By Hunter Stuart
Published in March 2016 in The Jerusalem Report magazine
Sandwiched between a highway and a strip club in an industrial part of Tel Aviv sit the offices of Breaking The Silence, Israel’s most hated NGO.
Breaking The Silence is a group of IDF veterans who publish testimonies of disturbing and unethical things they say they witnessed while serving in the West Bank and Gaza. The group’s short-term goal is to show Israeli society the dark underbelly of the Palestinian occupation. In the long-term, Breaking The Silence wants to end the occupation completely.
The office is unmarked: there’s no sign advertising its presence. One must walk through a pair of unwashed glass doors, up four flights of dusty stairs and pass the muster of an armed security guard stationed outside their front door, who stands warily beside a pack of Marlboros and a cup of instant coffee.
Inside, the atmosphere is much livelier. The group’s spokesman, Achiya Schatz, greets The Jerusalem Report with a handshake and a broad smile. A documentary crew is positioned around him, filming our interaction. “They’re making a film about us, and everything that’s been going on lately,” explains Schatz, who is 30 and looks like he hasn’t shaved in a week.
Inside the office, seven or eight activists sit at communal tables, working on laptops and talking animatedly. Next to a set of shelves lined with glossy black-and- white books containing hundreds of war testimonies is Yehuda Shaul, one of the group’s founders, asleep on a beanbag chair.
If Breaking The Silence is a little tired these days, it’s no wonder. In the past couple months, the group has been through a whirlwind. They’ve been excoriated by the prime minister and a number of Israeli politicians, been banned from schools and army bases, targeted by vicious right-wing campaigns and infiltrated by moles wearing tiny secret video cameras and microphones. Most recently, a coalition of lawmakers introduced a bill to the Knesset to have the group outlawed entirely.
Breaking The Silence’s detractors say it’s slandering Israeli soldiers abroad in order to undermine government policy in Israel; its supporters say it’s merely exercising its right to free speech. Either way, the fight over Breaking The Silence has grown into something much bigger: a fight over the very future of Israel.
The controversy began in earnest in early December, when Breaking The Silence participated in a conference in New York where Israeli president Reuven Rivlin also spoke. Israel’s right-wing Channel 20 accused Rivlin of “spitting in the faces” of IDF soldiers by appearing at the event. Not long after, the ultranationalist organization Im Tirtzu released a video saying Breaking The Silence was staffed by foreign agents.
The rhetoric against the group only went downhill from there. The next day on the Knesset floor, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Breaking The Silence of “trying to tie Israel’s hands in its attempts to defend itself.” A few weeks later, when a mother of six was slain in a terror attack in the West Bank, Eli Yishai, a former interior minister, said Breaking The Silence was responsible for the murder.
In the past two months, Schatz says he and his colleagues have been getting near-daily death threats. Hence the armed guard, who was hired in December. The group’s members have received Facebook messages, phone calls, and letters all warning of violence. One read ‘Rabin was only the beginning, you’re next.’ The Israeli police are now involved in an effort to protect staff from being attacked.
Breaking The Silence has clearly struck a nerve in Israel. After all, the things that the group is saying about the way Israeli soldiers treat Palestinians are shocking. They paint Israel as an inept and cruel occupier. One story, for example, that Shaul has told the media on several occasions, describes how he and other IDF soldiers on patrol in 2002 locked an innocent Palestinian family in the basement of their own home so the soldiers could watch a World Cup match.
Other testimonies--which are almost always made anonymously--have claimed soldiers get high before going on reconnaissance tours, or have burst in on families in the middle of the night with no other purpose than to intimidate them or to “make their presence felt.”
Most recently, after Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas, Breaking The Silence published a 240-page report containing detailed testimonies from about 60 soldiers and officers who had served in the operation. Those testimonies, which are published on the Internet, say that the IDF’s guiding military principle during the battle, known as Operation Protective Edge, was one of “minimum risk to our forces, even at the cost of harming innocent civilians.” The report also alleged that the IDF recklessly shelled civilian neighborhoods, causing “massive and unprecedented” harm to homes and infrastructure.
The chief complaint many Israelis have against Breaking The Silence is that it chooses to ignore the official systems in place in Israel for IDF whistleblowers to lodge complaints, choosing instead to take their case directly to foreign countries for support.
“Israel, as a functioning democracy, has established channels to prosecute such infractions” by IDF soldiers serving in the territories, wrote former Soviet prisoner Natan Sharansky a recent Haaretz column. Those channels are something that persecuted dissidents in the USSR “could only dream about,” wrote Sharansky, who is now head of the Jewish Agency.
In mid-February, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said at an academic conference near Tel Aviv that he welcomed communication with Breaking The Silence and that he had instructed the IDF’s legal department to follow up on some of the claims the group had made. Breaking The Silence says it wrote to Eisenkot asking for a meeting about six weeks before it published its report on Operation Protective Edge. But Eisenkot’s office never responded, says Schatz.
So is Breaking The Silence looking forward to more communication with the army going forward? Not really. “We have no problem to meet with the army, and to let them know what's going on and how we see stuff,” says Schatz. “But we don’t think they should be the one dealing with the consequences of what's going on the West Bank. The one who needs to deal with it is us--it’s the republic, it’s society, but not the army. The army is just the operational hand of the government.”
This is the same reason Schatz gives when asked why Breaking The Silence chooses to avoid official channels for registering complaints about immoral or illegal incidents in the IDF. “You say official channels, but to do what? To say, ‘I want to change reality in the West Bank?’” Schatz says. “The thing is, it’s not about one or two incidents [where something bad happened]. It's about the whole mindset of the occupation."
Though Breaking The Silence is unenthusiastic about starting a dialogue with the IDF, it may soon have no choice. The Israeli news site NRG reported in early February said that the IDF had asked the State Prosecutor’s Office to force Breaking The Silence to turn over testimonies that relate to alleged war crimes and other illegal conduct.
The State Prosecutor then petitioned a magistrate court to force Breaking The Silence to give up the testimonies, the NRG report said.
Breaking The Silence has no intention of doing this. “Our policy is clear. We’re happy to help where we can, but we’re not going to jeopardize any soldiers. We’re not going to expose them if they don’t want to be exposed,” says Schatz.
The other reason Breaking The Silence rankles Israelis is because it does a lot of its publicity and fundraising abroad—mostly in Europe. The group received roughly NIS 3.5 million ($779,000 USD) in donations in 2014, according to its own financial records, which are publicly posted online. About 60 percent of the donations it receives each year come from foreign sources, either from European charities and development groups--many affiliated with Christian or Catholic churches--but also directly from foreign governments in Scandinavia and Western Europe, and from the European Union itself.
“The problem with Breaking The Silence is that they say they care about the moral values of the IDF, but if that’s the case, why do they take the conversation outside of Israel?” says Itai Reuveni, a senior researcher with NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based group that investigates NGO activity in Israel.
Many Israelis object to the fact that European governments are giving substantial sums to effectively weaken the policies of Israel’s elected government. “I can’t imagine Israel trying to give money to interfere with the dispute over something like abortions in the United States,” said Yair Lapid, the leader of the secular moderate party Yesh Atid (“There Is A Future”), at a Jerusalem press conference in late January that The Report attended.
Money aside, many Israelis also find it offensive that Breaking The Silence is using their country’s most sensitive moral dilemmas and exporting them to Europe to support a political agenda. “They explain things [about war] that are clear to Israelis, because they serve in the army and they know what’s going on,” says Matan Katzman, an officer in the IDF reserves who co-founded the soldiers’ organization “My Truth” over the summer as an antidote to Breaking The Silence. “But they go to audiences overseas that are very anti-Israel, and that’s the problem.”
Breaking The Silence says it does not support the boycott-divestment-sanctions (BDS) campaign, which aims to put economic pressure on Israel to end the occupation. But the group occasionally collaborates with pro-BDS organizations. It also receives sizeable donations from European charities that fund pro-BDS groups, some of whom are radically anti-Israel. For example, the Irish charity Trócaire--which gave NIS 73,000 ($18,450 USD) to Breaking The Silence in 2014--also funds groups like Zochrot, an Israeli NGO that promotes awareness of the Nakba and speaks about the need to “de-Zionize” Israel.
It’s foreign funding of this sort that’s the target of a new bill introduced to the Knesset in November by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. The proposed law would require any NGO in Israel that receives more than half of its funding from foreign states to say so in its literature. Critics of the so-called transparency bill say it’s a way to stifle dissent by targeting left-wing groups; supporters say it’s merely a way to know which NGOs are beholden to foreign interests.
Left-wing civil society organizations in Israel aren’t the only ones looking for help overseas. Right-wing groups here also take their message abroad in order to garner support for political agendas at home. For example, pro-settler organizations in Israel raise millions of dollars from charities in the U.S. and elsewhere, funds that are used to buttress controversial settlement projects in the West Bank.
So, if right-wing groups can raise support for the occupation overseas, Breaking The Silence has every right to fundraise abroad, too, Yuli Novak, the group’s 33-year-old executive director, tells The Report in Tel Aviv. And it’s all for a noble cause, she says: “For those of us who love Israel and believe the only way Israel can be a democracy is by ending the occupation, we feel this is our duty.”
Support for Breaking The Silence is low among the Israeli public, but some high-ranking former officials from army, police and intelligence agencies in Israel have spoken in favor of the group’s right to exist. “Breaking the Silence protects IDF soldiers in the impossible situation in which politicians have abandoned them," read one recent ad in Haaretz that was published by former Shin Bet chief and former commander of the Israeli Navy Ami Ayalon, together with Israel Police Maj. Gen. (ret.) Alik Ron.
“I see them as a group of warriors, none of whom decided to disobey any orders, none of whom decided not to join the service, and most of whom served in the best units in our army, which is how they came to see what they saw,” Ayalon, who is now a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, told The Report during a recent phone interview.
Ayalon stressed that he doesn’t support Breaking The Silence--he only supports their right to operate, which is different. “I hate what they do,” he said. “But they are the mirror that shows us who we are.”
Yet Israelis don’t seem to like their own reflection. War is hideous business, after all, and the effects of it are often equally ugly to behold. Breaking The Silence and its supporters are right when they say that a functioning democracy needs institutions that question and criticize the status quo. But if those institutions alienate the same people they claim to be helping, they may find their job just got a lot harder.