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Between 2004 and 2010, Just Vision interviewed more than 80 Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders. The interviews in this archive represent a fraction of the civic leaders working in the field at a particular moment in time, and aim to provide audiences access to a range of perspectives and approaches.

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Yehuda Shaul

Yehuda Shaul was brought up in a Jewish Orthodox family in Jerusalem. At the end of his military service, which included serving in Hebron for fourteen months, Yehuda founded Breaking the Silence together with other Israeli soldiers from his unit. Breaking the Silence collects and publishes the testimonies of Israeli soldiers who served in the Territories during the second intifada, calling on the Israeli public to face the price of occupation. Their first event was an exhibit of photographs and testimonials by soldiers serving in Hebron that was displayed in Tel Aviv in 2004.

  • Please tell me a little bit about yourself.

    My name is Yehuda Shaul. I'm 25; I was born in Jerusalem and grew up there. My parents made aliyah from North America; my father is Canadian, my mother is from New York, and they met here. I was raised in a Haredi American home, which is strange since it's like a little bubble when you look at Israeli society. I would say my background is not what you'd expect from someone involved in the work I do today. I come from the Right of the political map. I studied at a high school yeshiva in a settlement in the West Bank, in Maale Michmash near Ramallah. My uncle was a settler in Gush Katif, my sister is a settler. During my high school years, part of my teenage rebellion involved questioning the religion and politics I was raised on. In tenth or eleventh grade I developed a religious approach that differed a little from the approach I was brought up with, and in eleventh grade I started to mess around with politics, questioning what I had thought was true. I owe my desire for knowledge and respect for intellect to my Haredi education. For over 20 years my father worked as a programmer in Tel Aviv. He left the house at 5am, returning at 6:30pm. Growing up, we kids knew not to make noise between 7:30 and 8:30 because that was when he'd study Gemara. I grew up with books; I read lots. At first, I read things that were compatible with the narrative I grew up with and gradually I widened the scope. After high school I went hiking a lot on my own, I hiked for a month and a half by myself. I crossed the country, went searching for myself. It's pretty funny, but in high school, I thought the army would be a very radical and difficult experience. I went hiking because I wanted to feel I was certain of who I was before being drafted so that the army wouldn't affect who I was and what I did with my life afterward. That was the continuation of a journey in search of myself that I began in high school.

  • In your community do people usually serve in the Israeli army?

    No. In the community I grew up in people don't do military service. But because I come from an orthodox yet American family, these things are subject to change. My brother served before me and it was clear that I would serve. Because I wasn't raised as an Israeli, army service was actually my path to becoming a true Israeli. I grew up in a Haredi American family, then went to a Haredi American Yeshiva in the Territories and therefore, my entire life was spent in a big bubble. While serving [in the army] was radical given my background, my family didn't consider it radical, so it wasn't such a hard thing for me to do. To me, it was clear that every generation had to do its part to guard the country's borders, and now it was my turn.

  • Did you ever encounter Palestinians before your military service?

    I thought it wasn't very nice to control another people and that because the idea of Zionism was our right to self-determination the Palestinians had the same right to their own state. I thought taking other people's lands wasn't nice but I didn't really understand anything beyond that. Of course I didn't know what the army did in the Territories. My high school was in the Territories but to me it wasn't really in the Territories. I'd take a bus or hitch a ride at the bus stop in Pisgat Ze'ev and in twenty minutes to half an hour and I was in Maale Michmash, entering the settlement. Those were also the last years of Oslo; it wasn't as though stones were being thrown. There wasn't anything that forced me to look at the politics and at where I was. I was aware the school was in the Territories, but I don't think the word Territories meant anything to me, it wasn't really something we were aware of.

  • You were posted in Hebron for a long period during military service. Did you ever visit Hebron before you were a soldier?

    I was raised orthodox so I had visited Hebron before I was a soldier. I visited mostly during Jewish holidays, when the Tomb of the Patriarch is open only to Jews. But I didn't personally know people who lived there. It was very remote from politics: being a soldier you do what needs doing. In an abstract sense I thought occupation was negative, but I didn't understand it. On the second day after I was drafted I said I didn't want to serve in an elite unit because I didn't want to participate in operations the army initiated in the Territories, and that was totally cut off from reality. Bear in mind that I don't come from a society in which people sit and talk about the army or ask what you've done during your army service. That isn't my society. I didn't know what someone did in the army. My brother was in the army but we didn't talk about it.

  • What led you to found Shovrim Shtika [Breaking the Silence]?

    I don't think you can come prepared for the reality in the Territories, but I can't say I was surprised. There isn't a moment when in retrospect I'd say, "Wow!" Nobody trained me to do what I did. For six months at the regiment's training base, and then in advanced training, I trained to fight the Syrian and Egyptian armies using pretty straightforward warfare strategies. I learned how to outflank forces fighting in the Golan Heights. Nobody trained me to stand at a checkpoint or enter a house. The situation in the Territories is very clear and doesn't really require training. You stand there and you know what your role is; you know who you are and what it is you need to do: to prevent and thwart terrorist activities, and protect the people in the Jewish settlement and passersby. You patrol; you are taught to look at the windows and that's what you do. During your first patrol you tremble with fear, when you leave the kasba you're sweating. During the second patrol you sweat less, even less during the third patrol, and after two weeks you walk around with your hands in your pockets because you feel comfortable. Nobody trained me and I don't think anybody could. When we encountered Hebron and understood that settlers could do as they please and nobody would stop them - we started getting very mad and frustrated. Talking to the settlers didn't lead anywhere. There are huge ideological differences between myself and a person who is capable of approaching an Arab's door and spray-painting a Star of David or "Arabs out". To me, the historical memory is hair-raising. We all know the past significance of symbols on Jewish shop doors, and what those symbols were. We are all familiar with the expression when you replace the word "Arabs" with the word "Jews". We know that history. I saw graffiti that said "Arabs to the gas chambers", "Arabs to the crematorium" and I understood the horror of the historical context.

  • You started to talk about feeling frustrated. When did you begin to talk about the issues that bothered you?

    Most of my company spoke out against what the settlers were doing. In terms of the settlers, we really disliked what we saw, and we talked about it. Now, I see that viewing the settlers as evil, blaming them and criticizing them, was an escape, because it meant keeping silent about what we, as soldiers, were doing. I became the good guy because what they did hurt me. We talked about the settlers but not about ourselves. We didn't understand what we were doing. One day, we were ordered to weld shut Palestinian shop doors, and that was too much. We had a discussion about refusing to serve - we were about seven or eight people who considered refusing.

  • Could you explain what you mean by refusing?

    I mean refusing to serve in Hebron. I even met with Yesh Gvul activists. I read Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King and I took Yesh Gvul's booklet with me, I believe it's called "Occupation and Refusal". For two or three weeks I refused to guard outside our post. I asked to only guard the post until we decided what to do. I was willing to guard my friends only, not the settlers. Yesh Gvul explained what would happen. If a group refused, it would have an enormous political effect, but we would risk a year in prison. Our group of seven or eight guys started talking things over. Finally, we got a week's leave, which happened every four months, only we hadn't had a week's leave in seven months. That Wednesday was the Passover seder, and there was a suicide bombing in the Park Hotel. It had been a deadly two months, a precedent in the second intifada; over 120 [Israeli] civilians were killed in suicide attacks. The attack on the Park Hotel proved to be too much. I think 26 Israelis were killed. The phone kept ringing. My unit was called back to help conquer Ramallah, this was "Operation Defensive Shield." People were watching the news and reading papers for two months, and the idea of this operation sunk in - it was no longer a matter of guarding settlers in Hebron. Now, it was fighting terrorism and fighting for our homes, so even though I still thought the occupation was a terrible thing, all our questions were pushed aside. One of the first things I did when we returned to Hebron was patrol. There was a post called "the pharmacy" on the border between H1 and H2 - the zones controlled by Israeli forces and Palestinian forces. This post was in a dangerous place and every day there would be an explosive device or shooting. Orders were given that every 10 or 20 minutes the patrol had to climb to the roof of a clinic building - the clinics were closed because this was a "sterile zone", where Palestinians were prohibited from entering. We had to watch all the alleyways to ensure nothing happened there. We entered the building and walked up. I noticed that a door was open on one floor and I remembered it being closed last time. I pushed it open and went in. I saw what used to be a dentist's clinic. Soldiers had broken in and destroyed everything. There were broken syringes, shattered glass cases and mirrors. There was sh** on the floor and it was smeared all over. This was the first time I encountered such brutality and I was shocked. I took out a camera I had in my gear and started taking pictures. When I went home on leave I had the photos developed and scanned them.1 A friend and I looked for Israeli journalists' email addresses; we opened an email account and sent the photos to journalists, saying, "look what's happening in Hebron." Then, I went to my commanders and told them I wanted to train as a commander. They laughed and said two months ago I talked about refusing to serve. I told them I wanted to become a commander in order to teach soldiers not to behave the way I saw soldiers behaving. Then, we left Hebron for Tulkarm, and other Palestinian villages. Meanwhile the only reporter who contacted me was Amir Rappoport. He asked me what the commanders had to say. I responded, but nothing happened. I sent the photos to B'Tselem and met with Dror Etkes from Peace Now's Settlement Watch Committee. I had consciously developed a form of resistance. I'd get leave for the weekend and join Women in Black at Paris Square in Jerusalem. Everyone knew me and what I was doing. On Saturday nights there were demonstrations outside Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's residence, and I joined Peace Now there.

    • 1Please see the gallery section on Breaking the Silence's website: http://breakingthesilence.org.il/gallery_e.asp

  • Was there a turning point for you when you began to see a problem with what you personally were doing in the army?

    Three months before the end of my military service I had a moment of disillusionment. I began to think about my life. Since tenth grade I knew what I wanted to do: complete my military service, go to Canada to make some money laying shingles for my uncle, go to India and then come back and study Jewish thought at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I had a script. I had saved up for airfare and everything was arranged. Then came the moment to realize my dream and I started to ask myself: is this what I want to do? When I asked myself genuine questions about who I wanted to be when I grew up, I experienced disillusionment. When I stopped thinking like a soldier and started thinking in civilian terms, things changed completely. The military frame of mind, terminology, and justifications no longer made sense. It made no sense to send a Palestinian on the street to pick up a suspicious bag. It made no sense to arbitrarily choose a person to die. Shooting into a neighborhood no longer made any sense, even though it is called "deterrence" or "retaliatory" shooting. When you're a soldier, you think that if you're shot at, you should respond - if they don't learn their lesson they should be taught one. Suddenly all this no longer made any sense. Shooting a grenade into a neighborhood made no sense, nor did entering a house and terrorizing civilians. In Hebron, the idea was to demonstrate our presence. If the Palestinians felt we were everywhere at all times they would be afraid to attack. How? You start at one side of the city, burst into a house and wake the family up; search; run outside, knock on the doors, shoot in the air, shoot stun grenades, light fires in garbage cans, break into more homes. This demonstrated that the IDF was everywhere; this makes sense to a soldier. In Jerusalem I never broke into houses but in Hebron that's what I did every day. Why didn't I do that in Jerusalem? Because there is law and order; you walk on the sidewalk and not in the street. In Hebron you walk in the street and on roofs and break in through the window because Hebron isn't Jerusalem. Hebron is a different place. I understood the settlers weren't the focus and started to grasp what I myself had done - not just other units, but my unit. I recalled the broken glass boxes in Ramallah, computers we smashed, it wasn't only other units; it was us. I was looking in the mirror. During my service it was easy to blame it on someone else. It wasn't easy seeing it when my unit was responsible too. In order to get up in the morning you have to feel you are okay. There's no other way, in terms of surviving the circumstances, and once I grasped what we had been doing I understood I couldn't go on with my life without doing something else. I had a hard time dealing with the fact that I was the one who did those things. It's like an ophthalmologist adjusting the numbers and suddenly everything focuses. On a personal level it's very frightening because you're seeing someone else and asking, "Could I be capable of doing that?" What frustrates me is that people back home have no idea, they don't know anything. I started talking with the guys and I understood that we all knew something was wrong, subconsciously. I don't know whether we lacked the words or the courage, but we didn't talk about it. During the final two months of our service we started talking about it and we knew we had to do something about Hebron, because we had served there for 14 months. For me, Hebron was a formative experience, in terms of what I felt and went through, though I served in difficult places during periods that were worse. I understood that what I had done did not correspond to the values or ethics I was raised on, and that something was fundamentally wrong here. We decided to do something. We decided to bring Hebron to Tel Aviv. A friend introduced me to Miki Kratsman. I was still in uniform, I had my kipa on and I brought a photo album with me. I told him about our idea and he said, "Create a photography exhibition, you have good pictures, I'll help." I asked friends if they remembered who took pictures; more and more albums came in. Miki told me about his friend, Avi Mugrabi, a documentary filmmaker. He provided us with a camera and we filmed testimonies. It was my first time filming. I got 64 guys to provide photos and testify. In June 2004 we opened the exhibition in Tel Aviv. It was like shell shock because we didn't grasp what we were doing. It's funny. I met with advisors on publicity who said, print this and that, and we got some money from our army grants to print the photographs. We needed to draft a media release and there I was, nothing but a soldier fresh out of military service. We were missing lots of faces because some of our friends were still in military service and some didn't want to come out. We needed faces in order to interest the media. I think Shovrim Shtika started out as one of the most spontaneous moves I made. I didn't understand what was happening at the time. I talked to people I met and told them about what I wanted to do and they joined. That's how I got people together who were willing to be filmed. We made an appointment with Ilana Dayan, who does investigative journalism on television, and she decided to do an episode on us. The media games began. Hundreds of people came to the exhibition opening and suddenly it was a huge story on all the channels, in the news, in newspapers. We were in shock. Within a month we had nearly 7,000 visitors.

  • Tell me about the exhibition.

    The exhibition had ninety photographs mounted on the walls, as well as portraits and photographs of banal situations. Sorting through the photos, we found some that were difficult to view, like corpses, but that wasn't our story - we didn't want people throwing up. Our story was how an ordinary good boy encountered the circumstances in Hebron and what he did there. We wanted people to understand what the occupation is, beyond the newspaper headlines. We wanted to reflect on it through a soldier's eyes - how your senses are gradually dulled, how you cross red lines, what the moral cost is, what goes on and what the process is. I recall that on the opening night I stood with my friends in the gallery; people wandered around, looking at photos of Palestinians bound and blindfolded, racist graffiti, closed streets and destruction. People looked at the photographs and their mouths fell open. One soldier said to me, "Yehuda, why are they so shocked? I feel right at home here." I understood him because that's what we had been seeing every day. I understood that people have no clue and don't understand how things work there. People hear that the IDF arrested thirteen Palestinians but they have no idea what an arrest looks like, why these people were arrested, or what checkpoints, closure and siege look like. Such terms distance people from the human stories that explain occupation.

  • What happened as a result of the exhibition?

    One of the most important outcomes of the exhibition was that we (former soldiers in the Nahal Brigade in Hebron) met soldiers from other units who had identical experiences, stories and photographs. Ours was the story of every person who served in the Territories during the second intifada. Whenever I meet someone who served during the second intifada, I say, "What's your name, phone number and where did you serve?" We got a group of former soldiers together and sat down in a circle; we introduced ourselves and talked about what we should do. We decided to continue because nobody was telling this story. We weren't calling ourselves "Breaking the Silence" for nothing - if we didn't speak up, nobody would hear and nobody would know. We decided to continue. After a month, some people who had given up working to guide tours in the gallery had to return to work. My friend and I didn't; we moved the exhibition to the Knesset and there was media attention all over again, Military Police investigations and more publicity.

  • How did your family or your community react to the exhibition?

    Before the exhibition opened, my family didn't know what I was doing. It was only my father who knew. Three weeks after the opening, he came and I took him around the exhibition. We had videos of soldiers' testimonies and he put on headphones and listened to one. After a few moments he said, "Yehuda, is this what you did?" I came over, and from the subtitles on the screen I understood it was a testimony about breaking up a funeral in order to implement curfew - we didn't allow the Palestinian mourners to finish their funeral rites. I answered the only way I knew how, "Not just funerals, Dad. Weddings too." My father put down the headphones and left the gallery. A few days later military police broke in and confiscated some of our materials and we were called in for questioning. I went straight from there to my sister's Bat Mitzvah. My family knew where I was because my brother told them. My father took me aside and said, "I understand why you're doing this."

  • Has anything changed for you since you began this work?

    I don't know. This is what I've been doing since I finished military service. The struggle is my life: Shovrim Shtika and the other things I'm involved in. It is, literally, a full time job. I'm at a point where I'm seeking balance. I have to move forward in life and I need to find a balance, that's difficult.

  • Earlier you talked about debating whether to refuse. What is Shovrim Shtika's approach to refusal?

    We don't want to promote a political solution. We aren't even saying, "End the occupation." We want Israeli society to face the mirror and stop lying to itself, saying there isn't abuse, looting. We did, along with every soldier in the Territories, and we aren't exceptional cases, we aren't rotten apples. Moral values disintegrate, that's inherent in these circumstances and you can't both be there and not be there. Occupation is an equation. Soldiers dominate civilians. It starts with what I talked about and ends with what we don't want to listen to, yet we must because our society is an occupying one, and our soldiers are doing these things in our name. We don't want to tell people what to do because we're no better at that than anyone else. We are professionals in one thing: occupation. We did that and we want everyone to know how the occupation functions. Whether it's just or not, whether the circumstances are acceptable or not is up to people, they should be sketching their red lines. People have different red lines; in Shovrim Shtika some people refuse to serve while others don't. We don't take a stand on whether to refuse or not because we don't all agree. We don't deal with solutions; we surface the problems. Five hundred people contributed testimonies to Shovrim Shtika's occupation archives not because they agree on a resolution to the conflict, or on whether to refuse to serve in the Territories. They contributed because we all share the same problem: we were raised to believe the IDF is the most moral army in the world that doesn't behave the way others do. We were taught that if abuse occurs, well, those are rotten apples. The bubble burst, that's what we're telling people. Aside from the fact that we don't all agree on what the solution should be, if we were to say that we must leave the Territories, we wouldn't be presenting a novel discourse. We wouldn't be forcing the Israeli public to deal with the occupation. For forty years people have been talking about whether to end the occupation. The Right stays Right, the Left stays Left and everybody yells. If we were to talk about how terrible things are in the Territories and talk about how we must help, people would say, "These soldiers are lefties. What's new?" Shovrim Shtika isn't suggesting political solutions but rather raising questions about ethics, and the basic values we want our society to have. We're saying, these are the circumstances, this is what is happening, is this what we want Israeli society to look like, or do we want something different?

  • What are the most important achievements you've made with Shovrim Shtika?

    You can't change society in two or four years. We've given scores of lectures and tours, met many people and exposed them to the circumstances. If someone had told me four years ago that Shovrim Shtika would have 500 intifada graduates who interviewed for Shovrim Shtika, who broke the silence, I'd have laughed. That's a solid number - 500 guys got up to tell the truth, to tell people what they did and saw, and it's out there. Nobody can say "I didn't know, that didn't happen." I think that's Shovrim Shtika's success: opening up these issues.

  • Regarding Shovrim Shtika's choice to emphasize the price Israeli soldiers pay for the occupation, doesn't that make them the exclusive victims rather than address the price both sides are paying?

    I don't agree with that. I don't think our emphasis is on the Israeli soldiers' suffering from the occupation. We say that we Israelis aren't victims. While the soldiers are victims of the circumstances, we've decided to address human rights infringements by talking about the moral price of control over the Palestinians and what we do in the Territories.

  • How do you view Shovrim Shtika's role in relation to a future peace process here?

    Shovrim Shtika does not call for solutions. We're here to talk about what is happening now. Even if tomorrow a peace agreement was to be signed and there were no more hatred, we'd still have a role; the next stage will only have begun. Israeli society will have to face having been occupiers for forty something years. This will mean the end of military control of Palestinians, but after that there will have to be a stage in which the people in this region deal with what happened here for so many years.

  • How can people support your work?

    I want people to listen, ask questions, go deeper into what they hear. Every person can answer his or her own questions and decide how to respond given the moral reality we are describing. We reach out to Israelis and to international audiences but we stress Israeli audiences. I see circles of responsibility: at the core are the Israelis, and there are external circles of responsibility around them. From a historical perspective, we are all responsible for what is done in our name.

  • What are the roots of the conflict?

    There are two peoples here who want to exclusively establish their national homes on the same piece of land.

  • What role does fear have here? From your experience, is Israeli and Palestinian fear different?

    Fear, mostly for Israelis, is huge, whether it's justified or not. For the average Israeli, one of the most significant issues is what will happen here if... This was clearer during years at the start of the second intifada when there were a lot of terrorist attacks against Israelis, that was significant in how Israelis view Palestinians. Regarding Palestinians, I don't know whether fear is key. I think Palestinians fear the army and Israelis, but I don't think fear is as significant there as it is here. I think it's less about fear, because in Israel people are afraid of the other and of what will happen "if". That's what nourished the idea of separation: them there and us here. Until ten years ago, Israelis saw Palestinians, even if not in ideal circumstances. Still, they saw each other in person. Now Israelis only see Hamas activists on television, or images of an Iran that wants to annihilate us, and this exacerbates Israelis' fundamental fear for their existence. For Palestinians, separation means they now only encounter soldiers and settlers, and those are terrible encounters - they no longer meet Israelis in a work setting. The separation fence is an expression of Israelis saying, "it's only us here." It's part of our 60 year-old monologue.

  • Do you share the fears you just described?

    Not really. I fear the opposite because I'm sure the Palestinians will be here 50 years from now. I'm afraid of us and what our policy is doing to us. I'm afraid there will be Jews here, but not in a democratic framework. The question is what kind of country or society we'll have.

  • What is your vision for a future here?

    My vision is simple: I want to live in a democratic country. I want both citizens of my country and people who are governed by my country to have equal rights.

  • Where do you see signs of hope?

    Reality is full of encouraging signs and discouraging signs. I'm done with prophesying, I don't believe in prophesies since the destruction of the Temple. Reality is very dynamic and I think it's significant that I believe the world is going to a better place. I believe injustice cannot prevail indefinitely. I think history is stronger than all of us and that things will change, even if that takes time, because if things aren't based on equality, they won't be viable in the long term.