The left-wing Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence (BtS), the subject of a story by journalist Terry Plane in these pages last month, is by its own admission, a political organisation that seeks to “change” the “policy of government”. The policies it targets are Israel’s continued security control over the West Bank, and the Israeli settlements there.
Quite a few Israeli NGOs have similar goals. BtS differentiates itself by exploiting its activists’ military backgrounds to market itself under a pretence of whistleblowing.
However, this angle is novel only to foreigners. Military service is compulsory for all Jewish Israelis, so most are generally very aware of what goes on in the army. The IDF inducts more than 66,000 young men each year, and thousands more women. Therefore, while the 1,200 total so-called Bts “testifiers” – in actuality, providers of anonymous, unsubstantiated stories that BtS has collected over 15 years – may sound impressive, they actually represent a statistically insignificant fraction of veterans.
Besides, the IDF’s treatment of Palestinians has always been heatedly debated and challenged in Israel – often leading to positive changes in the IDF’s engagement with Palestinians.
BtS chooses Hebron to sell its anti-occupation propaganda pitch, but the situation in Hebron, Judaism’s second holiest city after Jerusalem, is entirely unique. It’s the only place in the West Bank where Israelis live on the same street as Palestinians, Shuhada Street.
Before the 1993 Oslo Agreement and the subsequent 1997 Hebron Agreement that divided the city, they co-mingled there, but the deteriorating security situation eventually created a scarred, traumatised status quo.
I speak from experience, having visited Hebron many times and listening to many perspectives, among them a Palestinian-led tour of the seam areas that surround the Jewish neighbourhoods in Hebron, similar to a BtS tour.
The myopic BtS tour ignores the wider reality that more than 90% of West Bank Palestinians have lived under self-rule for decades and normally don’t regularly encounter an Israeli soldier or settler unless they travel between these self-rule areas or work in settlements or in Israel itself.
Hebron’s history explains why the situation there is so unique. In August 1929, rioting by Arabs in Hebron killed 67 and wounded 50 of their Jewish neighbours in a pogrom. The British uprooted the survivors and thousands of years of Jewish life in Hebron came to an end – a communal life that resumed after the 1967 war.
The overwhelming majority of Jewish residences in Hebron today, including those along Shuhada Street, live on land owned by that ancient Jewish community, along with some properties legally purchased from Palestinian owners. Only 20% of Hebron is under Israeli control. The rest is under the Palestinian Authority’s control, and patrolled by Palestinian police, bustling with commerce and culture, as per agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 1997, pending final status negotiations on a two-state peace. But the Palestinians walked away from an Israeli peace offer in 2000 and started the second intifada and have turned down at least two generous offers of statehood since. The ball remains in their court.
Half-truths, exaggerations and omissions are BtS’ tools of trade, about Hebron and virtually everything else, and their manipulation and distortion of facts do a disservice to journalists like Plane. For example, how could an Israeli sniper, like Plane’s BtS tour guide, take a visitor past the Jewish neighbourhoods without mentioning the infamous March 2001 Palestinian sniping attack that killed 10-month-old Israeli baby Shalhevet Pass?
Plane pegs Palestinian unemployment in Hebron at a stunning 70% and implies, again likely relying on BtS advice, that Palestinian suspects as young as eight are subject to arrest. The correct figures are actually 20% and age 12.
Further, without diminishing the heinousness of Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 Hebron massacre, to say that there has been “no major loss of life” in the West Bank since that time, as Plane asserts based on what Bts told him, is indefensible.
It’s not necessary to venture out of Hebron to get that story. On November 15, 2002, 12 Israelis were killed and 14 wounded in an ambush near the Cave of the Patriarchs.
In the three-year period from 2015 through 2018 alone, 52 Israelis were killed in Palestinian West Bank terror attacks.
Meanwhile, Hebron’s current tense status quo was forged in the crucible of the 2000-2005 intifada, a traumatic period in which nearly 900 Israeli civilians were killed in terror attacks nationwide.
All of this is relevant to fully understanding the complexity of Hebron’s story today and the difficulty of negotiating its future – but BtS tours are riddled with such omissions and half-truths because getting the facts straight isn’t their priority. “Ending the occupation” is!
Instead of being a valued part of Israel’s healthy process of accountability, BtS’s dubious database of “testimonies”, lacking details which make most of their worst claims impossible to verify, exists merely as a political tool to increase international pressure to achieve BtS’ objective of unilateral withdrawal. As Israel learned after unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza in 2005, such moves can inadvertently lead to dangerously unacceptable consequences.
Where did BtS go astray? Ben-Dror Yemini, a centrist Israeli commentator and outspoken champion of peace with the Palestinians based on two states, point to BtS’ funding links with groups that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. In 2017, he wrote. “[BtS], which started off by exposing wrongs in a bid to fix them, has turned into an organization that is ceaselessly spreading lies against the State of Israel…When you receive money from pro-BDS bodies… it’s no longer a battle aimed at fixing things. It’s a battle in the service of a campaign opposing Israel’s actual existence.”
With such a cloud over its transparency, funding and integrity, claims made against Israel by BtS should not be accepted at face value. The sensationalist and factually challenged tour of Hebron that it provided Plane disrespected his professionalism as a journalist, his readers and the cause of peace – which after all, can only be built on a firm foundation of truth.
Ahron Shapiro is a senior policy analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC). An edited version of this op-ed appeared on the Adelaide Advertiser’s “SA Weekend” Magazine on October 11, 2019