A Channel 2 report on a controversial Israeli human rights group has sparked outrage in the political establishment after it alleged that the organization was actively seeking potentially classified information about the Israeli military’s tactics and operations.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday night security officials were investigating the actions of Breaking the Silence, a 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.
“Breaking the Silence has crossed another red line,” Netanyahu said. “The defense establishment’s investigative bodies are looking into the issue.”
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon also said he had instructed the army to open an investigation into the reports, to check whether the organization had extracted classified information from former soldiers.
The Channel 2 report on Thursday 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. But while Breaking the Silence claims to be interested only in human rights abuses, 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 Breaking the Silence.
The woman, named as Prima Bives, is heard saying she consulted with a top member of Breaking the Silence before being drafted, and that he suggested she try to get into the IDF Civil Administration — the body that handles the army’s interaction with the civilian Palestinian population. At the end of her service, he told her, she would be able to bring Breaking the Silence testimonials on its actions.
Likud lawmaker Avi Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet security service, told Channel 2 the footage disturbed him, giving the appearance of espionage.
Referring to the filmed meeting between the undercover activist and the Breaking the Silence members questioning him, Dichter said, “If you hadn’t told me the background, and told me what I was watching, I would have said it looked like information-gathering by the handlers of an agent,” he said. The Breaking the Silence questions were all about the IDF’s capabilities, equipment, field security, ammunition, he marveled, “and I didn’t hear a word about Palestinians or Gazans.”
In the footage of that meeting, the Breaking the Silence member told the Ad Kan activist that his more tactically oriented questions were intended to bolster the group’s “professional knowledge” and were important for background.
This statement was met with skepticism by retired general Avi Mizrahi, the former head of the IDF’s Central Command.
“This looks like an operational debriefing by someone trying to extract info on tactical operations,” he told Channel 2 while viewing the footage. “It has nothing to do with values or ethics in warfare or morals in warfare.”
Breaking the Silence denied any wrongdoing, telling Channel 2 it worked closely with Israeli military censors to ensure information it published was not classified or of a sensitive nature.
“You’ve accepted the interpretation of Ad Kan, whose interests are clear,” Breaking the Silence CEO Yuli Novak told the news program. “There are certified bodies in the country that deal with authorizing data for publication. Our job is to collect information and publish it in accordance with the censor’s dictates.”
Novak claimed that the TV report served “a number of organizations, which, along with lawmakers from Likud and Jewish Home, seek to silence anyone who criticizes the government and the occupation.”
The Channel 2 report was met with near wall-to-wall condemnation by lawmakers left and right.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, of the Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home, said that “it is clear to everyone that those who collect such information are trying to harm their nation through illegitimate means, in a manner reminiscent of espionage.” She added that law enforcement officials would review the report “and check whether there are criminal aspects to the group’s actions.”
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein of Likud said he was stunned by the report. “The debriefing conducted by the people of Breaking the Silence looks like a military debriefing… As the Knesset speaker I believe law enforcement officials must investigate.”
Immigrant Absorption Minister Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) said the report raised serious suspicions against the organization as “a spying tool against the IDF.” Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben Dahan (Jewish Home) called the group “a fifth column.” Both called for an investigation by the police and the Shin Bet.
Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid accused Breaking the Silence of “undermining the nation and causing it great damage from within and without.”
Zionist Union MK Itzik Shmuli called the report “serious and very disturbing… Instead of its professed actions to support human rights, we see subversive activity involving the collection of sensitive and classified intelligence and operational information. And who knows who this data is given to and for what purpose?”
MK Eitan Cabel (Zionist Union) was also highly critical, calling for a police probe into the group’s activities.
Meanwhile, Meretz MK Ilan Gilon defended Breaking the Silence, saying its activity was conducted “transparently and responsibly, and all of the testimonies given to its people are handed to the the military censorship for approval.”
He added: “As the Israeli government bequeaths its moral and financial assets to the most extreme settler groups… who fund [activities] in an untransparent manner in the best-case scenario — and in a criminal manner in the worst-case scenario — it is saddening to see the vicious campaign against the monitoring and human rights groups receive attention again over nothing.”