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'You are all traitors': The political persecution of Breaking the Silence

That the minister of justice can singlehandedly launch an investigation against the anti-occupation group is a symptom of the decline of the rule of law and creeping authoritarianism within the Green Line.

By Joshua Leifer

Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked next to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, at the ceremony for opening a new year of justice in Tel Aviv, on August 30, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked next to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, at the ceremony for opening a new year of justice in Tel Aviv, on August 30, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

It is not often that the justice minister of a country personally demands the investigation of a political adversary to prove they did not commit a crime. But that is precisely what happened last week in the absurd case of Dean Issacharoff, the spokesperson for Israeli anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence. The state prosecutor announced last Thursday that the investigation into Issacharoff’s claim that he badly beat a Palestinian during a protest in Hebron in 2014 had concluded due to “a lack of guilt.”

In fact, the investigation could not have ended any other way. After a video surfaced of Issacharoff describing a violent arrest he carried out during his military service, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked personally called on the state’s attorney to look into Issacharoff’s claims. “In light of the great importance I see in safeguarding the reputation of the state and its soldiers,” Shaked wrote to Attorney General Avihai Mendelblit, “I thought it appropriate to turn to you to check the truth of the incident.”

The letter was little more than an order to find Issacharoff a liar; Shaked and others on the Right have repeatedly charged that Breaking the Silence, in the words of Prime Minister Netanyahu, “lies and slanders our soldiers around the world.”

Shaked’s direct intervention was an unprecedented use of the legal system to single out a non-governmental organization for attack. Former Attorney General Michael Benyair issued a strong statement condemning the investigation and Minister of Justice Shaked’s role. “The political show-investigation of Breaking the Silence spokesman Dean Issacharoff is a disgrace to the law enforcement system,” he wrote. “The law enforcement system has lost its independence and become an instrument of the regime against its political rivals.”

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“What began under the political direction of the minister of justice became a political investigation that came to a tendentious and political conclusion,” Avner Gvaryahu, Executive Director of Breaking the Silence, said in response to the investigation’s closure.

The first victim

The case against Issacharoff comes at time of intense attacks on Israeli human rights organizations, and is part of a larger trend of eroding institutional norms in Israel. Without an effective opposition in the Knesset, civil society organizations have become the country’s de facto political opposition. Netanyahu, under numerous corruption investigations, has enlisted his backers in Likud for a parliamentary scorched earth campaign to deflect away public attention, taking aim at these NGOs, as well as Israel’s judiciary, and even the police.

Most recently, Likud MK Yariv Levin, under instructions from Netanyahu, is said to be preparing a new bill that will enable the government to shut down NGOs that criticize the IDF or advocate boycotts of Israel. If Issachroff’s case is any indication, the Right is aiming to make Breaking the Silence the new bill’s first victim.

A public reading of Breaking the Silence testimonies in Tel Aviv to mark 10 years since the organization was founded, June 6, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

A public reading of Breaking the Silence testimonies in Tel Aviv to mark 10 years since the organization was founded, June 6, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The details of Issacharoff’s case are as absurd as the politics that undergird them. Shortly after the investigation was closed, two important developments came to light. First, Rueben Silberstone, a British lone soldier who served as a signal-operator in Issacharoff’s unit and witnessed the event, released a video online in which he confirmed Issacharoff’s account of what happened in Hebron. Silberstone was never questioned as part of the investigation.

Second, Issacharoff was never asked if the Palestinian who was questioned during the investigation was indeed the Palestinian he beat and arrested in Hebron. The state prosecutor claimed that it had questioned a man named Hassan Jolani, who contradicted the account Issacharoff gave. But Issacharoff was never shown a picture of Jolani, nor Jolani of Issacharoff. “If they had even asked me to identify the Palestinian at any stage of the investigation, I would have told them that this is not the person, and this is not the event,” Issacharoff stated in a video released online. “If they had checked this, would they still be calling me a liar?”

Israeli soldiers arrest a Palestinian man in the West Bank city of Hebron, on April 17, 2017. (Photo by Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Israeli soldiers arrest a Palestinian man in the West Bank city of Hebron, on April 17, 2017. (Photo by Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked initiated the investigation with the explicit goal of discrediting Breaking the Silence — and the mainstream Israeli media has been more than happy to assist her. In true tabloid fashion, Yedioth Ahronoth, the country’s best-selling newspaper, ran the headline, “The case against Breaking the Silence spokesman closed: his claim that he attacked a Palestinian — false.” During a televised debate on Channel 2, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Hotoveli, back from her rocky tour of U.S. college campuses, announced to Gvaryahu, “You are all traitors.”

Creeping authoritarianism 

It is no secret that maintaining military rule over the two-and-a-half million Palestinians in the West Bank requires Israeli soldiers to carry out acts of violence on a daily basis. And yet, the longer the occupation grinds on, the harsher the crackdown on those who openly talk about its effect on the soldiers who administer it and the Palestinians who live under it. It was only a matter of time before the repression required to maintain military rule on one side of the Green Line spilled over the separation wall and onto the other.

Using the legal system to attack human rights organizations that criticize the government’s policies is just the latest expression of that crackdown. That the minister of justice can singlehandedly launch an investigation against a political opponent is a symptom of the decline of the rule of law and creeping authoritarianism within the Green Line — and it’s not only those on the left who have begun to notice.

In his address during the Knesset’s opening session this year, President Reuven Rivlin, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud warned of the “ongoing attempt to weaken the gatekeepers of Israeli democracy.” If the bills on the docket targeting civil society groups are any indication, the worst may be yet to come.

Joshua Leifer is based in Jerusalem. His writing has also appeared in Dissent and Jacobin.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Ben

      What a travesty. There is really something wrong with Shaked. Look at her cold-eyed facial expressions. This is essentially organized crime masquerading as something better.

      “Israel is acting like a criminal organization that operates according to its own laws and is convinced it can be seen as a legal body.”
      read more: https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/editorial/1.823308

      Reply to Comment
    2. JitKunDo

      People who accept foreign money for the express purpose of producing propaganda against their own country are traitors by definition. People who insist that the rules should apply only to other people are hypocrites by definition. A man that insists that he is guilty of beating another man should be prosecuted. Those that produce article after article insisting otherwise are hypocritical scum.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Yes, well, the mile-wide hole in your argument is that in fact the soldiers of Breaking the Silence are Israeli patriots speaking the truth. This is a hard fact to confront. But averting your eyes and inventing claptrap about “propaganda” won’t solve the problem.

        “A man that insists that he is guilty of beating another man should be prosecuted.”

        Actually this man, Dean Issacharoff, should be given an award for bravery. Unlike the thousands of IDF soldiers who have beaten another man and don’t speak up and then get told by their mommas what fine boys they are and told by their society what fine Jewish young men they are and go on to fine careers in the system of rewards set up for IDF soldiers who don’t break the silence and who don’t make waves.

        So please tell me, JitKunDo, why was the witness Rueben Silberstone never questioned? And why was Dean Issacharoff never asked if the Palestinian who was questioned was indeed the Palestinian he beat and arrested in Hebron? Why? And what does that say about the real motives of the Justice Minister? I await your replies. Lay it out for me, man. I’m all ears.

        Reply to Comment
        • JitKunDo

          They are traitors paid by foreign government to spread lies for the purposes of anti-Israeli propaganda. This is indeed a hard fact to stomach but nonetheless one has to deal with the painful reality of foreign governments sending tens of millions of dollars to Israeli NGOs in order to put pressure on the Israeli government and they are not picky about who they give money to.

          And we have arrived at the ultimate form of leftist hypocrisy: giving awards to people that admit to committing crimes as long as they are leftists, because after all, they are leftists so their crime should be forgiven, forgotten and in some cases even celebrated.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            @JitKunDo: You are peddling a more defamatory message than anyone who “hates Israel” possibly could. You are selling the notion that the state of Israel produces a truly extraordinary percentage of traitorous liars among its soldiers. An extraordinary number of traitors lying about their military. (We can agree that IF they are lying then they are traitors. If they are telling the truth they are not traitors.) What kind of corrupt, devious population is this that so many soldiers are supposedly willing to lie, commit treason, for venal purposes? You defame Israel.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Bruce Gould

      The reason Breaking the Silence accepts foreign money is because there aren’t enough Israelis who care about human rights – and at any rate, what they say is more important than who’s paying the gas for their transportation and computers.

      Reply to Comment