Breaking the Silence (non-governmental organization)
Breaking The Silence (BtS) (Hebrew: שוברים שתיקה Shovrim Shtika) is an Israeli Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) established by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) veterans who collect and provide testimonies about their military service in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem since the Second Intifada. Located in west Jerusalem, this NGO gives serving and discharged Israeli personnel and reservists a platform to confidentially describe their experiences in the Israeli-occupied territories. J.J. Goldberg described the NGO in The Jewish Daily Forward as a "left-wing soldiers' protest organization." Lawrence Swain has said that the group has a more varied demographic and ideological composition than encompassed by that description.
The organization'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 which they encounter at home." Since 2004, Breaking the Silence has run a testimonies collection project called "Soldiers Speak Out." They have collected over 1,000 testimonies from "those who have, during their service in the IDF, the Border Guard, and the Security Forces, played a role in the Occupied Territories." By publishing soldiers' accounts, BtS hopes to "force Israeli society to address the reality which it created" and face the truth about "abuse towards Palestinians, looting, and destruction of property" under this process, which soldiers have encountered.
Senior Israeli political figures, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have spoken out against the organization. At the same time, senior figures in the Israeli defense and security establishment have defended the organization. General Amiram Levin has stated that "Breaking the Silence strengthens the IDF and its morality."
- 1 History
- 2 Activities
- 3 Controversy over 2009 military discussion of Gaza conflict
- 4 Publications
- 5 Criticism
- 6 Support
- 7 Funding
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 External links
In 2004, Avichai Sharon, Yehuda Shaul and Noam Chayut exhibited a series of photographs and written accounts by IDF soldiers who had served in the city of Hebron. The three wanted to force citizens of Israel to "confront the truth about its policies." The exhibition was attended by thousands of people. Afterward, the three men founded Breaking the Silence (BtS), a non-governmental organization (NGO) that serves ex-service personnel of the IDF by confidentially collecting and recording their testimonies of military experiences. It has published several works of collected accounts. The NGO has attracted hundred of members.
Shaul, who had served with the IDF Nachal unit's 50th battalion in Hebron, completing two tours of duty, was the first executive director of BtS. In 2007 he became its foreign relations director, as the organization was seeking outside support to help its refuseniks and their families directly, as well as general funding for its programs. It has been successful in gaining support from some church groups in various countries, as well as some direct support from some European governments.
That year Mikhael Manekin became director of BtS. The organisation's main goal is "to break the silence and taboo surrounding the behaviour of Israeli soldiers in the Palestinian territories".
The Israeli political establishment has been hostile to the activities of the organization since it was founded in 2004. Government pressure particularly increased after the group disclosed confessions from soldiers who took part in the 2008-2009 bombing of the Gaza Strip. These generated widespread public controversy about Israeli military actions.
In May 2011, 24 former soldiers of the IDF provided testimony describing the "neighbor procedure." This is the term for soldiers using Palestinian civilians as human shields to protect soldiers from suspected booby traps or attacks by militants. The Israeli Supreme Court in 2005 outlawed the so-called "neighbour policy", of using Palestinians to shield advancing troops.
In December 2015 Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon banned Breaking the Silence from taking part in any IDF events. Some of Israel's top brass came to the organization's defense in the wake of Ya'alon's announcement. For instance, Retired Major General Amiram Levin published an ad in the Times of Israel saying that "Breaking the Silence guards IDF soldiers in the impossible place in which politicians have abandoned them."
Anonymous soldier testimonies
Since 2004, Breaking the Silence has run a testimonies collection project called "Soldiers Speak Out." They have collected several hundred testimonies, many of them anonymous, from "those who have, during their service in the IDF, the Border Guard, and the Security Forces, played a role in the Occupied Territories." The organization argues that abuses like looting and the destruction of Palestinian property are routine and normal in Israeli army operations in the West Bank.
The Israeli military has claimed that the anonymity of some of the testimonies has made it impossible for them to investigate reported abusive incidents. Breaking the Silence maintains that the anonymity is necessary because of the IDF allegedly prohibits service personnel from speaking publicly about their activities. Only official spokesmen are allowed to speak to the media, for instance. alleged orders by IDF against speaking out publicly. Breaking the Silence officials say that they can provide personal details of soldiers to official and independent investigations, on the condition that the identities of soldiers are not made public.
In June 2004 Breaking the Silence produced a photo exhibition at Yad Eliahu Institute in Tel Aviv detailing some of the alleged abuses of Palestinians in Hebron. It also released a report in April 2008 on the West Bank city of Hebron state of affairs, which included 39 eyewitness accounts and testimonies of Israeli soldiers.
In addition to publishing written and videotaped reports on the BtS website, members of the group have conducted speaking tours throughout Israel, Western Europe and the United States.
In July 2016, investigative television program HaMakor reported that, of a sample of ten of the group's testimonies, it could confirm two to be true, it believed two were exaggerated and two were false, and it could neither verify nor refute four. Its report quoted military criminal investigation officials who said that many investigations prompted by BtS testimonies were closed out of concern that they might damage the state.
Raviv Drucker, who supports the NGO, said that the group's members "act a little bit like a sensational magazine" that does not check the facts thoroughly or writes an exaggerated headline while claiming to hold higher standards. He also said that "many of the stories they published turned out to be true" and that they are holding on to "very sexy testimonies" and not publishing them because they have not yet been able to "fully verify them."  BtS responded to the program on its website by responding to reporting of the programme.
In 2016, the Attorney General filed a petition to force BtS to reveal the identity of a soldier whose testimony raised suspicion of possible war crimes.
Since 2005, BtS has been conducting tours to Hebron for members of the Israeli public and foreign visitors. BtS wants members of the Israeli public to become witnesses to the realities in the Occupied Territories. At one point, the Israeli police cancelled the tours, because a group of United Kingdom diplomats were harassed by Jewish settlers. The latter taunted tour members and threw stones and eggs at them.
Police District Commander Avshalom Peled, the head of the Israel Police's Hebron district, criticized members of both Breaking the Silence and Bnei Avraham, another leftist group in Hebron. The latter is "committed to 'disturbing the occupation, disrupting the segregation and apartheid regime'." Peled further said that "Organizations such as Bnei Avraham and Breaking the Silence are wolves in sheeps' clothing," and "The left-wing organizations have become an even greater threat than the anarchists."
Journalist Jerold Auerbach has reported that some former soldiers express antipathy to the settlers in the West Bank. In June 2008, Police District Commander Peled said that BtS provoked settlers in the hope of producing a violent response for public reaction. He told YNet that the "activity on the part of the militant left can be severe and dangerous." Police said that BtS and Bnei Avraham had held an illegal rally during a Hebron tour on 25 April 2008.
MK Zehava Gal-On (Meretz) responded to a Ynet report about police statements in Hebron saying, "It would seem as though the police are working for the Kahanist and fascist groups in Hebron. I call on the internal security minister to conduct an investigation into the conduct of police forces in Hebron."
Controversy over 2009 military discussion of Gaza conflict
In March 2009 Israeli soldiers participated in a post-operation discussion on the 2008–2009 Israel–Gaza conflict, which was held at the Rabin Pre-Military Academy, located at Oranim Academic College in Kiryat Tiv'on. Veterans discussed military abuses during this conflict, including killing of civilians; this material was reported internationally and caused a furor in Israel.
The Israeli government had previously dismissed as propaganda, Palestinian charges that Israeli forces had used indiscriminate and disproportionate firepower in civilian areas during the ground assault. But IDF veterans' accounts at this post-operation discussion affirmed those accusations. The IDF conducted an investigation of veterans' accounts.
The Israeli Army quickly conducted an inquiry into these accounts. On March 31, 2009, the Military Advocate General said that the soldiers' accounts that civilians were shot by them appeared to be based on hearsay and that its investigation found no corroborating evidence for such charges.
Journalist Amos Harel wrote that a Breaking the Silence report drew a "knee-jerk" reaction from the organization's critics, and that "the nay-sayers should simmer down" because "while there is no definite way of vouching for the credibility of their reports, it is safe to say that [the testifiers] did fight in Gaza and that they provided enough authentic detail to prove that they are not imposters." Harel also gave his opinion that "Breaking the Silence... has a clear political agenda, and can no longer be classified as a 'human rights organization'... this does not mean that the documented evidence, some of which was videotaped, is fabricated."
Soldiers' Testimonies from Operation Cast Lead, Gaza 2009
On March 20, 2009, Breaking the Silence said that it had recorded accounts by soldiers who had taken part in the Gaza assault, and that they were similar to what had been reported at the Yitzhak Rabin pre-military course. On 15 July 2009 BtS published "Soldiers' Testimonies from Operation Cast Lead, Gaza 2009." It described the booklet as compiled from accounts by about 30 reserve and regular combat soldiers from various units that participated in the fighting. These soldiers described 54 incidents of the use of "firing of phosphorus gas in the direction of populated areas, the killing of innocent victims [using] small arms, destruction of hundreds of houses and mosques for no military purpose."
Soldiers' accounts also described using a tactic called 'Neighbor Procedure', in which Palestinian civilians, referred to as 'the Johnnie,' were used as human shields and forced to enter buildings ahead of soldiers. "If true, that was a clear breach of the international laws of war - which say soldiers have a duty of care to non-combatants - and of Israeli law." This tactic had been prohibited by the Israeli Supreme Court in a 2005 ruling.
Many of the soldiers say that they were ordered by commanders to prevent harm to Israeli soldiers by any means necessary. They said that brigade, battalion, and company commanders gave morale-building conversations before combat that led to "zero patience for the life of enemy civilians." According to the authors, the soldiers' testimonies expose significant gaps between the official policies of the Israeli military and events on the ground.
The Israeli military dismissed the 2009 "Cast Lead" report. It said that it was "investigating many of the requests from NGOs and other groups... But when you have a report that is based on hearsay, with no facts whatsoever, we can't do anything with it." It noted that in the past some allegations had turned out to be second or third-hand accounts, rather than the witnesses' own experience. Breaking the Silence has said that it verifies all of its information by cross-referencing the testimonies it collects. It says that the published accounts have been confirmed by accounts from several different points of view.
Women Soldiers' Testimonies
In January 2010, Breaking the Silence published a booklet titled Women Soldiers' Testimonies. It contains 96 anonymous accounts from more than 40 women officers, commanders and soldiers in various units who had served as combatants and in supporting combat roles in the Israeli-occupied territories since 2000. The booklet lists the rank, unit, and location of the soldiers who provided the testimonies. Ynetnews published excerpts, saying these showed "systematic humiliation of Palestinians, reckless and cruel violence, theft, killing of innocent people and cover-up."
Responding to the booklet, the IDF's Spokesperson's Office stated,
"These are anonymous testimonies, without any mention of a time or a place, and their reliability cannot be examined in any way. The IDF is a controlled state organization, which learns and draws lessons, and cooperates with any serious body with the shared goal of exhausting any inquiry when such an examination is inquired."
Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldier Testimonies 2000–2010
In 2011, BtS published Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldier Testimonies 2000–2010 (published in the United States as Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers' Testimonies from the Occupied Territories, 2000–2010, Macmillan, ISBN 978-0805095371). The book contains first-hand accounts by more than 100 Israeli soldiers.
David Shulman, Professor of Humanistic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, described the book in The New York Review of Books as "one of the most important published on Israel/Palestine in this generation."
Elliott Abrams, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes that the report contained many accounts of experiences during the Second Intifada. He noted that the Israel Defense Forces were trying to stop numerous terrorist acts and suicide bombings that were "maiming and killing thousands" of Israeli civilians. Abrams criticized the BtS report for failing to describe the dangers which Israel was facing at the time. He said, "put simply, the book's description of a West Bank living in deliberately inflicted misery does not comport with reality."
Haggai Matar noted in December 2015 that Breaking the Silence has been criticized in five major areas: (1) it lacks credibility; (2) it fails to provide the IDF with the evidence it collects; (3) the testimonies are anonymous; (4) it receives donations from foreign countries; and (5) it operates overseas.
Israeli government criticism
After BtS published its 2009 report on Gaza, the Israeli government severely criticized the organization. Ten Israeli-based human rights organizations published a petition ("Do not silence 'Breaking the Silence") against the "aggressive repression of the organization by the Foreign Ministry of Israel and other governmental agents," which included the government's attempting to interfere with the group's funding. The petitioning organizations have publicly declared support for Breaking the Silence.
Journalist Jonathan Cook reported that the government campaign was promoted by Avigdor Lieberman, Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, but also had the backing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, said: "Criticism directed at the IDF by one organisation or another is inappropriate and is directed at the wrong place."
Anonymity of accounts
In September 2012, in the context of a Breaking the Silence report on IDF abuse of Palestinian children, Danny Lamm, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, expressed his concern that the Israel Defense Forces were unable to investigate claims because they were presented as "anonymous ... devoid of critical detail and untested by any kind of cross-questioning." Lamm said that BtS was exploiting the testimonies "for propaganda effect".
Yehuda Shaul of BtS responded that "over 70 of our testifiers have come out publicly with their names and identities revealed, and I'm one of them. If the IDF was interested in investigating our claims, we probably would have already been summoned to interrogations." Dana Golan, executive director of Breaking the Silence, responded to Lamm's criticism by saying that the testimonies "meet the highest standards of investigative journalism" and unusual cases are "corroborated by two independent sources." In a statement co-signed by 15 ex-soldiers, she accused Lamm of "pontificating from afar."
Breaking the Silence has said that it verifies all of its information by cross-referencing the testimonies it collects. Published material has been confirmed by a number of testimonies from several different points of view. They have said that they would provide to official or independent investigations, the personal details of soldiers quoted in their publications, and the exact location of the incidents described, on the condition that the identities of the testifiers do not become public.
A number of senior retired Israeli security and military figures in 2016 have expressed support or admiration for Breaking the Silence. General Amiram Levin took out an ad to express his support for the organization. Levin said he believed that BtS helped strengthen the IDF and its morality by providing transparency for military actions. General Ami Ayalon wrote that "Breaking the Silence protects IDF soldiers in the impossible situation in which politicians have abandoned them." Former Israel Police Maj. Gen. (ret.) Alik Ron and Shin Bet security services chief Ami Ayalon jointly published an advertisement in Haaretz in 2016 in support of the anti-occupation organization Breaking the Silence.
Breaking the Silence is funded through grants, including from foreign sources in Europe. In 2007, Breaking the Silence received a total of NIS 500,000. In 2008 it raised NIS 1.5 million, in 2009 around €275,000; and in 2014 NIS 3.8 million. Between 2010 and 2014, foreign sources accounted for 65% of the group's funding. This included funding from the New Israel Fund, amounting to NIS 229,949, and funding from international governments. In 2008, according to the NGO's presentation to The Jerusalem Post, the British Embassy in Tel Aviv gave the organization NIS 226,589 (c €40,000); the Dutch Embassy donated €19,999; and the European Union gave €43,514. In addition, during 2008, Spain is reported to have provided tens of thousands of euros to fund patrols run by Breaking the Silence in Hebron. The Women Soldiers' Testimonies report, published in January 2010, was funded by The Moriah Foundation, the New Israel Fund, ICCO, SIVMO, Oxfam GB, The British Embassy in Tel Aviv, the EU, and the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation.
"Breaking the Silence" representatives who lecture to campuses and Jewish communities in the United States, are sponsored by Jewish and Palestinian organizations.
In 2010, according to Moshe Dann, writing in The Jerusalem Post, Breaking the Silence's budget was 3,100,000 NIS. It received 1.5 million from the EU, and UK and Spanish governments. The rest came from Oxfam, the New Israel Fund (NIF), and Dutch, German, Danish and Irish church organizations; and NDC, the Palestinian NGO which promotes Boycott/Divest/Sanctions (BDS) campaigns.
In 2009 Israel strongly protested international government funding of Breaking the Silence. It objected to funding by Britain, the Netherlands, and Spain of an NGO which it characterized as having "a clear anti-government agenda." It attempted to dissuade these governments from continuing that financial support. Specifically, Israel said that Spain's providing tens of thousands of dollars to BtS was disproportionate to what it contributed to human rights organizations in Arab countries. The Israeli Ambassador to the Netherlands said that Israel is a democracy and that such funds should go to places that are not. Breaking the Silence was a "legal and legitimate organization", he said, but its funding by the Dutch government was unreasonable "in light of the political sensitivities." Another senior Israeli official said in 2009: "A friendly government cannot fund opposition bodies. We are not a third world country."
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- Official website (English)
- Soldier Testimonies
- Breaking the Silence: Former Israeli soldier branded a traitor for asking troops to tell their West Bank stories. Ben Lynfield, The Independent, 2 January 2016
- Israel's Campaign to Silence Human Rights Groups. CounterPunch, 4 August 2009,
- Full text of the Petition Letter publicly supporting Breaking the Silence dated 2 August 2009 from The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Bimkom, B'Tselem, Gisha, Hamoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual, The Public Committee Against Torture, Yesh Din, Adalah, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, Rabbis for Human Rights.
- Full Text of Reaction of IDF to "Breaking the Silence" human rights report dated 15 July 2009 published at Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel's Official website.
Links to publications