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How Israel Is Trying to Break Breaking the Silence – and How It Could Backfire

What happened after a former Israeli soldier confessed he assaulted an unarmed Palestinian

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Hassan Joulani and Dean Issacharoff after Joulani was arrested in Hebron in 2014.
Hassan Joulani and Dean Issacharoff after Joulani was arrested in Hebron in 2014.Credit: Activestills
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Following a relatively swift investigation, a former Israeli combat soldier was cleared of allegations that he assaulted an unarmed Palestinian during a tour of duty in Hebron.

It might have been cause for celebration, had the soldier not been the one to bring the allegations against himself.

So last week, when the State Prosecutor’s Office alleged that Dean Issacharoff, spokesman of the soldiers’ anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence, had lied about his actions, Israeli right-wing leaders naturally rejoiced.

>> To whitewash occupation, Netanyahu crew casts Breaking the Silence whistle-blower as bogeyman | Opinion

The findings, they claimed, were further evidence of what they have been saying for years – that Breaking the Silence is an organization of liars and traitors bent on defaming the State of Israel and the Israeli army.

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared in a Facebook post: “Breaking the Silence lies and slanders our soldiers around the world. Today this fact received further proof, if anyone had a doubt. The truth wins out.”

But in the latest twist in a case that has gripped the nation in recent days, Netanyahu’s declaration of victory appears to be premature.

According to brand new evidence, the state prosecutors who pronounced Issacharoff a liar may have been investigating the wrong incident and questioning the wrong victim.

Breaking the Silence spokesman Dean Issacharoff, who confessed in a video to beating up a Palestinian in the West Bank while in the Israeli army.Credit: Breaking the Silence

Newly unearthed footage, broadcast on two of Israel’s most popular evening news programs Monday, suggests that the Palestinian whom Issacharoff claims to have assaulted was not the same Palestinian questioned by state investigators.

It also appears that the Palestinian questioned by state investigators, the one who testified that Issacharoff had not assaulted him, had been referring to a completely different incident.

In the clip, filmed three-and-a-half years ago by a Hebron resident employed by another Israeli human rights organization, Issacharoff is seen escorting a handcuffed Palestinian who appears to have bruises on his face. How he received the bruises and the circumstances of his arrest are not clear from the footage.

An account published Tuesday morning in Haaretz by Amira Hass raises further questions about the credibility of the state prosecutors’ findings. In his first interview since the findings were published, Hassan Joulani, the Palestinian questioned by investigators about the incident, said that contrary to what state prosecutors reported, he had indeed been assaulted during his arrest – although by Border Police and not by Issacharoff.

The blows, he said, were received during a separate incident – not the one cited by Issacharoff in the videotaped account that prompted the investigation.

Joulani was arrested and beaten, according to this interview with him, in February 2014, during a demonstration marking the 20th anniversary of the mass murder of Palestinians at Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs by settler Baruch Goldstein.

The assault reported by Issacharoff, however, took place after a routine round of stone-throwing.

On one level, it boils down to the simple question of whether or not a former Israeli soldier lied.

On a whole other level, however, the case of Issacharoff raises more fundamental questions about Israel’s 50-year-old occupation and its corrosive effects on society, among them: Who is to blame when soldiers serving among a hostile population in occupied territory act badly – the soldiers or the state that sent them there? Should Israeli soldiers speak out about the atrocities they witness during their service at the risk of tarnishing the image of the state? Can an investigation launched by a right-wing politician who harbors hostility toward anti-occupation organizations – in this case, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked – really be undertaken with neutrality?

The investigation was launched after a video surfaced several months ago of Issacharoff talking about his experiences as a soldier in Hebron.

During his service as an officer in the Nahal Brigade, Issacharoff revealed, he had brutally beaten up an unarmed Palestinian who was resisting arrest. Jumping on the opportunity to disgrace Breaking the Silence, several right-wing organizations approached the Justice Ministry demanding a probe. If the spokesman of Breaking the Silence had acted in violation of military law, they said, then he should the pay the price.

About a month later, Reservists on Duty, an organization bent on discrediting Breaking the Silence, published a video aimed at undermining Issacharoff’s credibility. In the video, his former commander and members of his platoon call him a liar.

But neither that video, nor the investigation conducted by the State Prosecutor’s Office, included testimony from a key witness.

Disturbed by accusations leveled at his former comrade, Ruben Silverstone, an eyewitness to the event Issacharoff had testified about, published a video on Thursday corroborating the Breaking the Silence spokesman’s account.

“On that day we were part of a security force dealing with the riots,” he said on the video. “We did arrest an individual, and Dean did knee that individual in order to arrest him. Those are facts. This is not a lie, and I just wanted to set that straight.”

Frequent target of smear campaigns

Established in 2004, during the second Palestinian uprising, Breaking the Silence collects testimonies from soldiers about alleged human rights violations witnessed while serving in the occupied territories.

Most of the soldiers who provide such first-hand accounts request anonymity. The organization asserts, however, that it meets with each and every one of them and corroborates all the accounts it receives before publishing them.

Breaking the Silence has been targeted in numerous right-wing smear campaigns, and the current government has gone so far as to introduce legislation that would deny it funding.

The organization receives a large share of its funding from European governments and donors. According to its 2016 financial reports, its single largest donor is the New Israel Fund (New York), but other major donors include the International Human Rights and Law Secretariat (Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and Netherlands), Misereor (Germany), Delegation of the European Union to Israel, Sigrid Rausing Trust (United Kingdom), Foundation for Pro-Victimus (Switzerland), the Swiss Foreign Ministry, Broederlijk Delen (Belgium), the Spanish Agency for International Development Coordination, and the Rockerfeller Brothers Fund (New York).

Common complaints heard about the organization are that it publishes anonymous testimonies and badmouths the army abroad.

In their defense, Breaking the Silence representatives maintain they have nothing against the Israeli army, but only against the occupation, and that in the digital era, it is impossible to prevent foreign individuals and organizations from accessing the sort of testimonies they collect.

Last April, Netanyahu canceled a meeting with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel after the latter held a meeting with representatives of Breaking the Silence while on a trip to Israel.

The German angle to the story doesn’t end there. Jeremy Issacharoff, father of the former combat soldier at the center of the storm, is Israel’s newly appointed ambassador to Berlin. In recent days, Israeli right-wingers have been waging a campaign on social media to get him ousted. His crime: guilt by association.

In a letter dispatched Monday, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely (who, in the current absence of a foreign minister, is the ministry’s senior political figure) urged all Israeli diplomats in Europe, Issacharoff senior included, to speak out against Breaking the Silence and pressure government officials in the countries where they are stationed to stop funding the organization because of the lies, she says, it spreads.

On Tuesday morning, however, Hotovely clarified in a tweet that she rejects the calls to oust the ambassador just because of his son’s involvement in Breaking the Silence. “Jeremy is an excellent ambassador,” she wrote. “I am personally acquainted with his major contribution to the Israeli Foreign Service, and the struggle against Breaking the Silence will continue.”

The army and Justice Ministry have tried to go after Breaking the Silence activists in the past, but this is the first time a representative of the organization has been singled out in such a way.

Following the latest TV disclosures, six Israeli lawmakers, all representing parties on the left, issued a call on Tuesday to investigate how the state prosecutors reached their conclusions.

“The decision to launch an investigation (against Issacharoff), after hundreds of testimonies about violence perpetrated by other soldiers have never been probed, raises suspicions that this was a political act,” they wrote in their request, “and that the State Prosecutor’s Office operated on the basis of ulterior motives.”

The State Prosecutor’s Office issued the following response: “We are not familiar with the videos broadcast this evening. If someone believes that an act of violence took place at another time, that person can submit his claims to the relevant authorities.”

Its response did not address the new claims made by Joulani in his interview with Haaretz.

Avner Gvaryahu, executive director of Breaking the Silence, said, “Our first and most important mission now is to prove that the whole process was politicized.”

“Once the entire picture is clear,” he added, “it will be clear as daylight that what happened here, in the best-case scenario, was pure negligence and an attempt to please a senior politician, and in the worst-case scenario, a bid to persecute soldiers who oppose the occupation.”

If Gvaryahu is ultimately proven right, the latest attempt to break Breaking the Silence could backfire, big time.

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