Israeli Prosecutors Target Group That Collects Testimony on Soldiers’ Conduct

PETACH TIKVA, Israel (The Washington Post) -
(Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)
(Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

An Israeli organization that publishes anonymous testimony from soldiers, often alleging use of excessive force against Palestinian civilians in Yehudah and Shomron and the Gaza Strip, appeared in court Sunday to fight the government prosecutor’s demand that the group reveal its sources.

The organization of current and former soldiers, called Breaking the Silence, released a report last year on the 2014 Gaza war that included anonymous testimony suggesting that lax rules of engagement coupled with indiscriminate artillery fire contributed to mass destruction and high numbers of civilian casualties in Gaza.

Many Israeli leaders have branded the group’s activists as traitors, funded by foreign donors, whose anonymous and unverifiable testimonials are used to undermine the Israel Defense Forces and to smear the country before an international audience.

Israel’s state attorney is seeking a court order to force the group to reveal names of soldiers whose testimonies appear in the Gaza report.

In court Sunday, Michael Sfard, a lawyer representing Breaking the Silence, told the judge that the group would be destroyed if it broke its promise to soldiers and provided names.

Sfard also argued the testimonials serve a vital public interest, exposing ordinary Israelis to the actions of their forces in the field. “The only other alternative is the Israel Defense Forces’ spokesman’s unit,” he said. The group is also claiming protection as “journalists.”

It is not clear how many soldiers’ identities are being sought or what crimes they may have discussed in their testimonies. Statements by the prosecutor seemed to suggest she was seeking only a single name, but Breaking the Silence said there was more than one.

Attorneys for the group said that the soldiers being sought were low-ranking troops and that the crimes alleged involved destruction of property, not killing civilians, and therefore there is no compelling reason for the state to insist that the anonymous soldiers be named.

The hearing on whether to compel the group to reveal sources will continue in July.

The Breaking the Silence website contains dozens of videotaped interviews with soldiers, but it blurs their faces and disguises their voices. One example: a young tank gunner describing how during the Gaza war his commander told them to fire at random buildings.

Israeli officials denied that such acts were committed.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued a report last year on military actions in Gaza, arguing that Israel sought to minimize civilian casualties even as Hamas put its civilians in the line of fire and cynically used the ensuing death and destruction to stoke anti-Israel propaganda.

The state attorney’s office said that the identity of the soldier is known to its investigators, but they want Breaking the Silence to confirm the name. “The state views clarifying the truth as a value of the highest order, overriding the wish of the witness to remain anonymous as part of his deal with Breaking the Silence,” it said.

In the courthouse hallway, Breaking the Silence’s executive director, Yuli Novak, referred to a recent warning by former prime minister Ehud Barak about “seeds of fascism” in the government. “In such times, we would hope the state attorney would stand by our side and protect our freedom to break our silence,” Novak said.

Novak vowed not to reveal the confidential sources. If the judge orders and the organization refuses, its researchers could face fines and possible jail time. The group said it would appeal such an order to the Israeli Supreme Court.

Israeli critics of Breaking the Silence say the group makes wild accusations but does not help the army probe possible offenses.

In March, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Breaking the Silence had “crossed a red line” after an undercover investigation by Israeli media reported that the group sought classified operational details.

The Breaking the Silence activists say that all of their reports are reviewed by the military censor before release.

Yehuda Shaul, one of the group’s founders and a former grenade gunner who was stationed in Chevron, said, “The government doesn’t care about the testimony of our soldiers. It cares about us. This is about the messenger.” Breaking the Silence is opposed to Israeli activity in Yehudah and Shomron.

In an interview earlier this year, Avigdor Liberman, who is slated to be Israel’s new defense minister, said Breaking the Silence was funded by the same people who finance Hamas.