On Dec. 27, 2015, the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom noted that the 36 Israeli military fatalities during 2015 was the lowest figure in more than a decade. The low toll and near absence of hostility-related fatalities contrasts with the escalating violence in the surrounding region. The relative security enjoyed by Israelis reflects the hard-fought success of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in deterring Israel’s enemies. Yet, the IDF is under assault in the forum of international public opinion, accused of victimizing Palestinians.
To understand what is behind the international efforts to sully the IDF’s reputation by depicting its soldiers as prone to illegal and immoral conduct, it is essential to consider the crucial role it played in ushering in a period of unprecedented security for the Jewish people. The IDF has achieved remarkable successes while adhering to international conventions regulating the conduct of war. This fact has earned it the enduring respect and gratitude of Israelis and Jews worldwide.
Israel’s detractors put the IDF under a microscope with the consequence of placing constraints on its ability to respond to attacks by terrorist groups ensconced within civilian populations. If the detractors had their way, the Jewish state’s citizens would be rendered more vulnerable to attack and the resulting insecurity would leave Israel more susceptible to the dictates of outside political powers.
Breaking the Silence
Breaking the Silence has emerged as one of the IDF’s noisier detractors in recent years. The group consists of disaffected former Israeli servicemen who circulate widely throughout Europe and the United States reciting testimonies portraying Israeli soldiers as acting with impunity against victimized Palestinians. These testimonies are typically anonymous and impossible to substantiate. The group’s proponents argue that such exposure of alleged Israeli wrongdoing is necessary to effect reform of the IDF.
Constructive criticism is important for any institution that seeks to uphold high standards. But Breaking the Silence’s methods are viewed by many supporters of Israel as not constructive. The organization has come under intense criticism in Israel, although it does have its defenders, including a few prominent ex-military figures. A sympathetic article in the New York Times on Dec. 23, 2015 frames the group’s activities in the context of the allegedly corrosive impact of the “occupation,” contending that “the increasingly shrill debate about Breaking the Silence is less about the rights or wrongs of military rule in the West Bank and more about what kind of society Israelis want.”
But critics counter that if that is the debate Breaking the Silence truly wants to encourage, why does it air its grievances at American or European universities and in Western venues where audience sentiment runs strongly against Israel, rather than focus its advocacy at home with the Israeli public. Those Israelis who welcome Breaking the Silence’s dissenting voice may not appreciate how the group’s stories are perceived by audiences unfamiliar with the intimate details of the conflict, and how the testimonies are used by those who do not have Israel’s best interests at heart to depict the Jewish state in the harshest manner.
One critic, decorated former IDF officer and author Ron Ben-Yishai, recently wrote
The very name, Breaking the Silence is a deliberate, wanton misnomer. In the State of Israel, there is no ‘silence’ to be broken when it comes to matters of military conduct and ethics. Ours is an open society, the safety of which is ensured by the I.D.F. The I.D.F. has open channels through which all substantive complaints of operational impropriety are considered and investigated to their appropriate legal conclusion.
Breaking the Silence does not pursue its complaints through these channels. Nor does it focus its efforts on informing and mobilizing the Israeli public, which would be the next logical step if the group felt frustrated by the lack of progress in IDF investigations. One reason Breaking the Silence may favor disparaging the IDF to foreign audiences is that its stories will not be subjected to the sort of scrutiny from foreign audiences than it would face at home. When the stories are examined for hard evidence, they are typically exposed as inventions by disgruntled individuals or as hearsay.
Breaking the Silence receives little support from Israelis. Instead it relies upon foreign donors with a track record of supporting organizations that malign Israel and exclusively side with the Palestinians. The list of donors includes several church-linked charities in Europe whose activities and publications reveal adversarial attitudes toward Zionism and the Jewish people. For example, the Flemish Broederlijk Delen and the German Misereor promote a one-sided narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A web site listing books endorsed by Broederlijk Delen that deal with Israeli-Palestinian conflict consists entirely of publications that condemn Israel and portray the Palestinians as blameless victims of the Zionists. Prominently featured on the booklist are Israelis who have abandoned Israel, denounced Zionism and published revisionist histories accusing the Jewish state of ethnically cleansing the Arabs from their land and using the trauma of the Holocaust to justify oppressing the Palestinians.
Also among the Breaking the Silence’s donors is the New Israel Fund [NIF], a far-left Jewish organization that favors groups relentlessly critical of Israel as well as those promoting Palestinian political objectives. For example, in January 2016, a recipient of NIF funds, B’Tselem, made headlines in Israel when it came to light that one of its operatives was involved in a scheme to entrap Palestinians willing to sell land to Israelis and turn them over to authorities where they could be sentenced to death.
Breaking the Silence adds a new component to longstanding efforts by former Cold War human rights organizations like Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) to impede the IDF’s operations against terrorists by labeling legitimate Israeli military activities as war crimes. These groups seek to haul Israeli
commanders and political leaders before international tribunals. Their redundant reports criticizing Israeli operations to halt rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel are laden with the terminology of war criminality. AI and HRW reports contain unsubstantiated allegations and present accounts of ambiguous events as firm evidence of Israeli illegality. The reports give greater weight to statements made under the watchful presence of Hamas operatives than to Israeli counterclaims.
The media frequently repeats statements issued by AI and HRW without questioning their accuracy. So it is not surprising that with the exception of a few organizations that carefully examine such statements, Breaking the Silence’s stories are also rarely subjected to fact-checking or validation by the media or by institutions hosting the group’s appearance. For example, on May 5, 2015, the Washington Post published a lengthy article treating the group’s allegations as entirely credible and newsworthy.
In sharp contrast, investigatory panels consisting of military officers from many countries consistently praise Israel for its high operating standards and adherence to international norms. An investigation of the 2014 Gaza war by the High Level Military Group, consisting of the former chiefs of staff of the German armed forces, Italian armed forces and senior officials of the United States, British and Spanish armed forces found “Israel not only met a reasonable international standard of observance of the laws of armed conflict, but in many cases significantly exceeded that standard.” General Martin Dempsey, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during much of President Obama’s administration, made similar comments.
The Historic and Symbolic Significance of the IDF
To understand what is at stake in the battle over the image of the IDF, it is important to recount the indispensable role the Israeli military has played in securing the Jewish state and transforming Jewish life from its prior chronic precariousness.
The impact of Israel’s defense capabilities is illustrated in the stark contrast between the utter defenselessness of Jews prior to Israel’s assertion of independence with the capacity for self-defense after the state was established.
On November 3, 1943 a throng of forlorn Jews, disproportionately consisting of women and children, were driven into a field on the outskirts of Majdanek, Poland. Starting at dawn several hundred German forces armed only with firearms and clubs proceeded to carry out a horrific massacre. They glibly named the event Aktion Erntefest (the Harvest Festival). By the time the sun had set on that day, 43,000 Jews lay slaughtered in an area not much larger than a football field. Similar slaughters took place during that and the next few days, claiming in all approximately 83,000 Jewish souls.
Less than five years later, on May 14, 1948, Jewish sovereignty reemerged after a nearly two millennia absence. From its first hours, surrounded by hostile states fielding large professional armies possessing potent arsenals, Israel was forced to fight for its survival. With its own sovereign territory and drawing from a population numbering just 650,000, many of them immigrants and refugees, it successfully repelled enemy invaders, demonstrating extraordinary effectiveness with the limited means at its disposal.
In its first quarter century of existence, Israel was compelled to fight four wars against an enemy coalition that ruled territory 600 times larger than that allotted to the Jews. Allowed no rest, in the intervening years Israel had to remain vigilant against the ever-present threat of terrorism and the international isolation enforced by a hostile bloc of Islamic and third world countries in the United Nations.
In the 67 years that have passed since 1948, Israel’s enemies have claimed the lives of nearly 20,000 Israeli soldiers and civilians. Yet this toll amounts to less than half the number of Jews murdered by German forces on that single day of Nov. 3, 1943. Despite unremitting hostility directed at the Jewish people up to the current day, Jews have never known such security as they have enjoyed since Israel’s re-emergence.
This dramatic improvement in the security of the Jews since World War II is due in great measure to the continually replenished strength of the IDF.
Jewish military achievements did not begin with the IDF, Jews served in large numbers on both sides in World War I and in the major allied armies of World War II. But in the IDF, Jews were for the first time in two millenia defending a sovereign Jewish state. They did so at the outset without the benefit of allies. Both the United States and Great Britain imposed arms embargoes on the nascent Jewish state in 1948. With mobility, daring and luck, the Israelis prevailed in that first and most critical test. But success came at a cost; nearly 1 percent of the population, including 5 percent of young men in prime combat ages of 17-21, fell in battle.
Israelis resolved to do all that was possible to ensure that they would never again be so vulnerable. With singleminded determination they built a modern military force, acquiring, absorbing and utilizing sophisticated weaponry and developing innovative tactics. The results of this effort were demonstrated in June 1967, when Israel’s air arm, ground forces and naval component decisively defeated the more numerous armed forces of three Arab states in six days at a cost of less than 800 Israeli fatalities.
Several years of continued conflict followed the 1967 victory, culminating in the costly, but ultimately successful, repelling of a two-front attack by Egypt and Syria in October 1973. This proved to be the last major conventional military confrontation between Israel and the coalition of Arab states. So effective was Israel’s air force in the 1973 Yom Kippur war that Israeli pilots downed 334 enemy aircraft at the cost of 5 of their own (CIA document: The 1973 Arab-Israeli War: Overview and Analysis of the Conflict, page 49). In 1982, this air mastery was repeated when Israeli fighter pilots shot down 90 Syrian fighters without sustaining a loss.
These accomplishments are all the more remarkable in that the IDF actions were guided by a moral code that imposes constraints on the way it conducts war.
The IDF code, known as the Purity of Arms, sets out that
IDF soldiers will operate according to the IDF values and orders, while adhering to the laws of the state and norms of human dignity, and honoring the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
The IDF and its soldiers are obligated to protect human dignity. Every
human being is of value regardless of his or her origin, religion, nationality, gender, status or position.
The meaning of Purity of Arms is spelled out clearly:
Purity of Arms – The IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property.
The doctrine also instructs soldiers to “refrain from obeying blatantly illegal orders.”
Each year, at the time of Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day), the Israeli Defense Forces honors servicemen fallen in the preceding year. The cumulative figure since the formation of Jewish defense forces in the early twentieth century until April 2015 has reached 23,320.
A detailed breakdown of this figure illuminates a crucial fact. Since the conclusion of the Yom Kippur war in October 1973, the majority of IDF service deaths are attributed to non-combat causes.
That fact reflects two towering achievements:
1) The effectiveness of the IDF in defeating threats to Israel’s existence has deterred further full-scale confrontation by hostile nations. After failing to destroy the Jewish state in 1948, 1967 and 1973, Arab states and their supporters abandoned direct military confrontation in favor of alternate approaches, such as terrorism, propaganda, economic pressure and diplomacy.
2) Israel has managed to retain its military qualitative edge and its morale despite the enormous strains imposed on it due to the imbalance in forces and available resources. The fact that since 1973, there have been more Israeli service deaths from non-hostile factors including training accidents, automobile accidents, illness and suicides, is evidence of both the high operating standards and deterrence established by the IDF.
Contrary to the negative image of the IDF promoted to impressionable Western audiences by groups like Breaking the Silence, evidence suggests that the IDF’s adherence to a doctrine of warfare in which humanitarian principles have a place has born fruit in the Middle East itself. The Arab states gradually have accommodated themselves to Israel’s presence, even if their core dogma rejecting the Jewish state remains intact.
The nuanced stance of the Arab states with regard to Israel contrasts with the bitter clash between the Sunni Arab states and extremist entities like the Islamic Republic of Iran and ISIS, whose actions and goals are devoid of any moral component, leaving no room for accommodation.
The rough and tumble characteristic of Israel’s vigorous political life often consigns its political institutions to be held in lower esteem by the public. That is inevitable in participatory democracy. But its military institution, the IDF, maintains a sacrosanct status. So it is no surprise that Israel’s detractors would try to undermine this most respected institution that acts as a guarantor of the continued existence of the Jewish state. When evaluating the activities of dissenting groups like Breaking the Silence, it is important to keep this perspective in mind.