Is a broken silence sufficient for action?

While researching for my dissertation on Gaza, I ran into ‘Breaking the Silence’, a human rights group in Israel made up of former soldiers who seek to expose human rights abuses by the Israeli military. Taking testimonies of soldiers who served in Operation Cast Lead, probably better known over here as the Israeli actions during the Gaza Crisis last Christmas, they compiled a damning report of the same name, published in June of this year.

The report categorises not just accidental deaths, stray bombs, and the use of white phosphorous, but also the direct instructions and briefings given to the soldiers before they entered the Gaza strip; instructions that told them to raze Palestinian buildings simply in order to de-clutter the filed of vision for future bombardments, and to open fire on anything suspicious.

The group is also well regarded by other humanitarian groups. Amnesty regard them as highly credible, saying “one of our key campaigners met with their founder for talks earlier this year and our international section deal with them on a regular basis.”

The response to the document has been little short of lukewarm. From a BBC report:

Israeli military spokeswoman Lt Col Avital Leibovich dismissed the testimonies as anonymous hearsay, designed to embarrass the army rather than lead to serious investigations…”We are investigating many of the requests from NGOs and other groups,” she said. “But when you have a report that is based on hearsay, with no facts whatsoever, we can’t do anything with it.”

Read the document and decide for yourself. The link to the full document is at the bottom, but here is the opening from the front cover:

“In training you learn that white phosphorus is not used, and you’re taught that it’s not humane. You watch films and see what it does to people who are hit, and you say, “There, we’re doing it too.” That’s not what I expected to see. Until that moment I had thought I belonged to the most humane army in the world, I knew that even in the West Bank, when we go into a neighborhood, we do it quietly so that people won’t see us, but also in order not to disturb them, no less. Even when Molotov cocktails were thrown at us in the West Bank, we wouldn’t shoot, the rules are very explicit. If your own life is at risk, you shoot. But under no other circumstances. Practically speaking, how often are you really in a life-threatening situation in the West Bank? Until that moment I had never fired a shot except at cardboard targets, just at the shooting range and maneuvers, and I also understood why. An IDF soldier does not shoot for the sake of shooting nor does he apply excessive force beyond the call of the mission he is to perform. We saw the planes flying out and you see from which building the rocket is launched against Israel and you see the four houses surrounding that building collapsing as soon as the airforce bombs. I don’t know if it was white phosphorus or not, and I don’t really care that much, but whole neighborhoods were simply razed because four houses in the area served to launch Qassam rockets.”

Full report here

Given that Breaking the Silence is funded by the British, Dutch, and Spanish governments, should they not be calling for more action over these accusations? Will the Israeli government not take this group seriously? Denial and rejection of evidence will not clear the name of the Israeli military.

They, too, now have a silence to break.

2 comments

  1. ‘Breaking the Silence’ have been known to publish false allegations before. The existence of such a group is important, because it makes sure that there are ethical and moral checks on the role the IDF plays (that of Israel’s survival). But one unchecked fact and allegation can lead to – yet more – unfair, ungrounded, unjust international condemnation.

    It’s financially dependent on (from Israeli citizens’ opinions) anti-Israeli European governments:

    http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull&cid=1246443834129

    And a lot of the stories that ‘Breaking the Silence’ have put out have found to be fundamentally untrue, or just badly researched. For instance, a lot of the stories they hear are mere hearsay of new recruits who have not seen combat yet.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/07/16/breaking-the-silence-clai_n_235607.html

    I think that ‘Breaking the Silence’ IS an important group, for the reasons I mentioned before. But the real shame is the international media, who report the initial expose, will say nothing if any evidence emerges to the contrary.

    And of the original claim that ‘Breaking the Silence’ published back last February, 12 of the ‘witnesses’ have admitted they were not there. Two of them actually heard it the pub – an accurate source?

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  2. Hi Peter.

    Over time the distinct impression one gets is that allegations about serious wrongdoing from the IDF are just never going to be accepted in some quarters. Whenever Amesty publishes something on this – eg a big report on Gaza (http://blogs.amnesty.org.uk/blogs_entry.asp?eid=3430) it gets dismissed as “inaccurate”, “based on hearsay” etc, yet whenever we publish a report condemning abuses from Hamas – eg this one: http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/report/hamas-waged-deadly-campaign-war-devastated-gaza-20090212 – we get rubbished by Hamas (as happened on this occasion) yet have the report cited as “evidence” by usually hostile pro-Israeli commentators.

    What some people will, it seems, never accept, is that “their” side commits human rights violations and they could strengthen their overall moral and political position if they faced up to and accepted this.

    Cheers, Neil.

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