The Justice Minister Versus Israeli Soldiers

Ayelet Shaked is playing a dangerous game by taking on the Breaking the Silence veterans' organization

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Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, May 14, 2017.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, May 14, 2017.Credit: Emil Salman
Carolina Landsmann
Carolina Landsmann

Dean Issacharoff, the spokesman for Breaking the Silence, described how he beat an innocent Palestinian in front of his soldiers during his army service in Hebron. “If this indeed happened, he should be investigated and punished,” responded Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked in an interview with Army Radio on Wednesday. “If it didn’t happen, then the state should say officially that it didn’t happen.” She asked the attorney general to investigate Issacharoff.

If it did happen, will Shaked declare that Breaking the Silence – which gathers anonymous testimonies from Israeli soldiers about their service in the occupied territories – is a credible organization? Will the government stop persecuting human rights groups?

Shaked’s demand poses a challenge for the organization, whose credibility is constantly being questioned by its opponents. The minister laid a trap for Breaking the Silence: If they’re credible, they should be called to account for the actions to which they have confessed. And if they’re lying, Breaking the Silence is a dubious organization.

But Shaked’s gambit is liable to prove a double-edged sword, since it’s effectively an admission that Breaking the Silence is a credible organization. When she threatens to prosecute Issacharoff on the basis of his own confession, she is basically acknowledging his credibility.

It’s almost tempting to propose that Issacharoff and Breaking the Silence pick up the gauntlet thrown by Shaked and the right and say, “Go ahead! Let’s see the state prosecute soldiers from Breaking the Silence who ‘confess’ to crimes.”

It would be hugely ironic if the most right-wing justice minister in Israel’s history were to lead a process of putting Israeli soldiers on trial for war crimes. But it would also amount to a serious escalation in opposition to the occupation.

Until now, the organization has effectively said that though its soldiers testify to war crimes, these are crimes that, in a sense, enjoy legal immunity because the occupation requires these crimes – and the occupation was forced on the soldiers.

Perhaps Shaked believes that if the state starts indicting soldiers from Breaking the Silence on the basis of their own testimonies, the personal price they will be required to pay will be so great that not enough people will agree to pay it. But what will the state do if it turns out lots of people are willing to pay the price?

In a sense, this same “immunity” is being demanded by the defense lawyers on behalf of soldier Sgt. Elor Azaria, who was convicted of manslaughter after shooting a supine Palestinian assailant last year. Basing themselves on the testimonies of human rights organizations, the lawyers are arguing selective enforcement: everyone does it, but only Azaria was put on trial. Again: Human rights organizations are liars, but their testimony is credible enough that a criminal defense can be based on it.

Following the 2014 war in Gaza, B’Tselem stopped cooperating with the military justice system over human rights violations in the territories. Not only is there no benefit to such cooperation, said the organization’s executive director, Hagai El-Ad, but it actually does harm, because it grants the system a credibility it doesn’t deserve.

El-Ad saw damage in the state reaping a public relations benefit in terms of the image of its army and justice system. But it now turns out there’s a legal benefit as well: The testimony and data collected by human rights organizations about violations in the territories are being used by defense lawyers in soldiers’ trials.

Human rights organizations that were established to protect Palestinians against violations of their rights have stopped cooperating with the authorities because they feel that doing so betrays their original mission. Ultimately, though, they find themselves cooperating in defending the aggression of Israel Defense Forces soldiers. What is going on here?

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