Breaking the Silence: Biased and Unreliable
Breaking the Silence (Shovrim Shtika) is a foreign-funded* Israeli NGO which describes itself as “an organization of veteran Israeli soldiers that collects testimonies of soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories during the Second Intifada” in order to “demonstrate the depth of corruption which is spreading in the Israeli military.” The organization consists of a small number of members who peddle stories of IDF wrongdoing on North American college campuses and to international media outlets.
While their Web Site proclaims that they “demand accountability regarding Israel's military actions in the Occupied territories perpetrated by us and in our name,” they steadfastly refuse to report the alleged incidents to the proper authorities, and hide behind a cloak of anonymity, withholding their own identities, the identities of other individuals involved, and the specifics that would enable authorities to corroborate their testimonies — this, despite the army's injunction to report any violation of regulations that results in harm to noncombatants.
Moreover, in answer to an interview question about why the organization does not report their allegations to authorities, the group's co-director, Mikhael Manekin responded:
That is not our position. We view ourselves more as a media agency. The purpose is to generate public discussion around what is happening there... (BBC World Service Radio, July 15, 2009)
That is, the group's mission is not really about “demanding accountability,” as its Web site states, but about publicly demonizing Israel's military before allegations are investigated, as the group's co-director reveals.** And in this respect they have been hugely successful, thanks to an obliging foreign media willing to overlook the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics — which calls for “test[ing] the accuracy of information from all sources” — so that they can deliver a sensational story vilifying Israel.
A report by Breaking the Silence, released on July 15, 2009, charged Israel with war crimes during the IDF's “Operation Cast Lead” to end Hamas rocket fire, based on the unverified testimonies of 26 anonymous soldiers who had served in Gaza during the operation.
The report claims that these are not the narratives of delinquent soldiers but reflect “widespread” and “systemic” abuse. The narratives, the report pretentiously proclaims, “are enough to question the credibility of the official IDF versions.” Yet these anonymous informers represent less than 0.005% of the IDF's combat forces!
Indeed, their pretension has spurred outrage among other reservists, prompting the creation of a grassroots movement of IDF soldiers who “feel a deep sense of injustice at how some are misrepresenting them and the IDF.” In response, they have been gathering and filming their own counter-testimonies, displayed on a Web site called Soldiers Speak Out. Here, unlike the tale-tellers for Breaking the Silence, the reporting soldiers are identified by name, their faces revealed on film.
The Media's Response
In March 2009, Ha'aretz splashed across its pages several sensational stories regarding testimonies purporting to demonstrate IDF wrongdoing--including cold-blooded murder. These had been solicited by Danny Zamir, the director of a pre-military academy--who himself had been imprisoned by the IDF for refusing to serve in the West Bank--and leaked to the newspaper.
“IDF in Gaza: Killing civilians, vandalism, and lax rules of engagement” screamed the headline on the first of several articles written by Ha'aretz military correspondent Amos Harel. This was followed by additional stories condemning the IDF's alleged conduct during Operation Cast Lead. The story was quickly picked up by the New York Times which described “a permissive attitude toward the killing of civilians and reckless destruction of property.”
But the shocking charges of wanton killings described by Ha'aretz, the New York Times and others were based on hearsay and rumors which turned out, upon investigation, to have been false, and the New York Times published a follow-up story correcting some of the errors in the earlier reports.
The tales solicited by Breaking the Silence are similar to those solicited by Zamir, in that much is based on hearsay. But the anonymity of the tellers of the tales and the lack of identifying details of the cases render Breaking the Silence's testimony against the IDF even murkier. Perhaps this is why both Ha'aretz and the New York Times — having been burnt the first time — have been more circumspect in publicizing the organization's questionable report.
This is not the case, however, for many other media outlets, whose apparent eagerness to discredit Israel's military outweighs all journalistic caution. Take the BBC, for example, which has essentially acted as a publicist for Breaking the Silence's report. The BBC Web site includes four separate features: 1) an article about the report; 2) a copy of the entire report; 3) a separate article comprised of excerpts from the report; and 4) an analysis by correspondent Paul Wood in which he attempts to confer credibility upon the report. He writes:
...The accumulation of detail is convincing and, in the eyes of Israel's critics, damning...
...But Breaking the Silence has a long ‑ and to many, credible ‑ record of getting soldiers to talk about experiences which might not reflect well on the Army.
The article attempts to bolster Breaking the Silence's allegation that Israel is guilty of war crimes by using Palestinian human shields. Opening with a first person account of a Palestinian who alleges he was used as a human shield by Israeli soldiers, Wood claims that “this same incident was described by one of the Israeli soldiers who spoke to Breaking the Silence.” He suggests that because similar allegations were made by someone purporting to be an Israeli soldier who served there (although this is not independently verifiable) , they must be true. He explains:
Until now, the Israeli army always had a ready answer to allegations that war crimes were committed during its offensive in Gaza. Such claims were, they said, Palestinian propaganda. Now, though, the accusations of abuse are being made by Israeli soldiers.
The problem is, however, that this testimony was not based on the soldier's first-hand experience, but on what was told to him by others. And, in fact, this story has been refuted by the officer of the Golani Brigade who said that a probe of that brigade's conduct during the war found that no such incidents had occurred.
But the BBC staff has apparently decided to promote the Breaking the Silence narrative without thoroughly probing the testimony.
A lead story on BBC's World Service news (July 16) featured anchor Dan Damon similarly championing Breaking the Silence's report. When Israeli spokesman Mark Regev questioned the credibility of the testimony, pointing out that the report “doesn't even meet the most basic standards of tabloid journalism,” Damon reacted with outrage and attempted to defend the validity of the report, concluding:
Now you can, I suppose, say ‘well we've got no evidence, there's no journalistic integrity here', but people will believe that these are real testimonies from real soldiers.
Other British outlets similarly promoted the report as truth, with headlines like the following:
“Israeli soldiers reveal the brutal truth of Gaza attack: Troops' testimonies disclose loose rules of engagement and use of civilians as human shields Palestinian houses were systematically destroyed by 'insane artillery firepower'” (The Independent)
“'If you feel threatened, shoot.' Israel soldiers reveal tactics in Gaza attack: Troops allege they were told to use human shields: Mortars and phosphorus 'were show of strength'” (The Guardian)
“IDF troops tell all on Gaza onslaught: Soldiers' report reveals reckless attitude to Palestinian lives” (Morning Star)
“Israeli soldiers guilty of 'serious abuses' in Gaza: Israeli soldiers were guilty of serious abuses against Palestinian civilians after their rules of engagement were loosened during the recent Gaza offensive, according to soldiers who took part. (Daily Telegraph)
With the British government helping fund questionable allegations by an overtly biased group (The British Embassy in Tel Aviv funded Breaking the Silence's report) and British media outlets helping promote them, consumers should beware that the news emanating from these sources is tainted by political bias.
* funding comes from the British, Spanish and Dutch governments as well EU organizations
** It is noteworthy the group's co-director, Mikhael Manekin was also active in another anti-Israel group, Zochrot, which promotes the concept that Israel is responsible and should be condemned for creating a Palestinian “Naqba” (catastrophe )