In first, US officials meet with IDF whistle-blowing group

Breaking The Silence briefs White House, State Department officials on report highly critical of Israeli army’s conduct during the Gaza war

Illustrative: An officer preparing to lead troops into Gaza, August 2014. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit/Flickr)
Illustrative: An officer preparing to lead troops into Gaza, August 2014. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit/Flickr)

White House and State Department officials met with representatives of an Israeli NGO critical of the IDF this week over its report on alleged Israeli violations in the Gaza Strip during last summer’s 50-day war, Haaretz reported on Friday.

The meeting in Washington — the first of its kind for the NGO — came several days after Israel lodged a formal protest with Bern over Swiss funding for an exhibit by Breaking the Silence, a rights group whose members are veteran IDF combatants who report, mostly anonymously, about abuses they have allege to have seen or taken part in during their military service in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.

The briefing by Breaking the Silence representatives to members of the National Security Council — which was held in a non-governmental building, rather than the White House — was organized by Matthew Duss, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. The Israeli NGO later met with State Department officials.

The US officials showed significant interest in the report, Duss said, posing “many questions about the vetting process of the witnesses, the testimonies and the fact-checking.”

Duss praised the NGO representatives, saying they were “young Israeli patriots who are trying to improve their society.”

“It is in line with what Obama said recently. These are the shared values between Israel and the United States – wanting to improve our society,” he said.

Both the White House and the State Department confirmed the meetings to Haaretz, while maintaining that US officials routinely met with various international rights groups.

Since the NGO was founded in 2004 by soldiers who served in the southern West Bank city of Hebron, it has regularly locked horns with the Israeli political and military brass which regularly denounce its activities as harming Israel’s image abroad.

Analysis: Breaking the Silence bids to place IDF, Hamas on level field

Last month, Breaking the Silence angered the military establishment by publishing a report accusing the army of having caused an unprecedented number of civilian casualties through indiscriminate force during Operation Protective Edge. The IDF responded to the rights group’s report by saying it was “committed to properly investigating” all claims against it, but also cautioned that Breaking the Silence’s method of gathering evidence was faulty.

The report painted a picture of the Israeli army deploying excessive firepower in order to “frighten and deter Palestinians” in the Hamas-controlled territory, as well as blurry rules of engagement in which soldiers are authorized to open fire at will at any moving target in specific areas. It also highlighted massive use of inaccurate artillery fire at various stages of the 50-day conflict.

“Although specific testimonials exist regarding wrongdoing on the part of soldiers in the field, a more worrying picture concerns the systemic policy guiding the activity of IDF forces across ranks and fields of operation,” read the report, spanning 111 individual testimonials.

“The principle guiding the military policy — minimum risk to our forces, even at the price of harming innocent civilians — as well as an attempt to terrify and deter the Palestinians, led to massive, unprecedented harm to Gaza’s population and its civilian infrastructure. Policymakers could have predicted this result prior to the fighting, and were aware of it as it unfolded.”

Zvi Fogel, a former head of the IDF Southern Command, said the allegations were false and beneath contempt. “Those who seek to falsely portray the IDF as murderers,” Fogel told Army Radio at the time, “are not worthy of a response.” He denied that the army had eased its open-fire regulations, and said all allegations of abuse of IDF regulations were thoroughly investigated.

Gaza-based sources claimed 2,100 Palestinians were killed and tens of thousands more left homeless as the IDF battled against Hamas in the coastal enclave.

Israel, which lost 66 soldiers and six civilians in the conflict, said half the Palestinians killed were combatants and that the high civilian toll in Gaza was due to fighters there embedding their military infrastructure in residential areas.

Earlier this week, Israel’s newly appointed deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely said she was determined to prevent a Breaking the Silence exhibit from opening in Zurich, ordering both the ministry and Israel’s embassy in Bern to examine ways of preventing it, ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon told AFP.

“We cannot accept the actions of an organization whose aim is to smear soldiers in the Israeli army in the international arena and to cause serious harm to Israel’s image,” he said.

Israel’s ambassador had already voiced his “indignation” to the Swiss foreign ministry, Nahshon said.

The exhibit sheds light on the day-to-day reality of life in the West Bank, and has received funding from both the Swiss foreign ministry and the city of Zurich, officials told AFP.

A foreign ministry spokesperson confirmed Bern made a contribution of 15,000 Swiss francs ($16,000) to the exhibit. A spokesman for Zurich’s finance department confirmed donating 10,000 Swiss francs from a fund which can be used for various non-profit organizations.

“We thought long and hard before giving this money,” said spokesman Patrick Pons, calling the exhibit “very balanced” and saying it opened the way for dialogue.

“We understand that there has been criticism,” he told AFP.

“But we think that people in Zurich who come to visit the exhibit understand this and can make up their own opinion.”

The exhibit opened in Zurich on Thursday.

AFP, Elhanan Miller contributed to this report.

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