CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports on a controversial exhibit in Tel Aviv created by former members of Israel's military.
No one can criticize Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza like the soldiers sent to occupy.
A year ago, three young men, all former soldiers in the Israeli Defense Force, founded "Breaking the Silence" to do just that. It is a forum for former combat veterans – most of them in their 20's and early 30's - to talk about the way a brutal occupation made them brutes.
"It's hard for me to pinpoint the worst thing I did", says Avichai Charon. "It's not the extreme cases. It's the trivial day to day."
"What haunts me? It's the memories of 6-year-old, 7-year-old Palestinian children watching with
Anyone who has watched television news pictures of the Israeli army blowing up the homes of Palestinian militants and their families, or rounding up Palestinian men and boys in blanket neighborhood sweeps has wondered whether the soldiers ever feel a stir of pity; or wrestle with their consciences.
They do. But until recently, they weren't inclined to talk about it – not when they came home on leave, and not after they were discharged.
"When I came back from my military service to a weekend leave, I never spoke about it. I never told my parents," says Charon. "I had a neighbor, a friend serving in my unit. We would play basketball when we were out together on weekend leave and we wouldn't ever speak to each other about what we'd been doing the week before."
Some didn't talk because they believed other Israelis weren't willing to listen. Some felt it would be unpatriotic, cowardly, or that they were alone in their disquiet. Others thought that although the occupation was violent, there was no other way for Israel to defend itself.
But a year ago, soldiers Avichai Sharon, Yehuda Shaul and Noam Chayut organized an exhibition of photographs and soldiers' testimonies from their military service in the West Bank city of Hebron. They acted for the sake of their own mental health and, they say, to force Israel to confront the truth about its policies.
Seven thousand Israelis went to see the exhibit in Tel Aviv. Since then, "Breaking the Silence" has attracted hundreds of new members and a lot of controversy.
The Israeli Defense Force is a conscript army. Every young Israeli has to do military service – two years for women, three years for men. Ever since the most recent Palestinian uprising in 2001 and the wave of suicide bombings that followed, soldiers posted in the West Bank and Gaza have done hard time – difficult and dangerous.
The problem, says Breaking the Silence, is that the conscripts believed they were going to fight a war; that they were soldiers of the most ethical fighting force in the world. Instead, many found themselves despised occupiers of disputed land.
"Who is the enemy?" asks Avichai Sharon. "I never saw the enemy. I saw society. I was three years fighting society in Palestinian cities."
"Ninety-eight percent of the army's energy is aimed against society. It's even said among the higher ranks, 'We will burn into the consciousness of Palestinian society that it's not worthwhile to fight the IDF.'"
It's been a costly strategy; the price well known to any army fighting a prolonged guerilla conflict. A casual brutality infected the troops, say the soldiers of Breaking the Silence. Morale was poor. Stress levels high. And they ceased to feel compassion for Palestinian civilians.
Of course, for Jews, it has distressing associations.
During his service in the West Bank, Noam Chayut obeyed orders to keep Palestinians off certain roads – even though they linked Arab villages. Now, he is
"Controlling a road that is for Jews only – as the third generation descendent of Holocaust survivors! That is an atrocity."
The Israeli Defense Force is sharply critical of Breaking the Silence.
Spokeswoman Sharon Feingold says "They chose not to bring up the issues that have posed those dilemmas for them while in service. They did not come to their commanders and speak about the injustices that they saw."
But Breaking the Silence says it just wasn't possible. Many soldiers didn't understand how callous they had become until they were discharged. And some of the ethical breaches of the occupation are army policy, therefore not reportable.
For example, when Noam Chayut's unit spotted a package that might be booby-trapped, his orders were to find a passing Palestinian to investigate.
"I, the brave soldier, would send a woman who could have been my mother."
"We were afraid to lose the life of a soldier, so we would send civilians to check suspicious bags that might explode," says Chayut. "And then you come back home and hear the stories about the most moral army in the world."
Sharon Feingold responds that an unconventional war demands unconventional tactics – many of them unpleasant – and it is the Palestinians who have chosen this unconventional war.
"We've been facing a campaign of well-orchestrated, well-organized terrorism from the Palestinian side, and in these circumstances over 1,000 Israelis have lost their lives,'' he said.
"The Palestinians side is using the civilian infrastructure, hiding behind civilians, conducting activities from houses, from backyards, launching mortars … The IDF and our young soldiers have been faced with serious moral dilemmas."
The young soldiers of Breaking the Silence won't be drawn into debate on the politics of Israel's occupation. All they say is that Israelis must understand what their country is doing, and where it is sending its young poeple.
"I'm trying to come back to my parents, to my society and to tell them 'This is where you sent me,'" says Avichai Charon. "This is what you sent me to do.You didn't send me to fight Syrian tanks. You didn't send me to fight the Egyptian army. You sent me to fight 6-year-old kids in Jenin. To break down their house. You sent me to put 3,000 Palestinians under curfew for half a year; to fire grenades into Abu Sneinah neighborhood."
Of course, there's a political judgment implicit in the soldiers' testimony collected by Breaking the Silence. It is that the price of occupation is too high; that Israel needs to leave the West Bank and Gaza; that its army should be proudly defending new borders and legitimate sovereignty.
But the soldiers who joined Breaking the Silence are hoping that Israelis and their political leaders will come to that conclusion on their own.