Muzzling silence-breakers damages Israeli democracy

Yossi Mekelberg

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One of the prevalent Israeli myths is that regardless of the country’s policies toward the Palestinians, Israeli democracy is robust and unaffected. As with all myths there is a grain of truth in this assertion, but it shrinks rather rapidly. Even if Israeli society lived in complete democratic bliss, despite the oppressive nature of its occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza, it would have not legitimized these anti-democratic actions in the slightest.

This illusion is further blemished by the creeping in of human rights abuses within Israeli society. It represents a constant and worrying erosion of pluralistic values. Harassment of human rights organizations - either by absurd legislation, abuse of police power, or vitriolic language by politicians - is turning from rare aberration to frequent occurrence.

Recently, an organization of former soldiers who served in the Israeli military since the start of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000, was on the receiving end of what allegedly seems to be heavy-handed police treatment and verbal attacks by politicians.

Exposing reality

For more than a decade, Breaking the Silence took it upon itself to “expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories.” Its foremost aim is to stir public debate about the daily tasks handed to young soldiers, such as controlling civilian populations, and their impact on Israeli society and the soldiers themselves.

Breaking the Silence’s activism is holding a mirror up to Israeli society. Instead of breaking the mirror, the establishment needs to dramatically improve its image.

Yossi Mekelberg

For those who live under an oppressive occupation, the continuous suffering and long-term harm is self-evident. Less obvious, though undeniable, is the psychological damage caused to those who serve as the long arm of the occupation’s brutality. Many live in a combination of collective and individual denial. For Israeli society, the state of affairs in the West Bank and Gaza is an inconvenient truth.

It is a story of young people, who in their naivety believe that by joining the military they defend their country, but in many cases end up subjugating civilian populations and depriving them of basic human and political rights. Upon returning to civilian life, they are not the same people, frequently suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and bearing mental scars. The situation distorts young minds’ views about the use of force in the public and private sphere.

The organization’s list of recorded abuses toward Palestinians include killing, maiming, looting and destruction of property, bribing and the use of civilians as human shields, which are all denied by Israel’s government. For a long time, it was almost taboo in Israeli society to discuss any of the abuses or their impact on both sides of the border. This is routinely excused with the justification that Israeli security needs override Palestinians’ human rights.

On two recent occasions, the police were involved in stopping Breaking the Silence activist events from taking place. In the southern city of Beer Sheba, the Magistrate’s Court issued an order prohibiting a lecture by the NGO in a local bar, citing threats by far-right activists to use violence to disrupt its events. The order was issued by police request, claiming it would not be able to prevent an outbreak of violence against the speakers.

On another occasion, the police, according to the owners of a restaurant in Tel Aviv, tried to intimidate them from running an event with the organization. Though there is no claim that the activities of Breaking the Silence are illegal, the police are not prepared to protect its legal and natural right to express its views.

It is a clear case of handing victory to hooligans from the extreme right, who want to hush any public debate about the nature of the occupation, with the Israeli establishment’s at-least-tacit support.


Civil society groups as much as opposition parties are not formed to please governments. They are there to oversee government activities and ensure open debate. Muzzling Breaking the Silence has not been a solitary incident. Equally worrying, if not more so, is the newly-proposed bill presented to parliament that suggests imposing restrictions on Israeli NGOs that receive foreign funding.

This draconian legislation, if it passes, obliges all NGOs that receive at least half their funding from abroad to label their official documentation with the names of all foreign sources of financial aid, and requires their representatives to wear identifying tags when they visit parliament.

Ostensibly, since the law applies to all NGOs it is supposed to be fair. In reality, it is human rights and left-wing organizations that enjoy the lion’s share of support from formal international bodies, including governments. Right-wing organizations receive funds from private donors, who are not part of this legislation.

Though this legislation is called the Transparency Bill, and ironically was proposed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, it is a blunt attempt to intimidate the watchdogs of Israeli human rights’ violations.

Breaking the Silence’s activism, like that of other civil rights’ organizations such as B’Tselem, Gisha, Adhala, ACRI and many more, is holding a mirror up to Israeli society. This has angered some quarters of the Israeli political system because they do not like the image that is reflected in this mirror. Instead of breaking the mirror, the establishment needs to dramatically improve its image.

Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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