26 June 2015

The Israeli Government’s Campaign to Silence Breaking the Silence

Legislation Proposed to Stop Foreign Funding of Israeli Human Rights Organisations

No government likes to be taken to task over human rights abuses.  Most deny, as a matter of instinct, that any such abuses have taken place.  But it is only the worst of the worst governments seek to destroy or cripple the very organisations that have been criticising their human rights record. 

Even the United States government of George Bush didn’t seek to destroy its critics over Iraq.  Even the British government didn’t try and destroy those organisations that criticised its use of torture in Ireland. 

Only police states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia target the human rights organisations themselves in their efforts to cover up their abuses.  Israel describes itself as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East' but in its attack on human rights organisations, as well as other forms of dissent (Israeli Arab, cultural) it is demonstrating that its democratic veneer covers a police state practice.

No organisation has been demonised more in recent weeks than ‘Breaking the Silence’ [BTS].  Why?  Because it has taken and publicised the testimony of soldiers in the attack on Gaza last summer, Protective Edge, which contradicts the official version that all was sweet and light and that Israel bent over backwards to protect the human rights of the civilian population.
These were just some of the testimonies

“Worst case they’ll ask what we shot at, we’ll say it was a ‘suspicious spot’ ”

testimony catalog number: 470948
rank: Staff Sergeant
unit: Armored Corps
area: Deir al-Balah area
period: 2014

But everything else that they didn’t specifically instruct us to avoid shooting at – and except for a few other places, where nearby [IDF] forces were located to avoid friendly fire – you could shoot anywhere, nearly freely. There are also times when we said, “Let’s fire over there, worst case they’ll ask what we shot at, we’ll say it was a ‘suspicious spot,’ that it looked threatening.” That happened a few times

“From what we knew, that area was supposedly devoid of civilians”

testimony catalog number: 453039
area: Gaza strip
period: 2014
It was all scorched, burned to the ground. Entire streets where one building is half-destroyed, the next one totally destroyed, the next one half-destroyed. Entire streets that were totally shelled.
Entire streets that were totally shelled, and I needed to verify a certain target that had clearly been obliterated. I opened up the footage and saw that it was taken right after the strike had been carried out, and there were lots of people there, and lots of ambulances, and a whole lot of smoke and lots of commotion. And from what we knew, that area was supposedly devoid of civilians.

You said earlier that you did know the neighborhood was supposed to be empty of civilians?
Yes. That’s what they told us. They told us – maybe really so we wouldn’t think the IDF does immoral things – they told us the civilians had been informed via leaflets scattered in the area, and that it was supposed to be devoid of civilians, and civilians who remained there were civilians who apparently chose to be there.

Who told you that?
The commanders, in off-the-record type conversations, or during all kinds of briefings. Just so we’d know, for our general knowledge, that this is what’s going on. That there’s no civilians supposed to be there, and any who are – are there because they chose to be. In conversations between us it was summed up as, “There’s nothing we can do, war is war.” You don’t really talk about it – any discourse or opinions that are slightly ‘deviant’ are pretty much silenced. http://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/images/end.jpg

“Lots of people with white flags came over and [warning] shots were fired near them, too”

testimony catalog number: 679071
rank: Staff Sergeant
unit: Infantry
area: Northern Gaza strip
period: 2014

At one point early on an older woman came near, and one of the officers said she should be shot. They told him to fire [warning shots] in her direction, and after a few shots she backed off. Later on, lots of people with white flags came over and [warning] shots were fired near them, too.

During the first entrance [to the Gaza Strip] we were near Beit Lahia, in a place called the Bedou’iyya. We were there for a few days. When we got there, there were white flags on all the rooftops. We had been prepared for something very… For some very glorious combat, and in the end it was quiet. We set ourselves up in our spot and slowly, slowly, [the Palestinians] started returning.

The Israeli government, apart from running an (unsuccessful) campaign to ban a BTS exhibition in Zurich, has found that the White House arranged a meeting with people from BTS.  The next stage in the campaign is to hit its funding, on the ground that BTS is dependent on mainly foreign funding.  That of course is true and funders include ‘soft’ Zionist groups like the New Israel Fund.  What is so hypocritical is that Netanyahu’s election campaign to remain leader of Likud was funded from abroad!
What has been particularly irksome to the Zionists is that BTS has been invited to speak in places normally reserved for Israeli government and hasbara speakers such as the Hillel centres, which cater for Jewish students.  

 Although there has been a recent breakaway from the Hillel movement, launched by the Open Hillel movement [see Hillel's SwarthmoreChapter Rejects Zionist Impositions on Students] these invitations to speak have also come from the mainstream Zionist Hillels, suggesting dissension in the ranks.

The Likud lobby in the United States has not been slow to respond and its response is interesting.

Executive Director of the absurdly named Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), Asaf Romirowsky, wrote against Breaking the Silence in June 2013 in the aftermath of former IDF Spokesman Barak Raz's criticism :

Barak Raz, spokesman for the IDF’s Judea and Samaria Division, correctly blasted the group and its actions, stating that “Breaking the Silence is an organization that engages in nothing – but nothing – other than a smear campaign targeting the IDF. This smear campaign has nothing to do with rooting out their observed problem. Furthermore, none of their work helps the IDF (or Israel, for that matter) provide a solution.”

… BtS has become the poster child for groups like J Street [a slightly less hawkish version of Aipac but still very much pro-Zionist and anti-BDS - TG] and others on many North American campuses that want to engage in “honest debate” about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In reality, these groups do nothing more than fuel a skewed view of Israel in order to pressure Israel to succumb to Palestinian demands, thereby only contributing to the isolation of the Jewish state. Further, it is also the pervasive tactic employed by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) in their political warfare against Israel.

The adaptation of soft power by the pro-Palestinian camps and far-left Jewish groups is one of the main vehicles used in this political warfare. Breaking the Silence plays a central role in this agenda, now spearheaded by J Street."

Note how broad brush assertions such as ‘smear campaign’ are not backed with even an iota of evidence.  Instead the Israeli army spokeman ‘correctly blasted the group’ even though SPME is not in a position to make such a judgement.  BTS are attacked, not because of the inaccuracy of what they have said but because of the effect such criticisms will have in ‘contributing to the isolation of the Jewish state’ and  isolating Israel and fueling ‘a skewed view of Israel’.  And of course there is the mandatory Guilt by Association techniques, so beloved of McCarthyists through the ages.  Scholarly?  Barely high school stuff.

Another anti-free speech group is NGO Monitor, whose President, Gerald Steinberg also indulges in guilt-by-association.  Apparently BTS ‘receives part of its budget from individuals who support the BDS.’   The clinching argument of course, although we are not enlightened as to who these wicked individuals are!  Apparently the ‘The central issue is how tainted money buys preferential influence and skews the Israel debate on campus’.  There is the word ‘skew’ again.  No mention of the ‘tainted money’ of Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire backer of Netanyahu who owns the Israeli free sheet Israel Hayom  which is driving the rest of Israel’s press out of business.

Apparently ‘Tiny radical groups like "Breaking the Silence" are able to flood the market of ideas’.  Far more preferable that people like Adelson buy peoples’ opinions instead.

Not to be outdone, Russell Robinson, CEO of the Jewish National Fund, which administers and buys land in Israel only for Jews, i.e. it is an openly Apartheid organisation, in "Hillel is Not The Place For Anti-Israel Discussion," expressed concern about anti-Israel events in Hillel.  Apparently, in the Zionist police state that should be Hillel, ‘I have witnessed time after time, speakers that condemn Israel do so without being properly vetted and fact-checked. Often listeners absorb every word as though it were based on facts when it is nothing more than biased opinion and misinformed rhetoric.’  Clearly there is a problem here having speakers who are not thoroughly vetted and ‘fact-checked’ beforehand!

But these are the hurdles one must clear in order that Israel can remain the only democracy in the Middle East.

Tony Greenstein

From the Breaking the Silence exhibition, photo of captured Palestinians, with blindfolds, handcuffs and forced to kneel.
By Tia Goldenberg, Associated Press
June 14, 2015

JERUSALEM — An organization of former Israeli soldiers dedicated to shedding light on the dark side of the country’s military is coming increasingly under fire, roiling a country in the grips of a battle against the burgeoning threat of international isolation and boycotts.

The group, Breaking the Silence, says that without its work, stories of improper or even illegal behaviour against Palestinians would remain hidden from an Israeli public that reveres the military. But the group has come under attack from legislators who threaten its funding and say it could help turn Israel into a pariah state.

Since its founding in 2004, Breaking the Silence has collected the testimonies of more than 1,000 veterans in a bid to expose the underbelly of the decades-old occupation of the West Bank. It has taken those accounts to audiences in Israel and around the world, including a recent 10-day photo exhibit in Zurich, Switzerland.

This comes as Israel confronts a growing boycott movement focused on companies doing business in its West Bank settlements.

The European Union also has ratcheted up measures against settlement products. The settlements, built on land captured in the 1967 Mideast war which the Palestinians want for a future state, are seen as illegitimate by the international community.

Breaking the Silence does not call for a boycott of Israel. But critics say it feeds into a global trend that unfairly singles out Israel and is bent on “delegitimizing” the world’s only Jewish state. In contrast to other rights groups, Breaking the Silence presents a unique threat because its members were devoted soldiers before coming out with their claims.

“We will not ignore the fact that an organization, whose sole purpose is to tarnish (Israeli) soldiers, is operating internationally in order to cause serious damage to Israel’s image,” said Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s deputy foreign minister.

The group was created by soldiers who served during the Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s. It has since built an organization of some 60 active members that, beyond collecting testimonies, holds lectures and meetings and organizes trips for Israelis to the West Bank to expose them to the daily realities of Palestinians living under Israeli rule. Military service is largely compulsory for Jewish Israelis.

Breaking the Silence often makes waves with its reports, and in May, it released the accounts of dozens of soldiers who fought in last year’s Gaza war.

The group concluded that “a troubling picture arises of a policy of indiscriminate fire” that killed innocent civilians. The Israeli military, which has launched dozens of investigations into alleged wartime misconduct, rejected the report, saying the claims lacked proof and could not be investigated as the group grants soldiers anonymity for their testimony.

Yehuda Shaul, Breaking the Silence’s co-founder, described its critics as hard-line Israelis bent on perpetuating Israeli rule over the West Bank.

“So long as we are in uniform and are going to kill and die for settlements and for the occupation, then everything is fine, but the moment we break the silence, suddenly we are traitors. That’s the hypocrisy of the Israeli right-wing,” Shaul said.

Shaul said that the majority of Breaking the Silence’s work is in Israel, but it has been lambasted for taking its message abroad.

A group of pro-Israel Swiss lawmakers last week criticized the Zurich exhibition, saying it “instigates evil propaganda, disinformation and furthers ideologies that run counter to peace.” The Swiss Foreign Ministry said its support for the group is “consistent” with its goal of supporting “a fair and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Israel attempted unsuccessfully to have the Swiss Foreign Ministry pull its funding of the exhibit. But an exhibition planned at a fair on Israel-German relations in Cologne, Germany, was canceled following an Israeli request.

Top: Ayelet Shaked: BTS is slandering Israel; 
Bottom: Tzipi Hotoveli, we will not ignore the fact that they are acting to damage Israel’s image.

The Zurich exhibit comes at a time of surging panic over the possible economic effect of boycotts, which Palestinians say are necessary after more than 20 years of failed peace efforts.

Hotovely, the deputy foreign minister, called for an urgent ministry meeting to examine how to rein in Breaking the Silence. Israeli opposition legislator Yair Lapid said that “extremist organizations” like Breaking the Silence “harm Israel’s efforts in the struggle” against the boycott movement. More than 7,000 people are part of a Facebook group called “My Truth,” which attempts to counter Breaking the Silence and staged a protest in front of the Swiss Embassy in Tel Aviv last month.

Much of the criticism comes over the group’s foreign funding. Many of its international projects are supported by European bodies, and opponents see that as a way to influence the very citizens and governments who could one day choose to boycott Israel.

“It’s a world tour funded by the European governments under the facade of human rights that is so damaging,” said Gerald Steinberg, who heads NGO Monitor, which tracks the funding of Israeli rights groups like Breaking the Silence.

Breaking the Silence and other rights groups face a looming threat from a bill expected to be introduced in Israel’s Knesset that could limit their foreign funding by requiring senior government officials to approve the donations.

Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who is behind the bill, said this month that Breaking the Silence is “slandering and harming the state of Israel.”

Shaul said the group is determined to continue its work.

“What harms Israel more than anything is the occupation and what harms Israel the most is the settlement enterprise and our unwillingness to end the occupation,” he said.

Associated Press writer Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed to this report.

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