Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Yehuda speaks in Toronto

Published on Sunday, December 17, 2006 by the Toronto Star (Canada)
Ex-Soldiers Break `Silence' on Israeli Excesses
`Something rotten' is going on in Gaza and the West Bank

by Haroon Siddiqui

A young Israeli was in Canada last week raising ethical questions about the conduct of Israeli soldiers in the Occupied Territories.

Yehuda Shaul was born in Jerusalem to an American mother and Canadian father (from Toronto). Shaul went to school in a West Bank settlement and served in the army from 2001 to 2004. He did a 14-month stint in Hebron, guarding about 650 settlers living among approximately 150,000 Palestinians.

He is one of the founders of Break the Silence, a group of ex-soldiers speaking out about what they saw and did during their tour of duty in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

At 6-foot 1-inch, the heavy-set Shaul cuts an imposing but engaging figure with his beard, ponytail and the kippa. He smiles easily.

He had a lot to say during a vegetarian kosher lunch we shared in my office with his Toronto host, Judith Wiseman.

He came here after a tour of six American cities. In Toronto, he spoke at the Winchevsky Centre of the United Jewish People's Order and at the Quaker House. Then he was off to London, Ottawa and Montreal.

He recounted the moment when, three months before being released from the army, he was alone and wondering what he would do upon returning to civilian life.

It struck him, he said, that he had become "a monster," doing things that were not right. "It was a frightening moment."

He spoke to fellow soldiers. "They were feeling the same: `Something's rotten here.' Israelis don't know what goes on here, and we must tell them.'"

Within three months of being discharged in March 2004, Shaul and friends mounted an exhibit, Bringing Hebron to Tel Aviv. It had powerful photos and video testimony by 64 soldiers showing and describing the treatment meted out to Palestinians by the troops as well as some of the settlers.

There were pictures of Palestinians bound and blindfolded. There was a photo of a settler carrying an assault rifle with a decal on the magazine clip: "Kill 'em all, Let God sort 'em out." Another was of graffiti on a wall: "Arabs to the gas chamber."

The exhibit drew 7,000 visitors and much media coverage.

Other soldiers who had served in the West Bank and Gaza came forward. More photos were gathered, as well as about 400 audio and video testimonies.

In them, soldiers talk about the total power of the occupiers over the occupied — throwing Palestinians out of their homes; making them stand for hours for disobeying the curfew or trying to bypass a checkpoint or even smiling or arguing at the wrong time, Shaul said.

"We can play with them. This is the mindset from which everything flows."

In Hebron, Shaul manned a machine gun. "It can shoot dozens of grenades a minute up to a distance of about 2,000 metres. We'd shoot 40 or 50 a day ...

"We had three high posts, two where we had kicked the Palestinian families out of and the third was a Palestinian school which we had closed down.

"The idea was that anytime they shoot, we shoot back.

"But the machine gun is not an accurate weapon. You just shoot in the direction of the target ... We have no idea how many we killed. I hope no one."

Shaul said some acts "flow from being afraid or being bored. You are there eight hours a night at the post. You just aim and shoot the water tank."

Or, "when you drive your tank or your APC (armoured personnel carrier), you bump into a streetlight. As you turn a corner, you bump into a wall. It's fun ... It's all about you. Nothing else matters ... Palestinians are no longer human."

Initially, Break the Silence members did not speak to foreigners, to avoid "airing our dirty laundry." But they have since changed their policy.

Two members toured the United States last year. Two exhibitions have been held in Geneva and Amsterdam.

The group (http://www.shovrimshtika.org and http://www.breakthesilence.org) exists to break two kinds of silences: "First, the soldiers keep quiet and, then Israeli society keeps quiet.

"We provide the tools for people to understand the deeply woven moral corruption and numbness of what we do (in the Occupied Territories). It's like a slide; once you start going down, you keep going down.

"There's no such thing as a benign or an enlightened occupation. You can't be an occupier and not be an occupier."

Shaul's overall message:

"The issue is not the right of Israel to exist but rather, does it have the right to occupy Palestinian lands and control civilians as it has for 40 years?"

Shaul said he has been well-received in North America, even though some did criticize him.

But, "you can't really criticize me because I am an Israeli who has served in the army."

He's much more: a courageous citizen of Israeli democracy.

Haroon Siddiqui is the Star's editorial page editor emeritus.

© 2006 The Toronto Star

Friday, December 8, 2006

Letters to the Editor about Yehuda's visit

ONE SIDED REPORTAGE

In her report in the November 30 issue on Yeshuda Shaul's testimony about his stint as an Israeli soldier on duty in Hebron, Violet Snow writes that the "soldiers are present to protect the resident Israelis [who live in a settlement of some 650 in the center of the West Bank city of 150,000 Palestinians] in a tense atmosphere marked by sporadic attacks on Israeli civilians, including suicide bombings."

The first rule in journalism is to get the facts straight. Here Snow's account is 180 degrees out of line. It would be quite an extraordinary event for unarmed Palestinians to attack a settler, a great many of whom pack firearms. On the other hand, malicious violence directed from the settlers to Palestinians - and indeed, any "stranger" - is more or less continual. On a trip last year some friends of mine who had gone to visit the settlement were attacked by stone-throwing youths before they even reached the gate, as rifle-bearing adults stood by and did nothing to stop the adolescents. The Palestinians of Hebron are exposed to an essentially terroristic regime from these fanatics (a considerable number of whom have emigrated from the US). This is virtually never reported by the Western media, who, like Violet Snow, are concerned to present the Israelis as an outpost of civilization in the midst of Arab barbarism.

Occasionally the veil is opened, particularly if a Westerner is attacked. One such incident happened just this past November 18, when Tove Johansson, a 19 year old human rights worker from Stockholm, was attacked for the offense of escorting Palestinian children from school to their homes, this being necessary on a daily basis because of the above mentioned aggression. The settlers chanted "we killed Jesus, we'll kill you, too," began spitting, and then kicked Tova and other volunteers. She was knocked down and her cheek-bone was broken - all happening as Israeli soldiers stood by and did nothing, since their orders are strictly to protect the settlers. The reader may find an account, with photographs, at http://www.palsolidarity.org/main/2006/11/18/hebron-day-06/.

If we had some decent journalism about such things, we might be able to begin a debate in this country about this ongoing atrocity.

Joel Kovel
Willow







BREAKING SILENCE

I want to thank the Middle-East Crisis Group for the recent event Breaking the Silence at the Woodstock Town Hall. It was a blessing that this Israeli ex-soldier shared his experience with us. All through the talk, several men would get up and go out only to come back later. I found it rude but presumed they had small bladders. I was concentrating on Yehuda Shaul's talk, looking at the pictures, nothing graphic, almost ordinary pictures about ordinary oppression and I was trying to imagine what it feels like to aim your weapon at people: The feeling of power. It made me see that occupation is different from war because soldiers are dealing with civilians instead of combatants. I thought of Hanna Arendt and the banality of evil...It was difficult to concentrate, however, because of the noise of high heels loudly and constantly pacing the floor in the rear. I quickly understood what it was all about when the time came for Yehuda to take questions. A man rushed to the front and without further invitation started to quote Abraham on war. I though, why Abraham and not Albert Einstein? After all, what did Abraham know about depleted uranium and WMD? But this was only the beginning; a barrage of well-prepared statements by a small group who had staged a hijacking of the meeting and were now hollering for free speech. Calling Yehuda's speech "propaganda," they poured out their own with aggressive, angry voices as if they owned the truth, talking of anti-Semitism but never acknowledging their own hatred of Palestinians nore addressing the so obviously unfair division of territory. I was very disturbed by the thought that these people were there only to stop Yehuda from "breaking the silence" and to be able to say, later on, "I am not responsible. I didn't know. I was lied to.

Elaine Paul
West Hurley







MY CORRECTIONS FOR TUCHMAN

In last weeks Letters my friend Bruce Tuchman reviewed the Breaking The Silence presentation by Israeli army vet Yehuda Shaul. There were unfortunately some (I am sure inadvertent) inaccuracies that need to be corrected.

BT: "this anti-Israel group..." (Mid East crisis group that invited Mr. Shaul).

The group is not anti-Israel but anti-Israeli policies and actions in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, same as a group formed to oppose G. W. Bush's actions in Iraq is not anti-American, it is pro-American.

BT: Shaul is "a disenfranchised Israeli soldier."

Not true, I can't even guess where BT inferred that from.

BT: "They (Shaul and other soldiers) are getting paid to talk about it."

See comment about previous point.

BT: "He did not give any new information..."

Many told me that the shocking information presented of gratuitous abuse and killings was news to them. People who were not present can go to the group's modest website and read for themselves to see if there is "nothing new" there for them: www.shovrimshtika.org select "English," read testimonies and press reports, view videos.

BT: (paraphrasing) ...since he did not offer any solutions to the situation, there was no real value to the lecture.

Except for BT and a few of his friends, most of the packed Town Hall attendees thought and told me they were very impressed with Mr. Shaul and learned a lot from the lecture.

BT: "Israel completed the full evacuation of the Gaza strip..."

Israel removed the settlements (in order to get Bush's permission to do as he pleases in the West Bank, continue the oppression and expand the colonization there) and is suffocating and starving Gaza, while continuing the wholesale killing - some 500 in the last six months alone, more than half of them civilians, women and children.

Bruce ends by hoping that the "New round of talks will bring lasting peace." Well, there were no talks now, and not for many years, did Bruce forget the "nobody to talk to" title pinned on Arafat - "The obstacle to peace," now dead for 2 years...still no peace, and applied to all subsequent Palestinian PMs? There is, however, a cease fire starting a few days ago - three Palestinians, one of them a kid, killed in the last 4 days in Gaza by the IDF. For the prospects of that read an excellent Op-Ed in Haaretz (Often called "Israel's NY times"): http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/795406.html

Eldad Benary
Saugerties







NO PEACE WITHOUT TALK

I went to the talk at Town Hall last Tuesday to hear Yehuda Shaul speak about his experiences as an Israeli soldier in Palestine. I thought that he provided a low-key view of the occupation, was thoughtful and interesting. For me, the noteworthy aspect of the evening was the perfect replication of what goes on everywhere where there is murderous conflict; "you can't talk to those people [the other side], they're killers!" It was horrible and chilling how the two sides, pro Palestinian and pro Israel, won't hear each other, much less talk to each other. Obviously, the time to talk is now, irrespective of what is happening, more so when blood is being shed. The claim "you can't talk now...." is a ploy to maintain the bleeding status quo, to maintain the feelings of justification, the illusion of the moral high ground. As long as we're still breathing, we must start talking, here and now. Can we start? Are there people out there who have different opinions about this who are willing to learn how to listen to the other side, to learn how to talk to the other side? Or are we all truly doomed?

Jay Wenk
Woodstock







DISTURBING REFLECTION

Yehuda Shaul rose above our divisive political philosophies and showed us from his deepest self what it is like to think and feel in a highly ethical way. If we condemn such a man, it is because - over our human faces - we have put on the mask of national militarism in whatever form it takes - and we don't know anymore how to pull it off - so much a part of us it has become. It doesn't matter who brought Yehuda Shaul to our community. He was here - and for a moment, he gave us a hand to hold a clarifying mirror up to ourselves - a mirror in which we can question and come to understand our most turbulent and troubling thoughts and actions. Perhaps someday, in addition to looking at ourselves, we will be able to act morally with each other.

Jane Toby
Catskill







ISRAELIS AS OCCUPIERS

First of all I would like to express my utmost admiration and thanks to M.r Shaul for his talk on November 27 in Woodstock. Mr. Shaul and his colleagues in "Breaking the Silence" are exposing the inhumane conditions under which Palestinians are forced to live in occupied territories. Since I lived in occupied Czechoslovakia during the war, I may have more compassion and understanding for their plight. The men in "Breaking the Silence" are true heroes, people who are trying to make our Earth a better place to live. Too bad we totally lacked such people in the 1930s.

Secondly I would like to recommend to Mr. B. Tuchman and H. Lee Wind (Feedback, Woodstock Times, November 30) to attend a talk by Paula Silby, a Willow resident, who will report on her stay in occupied Palestine on January 7, 2007, in Inquiring Mind in Saugerties. Reading her emails about the behavior of the Israelis reminds me of the behavior of the "superior" Nazis in their occupied lands. Blatant violations of human dignity and human rights.

Henry Halama
Woodstock







PEACE WARRIOR

Speaking at the Woodstock Town Hall, Yehuda Shaul, Israeli Defense Force commander and founder of Breaking the Silence, gave a intimate look at occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. The stories he told of humiliating Palestinians and the pictures he showed of bright faced, smiling young men destroying people's homes were almost too much to bear. He likened occupation to a "slow drip of poison in the blood," that eventually kills the soul. His love for Israel was unmistakable. Breaking the Silence is all about Israel, what it is now, and what it must become.

At the end of Yehuda's talk, a number in the audience verbally attacked him. He was "immature" about not accepting what men must do in war. He was favoring the Palestinians who were savage killers and haters of Israel. He was going against what the Bible said.

But Yehuda was implacable. "Occupation is not war," he reminded the audience. He was not supporting the Palestinians; he was holding up a mirror to those who support occupation. If they don't like what they see, then it was up to them to do something about it. As far as the Bible, Yehuda called Israel the "golden calf" of many Americans, a false idol. Israel was his country, not someone else's religious concept. He was speaking out both for himself and for the good of his nation.

At twenty four, Yehuda Shaul is now a warrior for peace.

Fred Nagel
Rhinebeck