Human Rights

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Watchdog: ‘Breaking the Silence’ was Paid to Incriminate IDF

Breaking the Silence, an NGO that has recently been in the news for its criticism of Israel’s actions during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, was explicitly directed by European charities to prove that Israel acted improperly, the watchdog group NGO Monitor showed in a report released Monday.

NGO Monitor’s staff translated the terms of Breaking the Silence’s agreement with Oxfam and other organizations. In the case of Oxfam, the agreement called for:

[Breaking the Silence] signed an agreement with Oxfam, a British organization, to conduct interviews with “as many” soldiers as possible who will testify regarding [Israeli] “immoral actions” that violate human rights. In 2009, the British organization donated 74,595 NIS to the organization.

Breaking the Silence’s report, according to The Washington Post, alleged that the IDF had “permissive rules of engagement” that “led to massive damage and high numbers of civilian deaths.”

In its initial analysis of the report, NGO Monitor wrote:

BtS makes sweeping accusations based on anecdotal, anonymous and unverifiable testimonies of low level soldiers. These “testimonies” lack context, ignoring the fact that during the 2014 Gaza War heavy fighting took place between Israel and terror groups in Gaza, and that soldiers faced grave danger throughout the conflict from rockets, mortar shells, and terrorists emerging from tunnels dug beneath private homes. These distortions and erasures dovetail BtS’ ideological agenda and fuel delegitmization campaigns against Israel.

Former Associated Press reporter Matti Friedman added on his Facebook page:

War is awful and people come back feeling upset about things they’ve seen and done. Some observers are reliable, and others aren’t. Some of the things described in the report no doubt happened as they were described. Others didn’t. Infantrymen at the bottom of the hierarchy often don’t understand what they’re seeing, or the reasons for what they’re doing, and I’m speaking from experience. Things that make no sense to a private, sergeant, or lieutenant sometimes (but by no means always) make more sense if you go a few notches up the command chain. Young soldiers tend not to understand this, certainly not at the time and not immediately afterward. For example, open-fire regulations at a particular time could seem too aggressive given your limited understanding of where you are. If you have all of the information at your disposal – and no soldier does – you might understand why. A target shelled for reasons unknown to you might have been shelled for good reason after all. Or not. You don’t know, and in many cases (but not all) it’s a mistake to think you do. Drawing broad conclusions about Israeli military practice from “testimonies” of this kind is irresponsible.

Friedman also questioned the principles of Breaking the Silence, asking if the group’s goal is to change Israeli society, “[h]ow is speaking to the international press supposed to swing Israelis in your direction?” The fact that Breaking the Silence is largely funded by European governments and organizations raises further questions about its alleged goals.

A task force commissioned by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), headed by five retired American generals, concluded:

Contrary to accusations of widespread unlawful military conduct, we observed that Israel systemically applied established rules of conduct that adhered to or exceeded the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) in a virtually unprecedented effort to avoid inflicting civilian casualties, even when doing so would have been lawfully permitted, and to satisfy the concerns of critics. However, it is the conclusion of this Task Force that Israel’s military restraint unintentionally empowered Hamas to distort both the law and facts for their own purposes to the ultimate detriment of civilians’ safety, for which Hamas bears sole responsibility.

In Everything You Need to Know About International Law and The Gaza War, which was published in the September 2014 issue of The Tower Magazine, David Daoud explained the concept of proportionality in war.

All of that legalese essentially means that when a country goes to war, it is allowed to use as much force as is necessary to stop the threat that caused it to go to war to begin with, and does not have to limit itself to the same means or level of intensity used by the enemy. While necessity determines the situations allowing a state to use some form of armed force, proportionality determines the breadth of that permissible force. The intensity of a state’s response is governed by the magnitude of the threat posed to it by the enemy that attacked it, and not of the individual attacks it suffered.

So, the measuring stick of proportionality can’t be the tit-for-tat analysis of death tolls popularly presented in the media. Israel is not obligated to employ only the lightest means at its disposal against Hamas, whose military might pales in comparison. Israel is also not obligated to ensure that the death count on both sides is close to equal. That would be absurd.

This popular interpretation of proportionality would essentially forbid a nation from winning a war, allowing the aggressor to set the parameters of the subsequent hostilities. This would then obligate Israel to resort to the most comparatively primitive methods of warfare, since those are the means with which Hamas initiated hostilities, and to end its war with Hamas in a tie. As a result, the threat posed by Hamas would be no less than what it was at the outset of Protective Edge. What would then be the point of going to war at all?

Nations go to war to end the armed threat posed by another side—to win—and not to simply revert to the status quo ante where they were still under the other side’s threat. This absurd result is not demanded by international law, which allows states to win their wars, and by definition, wars are only won by applying more force than the enemy can muster. Professor Yoram Dinstein of Tel Aviv University says that a defensive war “need not be terminated at the point when the aggressor is driven back: rather it may be carried on by the defending State until final victory.…The defending State…may pursue the retreating enemy forces, hammering at them up to the time of their total defeat.” He adds that proportionality allows a war of self-defense to continue “until it brings about the complete collapse of the enemy…and can be fought in an offensive mode to the last bunker of the enemy dictator.”

[Photo: Israel Defense Forces / Flickr]