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Israeli soldiers talk about the occupied territories
September 14, 2016

Q&A Following the state attorney’s demand to expose the identity of testifiers

+ Ok, so what’s the story this time?

● We recently received a demand from Military Police investigators to disclose the identities of soldiers who testified about Operation Protective Edge. We are first and foremost committed to protecting the soldiers who chose to break their silence, and therefore we will do everything in our ability in order to protect their identities. The matter has now been brought before the court.

● It is important to note that the testifiers in question are all low-ranking soldiers accused of committing offenses that are not among the severe offenses described in the testimonies we collected, nor among the severe offenses that took place throughout Operation Protective Edge; to our understanding, these are not cases in which Palestinians were physically injured or killed.

● This demand by the Military Police comes against the backdrop of the aggressive public campaign, being waged for several months now, which aims to destroy Breaking the Silence. This campaign is being waged by settler organizations and other right-wing groups, as well as by parties from within the government, including the Prime Minister himself.

● This round of political persecution aimed at Breaking the Silence is coming from the State Attorney. The repugnant, undemocratic political assault against us, and the State Attorney’s insistence on exposing the identities of Breaking the Silence testifiers, are two sides of the same coin.

● Ask yourselves: following six months of recurrent attempts to wipe out our organization’s activities in a variety of ways – after senior ministers called us ‘traitors’ and ‘spies’ and the Prime Minister himself spearheaded the incitement against us – is it a coincidence that now, of all times, the prosecution is insisting on launching this unprecedented, extreme process that could bring about the dissolution of the organization, or wipe out our testimony collection project? (Another point to consider is this: who, precisely, would be pleased by the success of this process, which would bring an end to the publication of soldiers’ testimonies about their service in the occupied territories?)

+ Why are the testimonies you publish anonymous?

● First, let us clarify – none of the testifiers are anonymous. Testimonies are given through in-person interviews, in which the identity of the testifier is known to the interviewer. As part of the process of testimony verification, the identities of all testifiers are verified.

● Dozens of Breaking the Silence testifiers have chosen to make their identities public, and their video testimonies can be found on the organization’s website.

● Breaking the Silence’s testimony collection project has been running for over a decade now. Our work relies on the willingness of soldiers to offer their testimonies. This willingness, in turn, is based on their trust in the organization’s commitment to keep their identity confidential, as long as they do not wish to be exposed. This commitment on the part of Breaking the Silence has led hundreds of soldiers to break their silence over the years. This commitment has enabled us to publicize and expose thousands of incidents described in testimonies that took place in the occupied territories, about which the public has a right, and a duty, to be informed.

● It is important to bear in mind that in Israel today, public exposure as ‘a silence breaker’ carries with it a social price – as can be seen in the harsh reactions to, and the threats suffered by, those affiliated with the organization over the past months. In order to protect our testifiers and defend them from wild unbridled incitement, their personal details are not published, and are withheld by us for as long as they are uninterested in exposing their identity. Our commitment is first and foremost to the soldiers who have chosen to join us and break their silence.

+ What’s the story with ‘journalistic immunity’? You aren’t even journalists.

● For years now, Breaking the Silence has been carrying out serious, in-depth journalistic investigations, in an effort to expose the public to the reality of the occupation and its injustices. We meet with ‘sources’ (testifiers) and receive detailed information (in-depth interviews that last several hours) from them. The information they provide us goes through a meticulous process of verification and crosschecking prior to being considered for publication, according to the highest journalistic standards. All materials slated for publication are submitted to the Military Censor’s office, and only after its approval are published on our website and in various other publications, in an organized and systematic manner.

● One does not need to be a card-carrying journalist to enjoy journalistic immunity. According to criteria established by the rulings of Israel’s justice system, the work being carried out by Breaking the Silence, which includes the professional collection of information that is of public interest with the intention of publicizing it, is considered ’journalistic work.’ Accordingly, the principle of ‘journalistic immunity’ applies to the organization’s withholding of its sources.

● Every person who has given a testimony to Breaking the Silence did so from a place of responsibility and morality, in order to further the public cause of exposing the public to what is going on in the occupied territories, while relying on the organization’s commitment to upholding the confidentiality of their identities, for as long as they are uninterested in exposure.

● Ensuring source confidentiality is a basic foundation for the existence of a democracy and a free press, and is crucial for the public’s ability to receive vital information that would be otherwise unobtainable.

● Should Breaking the Silence be unable to guarantee confidentiality to its testifiers, the testimony collection project is likely to suffer a lethal blow. There is no other media organization (or any other type of group) that exposes and reports to the public what is being done in the occupied territories from the soldiers’ perspective, in an accurate and thorough manner, other than Breaking the Silence. Therefore, inflicting damage to the testimony collection project would also mean dealing a severe blow to the public’s right to know about what is being done in its name, and about the actions for which it is responsible. It will deal a serious blow to democracy and freedom of expression. It will be a victory for those politicians from the right-wing who are actively seeking to silence us.

+ Are you cooperating with the Military Police and the prosecution in their investigations?

● Breaking the Silence’s aim is to provide the public with reliable and relevant information about what is being done in the occupied territories as part of Israel’s military control over the Palestinian civilian population. The activities and the discourse promoted by our organization are directed toward civil society, not the security system.

● The reason we appeal to the public, rather than to the IDF, is simple: our goal is not to try to ‘improve’ the occupation – it is to bring about its end. This is why we operate within the civil sphere, and work to provide it with the important uncomfortable information about what is being done in the occupied territories, in our names.

● The majority of the testimonies collected by Breaking the Silence describe official, routine missions carried out by the military as part of its control over the occupied territories. What is of paramount importance to us is a wider understanding of ‘the bigger picture’ – an understanding of the overarching policy and the methods in which the mechanisms of occupation function. Particularly grave incidents that have been described in the testimonies we have published over the years, such as incidents of killings, looting, abuse, etc., are byproducts of the presence of both Israel and the IDF in the occupied territories. We seek to expose such incidents to the public – but they are not what constitute the bigger picture.

+ You aren’t actually interested in fixing or assisting the IDF.

● We work day and night to publish soldiers’ testimonies in order to spark public discussion about the moral price involved in the continuation of the occupation.

● We believe the best ‘assistance’ we can offer, to both the IDF and the state, is to help bring about a change in the policy of occupation, rather than to assist in bringing about ‘cosmetic’ surface changes to the IDF.

● The true value of our work does not stem from serving as an aid to military or civil investigation systems – they know their work well, and they do not need our assistance. The important public role played by Breaking the Silence is the exposure of information (through testimonies) with the goal of bringing about a change in policy and an end to the occupation.

● We believe that work geared toward ending the occupation and military rule over the Palestinians, and furthering improved relations with the Palestinian people, will help the IDF and the State of Israel most of all.

+ As a human rights organization, aren’t you supposed to be happy that the IDF wishes to investigate the wrongs you have discovered and cooperate with it so that those guilty will be prosecuted?

● According to media reports, following the publication of the book ‘This is How We Fought in Gaza,’ which compiled the testimonies of soldiers and officers who took part in Operation Protective Edge, the Military Police launched eight investigations concerning events described in these testimonies.

● We are not opposed in any way to the launching and carrying out of investigations, or to the prosecution of soldiers suspected of committing crimes. In our eyes, however, the issue most deserving of investigation is the systemic policy and the responsibility of policymakers and decision-makers – in both the political and military spheres – for the events that took place during Operation Protective Edge. This is the reason we have called in the past —and we call once again— for the establishment of a commission of inquiry vested with the authority to investigate a variety of more substantive aspects regarding the open-fire policy employed by the military during Operation Protective Edge.

● Unfortunately, based on media reports, it appears that with respect to investigations launched in relation to Operation Protective Edge, the Military Police have been focusing the totality of their efforts solely on the investigation of low-ranking soldiers suspected of committing minor offenses, and thus effectively ‘freeing’ or ‘giving a pass’ to the top political and military officials who led and dictated the open-fire policy employed by the IDF during Operation Protective Edge.

● Investigating lower-ranking soldiers while refraining from relating to the system and the policies according to which these soldiers operated is a cynical move meant to transfer culpability for the destructive results of Operation Protective Edge from the upper ranks, and onto the shoulders of these soldiers. In most cases, these soldiers were carrying out the orders given to them by their commanders and acting in accordance with the spirit of the policies dictated by the Cabinet and the General Staff of the IDF.

● The investigation of lower-ranking soldiers allows Israel to present before international investigative bodies a semblance of the existence of an objective investigation mechanism. In relation to international law, this could prove to be an obstacle in launching external investigations of Israel’s actions. Low-ranking soldiers are thus being used as ‘human shields’ by policymakers facing international demands for external investigations.

+ How would the organization’s work be damaged if the court decides to collaborate with the Military Police and the prosecution in ordering you to release the identities of your testifiers?

● Our organization’s work depends on the willingness of soldiers to take a moral stand, assume responsibility, and provide testimonies while trusting our commitment to the protection of their identities (for as long as they are uninterested in revealing them). It is this commitment that has enabled testifiers to muster the courage to break their silence over the years, and thus precipitate the revelation and publication of thousands of incidents that have been brought to the public’s knowledge.

● Forced exposure of testifiers’ identities will deal a severe and possibly fatal blow to the organization’s ability to keep gathering testimonies while ensuring the safety of silence breakers.

● This would mean an end to the flow of reliable information provided to the public (and to law enforcement agencies) by Breaking the Silence. This would mean that we will no longer be able to hear the truths about what is taking place in the occupied territories from the soldiers themselves. It would mean that most – or all – of the information provided by soldiers would be largely or entirely filtered by the Military Spokesperson’s office or government agencies. This would deal a severe blow to freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and the public’s right to know about what is being done in its name.

● The demand that Breaking the Silence expose the identity of soldiers who chose to break their silence is yet another escalation in the political efforts to destroy Breaking the Silence. The prosecution’s appeal to the court, demanding the exposure of silence breakers, is intended to send a threatening message to all soldiers – a message meant to deter them from breaking silence in the future.

+ So why is the prosecution demanding that you expose testifiers?

● Good question. It’s hard to imagine that the State Attorney truly believes that investigating and trying low-ranking soldiers — accused of committing minor offenses that are not even among the severe offenses described in the testimonies we published on Operation Protective Edge — constitutes a hugely important undertaking. Moreover it is questionable why they would believe that the only way to do so happens to entail efforts to wipe out an organization that has been operating for over a decade to publicize information about what is being done in the occupied territories – an organization that serves the public (while opposing government policy) in a democratic state. It is hard to imagine that they truly believe that this information is important enough to justify the damaging of future investigations, which might not even be opened in the first place, since there would be no Breaking the Silence to report on events.

● So truly, we find it hard to believe that here lies the real motivation. The various investigative bodies have capabilities and resources that far exceed those of Breaking the Silence. It is unreasonable to believe that these investigations utterly rely on material collected by Breaking the Silence and will collapse without them. We find it hard to believe that the prosecution is interested, or is willing, to destroy Breaking the Silence simply in order to obtain information about incidents involving offenses of an exclusively minor order.

● So what is actually going on? Over the past months, a massive government campaign has been waged with the aim of destroying Breaking the Silence. Lies are being spread and incitement is directed against us and against anyone who cooperates with us. There have also been attempted physical attacks against our members. But these efforts have all failed in destroying the organization, and Breaking the Silence today stands more resolute than ever. So, they have decided to go one step further, and employ a new tactic: exploiting the justice system in order to inflict damage to the heart of our work – the collection of testimonies.

● There is another reason why the senior political and military ranks are attempting to transfer culpability for the destructive results of Operation Protective Edge’s open-fire policies onto the backs of lower-ranking soldiers. Doing so would allow them to say to the Israeli and international public, “Look, we are investigating.” The low-ranking soldiers will be used as scapegoats while the policy-makers and decision-makers are absolved of responsibility.

● As Israeli citizens, and as former soldiers, we cannot agree to this. We deserve a real, in-depth, impartial investigation of what happened during Operation Protective Edge. We deserve to get real answers from Netanyahu, Ya’alon, Bennett, Lapid, and all those who served as members of the cabinet at the time — and for them to take responsibility for the results of the policies they dictated.

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