In this photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017. Yehuda Shaul, co-founder of "Breaking the Silence" group, poses for photo after a media briefing, in Tel Aviv, Israel. The faces of the soldiers on the background photos were blurred by the organization.  (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Breaking the Silence

Inside the Israeli Right’s Campaign to Silence an Anti-Occupation Group

Yehuda Shaul, a co-founder of Breaking the Silence, after a media briefing in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Nov. 21, 2017. Photo: Oded Balilty/AP

On January 12, 2016, Yuli Novak called her staff of a dozen people together in their Tel Aviv offices to reveal the identity of a spy who had infiltrated the organization. At the time, Novak was the executive director of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli anti-occupation group that collects testimonies of Israeli soldiers operating in Palestinian territories. She informed the staff that a man calling himself “Chai” had been secretly videotaping them. Chai had been active with the group for a year and a half, visiting their office on a weekly basis, and had grown close to several staff members.

“The moment I said it, everyone’s first reaction was to look left and right,” Novak told me over iced tea in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, in July. “The initial feeling was paranoia — everyone thinking to themselves, Who else? People were automatically suspicious. In that moment, you don’t know who is for you and who is against you.” Frima Bubis, who joined Breaking the Silence just before Chai was exposed, remembers the feeling. “Your mind just runs — I even suspected Yuli. It was awful. Everyone scared of the other, but everyone looking to others for support,” Bubis said. “I remember it as a moment of serious trauma of trust. It was a relief that it wasn’t anyone from the staff.”

Chai, whose real name turned out to be Chaim Fremd, had been hired by a right-wing Israeli group called Ad Kan, or “no more” in Hebrew. Ad Kan, part of the powerful political network that supports Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, holds as its mission to dig up dirt on Israelis who “seek to join the anti-Israel platform.”

Chai wasn’t the first mole. In the months prior, there were less successful attempts to sabotage Breaking the Silence’s work, including people who approached the group with fabricated accounts of their service in an effort to entrap the organization into publishing inaccurate testimonies. Among them was Oren Hazan, who in 2015 tried to get the group to publish a testimony he made up about Israel’s 2014 military operation in Gaza; he later admitted when confronted by a journalist in the halls of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, that he was part of a settler-funded campaign to “expose” left-wing groups. He went on to become a legislator with the ruling Likud Party.

For Breaking the Silence, the discovery of a network of spies was just the tip of the iceberg. The small whistleblower organization has found itself at the epicenter of a well-orchestrated, ongoing campaign by a spectrum of right-wing groups, individuals, media outlets, and senior politicians to quash its exposure of Israel’s occupation and human rights violations. The attacks have included incitement and threats. They have been called liars, traitors, and enemies.

The political persecution of Breaking the Silence is a testament to the settler right’s consolidation of power and permeation into the mainstream.

For the right, the attacks against Breaking the Silence make sense. The military is revered in Israel, and elite combat soldiers who question or challenge their service in the occupied territories represent the most effective wrench in the institutionalization of Israel’s system of control in the West Bank and Gaza. As one of the sole voices in Israel speaking consistently and clearly against the occupation, a bright red target has been placed on the group’s back. (Disclosure: I did some freelance translation work for them several years ago.)

The political persecution of Breaking the Silence is a testament to the settler right’s consolidation of power and permeation into the mainstream over the last decade; allegations against the group have found their way into the talking points of Israel’s most powerful leaders. The state has put a heavy price tag on calling for an end to the occupation, and Breaking the Silence has found itself on the front lines of this battle.

Those lines have become increasingly clear ahead of an April 9 election that is essentially a referendum on how much further right Israeli society will go. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made an alliance with the racist Jewish Power party that even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has condemned. He is portraying his only viable opponent — former Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff Benny Gantz, who boasts in a campaign video that, under his command in 2014, “parts of Gaza were sent back to the Stone Age” — as a leftist. Gantz, for his part, has formed a joint ticket with former finance minister and Yesh Atid party head Yair Lapid, who has accused Breaking the Silence of “spreading lies.” Meanwhile, the only Jewish political party openly campaigning for an end to the occupation, Meretz, may lose the few seats it has in the Knesset.

“There is an active attempt to kick us out of the tent,” said Avner Gvaryahu, Breaking the Silence’s executive director. “I think it’s clear the reason they are trying to do that is because at this point, we are still in it.”

An Israeli soldier, visiting the "Breaking the Silence" exhibition, looks at photos taken by Israeli soldiers during their military service in the Palestinian southern West Bank city of Hebron, on display in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, June 23, 2004. The Israeli army interrogated on Wednesday five reserve  soldiers who set up a photo exhibit giving vivid accounts of abuse and  harassment of Palestinians in Hebron, the manager of the gallery displaying the  exhibit said, a day after the army and policeraided the exhibit, and confiscated an album of newspaper clippings and  a videotape of testimony from more than 70 soldiers. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

An Israeli soldier views a Breaking the Silence exhibition of photos taken by other Israeli soldiers during their military service in Hebron, on display in Tel Aviv, Israel, on June 23, 2004.

Photo: Ariel Schalit/AP

Five and certainly 10 years ago, few Israelis had heard of Breaking the Silence. It functioned as an educational group, primarily to put information out there for audiences to find and provide a home for disillusioned former soldiers.

Breaking the Silence was founded in the summer of 2004, during the Palestinian uprising known as the Second Intifada, by a group of 64 discharged soldiers who had completed their military service in the West Bank. The ex-soldiers had a hard time coming to terms with the things they did and wanted to speak out. Publishing accounts like theirs — making them available to the public — was the solution they settled on.

The first booklet of testimonies, which debuted along with a photo and video exhibit in Tel Aviv, focused on what the former soldiers did and saw between 2001 and 2004 in the West Bank city of Hebron. A gray city lined with checkpoints, concrete barricades, and barbed wire, 850 Israeli settlers, protected by hundreds of soldiers, live among 200,000 Palestinians in Hebron, making it a flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian tensions. The booklet shed light on this Disneyland of occupation — where Israeli control over and abuse of Palestinian people, space, movement, and property is unmistakable — and brought it into the heart of cosmopolitan Tel Aviv.

FILE - In this Thursday, Jan. 8, 2009 file photo, smoke and fire caused by explosions from Israeli military operations is seen on the outskirts of Gaza City. The Israeli military used reckless force during the fighting in Gaza earlier this year, resulting in needless deaths and damage, Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers, charged in a report Wednesday July 15, 2009. In testimonies collected by Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli army reservists, 26 soldiers who participated in the three weeks of Gaza fighting describe demolishing homes and using firepower beyond what was necessary given the relatively light resistance they encountered. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa, File)

Smoke and fire caused by explosions from Israeli military operations is seen on the outskirts of Gaza City on Jan. 8, 2009.

Photo: Hatem Moussa/AP
Breaking the Silence members were invited to present their exhibit in Israel’s Knesset and participate in a parliamentary Education Committee discussion attended by senior defense officials — something that would be unheard of today. At that meeting, Yehuda Shaul, one of the founders and the face of Breaking the Silence, spoke. “No one, not even the staunchest leftists or the best commanders, really know what is going on in the territories, except for us, and we continue to be silent,” he told the committee. “We have three options. One: to refuse” — a reference to those who won’t do military service. “Two: to escape to India” — a common rite of passage for Israelis who travel after completing their military service to leave the stresses of what they did behind. “And three is what we are doing now: to stand up and shout, not only about what we went through, but about what society is going through — and, primarily, what society does not know.”

In addition to gathering testimonies and conducting tours in West Bank flashpoints, Breaking the Silence holds educational events and salons. Like other Israeli anti-occupation groups, Breaking the Silence is supported largely by European funds. In 2018, nearly half of its 8 million-shekel ($2.2 million) budget came from European governments. A number of European and American foundations also support the group, among them George Soros’s Open Society Institute and the New Israel Fund, which funds many Israeli human rights organizations and has been the target of right-wing incitement for years. In December, Israel sent a letter to the German government asking it to “fundamentally rethink” its funding of a variety of Israeli left-wing organizations, among them Breaking the Silence.

While it often gets lumped in with the human rights community because its work exposes the violations of Palestinian human rights, Breaking the Silence puts a mirror up to Israeli society, highlighting the price being paid by Israelis themselves as occupiers. The group’s argument is simple: Controlling millions of people by force is immoral, and soldiers who serve Israel’s military occupation will necessarily engage in immoral acts. But they are a small organization. In the nearly 15 years since being founded, 1,200 Israelis have provided testimonies on their military service — a tiny number considering there are around 75,000 soldiers on active duty on a given day in Israel. Still, the group has created an unprecedented archive of testimonies from individual soldiers and crosschecked data about IDF operations and policies that would otherwise have never seen light.

Yehuda Shaul (C), from the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, talks to members of the European Parliament during a visit to the Palestinian village of Susya, south-east of Hebron,  in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on February 10, 2016. Israel's High Court ruled in May 2015 that Susya's 340 residents could be relocated and its structures demolished, which Human Rights Watch derided as "a grave breach" of Israel's obligations to the Palestinian populace under its military rule. / AFP / HAZEM BADER        (Photo credit should read HAZEM BADER/AFP/Getty Images)

Yehuda Shaul, center, talks to members of the European Parliament during a visit to the Palestinian village of Susya, southeast of Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on Feb. 10, 2016.

Photo: Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images

July 15, 2009. That was the day Breaking the Silence became persona non grata, Shaul, the group’s co-founder and co-director, told me matter-of-factly. On that day, the group released testimonies on Israel’s 2008-2009 Gaza operation, the first since the state pulled settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005. The testimonies revealed gaps between the IDF’s portrayal of combat and what soldiers actually did, for example deploying white phosphorous in densely populated neighborhoods and destroying buildings where there were no direct threats. “That second, we became the enemy of the state,” Shaul said. Several media producers cancelled interviews with members of Breaking the Silence that day, claiming that then-IDF spokesperson Avi Benayahu had given them an ultimatum, Shaul explained. “Breaking the Silence was told by TV and radio producers that Benayahu’s message to them was that if they wanted him on, they couldn’t speak with us. They had to choose. So guess who they chose?” Shaul said. Benayahu denied the claims. “This is not true,” he told me. “I claimed that the credibility of the report is in doubt since names and locations were not identified.”

The group remained on the government’s bad side, but it was a May 2015 report that officially placed Breaking the Silence on the blacklist. “This is How we Fought in Gaza,” a collection of 111 testimonies from soldiers who participated in the 50-day operation in Gaza in the summer of 2014, points to evidence of Israeli war crimes — even though that term doesn’t appear in any of Breaking the Silence’s materials. (Israel’s assault on Gaza, according to the United Nations, killed 2,251 Palestinians, most of them civilians, 551 of them children. Hamas’s attacks on Israel killed 73 people, including six civilians.) The group expected some backlash to the report — like denunciations by politicians and efforts to discredit the testimonies — but the near-daily barrage of attacks, threats, and legal steps against them in the following months caught them off guard.

Senior government officials across the political spectrum incited against them, accusing the group of having “malicious motives” and engaging in “subversion.” A lawmaker from the nationalist Jewish Home party proposed a bill to outlaw the organization entirely. The State Attorney asked a court to order the group to reveal the identities of the soldiers who provide testimonies, which are almost all anonymous. (Breaking the Silence claimed in court that the identities of testifiers should be protected the way journalists’ sources are. The State Attorney eventually withdrew the claim, and the court closed the case).

The group’s computer databases were subjected to cyberattacks so intense, Shaul said, that hackers must have “rented servers worth thousands of dollars and had people working in shifts around the clock.” They assume the attacks were an effort to expose testifiers and have since invested in high-caliber data protection, as well as security cameras and other safety measures. A media misinformation campaign targeted the group amid concrete threats against its offices, its staffers, and some of their relatives, and even the owners of venues who hosted their events.

The attempt to silence Breaking the Silence, in other words, was an attack on all fronts.

This period of unprecedented aggression toward Breaking the Silence culminated in a March 17, 2016, TV segment about the group by Israel’s popular Channel 2, aired during the primetime news hour. Dubbed an exposé, the 13-minute report was based entirely on footage filmed by Ad Kan’s moles. It alleged that the organization was collecting classified military intelligence that could undermine national security, and that it had planted one of its own activists into the IDF in order to collect such information. (The latter is a baseless claim considering that every non-Arab Israeli — regardless of politics or affiliation — must enlist in the army). The footage showed Breaking the Silence staff members interviewing the infiltrators (as they do with everyone who provides a testimony), asking many detailed questions about their military service. The Channel 2 reporter suggested — with no evidence — that these questions were possible grounds for espionage.

The herd-like cacophony of accusations drowned out the fact that some significant figures did come out in defense of the organization.

Within a couple of hours after the report aired, at 10:58 p.m., Netanyahu tweeted, “Breaking the Silence has crossed another red line. The investigative security authorities are looking into the matter.” (The prime minister’s office did not respond to my question about what the first line crossed was.) The next day, then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon announced that he would instruct the IDF to investigate Breaking the Silence on suspicion of leaking classified information. Then another Likud minister, Yariv Levin, accused Breaking the Silence, in no uncertain terms, of engaging in “espionage” and “treason”— a charge that could carry the death penalty. He did not provide any evidence but rather highlighted that they receive funding from European governments.

Similar censuring statements were made by politicians from center and center-left parties, some even adopting Netanyahu’s “red line” language, which the prime minister had previously used to discuss the threat of an Iranian nuclear program. The herd-like cacophony of accusations drowned out the fact that some significant figures did come out in defense of the organization, including former IDF Gen. Amiram Levin, and Yuval Diskin and Ami Ayalon, both former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service.

Three years after the claim surfaced that Breaking the Silence collects classified information, the Israeli judiciary confirmed last month what the group had asserted all along: The charge was without merit. On February 5, Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said there was no basis to pursue any criminal investigation against Breaking the Silence, legally clearing them of all suspicion. Channel 2, despite a demand by the group, has yet to retract the report that set the accusations off.

Employees work at the offices of Israeli rights group "Breaking the Silence" in Tel Aviv, Israel, December 16, 2015. REUTERS/Baz Ratner/File Photo - S1AETPAOPLAA

Employees work at the offices of Breaking the Silence in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Dec. 16, 2015.

Photo: Baz Ratner/Reuters

The government crackdown on Breaking the Silence has taken place in tandem with a push by right-wing groups directly and indirectly connected to the government. One method they have used is to try to delegitimize Israeli NGOs that receive foreign government funding. In December 2015, the hyper-nationalist, far-right group Im Tirtzu released a highly polished and unabashedly incendiary video that purported to implicate members of several leading Israeli human rights groups, among them Gvaryahu, Breaking the Silence’s director, of working for European governments in support of Palestinian militancy. The “foreign agents” report accompanying the video defined a foreign agent entity as “an organization that receives funding from foreign countries and entities to conduct political activities inside Israel in order to interfere with its internal democratic process.” The next year, Israel’s parliament passed the “NGO Transparency Law,” which is designed to stigmatize left-wing nonprofits that receive the majority of their funding from abroad.
In this photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017. Avner Gevaryahu CEO of "Breaking the Silence" poses for photo after media briefing, in Tel Aviv, Israel. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Avner Gvaryahu, CEO of Breaking the Silence, after a media briefing in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Nov. 21, 2017.

Photo: Oded Balilty/AP

Another group that targets Breaking the Silence is Reservists on Duty, founded after the release of Breaking the Silence’s Gaza testimonies. Its mission, as stated on its website, is to “expose and counter the BDS movement” — a reference to the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign to pressure Israel to comply with international law — “and new forms of anti-Semitism erupting on college campuses across America.” In practice, it mostly goes after Breaking the Silence, as part of the Israeli government’s broader effort to connect the group to the BDS movement. When I asked how Breaking the Silence is connected to either BDS or anti-Semitism, Reservists on Duty director Amit Deri claimed that Breaking the Silence’s testimonies are used to “spread hate” as “materials that feed the monster.” In 2016, Reservists on Duty received $100,000 through the tax-exempt New York-based Central Fund of Israel, which is notorious for channeling funds to settlements. It is also the conduit through which Canary Mission, a shadowy blacklist site of pro-Palestine activists, received donations.

The right-wing groups going after Breaking the Silence are loosely connected to one another, and some of their leaders were former staffers in Netanyahu’s government. Im Tirtzu was founded by people formerly affiliated with the Institute for Zionist Strategies, which is run by Yoaz Hendel, Netanyahu’s former director of communications. Netanyahu in 2017 congratulated Im Tirtzu on 10 years of “fighting for the truth about Israel and Zionism.” Reservists on Duty’s founders are also affiliated with Im Tirtzu.

The fearmongering around Breaking the Silence and BDS has become part and parcel of the government’s agenda.

The fearmongering around Breaking the Silence and BDS has become part and parcel of the government’s agenda. On February 26, Breaking the Silence launched an exhibit of testimonies in Brussels, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the massacre of 29 Muslim worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron by American-Israeli extremist Baruch Goldstein. Israeli Minister Gilad Erdan, who oversees the ministry charged with combatting BDS globally, tweeted in response to the exhibit’s launch that the group “cooperates with the worst of Israel’s enemies.” He added, “We operate in a variety of ways against boycott groups, and apparently Breaking the Silence is also such a group.”

The concerted attacks on Breaking the Silence have taken a toll. Bubis, the organization’s Jewish diaspora coordinator who was portrayed in the Channel 2 report as a mole in the IDF, said her life has changed drastically since. Other staff members mentioned the word “trauma” when describing to me what they had gone through. Others still said they experienced panic attacks, though they were quick to note that their ordeal pales in comparison to the lives of Palestinians under occupation.

“We were very careful not to believe in conspiracies at the time, but now after more than two years, it’s hard not to see it,” Bubis said. Her work with Breaking the Silence has created rifts in her personal relationships. While at a wedding in 2017, an officer in the IDF reserves recanted his offer to give her a ride home after learning that she works for Breaking the Silence. “You people disgust me,” he told her. “You are going to have to find another ride.”

Novak, who spoke to me in her first interview since leaving the organization in early 2017 after five years as its director, said she is still processing what happened. At the time, the day-to-day operations of the organization felt like a “war room,” she recalled. They were working 12- to 14-hour days in the office, sleeping at each other’s houses, and avoiding interactions with anyone outside their bubble. “During that period, I did not walk around on the street alone, it was not safe. I was very careful. It changed my lifestyle dramatically. It was very scary.”

Yuli Novak the executive director, for the group 'Breaking the Silence' speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, Friday, Feb. 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Yuli Novak, formerly the executive director of Breaking the Silence, during a press conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Feb. 5, 2016.

Photo: Sebastian Scheiner/AP
Although the constant attacks against the group have subsided, they upended the organization’s ability to do its work and have arguably left permanent damage. In the last 2 1/2 years, according to Breaking the Silence, not a single one of its events hosted in a municipal building went without interventions by a government minister or elected official in an effort to cancel it. Last summer, a Jerusalem court ordered the closure of a small gallery space that had come under scrutiny after it hosted a Breaking the Silence lecture in 2017. As part of the effort to quell its public events, last July, the Israeli parliament followed through on a yearslong threat to pass a law — dubbed the “Breaking the Silence” law — that grants the education minister authority to prevent organizations or individuals from hosting programs in high schools that are deemed to be acting against the IDF or that seek to damage IDF soldiers.

“In a democracy, the opposition is supposed to have the spaces — public spaces — where they can try and convince citizens to switch sides,” Novak said. “If those spaces, real physical spaces, are threatened or no longer exist, because the price tag is that high, then there is no more democratic game.”

This is a partial view of the southern West Bank Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, adjacent to the Palestinian city of Hebron, Tuesday April 13, 2004. In the foreground there are Palestinians houses in Hebron, and in the hilltops, background, there are closeby Palestinian villages. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon disclosed the final element of his "disengangement" plan late Monday just hours before his departure for the United States, naming for the first time the West Bank areas he plans to keep under Israeli control, including the Kiryat Arba settlement. (AP Photo/Nasser Shiyoukhi)

A partial view of the southern West Bank Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, adjacent to the Palestinian city of Hebron, on April 13, 2004.

Photo: Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP

The collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 2000 led to a gaping political vacuum in which almost no political parties are pushing for an end to occupation — or even acknowledging it exists. That’s where Breaking the Silence and other organizations like B’Tselem, the information center for human rights in the occupied territories, come in. They have become the de facto opposition in Israel, because they are in the West Bank, spotlighting Israeli state violence and pushing a rights-based narrative. “Occupation is one of the most normal things in Israel. One of the hardest things for Israelis to do today is imagine an Israel that is not an occupying entity. It’s our national enterprise,” Shaul said. “We didn’t sign up to be the Israeli opposition, but now we are.”

In theory, the backgrounds of the Breaking the Silence team should give them credibility in Israeli society. Several of the group’s founding and current staff members, among them Shaul, Bubis, and Gvaryahu, come from Orthodox Jewish homes and have relatives who live in the settlements. They are not refusers or boycotters, who are considered beyond the pale by the vast majority of Israelis, and their criticism is not aimed at the IDF as an institution, but rather at the elected politicians who determine what the IDF does. They are not what the right likes to call the draft-dodging, secular peaceniks from Tel Aviv. They are pillars of Israeli society, the elite. But it appears that is exactly why they have been targeted so fiercely. As Novak puts it, “Breaking the Silence is the DNA of the Zionist left. They didn’t pick some anarchist group. They chose the backbone of the Israeli left, in order to destroy it from within.”


Frima Bubis speaks with a police officer in Hebron, minutes after a child hurled a can of paint at her head on July 16, 2018.

Photo: Mairav Zonszein
As Bubis told me, “It’s a fight over what’s happening here. We’re not just exposing the reality of occupation, we’re fighting the mechanisms that maintain it.” In mid-July, while giving a tour in Hebron to eight eager American Jews who had just walked off their Birthright trips, a settler child lobbed a can of yellow paint at Bubis, which splattered all over her curly hair. The soldiers present just stood there looking on, as Bubis grabbed for some tissues and asked if anyone had caught the act on their phones.

This is a fairly average day in Hebron for Breaking the Silence, whose guides are often harassed by settlers. Just a couple weeks later, Shaul was punched in the face by a settler in the same area while giving a tour. When I saw him a week later, back in Hebron to give another tour, he was surrounded by activists serving as a buffer between him and the settlers, and was wearing a GoPro camera in a harness strapped around his torso. He acted like it was just another day at the office.

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