World

Israeli reservists take on 'most moral' military

JERUSALEM — When Yehuda Shaul finished his required Israeli military service in 2004, he planned to take the usual post-army path: work abroad, save money, travel the world and then start college. Instead Shaul, now 26, used his army discharge as seed money for Breaking the Silence, a reservists' group that challenges Israeli military policy.

On Wednesday, Breaking the Silence released its most ambitious project to-date: A 110-page collection of testimony from more than two dozen soldiers who fought in Gaza during lsrael's 22-day military offensive last winter.

"What's special about us is not that we can reach to the public, but that we can speak to soldiers," said Avichai Stoller, who conducted some of the interviews.

Conservative groups accuse Breaking the Silence of ignoring the political reasons Israeli soldiers are sent into battle and the efforts of the Israel Defense Force to live up to its claim as the most moral military in the world.

"The way they portray these confrontations is gratuitous," said Gerald Steinberg, a Bar-Ilan University political science professor who heads the NGO Monitor. "If you take away the fact that Israelis were being blown up and are still being targeted you lose the context."

Breaking the Silence began with a small exhibit of photographs soldiers took while they served in Hebron, a tense West Bank cities where Palestinians and Jewish settlers have often clashed. It featured photos of wall graffiti saying "Arabs to the gas chambers" and bound, blindfolded Palestinians sitting next to soldiers playing backgammon.

More than 7,000 people saw the exhibit, which was later shown at the Israeli Knesset.

Shaul, who served in the West Bank during Israel's 2002 Defensive Shield military operation, said he was shocked by what soldiers in Gaza told him about Israeli policy.

In Ramallah, "We were told to watch out for civilians," he said. Now, he added, "the army changed its moral concept without telling anyone. They said we will not take a chance with our soldiers, if there are mistakes they will be paid by the Palestinians."

(Churgin is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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