Breaking the Silence (About the IDF’s Treatment of Palestinians)

by Kevin Jon Heller

I want to call readers’ attention to a remarkable Israeli NGOBreaking the Silence, which collects the testimony of Israeli soldiers about the brutalization of Palestinians during the occupation. Here is the NGO’s self-description:

Breaking the Silence is an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. We endeavor to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis, and are engaged in the control of that population’s everyday life.

Soldiers who serve in the Territories witness and participate in military actions which change them immensely. Cases of abuse towards Palestinians, looting, and destruction of property have been the norm for years, but are still explained as extreme and unique cases. Our testimonies portray a different, and much grimmer picture in which deterioration of moral standards finds expression in the character of orders and the rules of engagement, and are justified in the name of  Israel’s security. While this reality is known to Israeli soldiers and commanders, Israeli society continues to turn a blind eye, and to deny that what is done in its name. Discharged soldiers returning to civilian life discover the gap between the reality they encountered in the Territories, and the silence about this reality they encounter at home. In order to become civilians again, soldiers are forced to ignore what they have seen and done. We strive to make heard the voices of these soldiers, pushing Israeli society to face the reality whose creation it has enabled.

We collect and publish testimonies from soldiers who, like us, have served in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem since September 2000, and hold lectures, house meetings, and other public events which bring to light the reality in the Territories through the voice of former combatants. We also conduct tours in Hebron and the South Hebron Hills region, with the aim of giving the Israeli public access to the reality which exists minutes from their own homes, yet is rarely portrayed in the media.

Founded in March 2004 by a group of soldiers who served in Hebron, Breaking the Silence has since acquired a special standing in the eyes of the Israeli public and in the media, as it is unique in giving voice to the experience of soldiers. To date, the organization has collected more than 700 testimonies from soldiers who represent all strata of Israeli society and cover nearly all units that operate in the Territories. All the testimonies we publish are meticulously researched, and all facts are cross-checked with additional eye-witnesses and/or the archives of other human rights organizations also active in the field. Every soldier who gives a testimony to Breaking the Silence knows the aims of the organization and the interview. Most soldiers choose to remain anonymous, due to various pressures from official military persons and society at large. Our first priority is to the soldiers who choose to testify to the public about their service.

What makes this kind of work so effective, of course, is that it is impossible to disregard the soldiers who provide the testimonials — or at least all of them — as “anti-Israel.” On the contrary, these soldiers are true patriots, doing their part in a repressive political environment to save Israel from its Netanyahus and Liebermans.

The Guardian has an excellent story today about Breaking the Silence. You can read it here. And make sure to check out the NGO’s superb website, where all of the testimonials can be found.

Hat-tip: my colleague Anicee Van Engeland.

23 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing this Kevin. It is really great to hear about these soldiers seeking justice.

  2. Dear Prof Heller,
    It would seem that Breaking the Silence is not very “remarkable”. Many of the “testimonies” they gather suffer from serious deficiencies (such as those noted here: In any event, I’m not really sure what “repressive political environment” you are referring to, why Israelis need to be saved from Netanyahu or what major effect Lieberman has on Israeli policy.

  3. Ori,
    Bar Ilan Professor Steinberg argument is that “Instead of presenting the “testimonies” in a manner that would facilitate a judicial investigation in the IDF and Israeli courts, based on due process of law, these anecdotal, mostly anonymous, and unverifiable account”:
    1) The article posted by Prof. Heller provides detailed and not anonymous accounts.
    2) The fact that BtS also depends on external actors for its funding simply confirms how difficult is to break the silence.
    3) Around 500-700 Palestinian children are arrested, detained and prosecuted in the Israeli military court system each year. No Israeli children come into contact with the military court system. No one acquainted with the military rule in the Palestinian territories would judge Israel’s military courts as reliable or fair.

    Breaking the Silence is remarkable and the difficulties encountered by people trying to undermine their efforts confirm this.

  4. Self-descriptions of religious and political NGOs are the written form of “selfies”, and worth about the same. NGO Monitor’s independent assessment may not be Heller’s cup of ideological tea, but for those who want to check the details without his spin, see We will be updating the entry with new developments, including the harsh silencing of a soldier at a BtS event because he disagreed with the party line. Heller might have missed this because his Hebrew is a bit rusty, and he uses the watered down foreign-export version.

  5. With regard to NGO Monitor’s “independent assessment” — which is basically the same as Fox News claiming to be “fair and balanced” — readers should see +972’s exploration of the possible ties between NGO Monitor and the Israeli government. You can find it here:

    That said, it is always amusing to see Steinberg accuse others — in this case, nearly a thousand others — of bias. People in glass houses and all…

  6. Heller pulls out Fox News and the “exploration of the possible ties”. Next, we will go to the latest evidence that Malaysian Airlines 370 was hijacked by little green men from Mars. Priests do faith; academics are supposed to use verifiable information and falsifiable explanations.

  7. That, my friends, is what we call changing the subject. In this case, from Steinberg’s well-documented ties to the Israeli government — and from his organization’s legendary lack of financial transparency, which it continually decries in others. Verifiable information indeed!

  8. What about the continued threat of Palestinian terror? Terror which is instigated by the Palestinian Authority, which lionizes terorists, and supported by a majoeity of the Palestinian people (

    The first duty of any government is to protect its citizens. One wonders what any Western government would do in the face of such threats.

  9. Shmuel,
    Half the accounts in that article are provided anonymously, thereby merely compounding the problem. Even those that are not provided anonymously are not at a level of great detail.
    By the way, I in fact am acquainted with court system in the Territories and I can say they are just and fair. In any event, subjecting persons in the Territories to military courts is explicitly authorised in Article 66 to Geneva Convention IV (which Israel, through unilateral declaration, adheres to its humanitarian provision). In fact, in the circumstances mentioned in Article 66, Pictet’s Commentary states that “[t]he accused may only be brought before “military courts”, that is before courts whose members have military status and are subordinate to the military authorities”.

  10. Emotions and ideology often trump rational analysis on everything related to Israel, including among academics. Those who view Israel as the devil incarnate immediately adopt claims that reinforce this prejudice, and lash out emotionally at anyone who questions their judgement or points out the double standards. The irrational language used to attack and discredit dissenting views highlights this behavior.

  11. And that, my friends, is what we call projection.

  12. Ori,
    “court system in the Territories and I can say they are just and fair”:
    The Israeli military courts in the Palestinian Territories are far from being fair. Whilst settler children are processed through Israel’s juvenile justice system and generally released on bail, Palestinian children accused of similar offences are prosecuted in military courts which deny children bail in at least 87 percent of cases, and have a conviction rate of 99.74 percent.

    “Half the accounts in that article are provided anonymously”: Many of them are not anonymous; if you feel uncomfortable with them, I suggest you to focus just on the many that are not anonymous.

    “Subjecting persons in the Territories to military courts is explicitly authorised in Article 66 to Geneva Convention IV (which Israel, through unilateral declaration, adheres to its humanitarian provision)”:

    Israel has maintained that the Geneva Convention does not strictly apply, and therefore it is not legally forbidden from annexing, expropriating and permanently settling parts of the territory it captured in 1967.
    But at other times, the Israeli authorities (and you) rely on the Geneva Convention to validate its policies, particularly with regard to treating Palestinians under Israel’s jurisdiction but outside its sovereign territory differently from Israeli citizens, citing the provisions that prohibit altering the legal status of an occupied territory’s inhabitants.
    This ambiguity has served the occupying power well, enabling it to cherry-pick the articles of the Geneva Convention and have the best of both worlds, while the occupied people has the worst of them.
    The laws of occupation either apply or do not apply. If it is an occupation, it is beyond time for Israel’s custodianship — supposedly provisional — to be brought to an end. If it is not an occupation, there is no justification for denying equal rights to everyone who is subject to Israeli rule, whether Israeli or Palestinian.

    Finally, at what point does an occupation cease to be an occupation and become a permanent or quasi-permanent state of affairs?

  13. Prof. Steinberg you didn’t answer to Prof. Jon Heller’s remarks about NGO Monitor. With the due respect, it seems to me that most of your works are influenced by “emotions and ideology”.
    Why to accuse others instead of rationally analyzing the types of works that you have often published?

  14. It’s not necessary to question the validity of these comments, but simply to point out that any army that has been in combat, including the IDF and the US Army, will have soldiers like these who are uncomfortable with some of what occurs. The fact of the matter is that these soldiers represent a tiny percentage of the IDF, and that no army is perfect. But there should be some minimal context.

  15. A tiny percentage of US soldiers committed atrocities during the Vietnam War. That didn’t make the war any less unjust.

  16. “US soldiers committed atrocities during the Vietnam War”, and that war lasted a few years, not decades.
    About 94 percent of the materials produced nowadays in the Israeli quarries in the West Bank is transported to Israel: this is one of the many true faces of this immoral occupation.

  17. Shmuel,
    What you fail to note is that the percentage of convictions in the West Bank is very similar to that within Israel’s political borders. In fact, there have been years in which the percentage in Israel was higher than that (see here (sorry it’s in Hebrew!) :

    It would be beyond the confines of this discussion to enter each and every testimony provided, but we can look at the first one for example. The account includes many discrepancies (and not only because it appears to cut out part of the account). It fails to provide any indication of the commander’s considerations when approving the opening of fire or what was wrong with his discretion. It also fails to indicate what may have followed the death of the person (for instance, was there an investigation?). These are key questions that are simply left unanswered by the account.

    Regarding your criticism of Israel’s policies regarding applicability of certain provisions to the West Bank, the fact of the matter is that if (as Israel’s considers) there is no occupation there is simply no law to apply (reference to general principles of law will not get someone very far, whereas Israel — along with other States — does not recognise extraterritorial application of its ICCPR obligations in accordance with that instruments basic text). In any event, the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention that Israel does apply are its humanitarian provisions (see Ajuri and Others v. Israel Defence Force Commander, 125 I.L.R. 537, 547, ¶ 13 (Israel H.Ct.J. 2002)).

  18. Ori,
    “if (as Israel’s considers) there is no occupation there is simply no law to apply …In any event, the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention that Israel does apply are its humanitarian provisions”:

    Should I interpret this as your way of saying that you agree with me that the laws of occupation either apply or do not apply, and that this ambiguity has served the occupying power well, enabling it to cherry-pick the articles of the Geneva Convention and have the best of both worlds, while the occupied people has the worst of them? I also asked you another question: at what point does an occupation cease to be an occupation and become a permanent or quasi-permanent state of affairs?

    “What you fail to note is”: that Israeli legal systems applied in the West Bank discriminate between children based on race or nationality (settler children are processed with a different justice system, although they live in the same area), that the military legislation in the occupied territories dealing with minors does not conform to international and Israeli law, that there aren’t jewish-israelis under administartive detention, and that “from the beginning of 2005 to the end of 2010, at least 835 Palestinian minors were arrested and tried in military courts in the West Bank on charges of stone throwing. Thirty-four of them were aged 12-13, 255 were 14-15, 546 were 16-17. Only one of the 835 was acquitted; all the rest were found guilty”.
    The adjective “fair”, to me, has a different meaning.

    “It fails to provide any indication of the commander’s considerations…”: these soldiers are using few lines to shed line on why this decades-long occupation is unhuman. In these few lines they don’t need to give you every little particular. If you search more little details you can read their book and/or participate in their events:

  19. Who will “break the silence” on the latest atrocity — the kidnapping of 3 Israeli teens, presumably for bartering in return for mass terrorists? They were not accidental victims caught in a cross-fire, but deliberately targeted. Apparently, for Mr. Heller and others active in promoting the Palestinian narrative of victimization, Israeli victims of war crimes are of no importance. Time for a reality check that goes beyond the cheap moral rhetoric.

  20. This is Mr. Steinberg’s most amusing comment yet. The human-rights organisations he criticises, such as HRW, consistently criticize the war crimes committed by both sides to the conflict — Israel’s and Palestine’s. (As have I on the blog.) Mr. Steinberg and his propaganda outfit, by contrast, exists solely to excuse Israel’s war crimes. I’d be curious to see even a single example of NGO Monitor condemning Israel for one of its many atrocities.

  21. Mr. Heller — can you not bring yourself to express even one word of empathy for the 3 kidnapped Israeli teens and their families? Human rights was once a moral cause; now, it is a cynical industry in which you play a minor role.

  22. I guess I was stunned into silence by your empathy for the thousands of Palestinian victims of Israeli war crimes.

    More seriously, though, unlike your organization, which exists solely to rationalize and excuse Israeli war crimes, I have consistently condemned war crimes committed by Hamas against innocent Israelis. So if there is a cynical role being played, I think we all know who is playing it.

  23. Gerald Steinberg perceives the situation in ideologic terms and accuse others of being biased. 3 kidnapped Israeli settlers enable him to forget everything else that happens on a daily basis in the area: immoral and unprofessional.

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