Breaking the Silence

Former Israeli soldier turned peace campaigner Yehuda Shaul speaks from the heart at the Black Box

This engrossing talk at Belfast’s Black Box offers a startlingly personal, though all-too-brief, view from the coalface of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yehuda Shaul is an ex-Israeli soldier and one of the founders of Breaking the Silence, an organisation propagating a fairly humble objective. In 2004, Shaul and a number of his fellow veterans set out to highlight, for the public in Israel, the realities of daily life in the Occupied Territories.

Their 2012 book, Our Harsh Logic, compiled a collection of testimonies from former soldiers born into every strata of Israeli society, and by 2014 the group had gathered more than 950 similarly themed personal stories. The occupation is a continuing political and religious saga with notable similarities to Northern Ireland’s own tortured divide.

In 2010, singer-songwriter and peace campaigner, Tommy Sands, travelled to Israel to play a series of concerts. He received a tour of Hebron from Shaul and Breaking the Silence has now come to Ireland, in partnership with both Christian Aid and Trócaire, to promote its photo exhibition, which will run at the Gallery of Photography in Temple Bar, Dublin until June 29.

A series of associated talks has now taken in Cork and Belfast, as well as Dublin, all with a simple aim: to subvert any notion that the occupation of the West Bank is something which enjoys complete support in Israel.

Shaul was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Jerusalem 31 years ago. Drafted into the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in 2001, he served for three years during the height of the Second Intifada and speaks with military precision about his martial training and swift promotion through the enlisted ranks.

Displaying a photograph of himself – youthful, focused – at a symbolic oath-swearing ceremony in the shadow of the Wailing Wall, he appeared every inch the fervent recruit.

He is equally forthright about the immediately corrosive effect on one’s personality of operating as an occupying soldier. During his three-year stint, Shaul spent 14 months in Hebron and the result of existing at such a tense, politically charged interface was far from beneficial.

Shaul vividly likens his indoctrination, for want of a better word, to depositing all his morals and compassion in a blender, then flicking the switch. The consequences of a mindset which cast those under his watch as less than human were alarming: ‘When I saw a Palestinian who wasn’t handcuffed and blindfolded, I began to ask questions.’

It was an approach he found difficult to reconcile, in spite of his support for Israel and the IDF. ‘Our own society had sent us to do the job but had no idea what doing the job meant,’ he says.

Shaul is most impressive when discussing his own moral confusion in the face of situations which are alien to the rest of us. He came close to shooting a young child playing football in the street, he recalls calmly, and shows the audience a number of photographs taken by his comrades: Palestinian children seen through the deadly scope of a sniper rifle. The inhabitants of Hebron and elsewhere became abstracts, he suggests.

Indeed, in summer 2002, Shaul and his battalion were patrolling in Ramallah. He is, once again, frank in his description of the methods used then to see a World Cup fixture involving Brazil. They located a house with a satellite dish, entered the home, locked the family in the basement, watched the game and left.

Nobody was was harmed, physically at least, but the cruel invasiveness of the incident stands out. This one-time warrior points to the conundrum faced by many in a quasi-combat zone. ‘What were our moral boundaries? What were our red lines?’

That quandary is best illustrated by his final account. Stationed at a post observing Hebron’s densely packed hills, Shaul was tasked with protecting the small number of Israelis who live in the core of the city.

As Palestinian militants sent small arms fire down into the settlement, Shaul’s commander instructed him to shoot back using his grenade machine gun, a terrifyingly destructive weapon capable of delivering, at significant range, 88 rounds per minute.

The most pressing problem in this instance was the inability to identify the sources of gun shots in an urban area. That mattered little, says Shaul – orders were orders and he had no choice but to target those buildings selected as the likeliest spots for enemy activity. He does not mention the aftermath but he is clear about the task now: ‘I see the work of breaking the silence as a way of taking responsibility.’

Whatever his misgivings, Shaul is keen to draw a distinction between criticism of policy and loyalty to his homeland. ‘The IDF operates as if there is no end in sight,’ he says, yet the problem is not the army itself. ‘The problem is the mission we send the IDF to carry out.’

There are two kinds of Palestinians, according to Shaul, channelling his old standard operating procedures: ‘the wanted people and the people you dry out'. The former are those individuals whom the army is actively seeking, the latter anyone chosen at random from a checkpoint for a few hours of ‘humiliation and education’. They would sit in the sun, bound and hooded.

Their offences ranged from minor to non-existent, he suggests, an insolent tone here, a weary look there. Wearing too happy an expression was also a potential problem. These are not things that the general population often hears back home.

As there are two types of Palestinians so are there two versions of Israel, contends Shaul, the scarred landscape and the elegant metropolis. ‘There is Hebron and there is Tel Aviv.’ Breaking the Silence is committed to bringing the former to the latter.

It is not a vision, however, with which everyone is comfortable, even Shaul’s own family. Israel may be a functioning democratic state in a region beset by problems but, as he points out, shining a light on the gritty truth, raising difficult questions, is a tricky proposition in a profoundly patriotic country.

‘My politics is nuclear material in my family,’ he says. In spite of this, Shaul seems unlikely to waver in pursuit of his present goals. ‘The only way both sides can have live in peace,’ he concludes, ‘is if they have dignity.’

Breaking the Silence photo exhibition runs at the Gallery of Photography, Dublin, until June 29. Visit the Black Box website for information on forthcoming events.