Jake Wallis Simons (@JakeWSimons)
This is a group of former Israeli soldiers who have served in the West Bank, and aim to “expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories”.
They accomplish this via a database of testimonies that offer first-hand accounts of human rights abuses by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). They also organise tours of the West Bank, offering “an unmediated encounter with the reality of military occupation”.
Essentially, this is another anti-settlement group. But it derives especial power from the fact that it is made up of former members of the Israeli armed forces, who are willing to confess openly to their own wrongdoing and that of their comrades.
Although I had been aware of this organisation for a long time, my first encounter with it came last summer. I was spending some time on the West Bank, carrying out interviews and research for Meet the Settlers, an in-depth Telegraph multimedia feature about the Israeli settlements.
I was looking forward to interviewing members of Breaking the Silence. The group had been highly recommended to me by various people, including a British diplomat who had taken part in one of their tours in an official capacity (a Foreign Office spokesman confirmed that “FCO staff maintain links to a wide variety of non-government organisations, including the Israeli non-profit group Breaking the Silence”).
I liked all the members personally, and at first found them to be sincere in their beliefs. But when the interviews began, something didn’t feel right.
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For one thing, the majority of the testimonies seemed to reflect the roughness of the military rather than any human rights abuse. The indignity of checkpoints; the intrusion of house-to-house searches; the unpleasantness of curfews. All of this stuff is awful, but only a small percentage of it appeared to warrant court martial.
Some of the material was genuinely shocking, of course, and it is beyond dispute that IDF soldiers do indeed commit human rights abuses. This is something from which all armies suffer (to wit, Marine A); whether the Israeli military is guiltier than others is a debate for another time.
For now, my point is this: I couldn’t shake the feeling that Breaking the Silence was milking it.
It was only a hunch at first. But later, the bias of the organisation became clearer. During a break between interviews, I asked Yehuda Shaul, one of the founders of the organisation, how the group is funded. It was with some surprise that I learned that 45 per cent of it is donated by European countries, including Norway and Spain, and the European Union. Other donors include UNICEF, Christian Aid and Oxfam GB. To me this seemed potentially problematic.
As is the case in all democracies, the IDF is an organ of the state, not a political decision-maker. If the goal of Breaking the Silence was simply to clean up the Israeli military, it wouldn’t be such a problem. Instead, the aim is to “end the occupation”, and on this basis it secured its funding.
It appeared, therefore, that these former soldiers, some of whom draw salaries from Breaking the Silence, were motivated by financial and political concerns to further a pro-Palestinian agenda. They weren’t merely telling the truth about their experiences. They were under pressure to perform.
Indeed, I later discovered that there have been many allegations in the past that members of the organisation either fabricated or exaggerated their testimonies.
The matter became more unsettling when one of Breaking the Silence’s former soldiers accompanied me to Hebron, a thriving Palestinian city in the southern West Bank. This is the only Palestinian city to have a Jewish settlement embedded in its centre, and as such is the most acrimonious and violent place in the region.
Whereas most settlements are surrounded by relatively lightweight security – some of the most ideological outposts refuse to put up fences on principle, because they believe they have a God-given right to the entire area – Hebron is segregated into Palestinian and Jewish sectors, and a military buffer zone has been established between them. (You can read about my journey through the city, and watch the accompanying films, here.)
We set up our video camera outside an army base in the Israeli sector of Hebron, and I began to interview the former soldier from Breaking the Silence. He was talking about his army service, and came out with the line, “the first time I ever met a Palestinian was when I entered his house in the middle of the night”.
While he was speaking a car drove by behind him, drowning out his words. I said: “Just give me it one more time about how… the first time you ever met a Palestinian was when you kicked down his door in the middle of the night”. This was my mistake; he hadn’t said that he kicked down anything.
He duly repeated it. This time, however, he took my lead and changed his account from “entered his house in the middle of the night” to “kicked down his door in the middle of the night”. On the surface it may seem like a small detail. But when we played back the tape I found the ease with which he exaggerated his story very troubling. We didn’t use the interview.
Most worryingly of all, Breaking the Silence focuses almost exclusively on Hebron, presenting it as typical. Several times a month it ships foreign diplomats, officials and ordinary folk to this unhappy place, showing them the grim military infrastructure and providing testimony about the abuses carried out by settlers and soldiers.
The group does not offer tours to any other settlements on the West Bank (there are about 120 of them, and roughly the same number of illegal outposts). Its lectures and exhibitions are likewise focussed on Hebron and its environs. This one city, they say, is a “microcosm of occupation”.
Now, there is no doubt that Hebron is a highly disturbing place, or that violence takes place there on a regular basis. But all the anti-settlement organisations I spoke to, including Peace Now, B’Tselem and Rabbis for Human Rights, acknowledged that Hebron is the exception rather than the rule. Most settlements are far more peaceful and less abusive. A few even have supermarkets where Arabs and Jews shop side-by-side.
This isn’t to justify the existence of the settlements, or to soften the debate about their legality. It is to illustrate the simple point that Breaking the Silence appears to be sexing up the harshness of the Israeli presence on the West Bank by focussing only on its very worst manifestation. That is to say, it is warping the terms of the debate. And it is funded largely by Europe, and by extension the UK.
Whatever your view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is surely self-evident that it must be based on the truth of the situation, not a biased and partial interpretation of it.
It is debatable whether Breaking the Silence should be criticised for publicly undermining their own military, and showing no impulse to view with leniency the actions of soldiers in extremis (again, think of Marine A). But the fact that their personal testimony is harnessed to a political agenda is indisputably problematic.
The European Union (together with the overwhelming majority of world opinion) believes that the Israeli presence on the West Bank contravenes international law. As such, it is able to put pressure on Israel through various channels; recently, for instance, it imposed a requirement to label all produce made in Israeli settlements as such.
These measures all have some basis in legitimacy. Funding Breaking the Silence, in my view, does not.