Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announced on Tuesday that he found no grounds for opening a criminal investigation against Breaking the Silence, an anti-occupation military veterans’ group, over allegations that the group had illegally collected and possessed classified information.
A complaint filed with the police and State Prosecutor’s Office over 2016 allegations by Oded Svorai, a lawyer for the right-wing group Ad Kan, several days after a report on the matter aired. The report, by Channel 2 News (Channel 12 today) was based on hidden camera footage taken by Ad Kan activists. It showed representatives of Breaking the Silence collecting information from veterans who had just concluded their military service.
Information sought by Breaking the Silence activists included details about warnings of tunnels dug from the Gaza Strip under the Israeli border, equipment used by the Israeli army and the locations of Israeli army troops.
The report said that there was a disparity between the stated mission of Breaking the Silence, which according to its website is “to expose the public to the reality of everyday life in the occupied territories,” and the activity featured in the news report, which appeared to constitute military intelligence gathering.
In response to the report, then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon initially said the questions posed by Breaking the Silence related to operational secrets and constituted treason. Ya’alon later qualified his remarks and said it was an information security violation.
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government has been highly critical of the group, said Breaking the Silence had “crossed another red line” and that defense agencies were looking into the issue.
In Feburary 2017, Rachel Matar of the prosecutor’s office wrote to Ad Kan informing that organization that State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan had found no grounds for a criminal investigation against Breaking the Silence.
“We have not been provided with any evidence that the Breaking the Silence group has disclosed classified, sensitive information. We also are unaware of any instance in which the organization has disseminated classified information in its possession without receiving advance permission from the military censor," she said. "Therefore, even on the assumption that the organization is in possession of information that it is not authorized to have, it appears that there is no public interest in opening a criminal investigation.”
With respect to the information obtained from discharged soldiers, Matar’s letter said the information was reviewed by “the relevant defense officials” and was found to be deemed “confidential” at most, (“shamur” in Hebrew), the second-lowest classification.
“No evidence has been found that Breaking the Silence or its activists provided classified information to individuals abroad. Considering the circumstances, it appears that on the face of it, the organization's actions did not harm state security, but rather it received information relating to the commission of criminal violations by Israeli army forces,” the letter from Matar concluded.
She acknowledged that it was difficult to see how the questions that Breaking the Silence asked the demobilized soldiers squared with the group’s declared goals, but added: “One cannot rule out the explanation provided by the organization’s representatives that the questions were aimed at assessing the reliability of [the soldiers’] testimony. Although this conduct is surprising, I have not found that it would justify a decision to open a criminal investigation.”
Ad Kan had appealed Matar’s decision to Attorney General Mendelblit, who in his statement on Tuesday confirmed that he saw no reason to overturn the decision and agreed with Matar’s reasoning.
The executive director of Breaking the Silence, Avner Gvaryahu, responded to Mendelblit’s decision: “Three years later, the truth is coming out and the right wing’s incitement campaign has come crashing down. It is now clear to everyone that the settlers’ organizations have lied to the press, to the prosecution, to the public and to all of us. Those trying to label soldiers who break the silence as traitors, spies and foreign agents have failed again. The time has come for them to understand: The reality of the occupation is stronger than any false campaign by right-wing groups.”