The Group Behind IDF Abuse Charges

By Nathan Jeffay

Published July 16, 2009, issue of July 24, 2009.
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To some, they are courageous heroes bringing transparency to the conduct of the Israel Defense Forces. To others, they are a collection of turncoats who publish unaccountable and unverifiable reports, motivated by politics and a hatred of their military.

The nongovernmental organization claims to be an apolitical watchdog set up to “demand accountability regarding Israel’s military actions in the Occupied Territories perpetrated by us and in our name.”

Its detractors claim that nothing could be further from the truth. “Breaking the Silence appears uninterested in uncovering individual violations, but instead is fueled by a political motivation to condemn the entire IDF for institutional wrongdoing,” claimed Gerald Steinberg, chairman of the Political Studies Department at Bar-Ilan University and executive director of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem organization that critiques nongovernmental organizations.

A group of 64 IDF veterans launched Breaking the Silence in 2004 with a photography exhibition in Tel Aviv showing alleged abuses of the Palestinian population of the West Bank town of Hebron by Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers. The exhibition generated controversy then, and more recently when it went to Harvard University last year. Harvard Hillel, which hosted it, drew fire from national Jewish groups for doing so.

The group also published soldier testimonies that it claimed “demonstrate the depth of corruption which is spreading in the Israeli military.” To date, it has published five books of testimony and generated dozens of press articles on specific incidents.

Up to now, the group has regarded its biggest coups as shining the spotlight in 2004 on the conduct of soldiers in Hebron and publicizing what it claimed was misconduct resulting from the IDF’s failure to publish Rules of Engagement between 2000 and 2006. Breaking the Silence claims that its testimonies were decisive in the decision to resume publishing them — a claim the IDF has never confirmed.

The group’s relatively modest budget is funded from a variety of sources. This year, the European Union gave it $68,000 for testimonies, the British Embassy in Tel Aviv donated $50,000 toward its educational work and the New Israel Fund gave it $35,000 for general use. For its admirers, the fact that it has such illustrious patrons indicates that Breaking the Silence’s credentials are trustworthy; to its detractors, it is symptomatic of the bias against the IDF found in such bodies.

Breaking the Silence’s director, Mikhael Manekin, states that the group’s main purpose is to tackle the “large gap between what’s happening in the territories vis-à-vis the Palestinian population and what the civilian population thinks is happening.”

Steinberg said that such statements hide the fact that it is really “a political organization that uses claims of human rights violations by very few soldiers as a means of opposing the Israeli government and military, and to promote efforts against ‘the occupation.’” Critics such as Steinberg accuse the group of doublespeak when it claims to be apolitical. Manekin told the Forward that Breaking the Silence takes no position for or against the occupation, but holds that “inherent to occupation is abuse of the civilian population.”

He claims that its activists, around 20 in total, are “loyal Israeli citizens” motivated by truth, not politics. To them, the suspicion with which their reports are viewed by large sections of Israeli society simply attests to the existence of what Manekin terms the “blind eye” of Israeli civilians when it comes to the territories. But their critics say there is an underlying problem with how they operate.

The harshest criticism is that of unaccountability. IDF spokesman Mark Regev dismissed the group’s latest report as failing the “smell test.” He noted that all the testimonies recorded in the report were anonymous and that they contained no details on where or when any of the alleged incidents took place, rendering them unverifiable.

For government and army officials, this raises question marks about not only the trustworthiness of Breaking the Silence’s reports, but also its motivation. If the group is interested in helping to root out bad apples, the IDF and government claims, it would give details of alleged incidents.

“The decision of the organization ‘Breaking the Silence’ to present such testimonies raises doubts about whether the organization really wishes for a credible and thorough investigation regarding the claims to be carried out, as is the norm in the IDF,” claimed a statement released by the Foreign Ministry in response to the report.

The statement threw down the gauntlet: “In order to ensure that the claims made in these testimonies are dealt with in an appropriate manner, the organization ‘Breaking the Silence’ should urge those who made these claims to really ‘break their silence,’ and to present specific complaints to the IDF, and not hide behind general and anonymous statements.”

But the group claims that it has to publish testimonies anonymously. Otherwise, its members say, soldiers would not come forward, because of social pressures and claims that the IDF blows related problems out of proportion. “Whoever in the military wants to find out when and where things happened can do so,” Manekin said.

Hours after Breaking the Silence released its report, another nongovernmental organization joined it in claiming that if the IDF wanted to get to the bottom of what happened in Gaza, it could.

B’Tselem, a long-established, more prominent human rights organization, released a statement drawing attention to the fact that the only investigation since the Gaza operation ended in January has been an internal affair in which the IDF vindicated itself. “The military has refused to open serious, impartial investigations… choosing instead to rely solely on internal debriefings conducted within the involved units as a method for determining the truth,” it said.

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


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