By William Booth, Washington Post, May 22, 2016
PETAH TIKVA, Israel–An Israeli organization that publishes anonymous testimony from soldiers, often alleging use of excessive force against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank 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 sobering report last year on the 2014 Gaza war that included anonymous testimony suggesting that permissive rules of engagement coupled with indiscriminate artillery fire contributed to mass destruction and high numbers of civilian casualties in the coastal enclave.
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.”
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 so there is no compelling reason for the state to insist that the anonymous soldiers be named.
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.
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 Benjamin Netanyahu said Breaking the Silence had “crossed a red line” after an undercover Israeli TV investigation 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 the West Bank city of Hebron, 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 the occupation of the West Bank.
In an interview earlier this year, Avigdor Lieberman, who is slated to be Israel’s new defense minister, said Breaking the Silence was funded by the same people who finance Hamas.