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Images of the brutality within

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL — TEL AVIV, Israel - Most of the photos look innocuous, nothing more than snapshots taken by Israeli soldiers patrolling the West Bank city of Hebron. There is little to suggest the wide-scale abuse of Palestinians promised by the new exhibit called Breaking the Silence.

That is, until the soldiers who took the photos speak.

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It is only then, patrons learn, that the two Palestinians photographed sitting on the ground with their eyes covered and their hands shackled had been there for hours. They were not arch-terrorists; they had skirted a checkpoint to get home.

The panoramic view of Hebron taken through a bullet hole in a window is not merely an artistic vision captured on film. An Israeli soldier made the hole when he fired at random houses in an exercise he described as "like playing a video game on the computer and destroying targets with a joystick."

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Day-to-day life

Three men in their early 20s who only months ago completed their compulsory service opened the exhibit this week at the College of Geographical Photography in Tel Aviv.

It is designed not to shock, but to provoke discussion, to show day-to-day life of soldiers assigned to guard 400 hardened Jewish settlers living in the midst of 200,000 Palestinians.

For the soldiers who created the exhibit, it is a story of post-mortem guilt, of how the unconscionable became the routine, of how young soldiers behaved with unrestrained power and little guidance. It is only in retrospect, they said, that their own abuses became apparent.

"The first time you do something bad it singes," Yehuda Shaul, a 21-year-old who launched the exhibit, told visitors during a tour on Thursday. "When it was over, I realized that I had done some things that were distorted. ... You get used to feeling that 'I am the ruler.'"

Shaul said he shot randomly at Palestinian houses. "When I try to think of what made me pull the trigger, I have no memory of it," he said. "Every day you vow that you aren't going to do it. And every day the red line gets pushed."

While the photos appear benign, taped testimonials offer accounts of Israeli soldiers posing with dead Palestinians' bodies, throwing stun grenades at children as an excuse to open fire and turning people away at checkpoints for sport.

On Thursday, the Israeli army announced that its military police had launched an investigation into the abuses depicted in the exhibit. A statement did not list specific incidents, but said that the army "educates its soldiers to act according to high moral standards and will continue to investigate and take serious measures in exceptional incidents."

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These are the latest in a series of army reservists, including a group of air force pilots, to speak out against what they say are routine abuses.

The former soldiers who took the photos said they wanted to depict Hebron through their eyes, much of it through scopes on high-powered rifles. One photo shows a Palestinian tending to his pigeon coop, the crosshairs centered on his chest.

"This is the way we look at people," said Shaul. "We see them through the sights of a gun."

Nowhere other than Hebron do the two warring sides live so close together. And nowhere are the roles for soldiers more blurred. One moment they are fending off militant fire, and the next they are protecting Palestinians from settlers' wrath.

The three men - Shaul, Yonatan Baumfeld and Micha Kurtz - have given interviews to the Israeli media but have shunned foreign reporters. Baumfeld said talking to outsiders would "push away the parts of Israeli society that we want to listen to us."

But a reporter was allowed to roam the exhibit hall and follow the former soldiers as they talked to small groups about their work.

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Their rationale for making the photos public is summed up in a notice posted at the entrance:

"In the daily coping with the madness of Hebron, we could not remain those same people underneath the uniform. We saw our friends and ourselves changing slowly between the hammer and the anvil."

The statement says they were "exposed to terrorism's ugly face," confronting "suicide bombers who didn't hesitate" and seeing a Jewish family "murdered around the dinner table." But it also mentions "settlers we were supposed to protect disturbing the order, breaking into Palestinian homes and confronting physically and verbally the army and police."

"We decided to talk," they conclude. "We decided to tell. Hebron is not on another planet, but Hebron is light years away from Tel Aviv. We decided to bring Hebron to Tel Aviv. You come, see and listen and understand what is going on there."

The scenes in the photos, shot between 2001 and 2003, are varied: soldiers on routine patrols, conducting searches and guarding settlers.

A smiling Baumfeld is shown standing next to a settler, holding his machine gun like a guitar. The settler is holding a real guitar, as well as his own weapon. Another picture shows graffiti: "Arabs to the gas chambers." Another shows a settler with his gun, its bullet cartridge wrapped with a sticker that says: "Kill 'em all. Let God sort it out."

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One photo shows Palestinian children playing soldier. Four youngsters stand with their hands against a wall, their legs outstretched. Two others stand guard, as a real Israeli soldier watches in bemusement.

A general visits

On Thursday, retired Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak paid a surprise visit. A former Cabinet minister, chief negotiator with the Palestinians and holder of two medals of valor, he slowly walked by the photos and listened quietly as the reservists told their stories.

He said later, "The problem is not the pictures, but what is behind them. Such pictures can take place every day and in every place. I know of worse things that have happened. When you see these pictures, you don't see the situation. It's not like the pictures in Iraq [of the prison abuse] where you don't need explanations."

In the hallway, the 60-year-old Lipkin-Shahak got into a spirited debate with the three young organizers.

"My mother who sent me to serve in Hebron should know what it is like," said Kurtz, one of the former soldiers. "People should know what it is like. Maybe they will see it and change something."

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The general challenged the three: If they knew what they were doing was wrong, why did they wait until they had finished their duty before coming forward?

"I came out of Hebron mentally scratched," Kurtz said. "A year ago, I didn't know what I was doing was wrong. Now I do."

Lipkin-Shahak answered: "I accept the fact that you didn't think. I don't accept the fact that you didn't know how to think."


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