Defense chief: Group’s reported bid to gather IDF secrets ‘treason’

Defense chief: Group’s reported bid to gather IDF secrets ‘treason’

Ya'alon draws opposition anger after saying Breaking the Silence could have committed treason if it collected and distributed classified army operational material

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon speaks in front of students during a visit to a school in Ramat Hagolan, northern Israel, March 21, 2016. (Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense)
Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon speaks in front of students during a visit to a school in Ramat Hagolan, northern Israel, March 21, 2016. (Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense)

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Monday a left-wing group of army veterans accused of collecting and distributing abroad information about IDF operations could be guilty of treason if suspicions raised against them last week are found to be true.

Ya’alon was commenting on allegations leveled against Breaking the Silence saying that when soldiers came to testify on rights violations, they tried to mine them for operational secrets. The group emphatically denied it held any state secrets.

“Operational secrets — if use is made of that information abroad, then yes, that is treason,” Ya’alon said while speaking to students at the Kfar Blum high school in the north of the country. “If they keep it to themselves, then it also is.”

Earlier this month Ya’alon instructed the army to open an investigation after a Channel 2 television report on Breaking the Silence claimed that the organization was actively seeking potentially classified information about the Israeli military’s tactics and operations.

“I didn’t say they should be shut up, I didn’t say make them illegal,” Ya’alon clarified. “I said to check if use of military secret material was made in ways that are prohibited. The investigation has been opened and we will see where it leads to.”

Ya’alon also warned that if IDF soldiers made use of any classified information they were exposed to during their service or passed it on to unauthorized people that is also an offense.

In response, Breaking the Silence said it “doesn’t hold any state secrets and Ya’alon is the first to know that.”

“The citizens of Israel expect their defense minister to give them and their children security and not false and pathetic political incitement,” the group said.

The self-styled whistleblower group dedicated to exposing alleged Israel Defense Forces’ human rights abuses in the Palestinian territories through the testimonies of former combat veterans has come under fire from Ya’alon and other Israeli officials in the past over its foreign funding sources.

“If you are worried about the morality of the IDF, if you are worried about the way we operate, why do you go and talk about it abroad? That means there is a political agenda here,” Ya’alon said.

Opposition lawmakers sharply criticized Ya’alon for labeling Breaking the Silence’s actions as “treason” — a term taboo in Israel since it was used by opponents of assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in the months before he was shot to death by a Jewish extremist.

“We are all united in the campaign against terror, but I suggest that politicians be careful in their choice of words and in the use of the words ‘treason’ and ‘traitors’ — even when we are deeply opposed to their methods — and to leave that to the Israeli justice system to decide and delineate,” MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) said. “We have already seen the price that Israeli society paid for the use of those words.”

Chairman of the Joint (Arab) List MK Ayman Odeh accused Ya’alon of a fascist attitude toward the group.

“The witch hunt around Breaking the Silence is another example of the fascist madness spreading across the country,” he wrote in a statement. “The prime minister and his ministers are afraid of any criticism of the occupation policy, whether it is said here or abroad. The fear of criticism drives them out of their minds and they continue to lead the hatred and incitement against more and more of the public.”

In a post to her Twitter account, opposition lawmaker MK Tamar Zandberg of the dovish Meretz party said Ya’alon’s use of the term “treason” had endangered members of Breaking the Silence.

“I am concerned for the safety of the people of Breaking the Silence and the inciting ministers will not be able to claim innocence if God forbid there is violence,” she wrote.

The Channel 2 report was based on hidden camera footage collected by the right-wing Ad Kan organization, which seeks to expose what it says are illegitimate actions of human rights groups.

Ad Kan documented a meeting between members of Breaking the Silence and one of its undercover activists, who was posing as a released combat soldier interested in giving testimony.

The NGO interviewed him on his military service and many of the questions directed at the man were of a tactical nature, touching on such subjects as troop deployment, operational methods and mission procedures.

A second undercover video Channel 2 obtained from the Ad Kan organization was filmed at a West Bank demonstration. In the video, one member of Breaking the Silence appears to say that when she was drafted into the military, she was coordinating with Breaking the Silence and had the express intention of collecting information for the group.

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