broken silence

Yesterday I was given the opportunity to return to Hebron, and to tour the city with a local activist. It was an interesting day that gave me a better feel for the tension the city’s residents are living with every day.
Hebron is home to a number of “sterile streets” as they call them in Israel – roads where no Palestinian is allowed to go. Some of the Jewish settlers carry camcorders and follow Palestinians and groups of foreigners around in an attempt to catch them out. This guy, above, pulled up in his jeep within seconds of us coming near one such road. He started recording Issa, our guide, and then tried to get a soldier to block our access to an area. There is anti-Arab graffiti everywhere and jeering settlers on every corner…it’s an intimidating place.

We had travelled to Hebron with Yehuda Shaul, a founder and now director of the group Breaking the Silence, made up of young ex-combat soldiers who now speak out about the occupation and particularly the situation in this town.
Yehuda, a 25-year-old American ultra-orthodox Jew, is no longer allowed into Hebron so had to wait for us outside the centre. Even there he was attacked by the settlers, who pelted him with eggs, after which he was arrested. He was released without charge an hour or so later.
Breaking the Silence now collects testimony from serving and former soldiers and runs educational tours and lectures, mainly aimed at Israeli youth.

What he said was interesting. He talked about the military strategy of separating the 500 settlers and Hebron’s 120,000 Palestinian residents, through shop and road closures, welding doors shut and putting curfews in place for the Arabs (there were 377 days of curfew in just three years).
He also talked about the policy of “making our presence felt”, which describes something I’d heard Palestinians elsewhere talking about. It basically involves random raids in houses, firing ammunition, breaking into shops and so on, and was how soldiers spent their night shifts. “The idea was that if Palestinians thought we were everywhere they wouldn’t try to do anything,” he said.

Yehuda also explained that because of the two systems of law here – Palestinians are subject to military law and settlers to Israeli rules – the army has no power to act when settlers attack their Arab neighbours.
He believes that in this way the settlers are being given the green light to act as they want by the Israeli government. If the army suspects a Palestinian is going to do something violent they can shoot and ask questions later.
But the rules of engagement say that if an Israeli starts shooting people, they must wait for him to pause – if he’s run out of bullets, say – and then overpower him without firing a shot.

What I found quite refreshing about all this was Yehuda’s frankness. He was open about the fact that he has done some horrible things during his time in uniform and wasn’t asking for any kind of praise for what he does now.
“My soldiers and I weren’t different, although we thought we were,” he said. “We might have felt bad about it afterwards but we were still occupying the land and raiding people’s homes.
“When I was serving in Hebron I’d spend my weekends demonstrating outside Ariel Sharon’s house, and attend demonstrations by Women in Black and Peace Now. I would send soldiers in military vehicles to testify to B’Tselem [Israeli human rights group] and if I found out that olive trees were going to be cut down I would tip people off. But that’s part of the silence…the mechanism allowed me to to keep quiet.
“When the order came in to seal up people’s doors in Hebron we spent our briefing hours for a few weeks talking about the morality of refusing to serve.
“But then we’d get into our armoured personnel carriers and raid people’s homes, throw grenades and so on. You can’t be there and not be there at the same time. If you are there you are part of it.”

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