On December 12, 2010, the NGO known as Breaking the Silence (BtS) published a 431-page compilation entitled Occupation of the Territories – Israeli Soldier testimonies 2000-2010. BtS claims to counter the “official Israeli position” that IDF actions are defensive in nature: “The soldiers’ testimonies describe an offensive policy that includes annexation of territory, terrorizing and tightening the control over the civilian population.”

These highly tendentious conclusions were copied uncritically by media sources such as the New York Review of Books, Ha’aretz, The Independent (UK), leading Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende.

Contrary to Breaking the Silence’s self-perception as a beleaguered and oppressed group of Israeli dissidents, the NGO is free to publish its allegations without consequence or punishment. Journalists in Ha’aretz and from international papers frequently provide BtS with a platform. The Italian newspaper Il Foglio wrote that members of Breaking the Silence, “risk at the most coming late to their Tel Aviv café.”

This NGO also receives extensive funding from European governments (details below), enabling officials to artificially amplify their impact within Israel and speak and promote their ideology to international audiences.

BtS’ Predetermined Conclusions

NGO Monitor analysis reveals systematic problems with the methodology and conclusions of this compilation. All of the testimonies are anonymous and almost all cannot be verified – meaning no specific date, location, or context is given – even by IDF investigators. Soldiers only reported the alleged incidents to their superiors in 16 of 183 testimonies in the book, further highlighting questions regarding reliability and motivation.

In contrast to the far-reaching allegations, the BtS “testimonies” reflect confusion on the side of single soldiers, junior officers, and low-level units. Higher-ranking officers who could provide concrete information and perspective on general policies are entirely absent from this compilation. The alleged misconduct, while objectionable, if true, rarely amounts to more than nuisance complaints and petty violations. The inflammatory accusation of “an offensive policy that includes annexation of territory, terrorizing and tightening the control over the civilian population” is manufactured by BtS, and remains unproven.

While most of the testimonies are portrayed as based on personal experiences, almost 25 percent include or are based on hearsay. Additionally, the testimonies were recorded following conversations with BtS staff; details about context or mitigating information, including the role BtS officials played in shaping the testimonies, is not provided.

Many of the reported incidents have misleading headlines, as in testimony 38 (p.99) : “I shot at an ambulance with a machine gun,” — potentially a war crime. In the testimony itself, however, the soldier states that there “were terrorists inside” the ambulance.

Finally, testimonies from the height of the Palestinian mass-terror campaign against Israeli civilians (2000-2005) are grouped together with more recent incidents. The failure to distinguish between or analyze the differing contexts and Israeli security policies over the past decade further reflects BtS’ primary ideological and politicized objectives, which are hidden behind the rhetoric of morality and international law.

Background on “Breaking the Silence”

Breaking the Silence (BtS) was founded in 2004. It is registered as a Company for Public Benefit.

BtS is funded by the European Union, UK, Spain, the Netherlands, NDC (funds from Sweden, Switzerland, Netherlands, Denmark), New Israel Fund, Oxfam, and George Soros’ Open Society Institute. In 2009, its total reported budget was 2.2 million NIS.

The political impact of this NGO is greatly amplified through the foreign funding, enabling officials to speak and promote their ideology to audiences outside of Israel, who clearly have less understanding of the situation and complexities, in comparison to Israelis. European appearances by BtS in 2009-2010 included the Netherlands (Dutch Parliament), Ireland (Irish Parliement), Germany, Spain, France, and Norway (meetings with the Foreign Minister and members of parliament). Representatives from BtS also went on a speaking tour of college campuses in the United States; and met with Jewish groups. In December 2010, a BtS official spoke at the Limmud conference at Warwick University (UK).

As journalist Amos Harel noted in Ha’aretz (Gaza testimonies / Diverting the debate from the real issue, July 16, 2009):

“Breaking the Silence…has a clear political agenda, and can no longer be classed as a ‘human rights organization.’ Any organization whose website includes the claim by members to expose the ‘corruption which permeates the military system’ is not a neutral observer. The organization has a clear agenda: to expose the consequences of IDF troops serving in the West Bank and Gaza. This seems more of interest to its members than seeking justice for specific injustices.”

Chapter Analysis

This compilation is divided into four chapters: “Prevention,” “Separation,” “Fabric of Life” and “Law Enforcement.” According to BtS, these terms are euphemistically used in the Israeli “public discourse” to describe Israeli policy in the West Bank. It appears that the chapter divisions are largely rhetorical and arbitrary, with different sections containing similar allegations.

Chapter 1: Intimidation (“Terrorizing” – literal translation from Hebrew) of the Palestinian Population – “Prevention”

This chapter includes broad assertions about Israel’s anti-terror operations, claiming to “reveal the principles and considerations that guide decision-makers both in the field and at high levels of command.” Interviews with high level commander and government officials, however, are notably absent.

The chapter opens with the claim that beginning in 2000, Israel “develop[ed] new, more aggressive methods of action, which were intended to oppress Palestinian opposition/resistance and prevent thousands of attempted attacks.” Minimizing the murder and injury of thousands of Israeli civilians, BtS asserts (without systematic evidence) that “prevention” of terrorism has simply “become a code-word” for offensive action, and a pretense to “punish, deter, or tighten control over the Palestinian population” and the “intimidation, instilling of fear, and indiscriminate punishment of the Palestinian population.”

According to BtS, arrests, “assassinations,” “Interrogating [a] passerby,” “sound bombs” and other operational procedures used by the IDF demonstrate that “every member of the Palestinian population” is a “target for intimidation, harassment, and instilling of fear.”  This allegedly shows that “Violence against and collective punishment of a civilian population…are cornerstones of IDF strategy in the Territories.”

In sharp contrast, however, all of the 67 “testimonies” in this chapter concern the isolated conduct of individual soldiers and low-level units, not a wider policy:

  • Only 6 testimonies are potentially verifiable, based on the specific times and places given. For example: Q: “When was this?” A: “In the middle of my service, something like that, March-April. But it was a captain in the paratroopers, it was an incident that made it to the media, to the newspapers. I’m almost sure 101 [a paratroop battalion]” (testimony 33, p. 91).
  • 16 testimonies include leading questions from the BtS interviewer: Q: “Have you heard from a company commander or a unit commander something like: ‘I want six bodies today’?” A: “No. Many times **** [one of the brigade commanders] when giving operation orders would say that the objective is maximum kills” (testimony 18, p.68).
  • 19 allegations are based on or include hearsay. For example: “In Nablus, another incident that happened with my original team, I wasn’t there but they told me about it afterwards” (testimony 59, p.150). Or: “my friends from the paratroopers would tell me that they would sleep on the roofs in Nablus and shoot at the water tanks to see how they blew up, or that people would steal mini-discs and steal dollars” (testimony 65, p.159).
  • In 17 “testimonies”, the former soldiers admit to not knowing key information on the events. Q: “What do you mean “you hope”? You weren’t some little wimpy officer, you served as an army officer for three whole years.” A: “I didn’t know that someone specific was supposed to come out of this village, but it could have been…” Q: “Let’s say that it could have been known by the regional brigade commander?” A: “Could be. I wouldn’t know such things. Could be that the regional brigade commander knew and sent out violent patrols” (testimony 50, p.125).
  • Only 5 complaints were filed about the events at issue.
  • 47 incidents relate to misconduct by individual soldiers (theft, beatings, noise making etc.), which clearly violate IDF regulations: “We were in some house, the whole company, and below the house, and the owner of the house, he was locked-up in one room too, he had some chickens… one floor was a coop for chickens, pullets. What the guys did, they simply, they wanted to cook a meal so they slaughtered some of his chickens and barbecued them downstairs” (testimony 30, p.86).
  • 19 testimonies omit the context or background on the incident. For example, incidents related to Jenin omit the fact that this area was the control center for the Palestinian suicide bombing campaigns.: “I remember that during squad commander training I was in Jenin, let’s say, we were in a ‘Straw Widow’ [a house which soldiers secretly take control of], and everyone who climbs on Israeli APCs or armored vehicles – shoot to kill. And the aim of all this was to have people climb. Because you have APCs under the house all the time. They tell us of course that the aim is to make the wanted men come out. But what wanted man would shoot at an APC just like that? They also say that if they jump on the APC and take the machine guns…shoot to kill” (testimony 13, p.58). In addition to stripping the context of the situation in Jenin, this allegation also omits the IDF decision to institute more rigorous policies following a number of instances of Palestinian efforts to steal machine guns from armored vehicles.

Chapter 2:  Control, Expropriation, and Annexation – “Separation”

The Israeli policies of checkpoints, roadblocks, detour roads, and the security barrier have effectively defended Israeli citizens from terror attacks. In contrast, BtS alleges that Israel implements these tactics for limited political purposes, to deepen “Israeli control of Palestinians” and enforce a policy of “separation.” The policy also “helps the army dispossess Palestinians of their lands, and leads to effective annexation of territories, and de facto expansion of Israel’s sovereignty.”

The political objective of the BtS publication is reflected in the references to the security barrier solely as a mechanism that “separate[s] human beings from one another;” and “from their lands and livelihood.” In this distorted analysis, the barrier contributes to “direct dispossession of Palestinian land.” The restrictions on the ability of Palestinians to travel on certain roads are “another system of separation between different parts of the West Bank.” The large-scale suicide bombings and terrorist attacks are erased.

Of the 43 BtS “testimonies” in this chapter, many are from soldiers voicing their political opinions – including one by an ex-soldier who now participates in “anti-Wall” demonstrations (testimony 9, p.194). These soldiers make clear-cut assertions about the absence of military necessity without having access to the necessary information.

As in the previous chapter, individual cases of personal misconduct are taken as proof of a widespread policy directed by the highest echelons:

  • Only 7 testimonies are possibly verifiable giving specific times and places.
  • 3 are based on or include hearsay. For example – Q: “And when they disperse the demonstration inside the village?” A: “I was never there, so I don’t want to say. I was almost never at a disturbance of the peace. It was a very strange time, I was almost never present at those things.” Q: “What did the guys who came back from Ni’lin recount?” A: “It’s total chaos, a ton of teargas, stun grenades, at a certain point there were Ruger 22 caliber sport rifles fired” (testimony 10, p.197).
  • In 11 testimonies, the former soldiers admit to not knowing all the relevant information on the events.
  • 33 testimonies describe the enforcement of closures and confusion or unclear orders surrounding it. For example – A: “The orders there were unclear, it wasn’t black and white. Q: “What would you do? Turn them around?” A: “Yes, but what difference does it make? Even the brigade wasn’t sure of itself” (testimony 26, p.225).
  • 12 testimonies describe personal misconduct by soldiers (theft, beatings, noise making etc.) that clearly violate IDF regulations. – A: “So what did the two guys that were with me do? They took the documents and put them in their pocket. A guy without his documents, you can imagine what…” Q: “Why did they put them in their pockets?” A: “Because of their ill will. Just because, he went out for a smoke and they played a prank, they hid it from him” (testimony 14, p.204).
  • 5 testimonies include leading questions by the BtS interviewer.

Chapter 3: Administering Palestinian Civilian Life – “Fabric of Life”

This chapter purports to describe the alleged Palestinian dependence on a “complex and convoluted bureaucracy” put in place by Israel and implemented by soldiers at checkpoints and by Civil Administration officers. The authors repeat their claim that Israel “tightened its grip” on the Palestinians.  These conclusions are once again based solely on anecdotal evidence.

While some of the 42 testimonies show misconduct on the part of a few soldiers, many of the soldiers openly state that these incidents were opposed and punished by junior and senior officers: “I have to point out that the officers were opposed to it, and they tried anyone who was involved in these things. There was a strong opposition” (testimony 18, p.301). This belies allegations of abusive policies at the highest levels of the army.

  • 9 testimonies do not mention a specific event. For example – Q: “Yes, but do you remember things like that which happened?” A: “I don’t remember a specific incident – that period was replete – but yes, each incident results in a civilian punishment, there is nothing to do. It’s not a civilian punishment, it’s limiting civilian movement” (testimony 7, p.281).
  • In 7 testimonies, the soldiers admit to not knowing all the information surrounding the events.
  • 8 testimonies are potentially verifiable based on the details provided.
  • 5 testimonies include or are based on hearsay. For example – Q: “You threw out half a sentence earlier about complaints that you could understand.” A: “Yes.” Q: “Like what?” A: “Not to me specifically, but things I heard in the media, I heard about things that happened, about delays, that they didn’t want to allow a pregnant woman to cross, situations which presumably happened” (testimony 9, p.285).
  • 21 testimonies describe personal misconduct by soldiers (theft, beatings, noise making etc.).
  • 7 testimonies include leading questions by the BtS interviewer. For example – Q: “Are there things that are part of the procedure, like detainments, ‘dry-outs,’ confiscation of keys. Are those things that you recognize?” A: “Ok, yes. Look, at the checkpoint, detaining is the most correct thing to do” (testimony 17, p.297).
  • 25 testimonies describe the enforcement of closures and alleged confusion or unclear orders surrounding it.
  • Only 5 complaints were filed by soldiers regarding the alleged misconduct. For example, “Someone from our company reported it to the commanders. In the end the issue was covered up legally, but in any case the commander wasn’t sent to the sergeant course that he was promised” (testimony 40, p.341).

Chapter 4: Dual Regime – “Law Enforcement”

The main claim in this chapter is that the Israeli army and the Israelis living in the territories (settlers) are “partners in the military rule of Palestinians.” This is supposedly due to the fact that “soldiers in the Territories receive and carry out the instructions of settlers and security coordinators of settlements.” However, the testimonies in this section belie this allegation. Eleven of 31 testimonies reveal friction, not cooperation. Of the incidents describing Israeli violence towards Palestinians, many describe soldiers intervening and stopping the violence.

As in previous chapters, some of the testimonies have clear political and ideological agendas, and use demonizing rhetoric. “The people who live in that neighborhood do whatever they want, the soldiers are forced to protect them. They are the biggest Judeo-Nazis that I have met in my life” (testimony 8, p.383). Or: “Why do I as a soldier have to watch out for the bank accounts of the Jordan Valley settlers? No reason in the world. That’s a corrupting occupation at its worst. Pure economic interests” (testimony 29, p.420).

The chapter also reveals BtS’ profound misunderstanding of army regulations regarding coordination with settlement security officers. In reality, settlement security officials are part of the official army chain of command, and are formally subject to the orders of the local army commander. They are also subject to military justice if they violate the law, abuse their authority, or deviate from operating procedures.

  • 14 testimonies are based on or include hearsay: “But there were stories there, it was a relatively sensitive period with respect to the relationship between the IDF and the settlers, because it was after the disengagement and I remember that I heard, I wasn’t there when this happened, that the deputy regional brigade commander of Shomron came to the Passover Seder with a black eye, which he got from a settler” (testimony 21, p.401).
  • Only 6 testimonies are potentially verifiable based on the details provided.
  • 12 testimonies include leading questions by the BtS interviewer.
  • 11 testimonies describe clashes between the IDF and Israeli settlers. For example, “Personally, in Elon Moreh I was on my way to run in the settlement itself, I was hit with spit and calls of ‘a Jew doesn’t expel a Jew’ and the like” (testimony 21, p.402). And, Q: “Do you remember waves of violence? On the part of the settlers towards the people of the administration?” A: “Yes, in Hebron I was hit with rocks, eggs, certainly, of course, why not? Racist comments, everything” (testimony 31, p.429).
  • Only 5 complaints were filed by a soldier about the events.