Breaking the Silence
The ″turncoat″ sons of Israel

Founded 11 years ago, Breaking the Silence has collected and published over 1,100 mostly anonymous testimonies from IDF (Israel Defence Forces) veterans that document army violations against Palestinians. Earlier this month, an Israeli court heard a petition filed by the state attorney to force the organisation to reveal the identity of some of the testifiers. Ylenia Gostoli caught up with Breaking the Silence′s co-founder Yehuda Shaul

Why do you consider this court case particularly worrying?

Yehuda Shaul: Because the reason they′re asking [us to reveal the identity of the testifiers] is that they want to shut us down. Unless they want to reveal their identity, people who testify to Breaking the Silence do it upon condition of anonymity. That′s the only way to get these stories out. After all, if you know that you′ll be thrown in jail the second you open your mouth, you′re hardly likely to break the silence.

About a year ago we published a book of testimonies relating to Operation Protective Edge. After we published the book, the military police investigation unit opened eight investigations into cases that appeared in the book and we got a letter asking for details about each of them. As you might guess, these cases had nothing to do with rules and policies, or regulatory breaches by senior officers. Yet [they] had everything to do with the behaviour of soldiers in the field, which cannot be blamed on senior military personnel. It was clear that they were just trying to use low-ranking soldiers as scapegoats, taking advantage of minor offences committed in the field to shut us down.

Why do you think Breaking the Silence has been one of the main targets of intimidation and smear attacks against Israeli and Palestinian human rights organisations in recent months?

Shaul: We′re part of the political mud fight. Over the years Breaking the Silence has been one of the most mainstream anti-occupation groups. We are a bunch of veterans who believe the IDF should be an instrument of defence and not of oppression and occupation. We believe the occupation is morally wrong, indefensible – that it is destroying the morality of the IDF and of Israeli society.

Today in Israel′s public political arena the occupation is taboo: as long as it remains taboo, it will persist.

Former defence minister Ya′alon called you traitors (which he subsequently retracted) and education minister Neftali Bennet accused you of spreading lies against the army and barred you from schools. What have the past few months been like for you?

Shaul: Those who speak out against government policy and express concern about what is going on in the Occupied Territories face a co-ordinated response from high-ranking members of the government.

Merely at a political-legislative level, three weeks in December looked like this. The prime minister himself attacked us three times publicly. Directives were issued that the IDF and schools cannot host us anymore. The educational committee held a special hearing entitled ″The damage Breaking the Silence is inflicting on the state of Israel″. There was a petition by 58 members of the Knesset calling to boycott Breaking the Silence. And then, of course, there is the NGO bill on foreign funding.

A big part of this campaign is misinformation (…) Today, when people call us for house meetings, we need to tell them that they might face protests in their community. Our office has been attacked physically once, our activists twice on campuses. Right-wing thugs are putting our phone numbers and those of our family members on blogs and asking people to call and harass us. Our systems are under cyber attack 24/6, never on the Sabbath, which tells you something about who is involved.  

And of course you were recently accused of revealing state secrets and investigated.

Shaul: There is a separate organisation that has been operating for three years now with Israeli government funding, filming and documenting anti-occupation activists and human rights organisations, while spreading paranoia internally.

They sent two soldiers to testify to Breaking the Silence. Throughout their interview, they insisted on bringing up classified information about behind enemy lines in Syria. Our investigator told them about five times during the interview that we were not interested. We immediately sent the material to the military censor and our suspicion was confirmed that these were indeed state secrets. Our research department was able to confirm they were moles and we released it to the media. An investigation concluded that we don′t have classified information, the info we have is of the lowest level, which any soldier is exposed to.

Breaking the Silence logo (source: Twitter)
The organisation's stated mission is to 'break the silence' of IDF soldiers who return to civilian life in Israel and "discover the gap between the reality which they encountered in the [occupied] territories and the silence they encounter at home"

Why now?

Shaul: These days there is no serious political opposition in Israel. Any opposition to the occupation comes from the civil society, not the political parties, that′s why we are at the forefront.

At the moment we also have the most right-wing government since the establishment of the state of Israel. And they′re utterly incapable of anything – from security to social security. As a result, we have become the food to feed the beast with.

Over the past 20 years, Israel has been through what I would call a change of elites. The pro-settler national-religious camp has slowly occupied the state from within, throughout all the institutions. The media, the ministry of education, the judiciary, the army. There is one organisation that is threatening the ability of the right to establish full control over the IDF and that′s Breaking the Silence. Which is why, I believe, we are taking the flak.

What do you say to Palestinians and the more radical left, who argue that Breaking the Silence merely helps sanitise the image of the Israeli army and of Israel′s democracy?

Shaul: We′re not working to please either the political right or the political left. We are working to save Israel from the occupation.

I don′t believe in images, I believe in content and truth and fact. Israel′s behaviour is not unique, but its support for the current regime is. It′s not about how we are seen, but what we are doing. What we need to do is call what we are doing by its name. We need to stand in front of a mirror and face the regime we have voted in and take responsibility for it.

Interview conducted by Ylenia Gostoli

© 2016

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