Israeli ex-soldiers expose abuse of Palestinians

In a report this week, 39 soldiers give eyewitness accounts from their patrols in and around the West Bank city of Hebron.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Breaking the silence: In the report, discharged soldier Doron Efrati (l.) tells of the day his compatriots killed an 11-year-old boy.
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Doron Efrati was assigned to the Kfir Brigade, part of an infantry battalion that was especially created to serve in the West Bank following the outbreak of the second intifada.

He figured if he was going to be drafted anyway, he would agree to serve in the Israeli-occupied territories, "to see what really happens, and maybe to change things," he says. "But I didn't succeed."

Today, he is one of 39 recently discharged soldiers whose testimonies are part of a grim new report on the situation in the West Bank city of Hebron, where the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) oversee a volatile population of 700 to 800 Jewish settlers living amid nearly 170,000 Palestinians. The 118-page report, which tells of systematic mistreatment of local Palestinians by both soldiers and settlers, was released during this week's Passover holiday.

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The timing is not coincidental. Forty years ago this week, a small group of far-right religious Israelis, led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, wrangled with a reluctant Israeli military establishment to hold a Passover seder in Hebron, revered as the burial place of several biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. Rabbi Levinger, who saw in Israel's 1967 military victory over the Arabs a heralding of a Messianic-era redemption, rented hotel rooms for himself and his followers the following Passover, and refused to leave. Today, his flock constitutes the only Jewish settlement inside a Palestinian city.

The report, put out by the nongovernmental group Breaking the Silence, is meant to challenge what the group sees as a growing assumption by Israelis that Israeli-Palestinian friction in the West Bank has quieted down since the Al-Aqsa Intifada petered out around 2004.

"A lot of people come and say, 'Oh, that's all in the past,' " explains Yehuda Shaul, executive director of the group, which has brought 3,000 people on eye-opening trips to Hebron. On the contrary, he adds, he sees abuses as increasingly institutionalized. "The whole point of Breaking the Silence is to understand the moral price tag of a military occupation."

Asked to respond to the group's report, an IDF spokesman said in a written statement, "All IDF soldiers of all ranks are instructed to follow a strict set of moral guidelines which dictate codes of conduct in combat settings. IDF soldiers operate according to these guidelines, which determine the way they are expected and instructed to behave at all times."

But in the report, 39 recently discharged soldiers who served in the Hebron area between 2005 and 2007 describe a pattern of repeated violations. Mr. Efrati is one of the five who have made their identities known; most offered anonymous accounts. The IDF does not investigate "anonymous complaints," said the spokesman, who asked not to be named in keeping with Israeli army policy.

One of Efrati's worst experiences started when some Palestinian kids threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at his unit when he was out on patrol in south Hebron. About 40 minutes afterward, he says, other soldiers in his unit identified and shot dead one of the youths who threw a flaming bottle. He was 11 years old.

"It was reported in the Israeli media later that one terrorist with a Molotov cocktail was killed," he recalls, sitting in a Tel Aviv cafe. "I didn't feel so good, but most of my friends didn't care, and we had so much to do. These things were happening all the time," he says.

The IDF spokesman said that in the event of an incident, "Officers from every unit that comes in direct contact with the civilian population in the West Bank take steps to ensure that similar incidents, whether commonplace or highly unusual, are never repeated."

But Efrati describes numerous actions he witnessed on a regular basis. One involves locking an entire family into one room, and then using the rest of the house – the roof included – as a base. He says that in one such mission, in the village of Tarkumiyeh near Hebron, soldiers stayed overnight. Additional jeeps with sirens came in the morning, trying to draw a crowd. When the stones started flying, soldiers were able to shoot from the roof.

Michael Manekin, one of the leaders of Breaking the Silence, which has collected testimonies from more than 500 soldiers, says that's a "fixed procedure." Efrati says the only explanation given for the operation is that there were "a lot of terrorists in the village." He says that on one occasion where he witnessed clear violation of policy – he saw an army comrade hitting someone who was already handcuffed and calm, he complained to his commander. The answer? "Let's leave the dirty laundry in the company."

Efrati also describes regularly being sent on late-night missions that involved raiding homes in the wee hours of the morning, turning over the house and searching for weapons. This often was carried out for the purposes of "mapping" – keeping track of who lives where – but he and most others who gave testimonies for the reports said that this technique was not carried out to target specific militant activity, but to instill fear. "It's done because we want the Palestinians to feel that we can be anywhere at anytime," he says. "The first time you enter some family's home, you feel, why am I doing it? But then after two, three times, you get used to it."

Efrati's stories are far from the worst in the report. The testimonies include details of beatings and detaining Palestinians for checks without reason and making them sit or squat in uncomfortable positions. According to one troubling testimony, a soldier who gets annoyed at the sight of a Palestinian farmer whipping his donkey decides to ride the man and give him a taste of the same. The soldiers describe a constant stream of settler violence and vandalism against Palestinians, some of which is captured on the extensive camera system through which the IDF monitors what happens in the city. But if the report is correct, the footage is rarely turned over to the police to prosecute settlers.

Some of the most damning testimonies have been given on condition of anonymity – some soldiers fear legal action, and others are afraid of the social pressures to keep quiet. Says Mr. Shaul: "I hope that by doing this, it will get people to break their silence earlier."

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