Fri, Jun 25, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Photo exhibition by Israeli soldiers has army on defensive

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , TEL AVIV

Micha Kurz, 21, poses before photographs in the exhibition ``Breaking the Silence'' in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Wednesday. Kurz is one of a group of Israeli soldiers who have just ended mandatory army service in Hebron and who have been interrogated by the Israeli army and police over the exhibition.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

When Israeli soldiers opened an exhibit this month documenting some of their own misdeeds while serving in the tense West Bank city of Hebron, they caused a brief stir.

At a photographic institute in Tel Aviv, the soldiers, all recently discharged, offer video testimony of gratuitous harassment and abuse of Palestinians, such as firing tear gas just to get a reaction. Hanging on the wall are dozens of car keys confiscated from Hebron residents, a punishment both common and unauthorized, soldiers said. And a photo taken by a soldier shows graffiti, presumably written by civilians, which reads, "Arabs to the gas chambers."

The Israeli military, which had expressed only mild dismay initially, has re-energized the debate surrounding the exhibit by confiscating the video testimony on Tuesday and calling in five soldiers for questioning on Wednesday.

The exhibit remains open, and the military said it took the actions not to suppress it but to investigate the abuses described by soldiers. The former soldiers maintain that the military is trying to silence them and to discourage others from speaking out.

The driving force behind the exhibit is Yehuda Shaul, 21, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, who recently completed his mandatory military service and then recruited his former comrades for the project.

The five soldiers, himself included, spoke about their actions when questioned by the military on Wednesday, Shaul said.

But they refused to identify others who speak anonymously in the video. These soldiers are not pictured, and their voices are distorted, though the television screen presents the text of their statements.

"When we made the video, we promised not to give their names," Shaul said. "We feel the army doesn't really want to deal with the serious issues, they just want to make other soldiers afraid."

The 90 photos, taken by soldiers during their Hebron duty, do not reveal abuses. They do show Palestinian detainees, blindfolded and handcuffed.

There are Jewish children playing in the empty streets of a town where Palestinians have faced extended curfews.

But the video testimony from the 29 soldiers describes a litany of improper actions by members of the Nahal Brigade, which is charged with protecting 500 Jewish settlers surrounded by 130,000 Palestinians.

Through long, sweaty days and the endless, chilly nights, the soldiers describe how discipline frays, fatigue and boredom set in, and they experience a rush in exercising power over those with no recourse.

One soldier said a colleague would fire tear gas canisters "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 tear gas just to see them run and cough," the soldier added. "He got a big kick out of it."

The soldiers have been reluctant to speak to foreign journalists, saying they want their exhibit to be for internal Israeli debate.

The military said the soldiers should have raised their concerns while still in uniform.

In a statement, the military said it "educates its soldiers to behave according to moral standards in complex situations."

The exhibit, which has been drawing several hundred visitors a day in Tel Aviv, was busier than usual on Wednesday, an apparent response to the latest controversy, curator Giora Salmi said.

Next week, the exhibit is scheduled to go on display at the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

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