming with the work of graffiti artists. Shaul says some of the graffiti must have been cleaned off recently, but the selection adorning the doors of Palestinian shops and the walls of the houses is certainly impressive: "Arabs to the gas chambers"; "Arabs = an inferior race"; "Spill Arab blood"; and, of course, those hardy perennials - "Death to the Arabs" and "Kahane was right." A bumper sticker on a passing car: "Religious penitence provides strength to expel the Arabs." In the finest graffiti tradition, humor, twisted as it is, is also in evidence: On a large garbage dumpster, someone has scrawled, "Arabs - In" (a play on the popular saying, "Arabs - Out").
For many soldiers, the encounter with the Hebron settlers is a confusing and frustrating experience. "We were told that our job is to protect them," several of the soldiers who added their voices to the "Breaking the Silence" exhibition say. "But we soon found that we needed to protect the Palestinians from them."
For Shaul, as a religious person, this encounter was especially loaded. After all, settlers had played the starring roles in many of his childhood memories. On the day when a Palestinian stabbed a settler in Hebron's Gross Square, he recalls, "We're organizing to give chase and respond, and then the settlers start going wild here in the market - overturning stalls, beating people up. My company commander and I notice that a few meters away, an old Palestinian man is lying there with his face covered in blood, and a group of settlers is kicking him all over his body. The company commander starts running toward them to get them off, but he runs into a piece of barbed wire, gets cut and trips. A bunch of settler girls who were standing there burst out laughing."
On Memorial Day for Israel's Fallen Soldiers, Shaul says, "We were ordered to come to the ceremony held by the settlers, to show our presence and participation. The rabbi gave a speech and he said, `The fact that the IDF sends its best soldiers here obligates us to keep our hold on this place' - totally backward logic. Some of the soldiers got annoyed and left. Then they read the names of the IDF casualties who were killed in the city, and at the end, they added the name of Baruch Goldstein. That was the straw that broke the camel's back."
And what did the camel do?
"Got up and left."
Eroded red lines
"That morning, a pretty large group of Jews from France, about 15 people I think, came to Hebron. They all wore kippot. They didn't really know Hebrew. They spoke a mixture of English, Hebrew and French. They were all smiles, they were really happy to be there, and all I did my entire shift was to go around with this group of Jews and just try to keep them from wrecking the city - which is what they were busy doing for hours. They just wandered around there, picked up any rock they saw in the street and started throwing it at Arabs' windows. They knocked over whatever they saw." (N., a fighter in the Nahal brigade who served in Hebron and was discharged three months ago).
While he was serving in Hebron, Yehuda Shaul took off his kippa. Whenever he left the city, he put it back on. "The kippa is not halakha [Jewish law], it's a sign of identification and affiliation," he explains. "And in Hebron, I didn't feel that I belonged. My Judaism and the Judaism of the settlers there is not the same thing. I'm not a part of them."
But removing the kippa is a kind of concession. You left your Judaism open to their interpretation.
"Everyone knew that I'm religious, but in front of my soldiers, I took off the kippa. I didn't want them to associate me with the settlers."
Shaul's mood underwent several upheavals in the course of his lengthy service in the territories. In the first months, the oppressive daily reality of controlling a civilian population left him in shock. "One Friday afternoon, not long after I arrived in the city, I'm standing at the `Bank Intersection' - the post at the entrance to the market. Suddenly I hear a little clunk and I look down and see a pipe bomb between my legs. Luckily, it didn't explode. I loaded my weapon and opened the safety. As soon as I enter one of the main alleyways of the market, I see a boy in my gunsight ... Thank goodness I didn't shoot. I don't know what the outcome would have been if this had happened to a soldier after six months in Hebron."
Shaul could not bear the moral erosion he noticed in himself and his comrades: "It starts with little things. At first, you only blindfold real suspects, and in the end you have some teenager who left his house during the curfew sitting next to you blindfolded for 10 hours, and it seems normal to you. A lot of things are done just to demonstrate a presence, to show that the IDF is everywhere at all times. On each patrol, they enter a few houses, put the women and children in one room and the men in another, check documents, turn the house upside down and then leave. There are no terrorists there, no special alerts. It's just done. And then there's the shooting, of course. Hours upon hours of shooting from a heavy machine gun or a grenade launcher, on a residential neighborhood, like Abu Sneina. Do you know what it means to fire grenades into a crowded neighborhood where people live? And for four hours in a row? It's a situation that brings out the insanity in people."
At a fairly early stage of his army service, he considered refusing orders, and for a time, he asked his displeased commanders to assign him guard duty only within the base. After a little while, he decided that he had to change things from the inside and started a course to become a squad commander. "It was a disheartening experience. The kind of people I encountered there made me realize that there was no chance of influencing this system from the inside."
"There were a lot of people there, the next generation of IDF commanders, who weren't open at all to questions of ethics. For them, the slogan `In war as in war' was a satisfying answer to everything."
By the time Shaul returned to Hebron as a squad commander, he had no more illusions: "One day, I'm at the post and a paratrooper who was with me in the squad commanders' course, someone with whom I had a lot of talks about whether it's possible to change the system from the inside, comes over to me. He says, `Yehuda, you were right,' and I don't know what he's talking about. And then he tells me how he went with his comrades on a patrol and two little boys were watching them from a balcony, so they tossed teargas canisters at them `so they wouldn't gather intelligence on us.' That did it for him. At that moment, he knew the battle was lost."
As a commander, Shaul had serious talks with his soldiers about what they were going through in Hebron. This was no ordinary company, he says, but a group that was bothered by what it had seen and had its hesitations, but nevertheless was not immune to the ills brought on by the routine of the occupation. The company even put out an internal newspaper called "Tabloid" that included poems and stories and other writings by the soldiers. Once, Shaul organized a talk for his soldiers based on several texts that he had collected about the Holocaust and its meaning.
"The fact that it's impossible to compare the Holocaust to anything else doesn't mean that it's impossible to take something from it. As someone once wrote, `Racists stand for the siren [on Holocaust remembrance day], too.'"
Did the soldiers share your feeling that something terrible was happening to you?
"There were some very tough talks. I also wasn't completely aware of the gradual erosion of the red lines - That's something you can really only understand from the perspective of time. But there was a consensus among us that the reality there was impossible. That you couldn't have a curfew last eight months, that it couldn't be that we would just walk into a school in the middle of the lessons and close it down."
The soldiers manning the IDF posts in the streets of Hebron this week, where eight hours of standing is an eternity, recognized Yehuda Shaul. "You look like that guy on television," a handsome Border Police officer from Arad told him. His partner on guard duty lives in Rosh Ha'ayin. Apparently, the "Fact" program was the big hit that week at the Border Police meeting hall. "We saw them talking about the program on the news, we heard that the Border Police was going to be in it, so the whole place filled up right away."
At first, the Border Police officers take exception to what Shaul said. They don't remember exactly how he put it, but it's clear to them that what he had to say was not complimentary to the IDF and the way it is doing its job here. "If we're not here, who will be?" asks one of them, adhering to the familiar slogans. But gradually the layers fall away. One of them smiles: "Come on, everyone knows it's hell here. You do eight hours on, eight hours off, never moving - stuck between the Palestinians and the settlers who make all the mess. Your head gets screwed up."
At one of the most dangerous posts in the city, on the edge of the Avraham Avinu neighborhood, is where Shaul runs into the firmest opposition. "It's strange that a religious person would say these things," the two guards, the next generation of the Nahal brigade, both say. "We're religious ourselves," they add.
They're angry about the bad name that Shaul, as they see it, is giving the IDF. "It's not true that we beat up Arabs for no reason," says one of them. "Only when they do something that's not okay." A fierce argument breaks out over the rules of engagement, of when to open fire. The soldiers claim that the free hand on the machine gun trigger is a thing of the past. "Since when does anyone fire grenades into a residential neighborhood?," they ask. Shaul explains that those were the brigade commander's orders. One of the soldiers replies, "Then you had a brigade commander who was messed up in the head. You're saying that he told you to go ahead and fire grenades into Abu Sneina?"
Soldier: "Well, I guess it's not so bad - to deter them a little. I wish they would let me let go like that." After a few seconds, he notices that his words are being written down and he decides to qualify them: "I was just kidding."
The last stop on the tour of Hebron points up the vast chasm between what goes on in the field and the media reports and statements from the IDF spokesman, especially those that say: "Our forces returned fire toward the sources of the shooting." Since the outbreak of the intifada, the public has heard many reports about exchanges of gunfire between Palestinians in the Abu Sneina neighborhood and the IDF posts in the area of the Jewish neighborhood. Shaul explains that in most cases, the soldiers have no idea where the shooting is coming from, and so they developed the concept of iturim - picking out certain buildings that for one reason or another came to be marked as preferred targets for shooting. For example - abandoned buildings, buildings under construction, or buildings that just stuck out, "that we shoot at when they shoot at us."
They shot at you from the buildings?
"From the neighborhood. Most of the time, there's no connection to the buildings. You don't know where they're shooting at you from, but the idea is that there shouldn't be an event without a response, so you respond with a big spray of gunfire. Sometimes they shoot something like four bullets and the IDF, in response, goes at it for four hours."
Always in response to Palestinian gunfire?
"A lot of times, we told ourselves, they'll surely start shooting when it gets dark, at six, so why shouldn't we start shooting at 5:30, to deter them? Or they go up with the armored personnel carriers into Abu Sneina and start to spray the iturim, the selected buildings, from close up. To make a show of presence."
And afterward, you hear the military reporters saying, "Our forces returned fire toward the sources of the shooting," and what do you think?
"That the media have totally failed. The basic feeling is that the reporters aren't searching for the truth in the field ... The IDF spokesman can tell a newspaper that the army doesn't confiscate the keys to Palestinians' cars, when this is something that has been done hundreds or thousands of times (The exhibition also includes a collection of such confiscated keys). I don't think that there are liars sitting in the IDF spokesman's office, but whoever is conveying information to them from the field is just deceiving them. For example, the whole matter of the `human shield,' which was denied many times and which the High Court forbade. I can attest that dozens of times after the High Court decision, we still used Palestinians as human shields, out of habit."
How is that done?
"Using a `human shield' means grabbing some fellow and sending him to open the door to a suspect's house, so if he shoots, this guy will take the bullets and not us. A `human shield' is when there's a suspicious object on the road and you grab a Palestinian and send him to pick it up. It's done a lot - let it explode on him and not on me."
Did you ever see anyone get killed in such circumstances?
"No, but it's completely a matter of luck."
I know Hebron
Three months after he turned in his equipment, Yehuda Shaul still has the lifestyle of a company sergeant with three cellular phones that ring nonstop. He is temporarily staying with friends in Tel Aviv and busy with managing the exhibition. Every Friday, there is a "gallery talk." Hundreds of people come to hear the soldiers speak, to ask questions and argue. Yossi Beilin has been to the exhibition, and so has Amnon Lipkin-Shahak - now one of the people behind the Geneva Initiative and once the chief of staff of the occupation. Amram Mitzna took a guided tour. Reservists and conscripts of all types, from all the different corps, have been calling to find out more about it, to express their support or opposition, to tell their story.
All this is falling on the shoulders of a 21-year-old, who seems to have prepared himself well for the task. Even when a furious young man stops by our table at a cafe on Dizengoff Street, identifies himself as a fighter in Hebron who lost 12 friends on the "Worshipers' Route" and hurls very harsh accusations at Shaul, he doesn't lose his cool. Calmly, and addressing his accuser as "habibi [buddy]," he tries to convince him that he, too, did not come out of Hebron as the same person who went in.
Why spotlight Hebron?
"Because I know Hebron, because I have a score to settle with it, because it's the essence of the occupation, because to launch a project like this about all the territories would be too much for me. But what we're hoping is that soldiers from Nablus and Jenin and Ramallah and everywhere else will come out and tell their stories. The time has come to break the silence."
What's the goal?
"There are two goals: For the Israeli public to know what we're really doing there, and what it's doing to us."
A Nahal officer who came to see the exhibition said it's a shame that you didn't go to your commanders right then with these stories.
Shaul laughs. "The commanders are us - my friends and I. Most of things we're saying are not unusual. They're part of the routine, of the usual procedure and orders, things that every commander is familiar with. The commanders are part of it, so just whom is one supposed to go to?"
You try to play down the political side, but it's fairly obvious that your goal is to get the IDF out of the territories.
"My views are put aside for now. Our goal is for the public to know, and if at the end of the day, someone comes and tells me, `Hebron is worth it,' out of ideological or religious considerations,' then that's okay, as long as he has also made everything that we're saying part of his considerations. We're here to tell the story, and everyone can draw his own conclusions."
Could it be that you're a few years too late? Once, such an encounter with the reality in the field would have really shocked the public, but today, apathy rules.
"I'm aware that a large portion of the public today doesn't want to know, but I believe that when my comrades and I tell our stories, there will still be some who do want to hear. We're the average Israelis, not anarchists; we did the standard route of school, youth movement, combat service, officer training, and we want you to take responsibility for what you sent us to do."
Over a thousand refuseniks started out at a similar point, and the moment they decided to refuse to serve, they were marked as marginal.
"We may also end up being made marginal, but if we can light a few fires and really get through to a few people, then that's something. And if we don't have any effect on society, at least we've done something for our own sake - We've gone through a process of self-observation and self-criticism. And you know what, we've also done something for the families. To see my soldiers bring their father and mother here and tell them what they went through, maybe for the first time, that's worth everything. There was an education officer here whose mother was horrified by the story about the soldiers who took pictures with the bodies of terrorists, and then the daughter said to her mother, `Who do you think made dinner for them that night?'
"In this battalion, there are four companies with 800 fathers and mothers, and I see that they're not indifferent, not at all. It's like when there's a terror attack and the dead are just names and numbers, unless someone close to you is killed, and then suddenly it's much more than that."
A week from now, the pictures will come down from the gallery walls, but Yehuda Shaul and three comrades who are shouldering the burden with him - Yonatan Baumfeld, Shmuel Nevo and Micha Kurz - all Nahal brigade fighters who were discharged in the past year, have no intention of letting up. This week, they made the rounds of gatherings of discharged soldiers and recruited fighters from other corps for the continuation of the project, and are looking for other things that they can add to the exhibition. There is a phone number for information, a Web site (shovrimshtika.org) and they have faith in their ability to create a tidal wave that will bring the reality of the territories into every home in Israel.
originally published at http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/440348.html