Witnesses Dispute Claims Made By Breaking the Silence’s Joel Carmel

“Everyone was against us. Everything in the MSM [mainstream media] was anti-Israel, and we had a responsibility to show the other side,’” Joel Carmel, a former Israel Defense Forces soldier and now English content coordinator for the Breaking the Silence NGO, said of the zeitgeist characterizing his Zionist upbringing in London’s suburbs. In a Business Insider article this past July showcasing his story, Carmel claimed: “That meant saying what Israel did was always a security issue and Israel had to do whatever it had to defend itself” (“A young man left London to join Israel’s army because he wanted to defend the Jewish people but now believes the treatment of Palestinians is morally wrong,” July 26).

“In this bubble, all of Israel’s critics were biased, Carmel, the son of a rabbi, said” reported Business Insider’s Julian Kossoff about Carmel, the 2009-2010 winner of “The Ambassador,” a prestigious Israel advocacy program at the renowned JFS School.

The notion that Ambassador participants were always expected to defend Israel “come what may,” as Carmel, 28, put it in a Times of Israel blog post last May entitled “Israel and the Diaspora: A Call for Honesty,” is a central part of his narrative, one which he earlier emphasized in a Zoom session last June. “We, as diaspora Jews, had a job to defend Israel no matter what and at all times,” was the message he said he imbibed from his Israel education, both formal and extracurricular, at JFS, he said.

But this “come what may” approach of absolutes, which perhaps characterizes the personal path of Carmel, who transformed from an avid pro-Israel advocate into a Breaking the Silence content coordinator who fails to acknowledge any security or political justification whatsoever for Israel’s presence and policies in the West Bank, does not resemble the Ambassador program during Carmel’s time.

Aaron Wunsh, another JFS student who participated in the Ambassador program the same year as Carmel, told CAMERA that the training “was not about ‘defending Israel at all costs’ – it was about learning how to have nuanced debate and to make sure you have all the facts. The constant line was ‘you can criticize Israel all you like, but at least be fair and do not hold Israel to a standard that we would not hold other countries to.”’

Ambassador training material that CAMERA obtained was consistent with Wunsh’s assertion. The guidelines state:

Argue for informed understanding of Israel, not unquestioning support. We are not against criticism but wish to counter uninformed criticism. Explain that there are vigorous debates in Israel on many major policy issues, and great diversity of views.

“Since universities in the UK are known to be hostile to Israel, the program sought to provide students with the tools to be able to debate having full knowledge of the entire story,” Wunsh recounted.

“We all went to UCL [University College London], one of London’s top universities, and asked students what they knew about Israel,” Wunsh recalled an assignment which he said underscored the program’s premise that the prevailing anti-Israel narrative on campus was based on ignorance, not facts. “Questions such as finding Israel on a map, population density, demographics and language spoken. The overwhelming responses were inaccurate, with students having no idea where Israel is, what the population or official language is.”

As for Carmel’s assertion that in his bubble he was taught that “everyone was against us,” an introductory session for the Ambassadors participants emphasized: “Don’t depict the conflict as ‘us or them’ – ie as ‘Israel vs Palestine,’ ie you are either ‘pro-Palestinian’ or ‘pro-Israeli.’ It’s the culture of violence in Palestinian society, and leaders’ policies, that prevent peace.’

Carmel on the Yachad zoom program in June 2020 (Screenshot)

In the Zoom session hosted last June by the British anti-occupation organization Yachad, Carmel claimed that as part of the Ambassador program, “I remember putting together a speech of five minutes with material that they gave me that there’s no such thing as Palestine, no such thing as Palestinians.” Indeed, while the point that currently there is no sovereign ‘Palestine’ is valid, and multiple mainstream media outlets have published corrections on just that, the unfounded argument that “there is no such thing as Palestinians” was not a lesson that the Ambassador program imparted.

Far from denying that Palestinians exist, the program materials discussed conditions needed to build a Palestinian state. Participants were trained to “[a]rgue rationally and humanely for the legitimate rights of all peoples of the region,” according to the guidelines. Furthermore, the guidelines outlined what it saw as the path to enable the founding of a Palestinian state: “Quite simply, you cannot build a Palestinian state by demonizing and stigmatizing the Jewish one, nor by preaching to it from afar, or by campaigning for boycotts and isolation. You will build a Palestinian state on the basis of mutual recognition and respect, and on the basis of an understanding of the Jewish right of national self-determination.”

When asked about the incident that Carmel described in which he was allegedly taught to argue that there “is no such thing as Palestinians,” a community member with a key role in the program responded that the scenario was “inconceivable.” Perhaps Carmel did make the argument that there “are no such thing as Palestinians,” but if so, it was apparently on his own initiative.

While the alleged incident that Carmel described suggests that participants were indoctrinated with an extremist, right-wing ideology, Wunsh disputed this. “Throughout the program, there was the opportunity to form one’s own opinions on the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” he recalled. “One of the rounds split the contestants into two teams where one team had to argue that Israel was an apartheid state, and the other to defend Israel. This was done in the House of Lords [in the presence of] Lord [Greville] Janner.”

“Israel is central to the school’s Jewish ethos, and students are encouraged to learn the facts of both sides of the Middle East debate, says Mr [Jamie] Peston,” then JFS School’s head of community liaison, the Jewish Chronicle reported in 2010, months after Carmel graduated.

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The young “zealot for Zion,” as Business Insider‘s Kossoff put it, who claimed that he was educated that “everyone” and “everything” was unfairly biased against Israel was by his own telling unequipped to deal with the complex situation faced by a young Israel Defense Forces recruit serving in the West Bank. Instead of grasping the complexity, Carmel clung to zero-sum absolutes – but in his new reverse reality, Israel was at fault “no matter what and at all times,” to borrow from his terminology. While he claimed that as a high school student he was taught to say “what Israel did was always a security issue,” in the Business Insider, he failed to acknowledge any security reasons at all for Israeli policies in the West Bank.

About Carmel’s role as a second lieutenant assigned to the Jenin district of COGAT, Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, where he was charged with issuing permits allowing Palestinians from the Jenin area to enter Israel for a variety of reasons, Kossoff reported:

His job was issuing travel permits to Palestinians who wanted to enter Israel to visit family or hospitals. There, businessmen were given priority over the “regular people,” he said. As a young officer, he controlled the freedom of movement of tens of thousands of people.

His work was stressful and had Big Brother overtones, he said. The permit-application process required Palestinians to provide exhaustive biographical information, he said.

“It was part of Israel’s effort to control — we had to know everything,” he added.

Carmel and Kossoff completely disregard security as the cause for close screening of Palestinians’ entry applications, as countless Palestinians from the West Bank have crossed into Israel, most of them before the completion of the security barrier, to carry out deadly suicide bombings, shooting and stabbing attacks. First Sergeant (res) Noam Haibi, who was a liaison officer and shift manager responsible for permits at the Jenin District Coordination and Liaison (DCL) in the years after Carmel was discharged, told this writer that there are “dozens” of reasons why Palestinians apply for permits, not just for family or hospital visits, or business, as reported in the article. “Each permit requires specific criteria and preconditions,” Haibi said. “In order to receive the desired permit, the applicant was required to produce the required documents so that the soldiers could verify the information. This had nothing to do with collecting information on the individual; it was strictly to authenticate the request.”

Careful examination of the data prevents Palestinians from providing false data on their permit applications in order to enter Israel and carry out an attack, and such events are rare.

For example, in December 2017 Yasin Abu al-Kara Al-Kara, who lived near Nablus, stabbed and severely wounded a security guard at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem. “Al-Kara took advantage of a work permit he had received to engage in agricultural work in the seam zone,” reported the Israel Security Agency.

More recently, this August, when a Palestinian with a work permit fatally stabbed Rabbi Shai Ohayan in central Israel, Times of Israel reported: “It is highly irregular for Palestinians with legal work permits to carry out attacks in Israel, having undergone significant background checks and regular screenings by Israeli security services.”

In other words, it is thanks to diligent COGAT soldiers like Carmel and Haibi, along with their counterparts in the security services, that so few Palestinians with legal permits carry out attacks.

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In an incident that Carmel described as a critical moment for him, the young soldier, as part of his officers training course, visited the mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs. About the September 2014 visit, Kossoff wrote:

When Carmel and his fellow trainee officers arrived, he said he was shocked when they did not remove their shoes to pay even minimal respect to Muslim beliefs.

“I was tramping around in my military boots in their mosque,” he said.

Two soldiers reached by CAMERA who attended the tour with Carmel contradicted his account that the soldiers did not pay any respect for the site’s holiness for Muslims. In fact, Moshe Kwiat, who also was in the officers’ course, and Omri Dan, Carmel’s direct commander, both described how the soldiers walked on special mats placed on top of the prayer rugs so the soldiers’ shoes would not touch the rugs. “I know that this is a general procedure in the Cave when Jews enter the Muslim side, as I was a COGAT officer in the Hebron district for a little over a year,” recounted Kwiat to CAMERA. “When there is a tour of the Muslim side of the Cave, the Waqf puts down mats over the prayer rugs on the exact path that the tour will be following. That is what was on this specific tour as well.”

During the Hebron mosque tour which Carmel attended, soldiers stepped on the specially placed yellow mats out of respect for Islam (Photo by Moshe Kwiat)

A photograph provided by Kwiat (at left) of the very tour in which Carmel participated shows soldiers standing on a yellow-patterned mat which was placed on top of the red prayer rugs.

According to Omri Dan, who commanded Carmel, and who participated in three such tours, “Before entering the cave, the commanders gave a briefing to officers course participants emphasizing protocol and behavior to show respect for the residents, their religion and beliefs.” An employee of the Islamic Waqf which administers the mosque monitored the soldiers to ensure their compliance with rules prohibiting walking directly on the mosque floor, he recalled.

An additional pivotal incident for Carmel was his visit to the checkpoint in Bethlehem (dubbed Rachel, or 300). Kossoff wrote:

During his officer training, he said his doubts about the occupation began to crystallize.

One morning at a Bethlehem, West Bank, crossing point, where Palestinian workers gathered to gain entry into Israel, Carmel said he witnessed an upsetting scene.

“You’ve just got to be there to feel it,” he said. “Thousands of young Palestinian men crushed into tunnel cages on the way to the security check. People forced to climb on top of one another – that was when I started to think, ‘There’s something wrong here.’”

Indeed, Carmel described a difficult scene – one which took place in the context of Israel ensuring passage for Palestinians from the disputed West Bank, into Israel within its pre-1967 boundaries, while carrying out security checks. The Reuters photograph accompanying this section of the article, dated May 2019 (at left), shows Palestinians tightly packed next to iron bars. About the rampant pushing and shoving during certain peak hours, soldier Haibi, who had served near Jenin, maintained: “You cannot hold the State of Israel responsible and completely exculpate the Palestinians. Frequently, they did not listen to instructions and they fought amongst themselves to cut in line. This also routinely happened at the window for the public,” where Palestinians spoke with COGAT officials in order to line up their entrance permits.

The crowding of Palestinians at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, which is not at all under Israeli control, does not look better than the scene that Carmel witnessed in Bethlehem several years ago. (Israel keeps its crossings open to both the West Bank and Gaza on a far more regular basis than Egypt does with Gaza. Israel closes its crossings on Jewish holidays and occasionally during periods of heightened security tensions. Closures due to the spread of Covid-19 were a departure from the usual routine of keeping the borders open. Egypt’s crossing with Gaza, in contrast, is more often closed than open.)

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Both Carmel and also – at least, initially – Kossoff withheld from readers that since Carmel’s time, the Bethlehem crossing which made such an impact on Carmel was completely revamped in 2019 so that the new crossing now resembles any modern train station in a major Western city. Machsom Watch, an NGO highly critical of Israel’s presence in the West Bank in general, and policies at crossings in particular, noted the significant improvements in an Aug. 1, 2019 post:

Two major checkpoints at entry points to Israel have been significantly upgraded: Qalandiya Checkpoint, north of Jerusalem, and Bethlehem (300) Checkpoint, blocking entry into Jerusalem from Bethlehem, Hebron and the South Hebron Hills. Crossing these checkpoints is now faster and more efficient, involves less contact between Palestinians and Israeli security forces, and is based on electronic identification. What hasn’t changed is the bureaucratic barrier of the permit system – complicated and draconian – requiring a special permit for every kind of entry purpose.

Machsom Watch juxtaposed contrasting photographs of the Bethlehem checkpoint, both before and after the upgrade, a striking graphic demonstration of the dramatic difference.

According to The Jerusalem Post, “The wait time for Palestinians crossing into Israel via Rachel’s Crossing has been reduced as much as 96% from up to 2.5 hours to up to six minutes following renovations.”

That Carmel ignored the vast improvement at the crossing is not particularly surprising. First, it happened after his time. Second, any improvements in the lives of Palestinians are irrelevant so long as the occupation persists, in his “come what may” view. As he told Business Insider:

“I wanted to be the moral soldier. I believed I could be that soldier who gives the Palestinians good service – service with a smile,” Carmel said. “Later I realized you could be as smiley as you like. You could give the Palestinian children sweets, but ultimately, you control their lives with military power.”

In Yachad’s webinar, Carmel elaborated that nothing less than entirely ending Israel’s presence in the West Bank will ameliorate the situation. “The Civil Administration needs to be completely disbanded and along with the occupation being ended. I don’t think there’s any way of improving the occupation. I don’t think it’s something that can be fixed or made more aesthetically pleasing or more moral. There’s no such thing as an enlightened occupation,” he averred.

Not addressed in Carmel’s end the occupation come what may premise is the fact that Israel repeatedly has offered to withdraw from over 90 per cent of the West Bank, along with slivers of other territory within Israel, and Palestinians have consistently rejected the offers – at Camp David in 2000, and again with Ehud Barak in 2008. Palestinian rejectionism of Israel’s existence – from the 1947 Partition Plan to President Trump’s 2020 “Peace to Prosperity” plan – long predates Israel’s presence in the West Bank and if the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is any indication, will continue long after the military’s departure from the disputed territory.

In Carmel’s zero-sum end the occupation at all cost agenda, there is no room to consider Israel’s weighty, life-and-death security concerns. In addition, so long as the complex situation in the West Bank is distilled down to “end the occupation,” all responsibility – and fault – is Israel’s.

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Carmel’s singling out of Israel and the military occupation as solely responsible for everything that goes wrong in the West Bank is apparent at the most micro level – even his failure to learn more Arabic than he hoped. Kossoff wrote that when Carmel was assigned to COGAT, “he was excited at the opportunity to learn Arabic. But his language skills never went beyond issuing military orders: ‘Stop. Hold up your hands. Leave the room. Enter the room.’ No social context – just instructions.”

Haibi, who was responsible for permits in the Jenin district after Carmel was released, recounted that soldiers responsible for issuing permits for medical, family, business, study, recreational and a plethora of other purposes

completed a training course in which they gained knowledge of basic Arabic, in order to conduct a short dialogue with the [Palestinian] resident to the reason for his visit to the reception window. Moreover, the soldiers receive a background course on the Palestinian population, their customs, and so on. For example, during the Ramadan fast, the soldiers were forbidden from eating and drinking in front of Palestinians to show them respect.

During my service, I improved and expanded my Arabic vocabulary without a doubt. I was able to build my language skills and carry on long conversations with the [Palestinian] residents. Just the mere fact of hearing the Arabic language every day and given the fact that in most cases the average Palestinian did not know Hebrew, there is great opportunity to learn the language and engage in discussion. I can also say that during my service with other soldiers, on more than one occasion I saw how over the long term new soldiers who arrived improved their vocabulary from day to day and succeeded in having long conversations.

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The role in this story of Julian Kossoff, a weekend news editor at the Business Times based in London, also warrants examination. According to Business Insiders’ Ethics Policy:

Reporters must seek both sides of the story by providing an opportunity for those subject to negative accusations with an opportunity to respond. Reporters seek to convey accusations in detail and allow a fulsome response.

Initially, the July 26 article contained not a word or response from either COGAT, the army, or other soldiers who served with Carmel, a gross oversight about which this writer called out Kossoff on 29 July. The next morning, COGAT received a query from Business Insider, and the spokesmen’s unit replied later that day.

By the following day, the following paragraphs were added to the story:

The IDF declined comment. COGAT said that Carmel’s account “mendaciously, and insultingly rewrites reality. COGAT has been working to upgrade all the crossings between Israel and the Judea and Samaria area, at an estimated cost of over 300 million shekels ($88 million).

“As part of the Civil Administration’s flagship project, a total of roughly a hundred speed-gates have been added to the crossings of Judea and Samaria in order to add speed and efficiency to the entry and exit of Palestinian residents. Thanks to that project, waiting time at the crossings has dropped from hours to a few minutes only,” a COGAT spokesperson told Insider.

Business Insider commendably appended an Editor’s note to the bottom of the article alerting readers to the addition of COGAT’s response. IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus told CAMERA that he has no record of anyone from Business Insider contacting his office. (A separate Editor’s note earlier appended to the article corrects the inaccurate claim that a night-time interrogation of Palestinian residents included a search of their home. The note clarified that the soldiers stood at the door while asking the residents questions without entering the home.)

About the organization where Carmel now works, Breaking the Silence, Kossoff reported:

According to its mission statement, it is “an organization of veterans who have served in the Israeli military who have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories.”

Kossoff did not explore why an organization with the stated mission of educating the Israeli public about the reality of everyday life in the West Bank requires an English-language content coordinator, which is Carmel’s title. Breaking the Silence’s funding comes from a host of foreign NGOs and governments including the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation, Dan Church Aid, the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Oxfam, and the Open Society Foundation, among others. According to NGO Monitor, nearly 60 per cent of the organization’s contributions between 2012 and 2016 were from European governments. Alongside its foreign funding, there are the organization’s robust foreign activities: polished English-language reports delivered to journalists at major Western media outlets, English-language books and the requisite book tours, visits to college campuses and other international venues including the United Nations, a photography exhibit in Zurich, and more.

Kossoff’s hands-off treatment of Breaking the Silence typifies journalistic coverage of NGOs operating in Israel and the Palestinian territories. As former AP journalist Matti Friedman put it: “these groups are to be quoted, not covered.”

The fact that many of Carmel’s claims about the army are disputed by soldiers who served with him or in the same position as he did is consistent with a 2016 Channel 10 (Israel) investigation of 10 Breaking the Silence testimonies: 40 per cent could not be verified due to insufficient identifying details (as is the case with Carmel’s account that soldiers trashed a Palestinian village and one soldier recklessly fired rubber-tipped bullets in response at Palestinians who threw paint bombs), 20 per cent were determined to be exaggerated, another 20 per cent were debunked as false, and 20 per cent proved true. Among the false accounts was the claim by BtS founder Yehuda Shaul who alleged during a south Hebron hills speaking tour recorded and posted on the Israeli NRG news site that “settlers basically poisoned all the water cisterns of the village,” invoking an antisemitic medieval blood libel. His unfounded charge found its way into a venomous speech that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gave to the European Parliament in 2016 accusing Israeli rabbis of urging their government to poison Palestinian wells. Long after Abbas was compelled to retract, acknowledging that reports that Israeli rabbis called for poisoning wells were “baseless,” Shaul continued to repeat the libel during the group’s Hebron area tours, according to Channel 10.

Channel 10 also determined that the testimony of Breaking the Silence staffer Nadav Weiman was false. Weiman had testified that the army “mapped” Palestinian homes in order to harass residents, a charge repeated by Carmel in Business Insider. About the night-time interrogation of the Palestinian family during the “mapping mission” that Carmel witnessed, Business Insider reported: “The process revealed nothing – it rarely did, according to Carmel – and had no obvious military objective.” In Weiman’s case, Channel 10 tracked down his commander, who flatly denied the claim regarding harassment and maintained that the mapping was necessary for intelligence purposes. The Channel 10 investigators concluded that Weiman’s testimony exemplified one of the common criticisms against the group – that the soldiers themselves often have a very limited understanding of the events around them. Carmel’s story about the specific mapping incident he witnessed could not be fact-checked, because like so many Breaking the Silence testimonies, insufficient identifying details were provided. He had joined an unidentified unit, not his own, for that outing. 

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Rogen: “I was fed a huge amount of lies about Israel my entire life!” (Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Collision via Sportsfile)

Carmel’s dramatic transformation from a “come what may” pro-Israel advocate to a “come what may” activist who can find only Israeli fault for the longstanding conflict, and yet considers himself an Israeli patriot, is not at all unique. Neither is his claim that his community fed him a false picture of Israel, covering up or rejecting as biased everything of a critical nature. The recent remarks by actor Seth Rogen — “I was fed a huge amount of lies about Israel my entire life!”— placed a high profile spotlight on this group of Diaspora youth, some of who made aliyah. The “You Never Told Me” site, a project of the reflexively anti-Israel If Not Now organization, is a popular meeting place for these voices.

Carmel’s story underscores that “you never told me” and “come what may” claims are no less deserving of critical examination than the Jewish state at which the young activists ceaselessly fling charges of wrongdoing with varying levels of credibility and veracity.

When asked in the Yachad Zoom event to reflect on his Israel education at JFS, Carmel said that a proper Israel education “needs to be honest and honesty means also talking about the occupation.”

Meanwhile, on the question of honesty, Carmel (and his Breaking the Silence colleagues) failed to respond to multiple approaches from this author notifying him that testimony and materials contradict his account of the Ambassador program and that also  participants in the Hebron tour countered his story that soldiers completely disrespected the mosque’s sanctity. The young activist, who on Zoom, implored: “you need to show them the whole picture” went silent.