JERUSALEM— An organization of former Israeli soldiers dedicated to shedding light on the dark side of the country’s military is coming increasingly under fire, roiling a country in the grips of a battle against the burgeoning threat of international isolation and boycotts.
The group, Breaking the Silence, says that without its work, stories of improper or even illegal behavior against Palestinians would remain hidden from an Israeli public that reveres the military. But the group has come under attack from legislators who threaten its funding and say it could help turn Israel into a pariah state.
Since its founding in 2004, Breaking the Silence has collected the testimonies of more than 1,000 veterans in a bid to expose the underbelly of the decades-old occupation of the West Bank. It has taken those accounts to audiences in Israel and around the world, including a recent 10-day photo exhibit in Zurich, Switzerland.
This comes as Israel confronts a growing boycott movement focused on companies doing business in its West Bank settlements.
The European Union also has ratcheted up measures against settlement products. The settlements, built on land captured in the 1967 Mideast war which the Palestinians want for a future state, are seen as illegitimate by the international community.
Breaking the Silence does not call for a boycott of Israel. But critics say it feeds into a global trend that unfairly singles out Israel and is bent on “delegitimizing” the world’s only Jewish state. In contrast to other rights groups, Breaking the Silence presents a unique threat because its members were devoted soldiers before coming out with their claims.
“We will not ignore the fact that an organization, whose sole purpose is to tarnish (Israeli) soldiers, is operating internationally in order to cause serious damage to Israel’s image,” said Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s deputy foreign minister.
The group was created by soldiers who served during the Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s. It has since built an organization of some 60 active members that, beyond collecting testimonies, holds lectures and meetings and organizes trips for Israelis to the West Bank to expose them to the daily realities of Palestinians living under Israeli rule. Military service is largely compulsory for Jewish Israelis.
Breaking the Silence often makes waves with its reports, and in May, it released the accounts of dozens of soldiers who fought in last year’s Gaza war.
The group concluded that “a troubling picture arises of a policy of indiscriminate fire” that killed innocent civilians. The Israeli military, which has launched dozens of investigations into alleged wartime misconduct, rejected the report, saying the claims lacked proof and could not be investigated as the group grants soldiers anonymity for their testimony.
Yehuda Shaul, Breaking the Silence’s co-founder, described its critics as hard-line Israelis bent on perpetuating Israeli rule over the West Bank.
“So long as we are in uniform and are going to kill and die for settlements and for the occupation, then everything is fine, but the moment we break the silence, suddenly we are traitors. That’s the hypocrisy of the Israeli right-wing,” Shaul said.
Shaul said that the majority of Breaking the Silence’s work is in Israel, but it has been lambasted for taking its message abroad.
A group of pro-Israel Swiss lawmakers last week criticized the Zurich exhibition, saying it “instigates evil propaganda, disinformation and furthers ideologies that run counter to peace.” The Swiss Foreign Ministry said its support for the group is “consistent” with its goal of supporting “a fair and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Israel attempted unsuccessfully to have the Swiss Foreign Ministry pull its funding of the exhibit. But an exhibition planned at a fair on Israel-German relations in Cologne, Germany, was canceled following an Israeli request.
The Zurich exhibit comes at a time of surging panic over the possible economic effect of boycotts, which Palestinians say are necessary after more than 20 years of failed peace efforts.
Hotovely, the deputy foreign minister, called for an urgent ministry meeting to examine how to rein in Breaking the Silence. Israeli opposition legislator Yair Lapid said that “extremist organizations” like Breaking the Silence “harm Israel’s efforts in the struggle” against the boycott movement. More than 7,000 people are part of a Facebook group called “My Truth,” which attempts to counter Breaking the Silence and staged a protest in front of the Swiss Embassy in Tel Aviv last month.
Much of the criticism comes over the group’s foreign funding. Many of its international projects are supported by European bodies, and opponents see that as a way to influence the very citizens and governments who could one day choose to boycott Israel.
“It’s a world tour funded by the European governments under the facade of human rights that is so damaging,” said Gerald Steinberg, who heads NGO Monitor, which tracks the funding of Israeli rights groups like Breaking the Silence.
Breaking the Silence and other rights groups face a looming threat from a bill expected to be introduced in Israel’s Knesset that could limit their foreign funding by requiring senior government officials to approve the donations.
Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who is behind the bill, said this month that Breaking the Silence is “slandering and harming the state of Israel.”
Shaul said the group is determined to continue its work.
“What harms Israel more than anything is the occupation and what harms Israel the most is the settlement enterprise and our unwillingness to end the occupation,” he said.
Associated Press writer Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed to this report.