Breaking the Silence claims to expose the ugly truth about the IDF. Turns out it’s not so bad.
Anyone who’s been on a university campus or followed the news has heard of ‘Breaking the Silence’, a group of “courageous” soldiers telling the truth about the occupation and its ostensible horrors • But an actual check of their 900+ testimonies reveals that most of them are hardly the stuff of war crimes, despite their malicious interpretation of the facts; many even unintentionally show the IDF in a positive light • Breaking the Silence activists admit “We’re not a normal human rights organization” and that their ultimate goal is “ending the occupation”, facts and context be damned
“I remember one soldier. We used to defecate in bags; there weren’t any bathrooms. So there was a soldier who regularly tossed [the bag] into someone’s yard. Like we didn’t really know that it falls there. He would throw it. One day they came to complain so we came and cleaned it up.”
This is a snippet from one of some 900 soldier’s testimonies collected by the extreme left organization “Breaking the Silence” with the explicit purpose of “stimulat[ing] public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis”. After reading many of these testimonies, one feels a great deal of relief: despite their best efforts, the Israeli occupation is not the nightmare so many think it to be.
Much Ado About Nothing Much
Most of the leading testimonies are downright disappointing. Almost all the cases we reviewed didn’t involve physical harm or property damage. Most of them were fairly trivial, the kind of small-scale misconduct and rough behavior you might find in any large-scale policing operation: Prisoners who spent the night cuffed and on all fours and crying, a directive to check every vehicle coming out of Bethlehem and to “be tough” which caused a soldier to testify that “we were in this situation and it was very unpleasant”, and another case where a female soldier mentioned a male counterpart at a checkpoint who would be rude in asking Palestinian commuters for cigarettes: “He didn’t say: Pal, you’ve got a cigarette? He said: Give me a cigarette…he was in the mode of ‘I’m the man’ and the boss of this checkpoint.’
These kinds of cases constitute the overwhelming majority of testimonies on the site. This isn’t admirable behavior, to be sure, but given how the IDF is often portrayed as the 21st century version of SS murder squads, we expected far worse.
A la guerre comme a la guerre
When it comes to the minority of cases that actually involve killing, wounding or arresting suspects, we come across a troubling phenomenon. The testimonies on site deal with clear cut cases of anti-terror operations: killing terrorists, arresting of suspects, and activities involving prevention and interrogation, but this crucial context is nowhere to be seen in the Breaking the Silence testimonies. Breaking the Silence prefer to hide the actual reason for the IDF’s actions, as well as the severity of the terror threat and the difficult conditions under which Israeli security forces have to work. Thus, the naïve reader unaware of all this receives a simplistic, lachrymose and superficial account with “jackbooted” soldiers and oppressed Palestinians. In this agitprop morality play, enthusiastically supported by foreign countries and the world media, there is no place for little things like context and facts.
Take the story of Fathi Najar, commander of the Fatah military wing in Yatta in the Hebron Governate, who was arrested in 2002 for involvement in terrorist attacks and laying explosive devices against IDF soldiers.
According to the testimony of a soldier present at the capture, some of the soldiers and commanders beat him after the arrest, as an act of release for capturing such a senior terrorist and after putting their lives at significant risk. These actions so shocked the soldier that he felt burdened until his discharge and he went running to Breaking the Silence to tell his story. Granted this behavior was wrong – but can a few blows to an arch-murderer really prove the ‘monstrously corrosive effects of the occupation’?
Another soldier testified that they executed a “kill confirmation” on armed terrorists: “It was surprising and frustrating. Surprising because for instance [a commander] shot a terrorist who was walking around with an AK-47 and a cellphone and didn’t know he was thirty meters from the IDF. He shot him at center mass and he fell, then they threw two grenades at him to ensure that he was dead.” According to the testimony, in the after action inquiry, the brigade commander instructed the soldiers how such an encounter should end: “You come to the body, put a rifle between his teeth and fire,” something which at the time was defined as illegal.
Let’s be honest here: are we supposed to be shocked by this? Putting aside PC sanctimony, let’s admit that such a brigade commander, who puts a premium on his soldiers’ lives and doesn’t want to take the chance that the terrorist make a final pull of the trigger or detonate an explosive belt to take out the arresting soldiers, is far from outside the pale of humanity. Let us remind the choir of Breaking the Silence, that these are soldiers fighting dangerous terrorists in armed combat, not uninvolved civilians playing chess.
Even the most extreme cases presented by Breaking the Silence regarding wounding or killing against regulations and relevant Israeli law (and there are few of these), all involve armed terrorists. The absolute worst case – and one prominently displayed by Breaking the Silence – is an operation they call a “revenge operation”, in which a force of IDF soldiers attacked Palestinian policemen after 6 soldiers were killed at Ayn Arik. The night after the attack, elite units attacked a number of Palestinian Police installations in the Nablus and Ramallah area and killed some 15 Palestinian policemen.
Some of the soldiers who participated in the operation felt uncomfortable: “It will never leave me. It deprived me of a lot of sleep,” one of the soldiers told a Maariv reporter, “I feel like I was part of something problematic. I don’t see a difference between this and a massacre. There was no legitimate target there. I wanted to kill.”
The soldier in question might need reminding that these are Yasser Arafat’s armed troops, whose profound involvement in terrorist attacks was being discovered in those days. In a normal country, such an operation would be carried out by aircraft with the purpose of inflicting as many casualties before they can harm Israeli soldiers or civilians. The fact that Breaking the Silence calls it a ‘massacre’, based on the testimony of a soldier unaware of the chain of command and intelligence that identified and set the objectives, shows just what standards of evidence the Breaking the Silence requires to damn its target.
More than that: the average reader abroad might be surprised to learn that even pinpoint surgical operations, meant to minimize harm to uninvolved civilians while risking IDF soldiers, also worry Breaking the Silence. In one of the testimonies, a soldier complained that the IDF conducts ground operation to take out terrorists when it is not possible to eliminate them from the air, as “they are at home with too many people, or in cases where more care is required, it’s not possible to drop a one-ton bomb.” So what exactly is the problem? “Many times [in these action] there are additional casualties [aside from the terrorist himself].” This specific soldier admits that it didn’t happen in operations he was involved in, but he “believes” it happened in other cases.
If there is any moral outrage to be had here, it is that the IDF is risking its troops to avoid civilian casualties when pinpoint strikes from the air could do the job just as well. But Breaking the Silence complains even when the IDF does this – and even when there are no civilian casualties.
Several testimonies about shooting and rules of engagement were accumulated by Breaking the Silence during Operation Cast Lead, which it then published in a booklet for use by the Goldstone Commission. But once again, when you look closely, it turns out that things aren’t as bad as they claim: IDF soldiers operated among a civilian population, fought house-to-house battles, destroyed dangerous buildings [i.e. booby-trapped ones], fired towards suspicious areas, and after distributing thousands of warning flyers, also made use of aerial and artillery firepower.
As is the case in such a complex battlefield, where terrorists used the civilian population as one big human shield, it should come as no surprise that uninvolved civilians were also harmed, even though any fair comparison would show that the ratio of terrorists to civilians which the IDF kills is very low compared to similar combat operations throughout the world. The IDF’s efforts to minimize such casualties are of no interest to organizations like Breaking the Silence, however.
If you’re interested in testimony on terrorists hiding in civilian homes, weapons caches in children’s rooms or rockets hidden in hospitals, you’ll have to look elsewhere. All that Breaking the Silence can supply are anonymous and non-specific cases of use of the infamous “neighbor procedure”, firing of phosphorus, house demolition and “lenient rules of engagement which led in some cases to the killing of innocents.” All this along with the common complaint that the IDF gives preference to its soldiers’ lives over avoiding possible civilian loss of life.
Breaking the Silence’ testimonies provided much fodder for the infamous ‘Goldstone Report’, which referred to the organizations’ report dozens of times in its own findings. Goldstone even credited the organization with one of its main insights, namely that “The Mission found in the above incidents that the Israeli armed forces repeatedly opened fire on civilians who were not taking part in the hostilities and who posed no threat to them.” (p. 180, art. 802)
Besides the fact that Breaking the Silence stories lack even minimal verifiable details (aside from general area and period of service), most of the accusations do not come anywhere close to approaching mass war crimes. Even Goldstone himself changed his mind about the report, as the testimonies he received were partial and biased.
“We are not a normal human rights organization”
Here’s the kicker: Breaking the Silence isn’t really interested in human rights or military ethics. They’re interested in something else entirely: opposing the “occupation” and ending it come hell or high water. They openly acknowledged this agenda: a Breaking the Silence spokesmen stated that “Breaking the Silence is not a normal human rights organization. We are in fact an educational organization, whose purpose is to show the Israeli public the reality of the occupation. This is what ruling over a foreign population looks like.” According to him, the organization doesn’t support any particular political solution (“some support a one state solution and others support a two state solution”); the organization’s purpose is “to see how we can create a reality in which we aren’t occupying another people.”
As Haaretz military correspondent Amos Harel put it:
They have a clear political agenda, which is no longer really covered under the term ‘human rights organization’.
The truth is that none of this should be surprising. As an organization receiving massive amounts of money from foreign, largely European, countries (1.3 million NIS in 2011), Breaking the Silence is committed first and foremost to the interests of its patrons. What better way to satisfy them than to present the IDF as the reincarnation of 20th century fascist thugs?
In spite of all this, it’s good we have Breaking the Silence. Whoever reads their testimonies with a careful and critical eye will actually have reason to take heart. If this is the best Breaking the Silence can find after ten years of activity and millions of dollars, making every effort to single out the worst possible incidents and interpreting them in the most malicious possible way, with no serious comparison to other armies and with partial information and testimonies, then the IDF comes off looking just like the evil hasbaraniks say it is – a profoundly moral army in very difficult circumstances.
English translation by Avi Woolf.