Israel Urges Switzerland to Stop Funding Leftist NGO Breaking the Silence

Earlier, the Foreign Ministry announced it was trying to thwart a scheduled exhibition in Zurich by the nonprofit, which includes testimonies by IDF soldiers on alleged human rights violations.

Olivier Fitussi

Israel urged the Swiss government on Tuesday to stop funding an exhibition by the left-leaning NGO Breaking the Silence, which is scheduled to open in June in Zurich.

A senior official in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem said Israel's ambassador to Switzerland, Yigal Caspi, called the head of the Middle East and North Africa Division in Switzerland's Department of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday to issue a formal complaint, and request his government quit funding the NGO's exhibition.

The Israeli official, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter, noted that Caspi "vigorously protested" Swiss support for the exhibition, which, he emphasized in his conversation with the Swiss official," serves to slander Israel." As such, he said, the Israeli government is concerned by the fact that Switzerland is financing it.

The exhibition, which is due to open in June in Zurich, would include photos and testimonies of Israel Defense Forces soldiers alleging human rights violations in the West Bank.

Two weeks ago, the Israeli news website NRG reported that Switzerland's Foreign Ministry contributed 15,000 Swiss francs ($16,100) to support the exhibition, and that the Zurich municipality contributed an additional 10,000 Swiss francs ($10,700).

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely announced earlier on Tuesday that she had directed senior officials in her ministry to urgently discuss actions that could be taken to prevent the exhibition from opening. She emphasized that “the Foreign Ministry will continue to act against groups that act against Israel from within the country and abroad."

“I have instructed our embassy [in Bern] to immediately look for actions that can be taken against this exhibition," Hotovely said. "We will not ignore an organization whose sole purpose is to shame Israeli soldiers, as it operates in the international arena to inflict severe damage on Israel's image."

Breaking the Silence, who claims the exhibition reveals the daily goings-on of the Israeli army in Palestinian territories, criticized Israel's efforts to cut Swiss support for the project. "We are proud to take the exhibition to Zurich after holding it dozens of times throughout Israel, in order to generate real debate about the country's conduct," the NGO said. "We are sorry that officials in the government are lending a hand to an anti-democratic campaign like this, which not only harms human rights organizations in Israel, but blackens the face of Israeli society in the world."

"We would be happy for Hotovely and other officials to come and listen to the soldiers and engage [them] in debate, rather than pursuing cowardly and violent means to silence them."

The spokesperson for Switzerland's Foreign Ministry, Jean-Marc Crevoisier, said his country "took note of the Demarche of Ambassador Caspi at the Swiss Foreign Ministry this afternoon, but we generally don't comment conversation between ambassadors. In general, Switzerland is committed to a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians based on a two-state solution. We hold that the improved respect for international law by all parties to the conflict is a necessary precondition for durable peace in this region."

This is not the first time the Foreign Ministry has acted against Breaking the Silence. In July 2009, a few months after Avigdor Lieberman became foreign minister, Israel lodged protests with Holland and Britain over their support for the organization.

The Israeli embassy in The Hague complained then that the Dutch Foreign Ministry had transferred 20,000 euros to the NGO for the purpose of composing a repost of soldiers’ testimonies on Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. A few days later, the deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry at the time expressed his concern to the British ambassador regarding donations the British Foreign Office was transferring to the left-wing Israeli group.