Breaking the Silence (non-governmental organization)
Breaking The Silence (BtS) (Hebrew: שוברים שתיקה Shovrim Shtika) is an Israeli Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), located in a western section of Jerusalem, 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, giving serving and discharged Israeli personnel and reservists a platform to confidentially describe their experience in the Israeli-occupied territories. J.J. Goldberg described it in The Jewish Daily Forward as a "left-wing soldiers' protest organization". This profile, it has been argued, does not fit the variegated demographic or ideological composition of the group.
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 several hundred 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, Breaking the Silence 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" that is familiar to soldiers.
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 Publications
- 4 Criticism
- 5 Support
- 6 Funding
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 External links
In 2004, Avichai Sharon, Yehuda Shaul and Noam Chayut exhibited a series of photographs and written accounts from IDF soldiers who had served in the city of Hebron. The three were motivated by a desire for Israel to "confront the truth about its policies". The exhibition was attended by thousands and the organization has since become a vehicle for serving and ex-service personnel of the IDF to record their testimonies, attracting hundred of members.
Shaul, who served with the IDF Nachal unit's 50th battalion in Hebron by completing two tours of duty, served as executive director of BtS, and now serves as foreign relations director. Mikhael Manekin is director of BtS. The organisation's main aim is "to break the silence and taboo surrounding the behaviour of Israeli soldiers in the Palestinian territories".
The organization has had a hostile response from the Israeli establishment since 2004. Government pressure particularly increased after the group disclosed confessions from soldiers who took part in the Gaza bombing in 2008–09.
In May 2011, 24 former soldiers of the IDF provided testimonies describing the "neighbor procedure". The neighbor procedure uses Palestinian civilians as human shields to protect soldiers from suspected booby traps or attacks by militants. Some of the testimonies described the daily harassment at military checkpoints and deliberate ransacking of homes.
In December 2015 Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon banned Breaking the Silence from taking part in any IDF activities. Some of Israel's top brass came to the organization's defense in the wake of Ya'alon's move. For instance, Retired Major General Amiram Levin wrote 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 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 anonymity of some of the testimonies used by Breaking the Silence has led to failures in the investigation of reported incidents. Breaking the Silence maintains that the anonymity is necessary because of alleged orders by IDF against speaking out publicly. The organization has however stated that personal details of soldiers can be provided to official and independent investigations, if 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 on the West Bank city of Hebron state of affairs including 39 eyewitness accounts and testimonies of Israeli soldiers.
In addition to publishing written and videotaped reports on its website, members of the group have carried out speaking tours throughout Israel, Western Europe and the United States. Some of the incidents reported by members of the movement have stirred public debates in Israel with respect to the implications of its ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories.
A July 2016 report by the investigative program HaMakor said that out of ten of the group's testimonies, it could confirm two to be true, it believed two were exaggerated and two were false, and four could neither be verified nor refuted. Raviv Drucker, who supports the NGO, said Breaking the Silence acts like a "sensational magazine" that does not check the facts thoroughly or writes an exaggerated headline while claiming to hold higher standards.
BtS is conducting tours to Hebron for the Israeli public. The tours are limited because of alleged settlers attacks. In June 2008, police District Commander Avshalom Peled said that BtS provokes settlers in hope of producing a violent response, and that the organization's behavior is "severe and dangerous". Police further claimed that BtS had held an illegal rally during a Hebron tour on 25 April.
Soldiers' Testimonies from Operation Cast Lead, Gaza 2009
A post operation discussion on the 2008–2009 Israel–Gaza conflict at the Yitzak Rabin pre-military course at Oranim Academic College at Kiryat Tiv'on caused an international furor. The Palestinian accusations of indiscriminate and disproportionate firepower being used in civilian areas during the ground assault, that the Israeli government had dismissed as "Palestinian propaganda", had apparently been backed by IDF testimonies at post operation discussions. The IDF conducted an investigation and the Military Advocate General announced that the soldiers testimonies regarding civilians being shot were based on hearsay and no corroborating evidence was found.
Breaking the Silence confirmed it had also taken testimony, from soldiers who took part in the Gaza assault, of a similar nature to the allegations made by soldiers at the conference of graduates of the Yitzhak Rabin pre-military course. On 15 July 2009 Breaking the Silence published a new booklet titled "Soldiers' Testimonies from Operation Cast Lead, Gaza 2009". According to Breaking the Silence the booklet compiles the testimonies of about 30 reserve and regular combat soldiers from various units that participated in the fighting. 54 testimonies/stories reveal 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". Testimonies also claimed that a tactic called 'Neighbor Procedure' was used, in which civilians, referred to as 'the Johnnie' were used as human shields and forced to enter buildings ahead of soldiers. The soldiers testimonies also included what The Times' described as "the role of military rabbis in distributing booklets that framed the fighting as a religious war".
Many of the soldiers allege they were given orders by their commanders to prevent harm to Israeli soldiers by any means necessary. They stated 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 testimonies expose significant gaps between the official stances of the Israeli military and events on the ground.
The Israeli military dismissed the 2009 Cast Lead report, saying 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 said 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 argues that it verifies all of its information by cross-referencing the testimonies it collects. The material that is eventually published has been confirmed by a number of testimonies, from several different points of view.
Women Soldiers' Testimonies
In January 2010, Breaking the Silence released a book titled Women Soldiers' Testimonies as part of their testimonies collection project "Soldiers Speak Out". The booklet contains 96 anonymous testimonies from more than 40 female officers, commanders and soldiers in various units who served as combatants and in supporting combat roles in the Israeli-occupied territories since the year 2000. The booklet lists the rank, unit and location of the soldiers who provided the testimonies. Ynetnews published excerpts that it described as "systematic humiliation of Palestinians, reckless and cruel violence, theft, killing of innocent people and cover-up". The IDF's Spokesperson's Office, responding to the publication 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 (also published as Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers' Testimonies from the Occupied Territories, 2000–2010 ISBN 978-0805095371). The book contains first-hand accounts by over 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 interviews during the Second Intifada, when the Israel Defense Forces was trying to stop terrorist acts and suicide bombings that were 'maiming and killing thousands' of Israeli civilians. Abrams charged that the report failed to illustrate the reality in which Israel was dealing with at the time. Abrams summed it up as, "put simply, the book's description of a West Bank living in deliberately inflicted misery does not comport with reality."
Criticism on anonymity and verifiability
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 look into any of the claims because they are presented as "anonymous ... devoid of critical detail and untested by any kind of cross-questioning". In addition, Lamm said that Breaking the Silence is exploiting the testimonies "for propaganda effect". Yehuda Shaul, a Breaking the Silence member, said on this matter 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." About Lamm's criticism, Dana Golan, executive director of Breaking the Silence, said 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".
In response to the criticism, Breaking the Silence declared that it verifies all of its information by cross-referencing the testimonies it collects, and the published material has been confirmed by a number of testimonies, from several different points of view. Also, the personal details of the soldiers quoted in the publications, and the exact location of the incidents described in the testimonies, would readily be made available to any official and independent investigation of the events, as long as the identity of the testifiers do not become public.
Israeli government criticism
After its report on Gaza, Breaking the Silence came under severe criticism from the government of Israel. In response to criticism ten Israeli based human rights organizations have written 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 reached its peak when the government attempted 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 is reported to be the brainchild of the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister of Israel Avigdor Lieberman, but has 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." The head of the Israel Police's Hebron district, Commander Avshalom Peled said "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." MK Zehava Gal-On (Meretz) responded to the report 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."
In 2016, the Attorney General filed petition that would force the organization to reveal the identity of a soldier whose testimony raised suspicion of possible war crimes.
A number of senior retired Israeli security figures have expressed support or admiration for Breaking the Silence.
General Ami Ayalon wrote that “Breaking the Silence protects IDF soldiers in the impossible situation in which politicians have abandoned them."
Former police chief Alik Ron expressed his view that it is the attacks against Breaking the Silence that harm the IDF.
General Amiram Levin took out an ad to express his support for the organization, which in his view strengthens the Israeli military.
Yuval Diskin, former head of the Shin Bet, expressed his view that Breaking the Silence helps Israel "maintain the required vigilance about the most sensitive human issues" as befitting a democratic society.
Breaking the Silence is funded through various grants it receives from Israeli and international donor community. In 2007, Breaking the Silence received a total of NIS 500,000, in 2008 it was able to raise NIS 1.5 million, around €275,000 and in 2014 NIS 3.8 million. 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 as part of the NGO's 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.
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, UK and Spanish governments. The rest came from Oxfam, the New Israel Fund (NIF), Dutch, German, Danish and Irish church organizations, and NDC, the Palestinian NGO which promotes Boycott/Divest/Sanctions (BDS) campaigns.
Israel has protested the international government funding of Breaking the Silence. It made clear that it objected to the funding by Britain, the Netherlands and Spain of NGOs "with a clear anti-government agenda", and made attempts to dissuade the governments from continuing that funding. In relation to Spain's provision of tens of thousands of euros to fund patrols run by Breaking the Silence in Hebron, Israel said that this funding was disproportionate to that for 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 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: "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