Don’t shut out foreign support

Haaretz

The attack on the funding sources of an NGO marks another low in terms of our current government’s willingness to sacrifice the principles of democracy to promote its own agenda.

As reported in Haaretz in recent weeks, Israel’s Foreign Ministry has appealed to the United Kingdom, Spain and the Netherlands to stop funding Breaking the Silence (BTS). BTS, founded in 2004, is an organization of former Israel Defense Forces officers and soldiers that was established to bear witness to the abuses endured by two populations in the West Bank and Gaza: Palestinian residents and Israeli soldiers themselves.

BTS is not an advocacy organization. It is made up of IDF reservists who have served in the territories during their regular military service over the last nine years. In addition to recognizing the harm we are doing to our Palestinian neighbors, the organization urges us to look closely at the damage we are doing to our own soldiers when they are asked to engage in acts of questionable morality or legality.

BTS gathers and then publicizes testimony in both words and pictures from soldiers who are willing to come forward. The organization makes every effort to check the veracity of these testimonies, and will not publish any soldier’s comments unless it has corroborating testimony from at least one other reliable source. BTS promises anonymity to these witnesses, to allow them to testify as openly and fully as possible, despite social norms urging them to keep silent, and the threat of possible retribution from within the IDF.

According to the organization, following the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead last January, soldiers were directly instructed not to speak of their experiences or the destruction they had witnessed. When reports of alleged misdeeds by soldiers during the war were publicized in March, BTS asserts that leading combat units received severe warnings against speaking out, and were told there would be serious repercussions if they did so.

The fact that soldiers have nonetheless testified to BTS about the Gaza operation appear to have caused panic within the government. Apparently, there is concern that these accounts will fuel efforts to charge Israel with war crimes. But as the organization’s leaders point out, anonymous testimony is not admissible in international courts. Their sole interest is to press their army and society to determine, and enforce, clear boundaries of acceptable military behavior.

If our defense minister wants us to live up to the claim that the IDF is “the most moral army on earth,” he should welcome soldiers who speak out about illegal acts that they have witnessed or were asked to perform. In our post-war rush to elections, we unfortunately – and perhaps, conveniently – skipped over any discussion concerning the morality of what the army has done. But even our fears of one-sided international condemnation of our actions in Gaza cannot justify official attempts to silence the messenger, especially when that messenger is us.

A “senior Israeli official” was quoted by Haaretz’s Barak Ravid as objecting to the funding by friendly nations of “opposition bodies.” It is disturbing to hear an organization of IDF veterans called an “opposition” group. Presumably, what the official meant is that the government and the IDF find intolerable opposition to their attempts to control the discourse concerning Israel’s behavior in the territories.

Our foundation, the Moriah Fund, has supported BTS since 2005. I have always been impressed by the nonchalance with which these young idealists put themselves at risk; not only of IDF censure and verbal abuse from their critics, but from violent attacks from settlers during the educational tours they conduct in the West Bank (attacks that became almost routine last year).

When I first met the leaders of BTS, one of them, an officer, was on a one-night leave from reserve duty – protecting a West Bank settlement. The irony was not lost on any of us, but it struck me that regardless of his activism, while in uniform he did not consider challenging his assignment. Perhaps our defense minister should watch the organization’s staff make presentations before local college students, and see the young men and women ask the speakers afterward for a chance to end their personal silence and speak of their military service in the West Bank and Gaza.

Ironically, perhaps, BTS reports that the heavy-handed attempts to quash its ability to work have led more soldiers to come forward to testify. One could say that the IDF and our Foreign Ministry are shooting themselves in the foot, but perhaps in the end Israeli society will benefit from their misguided efforts.

At a time when European human rights groups are reportedly preparing a campaign to pressure European Union and European Commission member nations to stop supporting any and all Israeli NGOs, our government should welcome other expressions of foreign support for our civil society, not attempt to control it. If the United Kingdom or Spain or any other state wants to be a true friend to Israeli democracy, it will renew its commitment to BTS.

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