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Israel: Breaking the witness

Though now under bitter attack, Breaking the Silence has failed to change the public discourse in Israel concerning the occupation

Israeli human rights organisations are accustomed to being labelled as anti-patriotic and anti-Zionist, but even they were caught by surprise this week by the brutality of a video clip posted by the right-wing Im Tirzu movement.

In the clip, a Palestinian-looking young man is approaching the camera with a knife in his hand, yet a moment before the seemingly inevitable stabbing, the faces of four activists from a leading human rights organisation appear on the screen in "wanted" mug pictures, and a voice warns that "before the next terrorist will stab you" he knows that these activists would defend him. "They are Israelis, they live here with us and they are 'implants'. When we fight terror, they fight us."

The clip was part of a campaign promoting what is termed the "implants" law, which would classify organisations receiving aid from foreign countries as "implants" and forbid them from contacting any government office or the Israeli army without special permission. Yet it is clear that the scope of the clip was wider than just promoting this law. It was meant to depict those human rights workers as the enemies from within, helping "Palestinian terrorists" to murder innocent Israeli citizens.

All four organisations mentioned in the clip take sides against the Israeli occupation. B' Tselem is collecting information on human rights violations in the occupied territories, the Committee Against Torture is monitoring the treatment of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons, and HaMoked: Centre for the Defence of the Individual is assisting Palestinians whose rights are violated due to Israel's policies.

It was the fourth organisation, Breaking the Silence (Shovrim Shtika in Hebrew), that was most targeted. Just two days earlier, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin came under fire for participating in a conference in New York in which a member of this "abominable" organisation – as it was called in one of Israel's TV channels – delivered a speech.

In the days following the launching of this defamatory clip, Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon declared that the Israeli army will no longer cooperate with Breaking the Silence and Education Minister Naftaly Bennett ordered all schools to refrain from hosting representatives of the organisation.

The clip was just a part of a concentrated and probably premeditated attack against them.

Breaking the Silence was formed 11 years ago after a group of ex-soldiers gathered to tell their unpleasant stories of how the occupation looks like through the eyes of the occupiers: from petty harassments to alleged intentional extrajudicial killings of Palestinian citizens or militiamen.

Over the years they have collected testimonies from more than 1,000 soldiers and published some well-documented and incriminating reports. Yet it seems that their main goal -  to make Israelis aware of the moral price to be paid for the continued occupation and control of millions of Palestinians and to encourage Israelis to put an end to this occupation – has failed.

By and large, the Israeli public has either ignored these reports or tagged their authors as "anti-Israelis," receiving money from foreign governments such as the European Union, Norway and others in order to smear Israel's image abroad or even worse, to tie the hands of Israeli soldiers and officers in their fight against "Israel's enemies" by threatening to report them as war criminals to international judiciary bodies. Iz Tirzu's clip merely summarised these feelings in a very crude way.

So why is Breaking the Silence being put under the grill now? There is no simple answer. Breaking the Silence is usually accused by Israeli politicians and in the Israeli media of committing three wrongs: being unreliable, approaching the international public instead of speaking to the public at home, and publishing their claims of human rights violations instead of reporting them to the proper investigating bodies in the army.

The first accusation is largely unfounded. No major fault has been found in the more than 1,000 testimonies made public. The second accusation echoes well in Israeli society. Many Jewish Israelis are convinced that if Israeli newspapers such as Haaretz or human rights organisations such as Breaking the Silence or B'Tselem did not tell their version of Israel's doings in the occupied territories, the international public would support Israel. It is therefore easy to view the activists who appeared on Im Tirzu's clip as agents in this alleged smearing campaign.

Yet the third accusation, according to which Breaking the Silence should file its complaints before the proper judicial bodies instead of going public with them, is maybe the most dangerous. It implies that issues concerning Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza should be put outside the framework of political and civil discussion in Israel. This approach is a threat to any democratic society.

Yet this is exactly what has been happening in Israel over the past decade, and that is maybe why Breaking the Silence is attacked so violently. While B'Tselem and other human rights organisations work mainly on testimonies given by Palestinian witnesses, Breaking the Silence relies solely on stories told by Israeli soldiers.

Breaking the Silence gives voice to "our boys" speaking about the inevitably immoral price paid by the occupiers themselves. These voices embarrass the Israeli establishment because they not only associate the Israeli army with human rights violations, they associate Israeli society as a whole with the reality in the West Bank and Gaza. They try to bring the forbidden word – occupation – back into Israel's public sphere.

It is therefore understandable that, regardless of its effectiveness, the very existence of Breaking the Silence poses a threat. Yet a blatant attack, such as the one delivered by Im Tirzu's clip, would not have been made possible without the weakness of the Israeli left and the divisions within it.

The largest party in the centre-left, the Zionist Camp, rarely speaks about the necessity to end Israel's occupation. In a heated discussion in parliament, its leader Isaac Herzog, did vow "to fight so that they [Breaking the Silence] could express their view," but he failed to defend its activities, saying that he finds its views "revolting".

Apart from in Haaretz and a few other news outlets, the occupation and its evils are almost out of bounds for public debate. Those who report on the reality in occupied territories are pushed more and more into the fringes of Jewish Israeli society. The latest campaign against Breaking the Silence, B'tselem and the like seems to be an effort to push them from the fringes into the realms of illegality.

While Israel feels more and more isolated, human rights activists are becoming an easy target as they are held responsible for this isolation by their "biased" reporting. The present campaign against them also reminds them, and all those wishing to join them, how isolated are they within the Israeli society - it reminds them that they have lost the battle.

The immediate reaction to Im Tirzu's clip was a surge in support for Breaking the Silence in social media and even from some former generals, who claimed that its work is important to Israel's moral values. More ex-soldiers volunteered to give evidence, and even donations to the organisation have gone up. This may indicate the wakening up of the dormant Israel left. It might also be its death throes. 

- Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and writer, winner of the Napoli International Prize for Journalism for a inquiry about the stealing of olive trees from their Palestinian owners. He is ex-head of the News Department in Haaertz, and now an independent journalist.

​The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Alon Sahar (L) and Shay Davidovich, both former Israeli army soldiers, discuss in front of photographs at an exhibition of the Israeli NGO "Breaking the Silence" at the Kulturhaus Helferei on 3 June, 2015 in Zurich, Switzerland (AFP). 

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