Executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council Colin Rubenstein gives his take on the questions put to Breaking The Silence’s Avner Gvaryahu.
Does Breaking The Silence contribute to the global demonisation of Israel and help Israel’s enemies? If they have genuine grievances, is there another way they could deal with them?
Undoubtedly, it does. We have seen countless individuals and organizations that reject Israel’s right to exist exploit the output of Breaking the Silence (BTS) to further that goal.
According to the BTS website, the “goal at Breaking the Silence is to end the occupation, not to improve it or make it more humane”.
When you look at BTS through that prism, you realize that their “grievance” is not about incidents of questionable IDF behaviour. If it were, they would bring these cases to Israel’s authoritative military channels. Their actual grievance is with the “occupation”. BTS’s collection of anonymous testimonies that portray IDF conduct in an immoral light are simply a means towards that end.
BTS distorts the reality of the IDF by collecting only critical and unsubstantiated stories.
Listening to BTS, you’d never see the full picture about the situation in the West Bank – that 90 percent of the Palestinians live in Area A, under full Palestinian Authority administrative and security control and don’t even encounter the IDF for the most part.
If their grievance is with the occupation and not about IDF behaviour, they could join any number of political movements inside of Israel and change policy through the ballot box. They know, however, that most Israelis see the IDF’s presence in parts of the West Bank as a necessity for security, so long as the Palestinians remain either unwilling or unable to accept a peace agreement based on several previous Israeli offers.
BTS’s reliance on foreign-based funding and emphasis on English PR materials suggests they know they can’t achieve their ends democratically and are pursuing a strategy of building largely external diplomatic pressure against Israel to withdraw from the West Bank. Of course, Israel’s enemies who view the entire country as “occupied territory” are more than happy to use BTS’s materials to further their own goal of delegitimisation.
There are several, well documented examples of the IDF and other authorities taking disciplinary action or bringing charges against soldiers who have not acted as they should eg Elor Azaria. Do these channels work and if so what reasons can you think of for BTS not using them?
Avner Gvaryahu told BBC’s Hard Talk that he wasn’t there to criticize the IDF saying, “I don’t think that’s what I do. What I do is I criticize the mission the IDF got [sic] to carry out and in that sense, the problem that soldiers are facing has to do with the decisions of the government.”
I think when you take Gvaryahu’s words together with the aforementioned statement from the FAQ [Frequently asked questions] section of the BTS website, you realise that BTS isn’t in the business of holding rogue soldiers to account. As they themselves say, their only business is “ending the occupation”. According to this logic, prosecuting soldiers for mistreatment of Palestinians would be unhelpful to BTS’s core mission.
Are BTS really ‘breaking the silence’? While what they say may make for uncomfortable listening, is anyone censoring them or stopping them expressing their views recounting their experiences?
No, of course they aren’t. Israel is a free society. Most Israelis serve in the army regardless of their politics and, not surprisingly, the ones who are opposed to Israel’s presence in the West Bank are uncomfortable with serving in these areas. They have always made their feelings known inside of Israel and elsewhere. The concept of Breaking the Silence itself is based on a falsehood that they are exposing sinister secrets that Israelis hide from the world. Unfortunately, the international media has often fallen for this dishonest gimmick.
To the best of your knowledge, does BTS debate settlers publicly?
You would have to direct that question to them, but I don’t know if it really matters one way or the other.
Colonel Richard Kemp and other military experts have regularly hailed the IDF as the most moral army in the world, stressing that no any other army in history has been as careful to avoid civilian deaths. How do the Colonel’s observations, made regularly at the United Nations and to other international organisations, tally with what we hear from BTS?
The description of the IDF as the most moral army in the world is commonly misunderstood. It has been used against the IDF whenever a soldier, like Azaria, whom you mentioned, acts in a manner that brings dishonour to the uniform. The IDF, like every army in the world, makes mistakes and has some bad apples. The world in general, including the security challenges that Israel faces, does not function in hypothetical absolutes but shades of grey.
What Colonel Kemp and others really mean when they say the IDF is the most moral in the world, is the fact that the IDF is second to none in ensuring that its military objectives are planned and executed in the most moral and legally sound manner. Many military experts have commended Israel for it, while recognising that the IDF has to hold itself to such a high standard because it is also the most scrutinised army in the world. It’s a double standard, but the IDF has met the challenge, and I think that is something Israel can take pride in.
Breaking the Silence claims to not be anti-IDF but anti-occupation, but their modus operandi, collecting unsubstantiated allegations and crowing about them as though they had exposed state secrets, drags the reputation of the IDF through the mud.
Would you regard BTS activists as traitors?
No, and let’s not turn them into martyrs. They are simply very misguided and contributing to distorted world opinion of Israel.
Do members of IDF units from which BTS have drawn testimonies, refute those testimonies? And is there an issue with the anonymity surrounding many of those who give testimony via BTS?
I understand there is an organisation called Reservists on Duty which collects testimonies of the sort you describe.
As I’ve said, BTS’s anonymous testimonies are inherently questionable and there is no justification for it. This anonymity serves BTS in two ways – it makes it next to impossible to fact-check claims while adding to the group’s “mystique” that it is somehow exposing something taboo.
Right-wing groups are highly critical and scathing of Breaking the Silence. Is their condemnation justified? Do members of BTS have any reason to fear speaking out?
There is such a concept as giving something “too much oxygen”. If criticism of a group is over the top, it is actually counterproductive, putting them in the spotlight and letting them play the victim card. I don’t think that anyone who knows Israel and has spent time there would buy the idea that anyone there would be afraid to speak out on virtually anything.
Does Australian media coverage of the conflict lack nuance? Are the views presented either blindly pro-Israeli or blindly pro-Palestinian?
Unfortunately, much of the coverage of the conflict is overly simplistic, lacks content. and context, and buys into the narrative of Israel’s detractors. In relation to coverage featuring bias and misleading or factually incorrect stories, part of what we do at AIJAC is file complaints over such stories and publish comment in the Australia/Israel Review and on our website and social media platforms to compensate for such deficiencies, There are some honourable exceptions of course. AIJAC’s Rambam study program can claim some credit for that, as we’ve brought dozens of top journalists to Israel over the years to assess the situation for themselves.
In Gaza, Hamas terrorists do not wear uniforms or identify themselves in any way. They store weaponry in mosques, hospitals and schools and cynically use civilians as human shields. Surely the blame for every single death on the Gaza border security should be laid squarely at the feet of Hamas?
As a rule, this proposition is absolutely correct. Israel has a right to defend its border with Gaza – a territory controlled by a terror group – and every single Gazan knows not to approach the fence. That said, I would caution against extending that generalisation beyond the fence, since there is always the possibility of operational mistakes. This is precisely why the IDF rigorously investigates every problematic incident.
Last April’s “testimony” by BTS spokesperson Dean Issacharof was conclusively exposed as fraudulent by the office of the Israeli State Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit. Why, therefore, should any other statement by BTS not be viewed with a high degree of caution and scepticism?
I’m not sure you have the most recent information. Back in December, the Attorney General’s office was considering reopening that case. To my knowledge, that investigation is still ongoing.
Regardless, that case calls attention to the fact that BTS, in general, does not cooperate with the IDF.
AIJAC’s own dealings with BTS makes us very sceptical of their credibility. For example, in 2014, shortly after then-Attorney General George Brandis said that he would no longer refer to east Jerusalem as occupied, Avner Gvaryahu himself, representing BTS, was interviewed by ABC Newsradio. Gvaryahu was asked about east Jerusalem and responded: “Go on our website and you [sic] put [into the website’s search box] east Jerusalem. You’ll see the stories popping up and you’ll see that the reality there is definitely not the same reality I live in while speaking to you in Tel Aviv with freedom”.
AIJAC analysts followed his advice, searched the BTS testimonies and discovered none about east Jerusalem whatsoever at that time. This makes sense because Jerusalem is considered part of Israel and is not patrolled by the IDF, but rather the police. But rather than admit this, Gvaryahu spouted complete nonsense, apparently hoping to drive traffic to the BTS website on false pretences.
The Breaking The Silence FaceBook page opines: “Our right to security does not permit the bloodshed of thousands of demonstrators shot with live ammunition.” Quite apart from the gross exaggeration as to the numbers shot and the false characterisation of those shot as simply “demonstrators”, why should Israel’s right to security not indeed permit defensive measures, including, if necessary, lethal defensive measures, given that Hamas has clearly and unambiguously stated their intention to murder innocent Israeli civilians if they infiltrate Israeli territory?
One criteria for being recognised as a nation is that you can defend your borders. Israel has a right and duty to defend its internationally recognised borders from an invading force. When the IDF used live fire, my understanding is that it was as a last resort to prevent a mass incursion – which would have almost certainly resulted in mass casualties from both sides.
Is it understandable that those who’ve joined Breaking The Silence will have received some backlash?
I think it is understandable. As mentioned above, the majority of Israelis would see BTS as an organisation that seeks to demonise Israel to the international community, and does so in ethically dubious ways. In addition, most Israelis are justifiably proud of their armed forces, not to mention serving in them and having family serving, so they would resent an organisation they see as unfairly denigrating the IDF.
As far as you are aware, do Breaking The Silence report allegations it raises to Israel’s Military Attorney General [MAG]?
You should ask the IDF MAG’s office, but since the BTS website has an FAQ question that reads “Why don’t you work with the army to try and improve the system?”, our understanding is generally they do not.