Don’t Shoot Down Breaking the Silence, It’s Just the Messenger

As right-wing groups queued up to bash Breaking the Silence last week, it’s interesting to note how the Israeli army itself views the activists who shine a light on its operations.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli soldiers in Hebron.
Israeli soldiers in Hebron.Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Breaking the Silence was founded in the spring of 2004. Four freshly released soldiers from the Nahal Brigade, who served long tours in Hebron during the height of the second intifada, organized an exhibition that documented their experiences, which was displayed at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Although some people were outraged by the exhibition, the discussion about the soldiers’ claims was conducted far more calmly than it is today – despite the fact that, back then, suicide bombers were still blowing themselves up on buses in Israeli cities.

The current Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, was the commander of all IDF forces in the West Bank at the time, and he raised a concern: Why did the founders of the organization not oppose the army actions while they were serving, or at least report on them in real time? His argument was unconvincing. In most cases, a corporal will have a hard time going before the company or battalion commander in real time and saying, “That’s not allowed.” They are not equals. Few soldiers – particularly during regular service – have the ability to make such complaints, especially at a time when military casualties are high and the atmosphere is charged.

As the years went on, the IDF made two other, more substantial claims. The first regarded the difficulty in translating the soldiers’ testimonies into legal or disciplinary proceedings. Breaking the Silence has always maintained the testifiers’ anonymity, in order to protect them. And during cases where the military prosecutor was interested in investigating, such probes generally ended without results. IDF officials got the impression that publishing the testimonies was more important to Breaking the Silence than any legal proceedings. The IDF’s second claim pertains to the organization’s activities abroad. One can assume that this activity is mostly done for fundraising purposes, but holding exhibitions abroad and making claims about Israeli war crimes certainly offended many.

This week, there was a new low point in the public campaign against the organization. This combined two trends, only one of which was open and obvious. The first is the direct attack on Breaking the Silence by the right, comprised mostly of McCarthyesque attempts to silence it. These attacks have a sanctimonious air to them. In the eyes of the attackers, the international community is ganging up on Israel, and Breaking the Silence is the source of all our troubles – everything would be fine if it weren’t for this group of despicable liars slandering Israel’s reputation.

It is hard to shake the suspicion that the attacks against Breaking the Silence aren’t the act of an extensive network operating with at least a degree of coordination. What began as some accusations on Channel 20 continued with a venomous video published by the Im Tirtzu movement, which was immediately followed by demands from the My Israel group (founded by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked) to prohibit Breaking the Silence representatives from visiting schools. Somehow, Education Minister Bennett succumbed to their demands within a day. In the background, there was also a blatant attack on President Reuven Rivlin. At first, they tried to link him to Breaking the Silence. That failed, because the president made sure to defend the IDF’s moral standing at the HaaretzQ conference in New York. And then the “flag affair” happened, involving Rivlin, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and the Israeli flag.

As usual, Im Tirtzu delivered the most extreme elements of the assault. Its ubiquitous video showed the word “Shtulim” – Hebrew for implanted, or mole – above pictures of four left-wing activists who looked like they’d been plucked from a “Wanted” list. The video didn’t leave much room for the imagination: “Shtulim” is another way of saying “traitors.”

Credit: YouTube/Im Tirtzu

When one of the four featured activists, Dr. Ishai Menuchin – executive director of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel – says he felt as if the spilling of his blood was being permitted, you can understand why he reached that conclusion. (By the way, Menuchin did reserve duty until an advanced age – in the Givati Brigade, of all places.) The claims that these four organizations are “collaborating with the enemy” have been rejected by the two previous military advocate generals, Avichai Mendelblit and Danny Efroni. Indeed, the two told Haaretz that they are often assisted by these human rights organizations.

The mainstream media has provided the complementary side of the trend by airing Im Tirtzu’s videos. As journalists, they cluck their tongues and mock the style of the videos, but reap higher ratings. This approach works well in conjunction with media coverage of the current terror outbreak, which is treated relatively superficially and is often an attempt to tackle these issues without providing any broader context. Here, the goal is not to damage the left-wing organizations, but rather marketing a slant on the current reality for Israelis – as if we have the exclusive capability to both maintain the occupation indefinitely and remain the most moral army in the world. But the truth is, it’s impossible to do both. Also, there’s no empirical proof that the IDF is the most moral army in the world (a cliché Rivlin himself employed earlier this week).

In many cases, the IDF makes an effort – and sometimes a tremendous effort. But it is still a giant war machine. When it is forced to act to defend Israeli civilians and advance into crowded, urban Palestinian territory – as it did last year in Gaza – it causes lots of casualties, which will include innocent civilians. And its control of the occupied territories involves, by its very nature, many unjust acts: limiting movement, entering civilians’ homes, making arrests and humiliating people.

It is a reality that every combat solider in the West Bank, regular or reservist, rightist or leftist, is aware of. I can attest to it myself: For more than 10 years I was called up to serve in the West Bank many times, as a junior commander in a reserve infantry battalion – before and during the second intifada. I didn’t witness anything I considered to be a war crime. And more than once, I saw commanders going to great lengths to maintain human dignity while carrying out complex missions, which they saw as essential for security. Even so, many aspects of our operations seemed to me, and to many others, to fall into some kind of gray area, morally speaking. In my battalion, there were also cases of inhuman treatment and abuse of Palestinian civilians.

Those who believe, like I do, that much of the blame for the lack of a peace agreement in recent years stems from Palestinian unwillingness to compromise; and those who think, like I do, that at the moment there is no horizon for an arrangement that guarantees safety for Israelis in exchange for most of the West Bank, because of the possibility that the arrangement would collapse and the vacuum be filled by Hamas or even ISIS, must admit: There is no such thing as a rose-tinted occupation.

Breaking the Silence offers an unpleasant voice to many Israeli ears, but it speaks a lot of truth. I’ve interviewed many of its testifiers over the years. What they told me wasn’t the stuff of fantasy but rather, descriptions from below – from the perspective of the corporal or lieutenant, voices that are important and should be heard, even if they don’t present the whole picture. There is a price that comes with maintaining this abnormal situation for 48 years. Covering your ears or blaming the messenger won’t achieve anything.

The interesting thing is that when you meet high-ranking IDF officers, you don’t hear about illusions or clichés. The senior officers don’t like Breaking the Silence, but they also don’t attack it with righteous indignation (although it’s possible that sentiments for the organization are harsher among lower ranks). In recent months, I’ve been privy to closed talks with most of the chain of command in the West Bank: The chief of staff, head of Central Command, IDF commander in the West Bank, and nine brigade chiefs. As I’ve written here numerous times recently, these officers speak in similar tones. They don’t get worked up, they aren’t trying to get their subordinates to kill Palestinians when there is no essential security need, and they aren’t looking for traitors in every corner.

Last Tuesday, when Im Tirtzu’s despicable campaign was launched, I had a prescheduled meeting with the commander of a regular infantry brigade. In a few weeks, some of his soldiers will be stationed in the West Bank. Last year, he fought with them in Gaza. What troubles him now, he says, is how to sufficiently prepare his soldiers for their task, to ensure that they’ll protect themselves and Israeli civilians from the knife attacks, but also to ensure that they won’t recklessly shoot innocent people, or kill someone lying on the ground after the threat has been nullified.

The picture painted by the brigade commander is entirely different to the one painted by Channel 20 (which posted on Facebook this week that “the presidency has lost its shame” following Rivlin’s appearance in New York). But it is also much more complex than the daily dose of drama being supplied by the mainstream media.

Another victory for Ya’alon

Last Sunday, the cabinet approved the appointment of Nir Ben Moshe as director of security for the defense establishment. The appointment was another bureaucratic victory for Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, part of a series of such appointments over the past year. The pattern remains the same: Ya’alon consults with Eisenkot; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reservations, delays the process or even opposes outright; Ya’alon insists, but takes care not to let the rift become public; and in the end Ya’alon gets what he wants.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon in a cabinet meeting, November 2015. Ya'alon's persistence wins out over the PM's procrastination. Credit: Emil Salman

Ya’alon isn’t generally considered a sophisticated bureaucrat. His political power is also rather limited. He has almost no sources of power within the Likud Central Committee. The fact that he remains in his position, despite the close coordination with Netanyahu and the joint positions they held during the war in Gaza last year and during the current strife in the West Bank, seems to hinge only upon Netanyahu’s complex political considerations. Still, through great patience it seems the defense minister ultimately gets what he desires.

Ben Moshe’s appointment was first approved by a committee within the Defense Ministry last month. Ya’alon asked that the appointment be immediately submitted to the cabinet for approval, but Netanyahu postponed the decision for weeks before ultimately accepting it. This is partly because of the prime minister’s tendency to procrastinate, which also played a part in the late appointment of Yossi Cohen as the next Mossad chief. But in many cases, there are other considerations behind such hesitations, with the appointment of the current IDF chief of staff a prime example: Ya’alon formulated his position on Eisenkot months before the decision was announced. Eisenkot’s appointment was brought before Netanyahu numerous times, but the prime minister constantly examined other candidates and postponed the decision until last December – only two and a half months before Benny Gantz’s term was set to end.

Even the appointment of the new military advocate general, Brig. Gen. Sharon Afek, which had been agreed by Ya’alon and Eisenkot, was delayed for months by Netanyahu’s reservations – which, formally speaking, should not be part of the process. Here, it seems the stalling was due to claims from settlers about Afek’s “left-leaning” tendencies, not to mention the incriminating fact that Afek’s cousin is Michal Herzog – the wife of opposition leader Isaac Herzog.

Over the next month, numerous other appointments to the IDF’s General Staff are expected, but Eisenkot will call the shots and Ya’alon needs to approve his nominations. The chief of staff is expected to appoint a new naval commander; a new ground forces commander; new head of the technology and logistics directorate; new head of the communications directorate; and new military attaché to Washington. In most cases, generals will make way for younger brigadier generals. Eisenkot will likely want to see a more seasoned general assume command of the ground forces, though, and could give it to a current general as a second position under that rank. However, this creates another problem – any general given this job would see it as being denied a regional command post, which is considered an essential stop for any budding chief of staff.

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