BTS responds to AIJAC
From Yehuda Shaul:
Yehuda Shaul in Hebron Pic: Quique Kierzenbaum
I have been a member of Breaking the Silence since its founding in 2004. The organization has grown steadily since into what it is today: nearly 1000 combat soldiers breaking the silence about their service in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The stories we tell are not easy to hear, we understand that. But the choice our audience has to make is whether to sincerely listen to us, as veterans, or to begin mudslinging while turning a blind eye to the reality. It saddens me that Jamie Hyams and Ahron Shapiro of the Australia/Israel Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) have chosen the latter by slandering our role in ABC’s “Four Corners” program about children’s rights in the Occupied Territories.
As an organization, Breaking the Silence has a policy of avoiding responses to each and every unfounded smear against us by groups that simply copy and paste the misinformation promulgated by the extremist right-wing organization, NGO Monitor. It is unfortunate that AIJAC has stooped to NGO Monitor’s reckless tactics, which never cease to remind us of the dark days of 1950’s McCarthyism. Yet for the sake of the Australian public, we believe AIJAC’s attack allows us the opportunity to set the record straight.
Hyams and Shapiro begin vilifying our work by claiming that we publish “anonymous testimony… that generally can’t be verified.” We invite AIJAC to view the 700 publicly accessible videos of our members who have agreed to reveal their identity. There are many more who have gone public in other ways – to newspapers and in conferences, for example. We also remind AIJAC that each of our testimonies undergoes a rigorous verification process where we crosscheck testimonies with one another and with sources on the ground. As responsible veterans, we also pass every testimony we publish through an official IDF censor to ensure we don’t reveal state secrets. For the record, to this day not a single one of our testimonies has been shown to be false.
In Israel today, the norm is for soldiers to avoid speaking about what we did during our service in the territories. Our fear stems not from the threat of a potential lawsuit, but from the social stigma our society places upon those who tell the ugly truth. Does AIJAC not recognize that they are reinforcing this paradigm? Whether or not they appreciate what we have to say, we demand AIJAC respect our choice and right to speak out as veterans.
In AIJAC’s article, Hyams and Shapiro go on to claim that Breaking the Silence “publish[es] the bulk of [our] material in English, rather than Hebrew.” Neither, however, had the lucidity to simply count the testimonies available on our website – for which there are over 1,800 in Hebrew and just 500 in English. Although our work is primarily conducted in Hebrew, we believe it is our imperative to publish in English as well because the wider public has a right to receive information from people that were on the ground rather than from secondhand sources passing on distorted versions of events.
Hyams and Shapiro continue spreading misinformation by referring to our hundreds of soldier testimonies as “hardly amount[ing] to human rights abuses.” If they had only taken the time to look through them, they would have been privy to soldiers detailing assassinations, house demolitions, and the use of Palestinian civilians as human shields, to name but a few examples. I am not sure whether Hyams and Shapiro are unaware of these testimonies or whether they are genuinely asking their readers to believe that such acts are merely instances “that may have made soldiers uncomfortable” rather than severe human rights violations.
Instead of dealing with the facts, AIJAC prefers to perpetuate NGO Monitor’s smears about us receiving donations from foreign sources. It is unclear why they have chosen this stale slander when Haaretz has reported that more than half of the contributions to Israeli politicians of all stars and stripes in the last campaign have come from overseas. Does AIJAC take issue with Benjamin Netanyahu’s patriotism? Because 97% of his most recent campaign budget came from outside of Israel. By the way, it is important to note that AIJAC does not make its own funding sources publicly available, in stark contrast with Breaking the Silence’s policy of transparency. We are tremendously proud of our donors. Is AIJAC proud of theirs?
In addition, Hyams and Shapiro take issue with me saying during the ABC program that “when [soldiers] see settlers attacking a Palestinian, our orders are not to intervene.” As a former Israeli combat commander, I believe I know a little more about both the orders I received from my superiors and the orders I personally gave to my soldiers. We have countless soldier testimonies, from varied units stationed all over the West Bank, which have shared the exact same sentiment. I direct AIJAC to the media section of our website where they can find plenty of recent evidence for the lack of IDF intervention (1) (2) (3) and law enforcement (1) (2) (3) with regard to settler attacks on Palestinians.
Hyams and Shapiro go on to suggest that settler violence is not a routine occurrence, but rather that the ABC program “cherry-picked from incidents going back several years.” This is a preposterous assertion that could only come from individuals completely unfamiliar with everyday life in the Occupied Territories. It only takes a peek through a recent UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) report to see that a group of armed Israeli settlers from Yitzhar beat Palestinian farmers with pipes, a middle-aged Palestinian and his 6-year-old son were stoned, and over 150 young olive trees were uprooted just the other week. This is tamer than usual – with an average of 6 incidents of settler violence each week resulting in civilian casualties or property damage so far in 2014 and 8 each week the year prior. Reports suggest that such attacks have largely gone unpunished. The truth is that settler violence is the norm in the territories, day in and day out.
But the most glaring example of AIJAC’s complete disconnect from the reality on the ground is their allegation that The Australian’s reporter John Lyons contradicts me in discussing the army’s escorting of children in the South Hebron Hills. If they were only aware of the context leading up to the state ordering the military escort, they would know that this is a case of the exception that proves the rule.
The story of the military escort begins with the Palestinian children of the South Hebron Hills, some as young as 8-years-old, walking from their village of Tuba to a school in neighboring at-Tuwani. Settlers from the nearby outpost, called “Ma’on Farm,” launched attacks on these children – often perpetrated by masked men using clubs and chains. In 2005, children were ceaselessly harassed and assaulted; in one instance, four children were evacuated to a nearby hospital for medical treatment. These attacks on children must be placed in the context of the 70 violent acts by settlers recorded that year, including stoning Palestinians shepherds, poisoning their water cisterns and grazing fields, wounding and killing their livestock, and burning their crops.
The army ignored these events, even when Israeli and international activists began likewise becoming the victims of this brutality in their attempt to protect the children with their own bodies. Influential Israeli public figures began drawing attention to the phenomenon after hearing about a spree of nearly a dozen attacks on children during the span of just one month in April-May of 2006. It is only because of this intense public pressure that the case saw a massive intervention by Israeli Members of Knesset, which forced the army to escort the children. The pressure to maintain the escort continues even today.
It is important to note that the army escort has not stopped settler attacks on Palestinian children, since the assailants have now began targeting the soldiers as well. AIJAC is invited to read one of our testimonies from a soldier who served in the battalion required to escort the children in 2006. He describes how a settler gang stoned the soldiers, one of them losing his consciousness after being hit, and yet not a single soul was even brought in for investigation. By the way, although the law was not enforced on the settler, IDF soldiers were reprimanded for firing a warning shot in attempt to stop the settlers from stoning the children.
As an Israeli patriot and a former IDF soldier, I understand that the truth is a bitter pill to swallow. I understand that looking in the mirror and seeing the society you dearly love act so brutishly is painful. I understand that you do not want to believe what happens on a day-to-day basis in the Occupied Territories. Neither did we. But now we have broken our silence. It is time for you – AIJAC – to hear us out, rather than taking NGO Monitor’s hand and doing your best to silence us.
Yehuda Shaul served as an infantry soldier and commander in the IDF between March 2001 and March 2004. He is the founder of Breaking the Silence.”