Ever since Breaking the Silence published testimonies from Israeli soldiers who participated in Operation Cast Lead, various government bodies and public figures in Israel have waged an aggressive smear campaign against the organization. Rather than engaging in meaningful analysis and debate of the disturbing contents of these testimonies, Israeli officials have chosen to try to silence and discredit the messenger while completely ignoring the message.
Breaking the Silence is comprised of veterans of the Israel Defense Forces who have collected and published testimonies of soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories during the second intifada. Having served in the territories themselves, and seen with their own eyes the human rights abuses engendered by the prolonged occupation, members of Breaking the Silence are committed to exposing the Israeli public to these grim realities.
The testimonies from Cast Lead reveal a sharp disparity between the official IDF narrative of the Gaza campaign and the events on the ground as seen through the eyes of combat soldiers. The soldiers’ testimonies paint a troubling picture of rules of engagement that encouraged indiscriminate shooting, the wanton destruction of homes and civilian infrastructure, the unlawful practice of using Palestinians as human shields and the firing of white phosphorous into heavily populated areas.
Since the war, Israeli human rights organizations have repeatedly demanded that Israel launch an impartial and independent investigation into alleged violations of the laws of war during its military operation in Gaza. Instead, the government has left the responsibility for investigating alleged abuses to the military. Needless to say, inquiries of this sort are neither impartial nor independent.
Given the extensive international criticism of Israel’s Gaza campaign, an impartial investigation should be seen as an opportunity to clear Israel’s name — assuming we don’t, as the government insists, have anything to be ashamed of. The ongoing refusal by the government to cooperate with international investigations or to initiate one of our own, however, raises the question: What are we trying to hide?
Even as they refuse to conduct a credible investigation, Israeli officials are working to undermine the credibility and effectiveness of those who have raised valid concerns about the conduct of Cast Lead. Haaretz recently reported on efforts made by Israel’s Foreign Ministry to pressure the Dutch government to stop funding Breaking the Silence. “A friendly government cannot fund opposition bodies,” explained a senior Israeli official. The fact that the testimonies generated widespread media coverage across the globe is used to cast Breaking the Silence in the role of disaffected traitors intent on damaging Israel’s image and reputation.
Unfortunately, such attempts to stifle important public discussion on sensitive or controversial topics have become commonplace in Israel. During Israel’s Gaza campaign, hundreds of anti-war demonstrators were arrested or detained for questioning, often without any legal basis. Since then, there have been efforts in the Knesset to legally restrict Nakba commemorations, to criminalize public denial of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state and even to bar existing Arab political parties from participating in elections. Now, in response to the Breaking the Silence testimonies, senior government officials have reportedly begun discussing the possibility of banning Israeli NGOs that criticize government policies from receiving foreign funding. This is a sad commentary on the current condition of Israeli democracy.
Freedom of expression, open discourse and access to information encompassing a wide spectrum of sources and perspectives are integral elements of any healthy democracy. Breaking the Silence and other organizations that ask difficult and important questions publicly and fearlessly are essential to the well-being of our society. Instead of trying to delegitimize such groups, government officials — and Israeli society as a whole — need to carefully consider the questions they are raising.
Gila Orkin is director of international relations for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.