Israeli soldier in 'callous' photo row

A former Israeli soldier has posted photos of herself on Facebook smiling next to handcuffed and blindfolded Palestinian prisoners.

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TEL AVIV // A former Israeli soldier has posted photos of herself on Facebook smiling next to handcuffed and blindfolded Palestinian prisoners. The photos created uproar among left-wing Israeli activists, and the Israeli army said the woman's behaviour was "ugly and callous". The furore has also cast a darker cloud over relations between Israel and the Palestinians amid expectations that the Quartet of Middle East mediators - the US, UN, European Union and Russia - is about to issue a formal invitation to both parties to direct peace talks.

Israeli media said the woman was Eden Abergil, from Ashdod in southern Israel. The photos were uploaded this month to her profile page on the social networking website. They were taken during her compulsory army service in 2008 and placed in an online album named "Army?best time of my life :)". The photos were removed from public view on Facebook yesterday, but had already been circulated widely on the internet. In two of them the soldier appears to be mocking the Palestinian prisoners.

In one, she is sitting cross-legged on a stone block in her olive-coloured military uniform with her brown hair pulled back in a bun as she glances sideways at a thin Palestinian seated next to her. He is slouching as his hands are bound and eyes covered. In another photo, the soldier stares straight at the camera smiling as two grey-haired Palestinian men are seated handcuffed and blindfolded on a stone block behind her. The Palestinians in the images do not appear to be aware that they are being photographed.

On Facebook, one of the woman's friends commented on one photo by writing: "You're super sexy here." The woman replied: "Yeah I know, ha ha, what a day that was, see how he completes my picture. I wonder if he's on Facebook! I have to tag him in the photo! Ha ha." Dana Golan, the head of an Israeli group called Breaking the Silence, which collects evidence from soldiers about abuse of Palestinians, said "This is what the Israeli occupation looks like. These photos are not an exceptional phenomenon." She added: They show the moral price that we are paying for the occupation and for sending 18-year-olds who think it's cool to be photographed with Palestinians to manage it for us." Israeli bloggers speculated that the photos were taken in the Gaza Strip during Israel's devastating three-week onslaught in late 2008 and early 2009. One prominent blogger, Lisa Goldman, wrote on her Facebook profile that she tried to contact the woman to get her reaction to the wide distribution of the photos, but that the woman responded to her message by saying: "I don't speak to leftists." The wide circulation of the photos comes amid expectations of a possible re-launching of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks, which were cut off in December 2008 when Israel launched its attack on Gaza. The Quartet is expected to say that Israel should halt settlement building in the West Bank and reach an agreement with the Palestinians within two years, creating a state on the basis of the borders that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. While the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has indicated that he may agree to face-to-face talks with Israel if they are based on such conditions, Israel is reported to have rejected what it called the "preconditions" in the Quartet's anticipated statement. Yesterday, Israeli media reported that Benjamin Netanyahu, the country's prime minister, and his seven-member inner cabinet decided late on Sunday that they would oppose any such statement. Haaretz, a liberal Israeli daily newspaper, cited an unidentified senior government official as saying: "The Quartet announcement could serve as camouflage for Palestinian preconditions, and that is unacceptable." The official added that the US, Israel's closest ally, is expected to issue a statement later this week that would serve as a compromise between the Israeli and Palestinian stances.