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Soldiers' photo exhibit strikes nerve

A visitor looks at photos as part of "Breaking the Silence," an exhibit compiled by Israeli reservists, in Tel Aviv.
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CNN's John Vause reports on an exhibit in Israel that's causing a stir with the Israeli government.
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Tel Aviv (Israel)

TEL AVIV, Israel (CNN) -- A photographic exhibit called "Breaking the Silence" has struck a nerve in Israel where critics say the images cast Israel in a poor light.

All of the photos in the exhibit were taken by Israeli soldiers stationed in the West Bank city of Hebron. Many were fulfilling their compulsory military service.

Some images show soldiers positioned behind camouflage netting, others with Palestinians in their gun sights, and others watching the city through night scopes.

Some of the photographers were listed as anonymous in the exhibit now on display at the Tel Aviv Geographic Film School.

The four reservists who created the exhibit said they did so because they wanted Israeli civilians to see what is happening in the Palestinian territories.

One of the four, former Israel Defense Forces soldier Micha Kurz, said his three years in Hebron changed him for the worse.

"All the soldiers know that nobody knows at home what's really gone on," said Kurz. "And they have done stuff that they're not happy with and they want people to know about it."

Captured in the photos is a young Palestinian boy who was blindfolded and handcuffed for eight hours after he was caught throwing stones. Also pictured are Palestinian men left by the side of the road for hours at a time. And displayed on the wall are car keys confiscated from Palestinian drivers caught breaking curfew.

"The IDF said a few months ago that the IDF does not confiscate keys, and we know for a fact it happens on a daily basis," Kurz said.

The longer he served in Hebron, the easier it got and the more aggressive he became, Kurz said.

He also described personal conflicts he felt while defending 500 Jewish settlers in Hebron who are surrounded by 130,000 Palestinians. Kurz said some of the settlers would vandalize Palestinian shops and houses, write graffiti such as "Arabs out," move into Palestinian shops in the middle of the night and turn them into homes, and their children threw rocks at an old Arab woman.

But the most controversial part of the exhibit is the videotaped testimony of more than 70 former Israeli soldiers who describe indiscriminately firing tear gas and grenades, returning fire sometimes for hours at a time, mostly at empty buildings.

During a visit to the exhibit, the Hebron soldiers' commander asked why none of that behavior was ever reported to him.

They answered that the behavior was considered routine.

Other active and former soldiers have visited the exhibit, including veteran Eli Allon.

"For me this is nothing new," he said. "I know these things are happening in the territories."

But Galylia Harel, the mother of a soldier currently in Hebron, was disturbed by the soldiers' stories.

"I worry for their souls. I am worried the damage is big that it will change Israeli society," she said.

But some visitors are angry, saying the display makes Israel look bad.

The Israeli army said it is investigating not only the claims made by the soldiers, but also the soldiers themselves.

"The IDF teaches soldiers to act according to morals, even in complicated situations including moral dilemmas," the army said in a statement.

IDF military police interrogated three of the former soldiers who organized the exhibit, Haaretz reported on its Web site.

"They are trying to frighten us and other soldiers who have expressed readiness to take part in the project," Kurz told Haaretz.

The army said it was gathering evidence of violence or vandalism against Palestinians, Haaretz reported.

But while those MPs seized a videotape of the soldiers telling their stories, Kurz said they left behind the dozens of keys he said Israeli soldiers had taken from Palestinians.

The exhibit is being widely reported and debated among Israelis. Many are asking if these are the actions of a few, or the daily reality of a soldier's life.

The exhibit is scheduled to go next to the Israeli parliament.

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