Members of the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence (BtS) are in the midst of another international tour of Europe and the United States, this time promoting allegations of Israeli war crimes during the summer 2014 Gaza conflict.
In the United States, the BtS tour is being touted by one of its major donors, the New Israel Fund (NIF), which is also hosting a number of programs. From 2008 to 2013, NIF authorized grants worth $560,428 to BtS (2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013).
In an attempt to defend this fringe controversial and discredited group, NIF has been circulating a 2-page FAQ about BtS, which largely consists of apologetics and justifications.
However, the NIF is not providing a full picture. Here is what NIF is not telling you about Breaking the Silence. (Questions taken from NIF’s FAQs.)
About Our Speaker
Avner Gvaryahu was the Director of Public Outreach for Breaking the Silence (he is no longer listed as a staff member on the NGO’s website). Last week (May 28), at a speech in New York, he called on the U.S. and Europe to “oppose” peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
About Breaking the Silence
What is Breaking the Silence?
Breaking the Silence (BtS) is a tiny Israeli non-governmental organization (NGO) claiming to collect testimonies of Israeli veterans who have served in the West Bank and Gaza, in order to “make heard the voices of these soldiers, pushing Israeli society to face the reality whose creation it has enabled.” In reality, however, the NGO’s lobbying and media advocacy focus on international audiences, including translations of its materials into English and other languages and extensive presentations throughout Europe and the United States.
Prominent Israeli journalist Amos Harel stated in Ha’aretz that, “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.”
Are they credible?
The testimonies provided in BtS publications are anonymous and therefore cannot be verified. They possibly reflect the personal experience of a small group of mostly low-level soldiers, whose ability to see the wider battlefield context in Gaza is very limited and who have minimal or no knowledge of the intentions or strategy of decision makers. Moreover, the former CEO has acknowledged that she edits all the testimonies, raising questions as to what extent information has been removed or shaped.
Despite this, and guided by BtS’ political agenda, BtS makes sweeping accusations and conclusions based entirely on these anecdotal and unverifiable stories. These “testimonies” lack context, ignoring the fact that during the 2014 Gaza War heavy fighting took place between Israel and terror groups in Gaza, and that soldiers faced grave danger throughout the conflict from rockets, mortar shells, booby traps, and terrorists emerging from tunnels dug beneath private homes. The extremely narrow and distorted picture is also manifest in the fact that there is no mention of the widespread use of human shields by Hamas and other terrorist groups, as well as the use of UN facilities, hospitals, etc. as military installations. These basic facts are essential to understanding the nature of the combat and the complexity of battlefield operations.
More seriously, having promised to reveal the secret of the civilian death toll in Gaza in the form of systematic Israeli misdeeds, and having selected, with that purpose in mind, the most incriminating segments from much longer interviews, the report fails to deliver. Perhaps that is why, instead of letting readers examine the interviews and decide for themselves, the activist-editors of Breaking the Silence felt compelled to add a heated introduction announcing that their report “exposes” the true face of the Gaza operation—namely, its “disturbing” and “unprecedented” violence directed at civilians by the Israeli military.
Contrary to NIF’s spin, the IDF does not forgo interviews with soldiers providing incriminating testimonies. Rather, the IDF cannot interview individuals who remain anonymous and who hide other essential details of the incidents, as is the practice with BtS. If BtS does have such details, they have yet to send these up the chain of command to allow for a proper response. The claim that the IDF has never attempted to investigate these events is also baseless.
Furthermore, the IDF Chief of Staff is not the correct person for a meeting with a marginal NGO. If BtS has evidence of wrongdoing by Israeli soldiers, the proper address is the Military Advocate General’s office, which is responsible for investigating and prosecuting these matters. BtS has not approached this office, reflecting its international political agenda and belying claims of wanting to improve Israel’s conduct.
Finally, claims by BtS and the NIF that approval by the Israeli censor supports their testimonies as “reliable” are laughable. Approval by the censor does not confirm the veracity of the testimonies, but simply that they do not disclose any matters that are classified.
The IDF is committed to properly investigating all credible claims raised via media, NGOs, and official complaints concerning IDF conduct during operation Protective Edge, in as serious a manner as possible.
Today, as in the past, the organization Breaking the Silence has been asked to provide any evidence or testimony related to IDF activities prior to publication, in order for genuine investigations to be carried out. Unfortunately, as in the past, Breaking the Silence has refused to provide the IDF with any proof of their claims.
For obvious reasons such conduct makes any investigation by the relevant IDF bodies impossible, and does not allow for the claims and incidents brought up to be dealt with in an immediate and appropriate manner.
This pattern of collecting evidence over an extended period of time and refusing to share it with the IDF in a manner that would allow a proper response and, if required, an investigation indicates that contrary to its claims, this organization does not act with the intention of correcting any wrongdoings it allegedly uncovered, therefore we are unable to respond to the allegations raised.
As in the past, the IDF calls on Breaking the Silence to turn to the relevant parties in the IDF immediately upon receiving complaints and evidence that raise suspicion of improper conduct or offenses, to allow investigation of events in due process.
It should be noted that following Operation Protective Edge, thorough investigations were carried out, and soldiers and commanders were given the opportunity to present any complaint. Exceptional incidents were then transferred to the Military Advocate General for further inquiry.
Why are they speaking outside of Israel?
Despite claiming to speak to Israeli society, between the years 2012 to 2015, BtS has been part of at least 50 events in Europe, the U.S., Canada, Australia, and South Africa. It appears that the NGO’s main motivation for speaking to foreign audiences is to bring international pressure to bear against Israel, and to circumvent the Israeli democratic process. Yehuda Shaul, BtS co-founder, defended this practice, stating that, “Sometimes, when you want to deliver messages to the inside, you must go outside.”
Another, related factor is the desire to propagate BtS’ political agenda. As stated by Executive Director Yuli Novak, “the debate is already happening outside Israel, but the only Israeli position that is presented there is the position of people who want to guarantee the continuation of the occupation, that want to guarantee the expansion of settlements…” (This characterization is a disingenuous portrayal of the international discourse regarding Israel.)
As opposed to Breaking the Silence, other Israeli soldiers with stories to tell do not have opportunities and massive resources provided by foreign governments to present their narratives in Europe and the United States.
What are the issues they will raise?
Despite claims that the NGO “aims to warn about the unsustainability of current policies towards the occupied territories,” in reality, BtS publicizes its own baseless and predetermined analysis of Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza, falsely claiming that it is “an offensive policy that includes annexation of territory, terrorizing and tightening the control over the civilian population.” Any discussion about rules of engagement and incidents in the 2014 Gaza war is a pretext to express BtS’ opposition to the occupation.
Moreover, the incidents BtS describes in both Gaza and the West Bank do not relate to decision-making in the army’s higher echelons, but rather refer entirely to allegations of low-level infractions. Hence, any claims that these reflect are a systemic policy are groundless.
Why are they controversial?
BtS uses unverifiable, anonymous soldier testimonies in order to promote political objectives. The NGO removes the context of these testimonies, portraying IDF actions as immoral and evil, while discounting the actions of Hamas and other terrorist organizations.
Furthermore, BtS is almost entirely funded by European governments (either directly or indirectly via third parties, including many European churches). NGO Monitor research has recently revealed that a number of funders made their grants conditional on the NGO obtaining a minimum number of negative “testimonies.” A British journalist noted that, “It appeared …that these former soldiers, some of whom draw salaries from Breaking the Silence, were motivated by financial and political concerns to further a pro-Palestinian agenda. They weren’t merely telling the truth about their experiences. They were under pressure to perform.” This contradicts BtS’ declarations and thus turns it into an organization that represents its foreign donors’ interests, severely damaging the NGO’s credibility, reliability, and ability to analyze complicated combat situations.
Who is the intended audience?
Contrary to NIF’s claim that BtS “aim[s] to speak to American Jews” or to BtS’ claim to address “Israeli society,” the events they participate in are mainly organized and used by anti-Israeli activists on U.S. campuses, European churches, and other venues as ammunition for BDS (boycott, divestment and sanction) campaigns, lawfare, and other activity aimed at delegitimizing and isolating Israel.
In recent years BtS published a book titled “Our Harsh Logic” in English, German, and Swedish. Book launch events in the various languages have served as a platform for further demonization and delegitmization of Israel, including accusations of “racism” and alleged “political assassinations” of Palestinians, claims that Gaza is still “occupied,” and implying that Israel is ethnically cleansing “area C.”
Why do some soldiers give testimony anonymously?
The use of anonymous testimonies by the organization supports their modus operandi of removing the context of terrorism and portraying Israeli policy as one aimed at “terrorizing” the Palestinians, rather than one of self-defense. By removing the ability to verify the testimonies, BtS denies independent observers the ability to confirm the NGO’s analysis of events.
Additionally, contrary to BtS’ claim that accusations of abuse are not discussed in Israeli society or that soldiers reporting this abuse face backlash, alleged instances of Israeli army misconduct are widely reported in the Israeli media and are debated in government and army frameworks, and also by the public.
Do they advocate war crimes prosecution of Israelis?
Contrary to the BtS claim that “they ask Israeli society to conduct a fair and independent investigation,” the organization implies that Israeli investigations into the events of the Gaza war are uniquely flawed, despite the independent IDF fact-finding mechanism and criminal investigations conducted by the IDF Military Advocate General Corps. This allegation, echoed by Israeli, Palestinian, and international NGOs and in the media, is the basis for lawfare campaigns, falsely asserting that Israel is “unwilling and unable” to investigate its own wrongdoing and, therefore, external investigations and international prosecutions are needed.
Do they support boycott of Israel?
While BtS claims that they do not work with or support BDS groups, Yehuda Shaul, BtS’ foreign relations director and one of its founders, told South African parliamentarians that “he agreed with the intention of the BDS movement but he felt that its approach could compromise the goal.” (p.34)
Why does NIF support Israeli human rights NGOs?
Contrary to claims of upholding human rights and demanding accountability, many NIF grantees exploit these essential values in order to achieve political gains and generate PR. The real question is why the NIF continues to fund NGOs whose activities and rhetoric explicitly violate NIF’s funding guidelines and contribute to the delegitimization of Israel.
By bringing groups such as BtS across the United States, NIF is not adding to the debate or making any difference in Israel. Rather, much like its grantees, it is contributing to a destructive atmosphere of anti-Israel sentiments. As a result of such funding and events, the NIF is thus becoming more toxic and irrelevant within Israel.