The Israeli organization Breaking the Silence has, since its inception, enjoyed an aura of authority in Western political discourse on the Israel-Palestine conflict. For those unfamiliar with the group, Breaking the Silence is, in its own words, “an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories.”
Publications by Breaking the Silence often make headlines in agenda-setting European and US media outlets. Their latest release has been no exception. Titled “This is how we fought in Gaza,” the report is a compilation of more than 60 testimonies by Israeli army officers and soldiers who took part in the 50-day-long onslaught against Gaza last summer. So far, the publication has been featured in The Washington Post, CNN, Newsweek, The Huffington Post, International Business Times UK, Die Welt and The Independent, to name but a few examples.
The political-military history and status quo in Israel-Palestine have characteristics that stand out in international affairs. The Palestinian refugee question is labeled by the UN as “the world’s largest and most protracted refugee situation.” Besides being responsible for the longest ongoing military occupation in the post-WWII era, Israel has imposed a political system in the West Bank that is the sole apartheid regime in world – as the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem asserted already in 2002, “the only one of its kind in the world” and “reminiscent of distasteful regimes from the past, such as the Apartheid regime in South Africa.”
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The tragedy in the former British Mandatory Palestine, however, is atypical also in another respect: It is arguably the most meticulously documented conflict in the world. Its historical record, diplomatic record, military historical record and human rights record are chronicled so thoroughly that countless other cases of politicide can only wish they ever received the same level of global attention. It is in this context that the treatment of Breaking the Silence in the EU and the US reveals deeply ingrained double-standards in the European and American perception of the past and present of Israel-Palestine.
Turning a Blind Eye to Palestinian Human Rights Community
Consider a juxtaposition between the Western media’s attraction for content by Breaking the Silence, on one hand, and the media’s interest toward documentation by Palestinian human rights organizations, on the other. Put differently, how often do the multiple groundbreaking reports by Palestinian human rights groups make headlines in, say, The Washington Post, CNN, Newsweek or International Business Times UK? The answer: never.
How come? The West Bank-based human rights body Al-Haq, founded in 1979, is arguably the most professional human rights group in all of Israel-Palestine. The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights is another Palestinian human rights organization continuously producing top-notch research and analysis. Both organizations are affiliates of International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and International Commission of Jurists – Geneva and both groups are recipients of multiple prestigious awards.
For what reason are anonymous statements by Israeli occupation soldiers vastly more interesting in the eyes of European and American media than top-quality factual accounts given and extensive eyewitness testimonies compiled by Palestinian human rights organizations?
Regarding content by Breaking the Silence more newsworthy than publications by Palestinian human rights organizations is indeed peculiar, for it has been the Palestinian human rights organizations that for decades have been leading the way in documenting and exposing the reality of Israel’s military rule over Palestinian territories and the apartheid-like political structure Israel has created through the settlement enterprise. Out of Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights bodies, the Palestinian organizations have most often pioneered our understanding of the factual and legal aspects of what is unfolding in the occupied territories. Even a cursory survey of the immense body of data produced by these institutions makes it clear that very few stones are left unturned in their examination of the modus operandi of the Israeli occupation forces and settlers.
What is alarming is not as much the interest toward Breaking the Silence by and of itself, rather, it is the pervasive tendency to ignore and neglect documentation by Palestinian organizations. Moreover, the tone in which major media outlets in the EU and the US often cover Breaking the Silence reports suggests that it is somehow debatable whether the Israeli army behaves in a criminal fashion as it enforces the occupation regime.
Whether Breaking the Silence has the potential to effect change within the Israeli society is a separate issue. It is possible that only politically tame analysis and a decision not to call for criminal accountability for those Israeli officials who have breached international humanitarian law enable an Israeli group to reach even a portion of the Israeli Jewish mainstream.
Be that as it may, testimonies describing human rights violations given on condition of immunity and anonymity are a staple of truth commissions that have been set up in dozens of instances, for example in South Africa, Guatemala, Chile and East Timor. However, such a procedure is commonplace after systematic violations have ceased. Hence, given that the Israeli occupation and apartheid policies are alive and well and the overall situation in Palestine is deteriorating, one might expect that this policy by Breaking the Silence would, if anything, diminish its international credibility.
It is an achievement of sorts that, as the Israeli occupation semi-centennial approaches, Western media’s take on Israel-Palestine has not fundamentally changed. Israeli sources, including those from the country’s occupation army, appear to be regarded as inherently more credible than Palestinian sources, including those that enjoy international acclaim in the global human rights community.