Israel is trying to force a leading anti-occupation NGO to reveal the identities of the soldiers who testified to it about alleged military misconduct during the 2014 Gaza war — a move that the group says will effectively put it out of business.
Government lawyers told a May 22 hearing that they need to question several low-level IDF soldiers who spoke to Breaking the Silence as part of a probe into whether the soldiers committed war crimes during the bloody conflict.
Breaking the Silence says the soldiers revealed disturbing details about their actions only because they were guaranteed anonymity. It also claims the government is using the probe as a smokescreen to deter others from criticizing the Israeli military.
“The vast majority wouldn’t testify unless they were promised this protection,” Breaking the Silence attorney Michael Sfard argued at the hearing in Petach Tikvah magistrates court, which was full of journalists and activists. He said the soldiers are “terrified” that they will be prosecuted for their admissions, which were designed to call attention to Israel’s military policies in the West Bank and Gaza.
Sfard said releasing the names of the soldiers, “would be the absolute end of Breaking the Silence.”
Breaking the Silence guarantees anonymity to the soldiers it interviews in order to gain their trust to reveal details about their service in the occupied territories. The group said it has cooperated with the investigation by giving relevant unpublished testimonies to the military. It refuses to releases the soldiers’ names because it fears they could face prosecution, which would deter others from speaking out.
The group’s main objective is to expose Israel’s military occupation in hopes of helping to turn public opinion against it.
But Breaking the Silence is extremely controversial in Israel across much of the political spectrum. Many take issue with its criticism of the military, which is a revered institution in the Jewish state.
Itzik Shmuli of the left-of-center Zionist Union party recently slammed the group as “unacceptable and outrageous” for publicizing the soldiers’ critique of the IDF abroad.
“If someone thinks that the way to a two-state solution is through the besmirching campaign and demonization of the Israel Defense Forces and the State of Israel, then he is mistaken,” the lawmaker said, according to the Times of Israel.
After Breaking the Silence published the accounts of the soldiers, the Israeli military launched an investigation into the individual soldiers’ actions — so far not the leaders that launched the conflict or generals who may have ordered controversial military policies targeting Palestinian civilians.
Sfard also argued that Breaking the Silence, which was founded by two Israeli journalists, is protected under Israeli press freedom laws, and that the group enjoys “journalistic privilege” not to reveal its sources. The attorney general’s demand, he said, goes to the heart of the issue of freedom of speech in Israel.
Sfard said that there was a political context to the request, pointing to high level efforts to discredit Breaking the Silence. Indeed, the group has come under scrutiny in recent months, as now-former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon ordered an investigation into Breaking the Silence after an Israeli Channel 2 report alleged that the group collects classified information on Israeli Defense Forces. Breaking the Silence said that all of its materials passes the military censor.
At the hearing, the attorney general’s representative, Leonora Montilyo-Segal, said that she needed more time to respond to Sfard’s claims of journalistic privilege for Breaking the Silence. She also requested more time to respond to a petition by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel to testify in the case, since the case bears upon issues of larger importance in Israeli society.
The judge granted the requests, setting another hearing for July 18.
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Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.