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Human rights groups denounce investigation of Breaking the Silence spokesman

June 25, 2017 8:29 P.M. (Updated: July 3, 2017 2:00 P.M.)
Israeli soldiers aim towards Palestinian youths during clashes in the West Bank town of Hebron on October 4, 2015. (AFP/Hazem Bader/File)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- Amid an ongoing investigation of a spokesman for Breaking the Silence over a testimony in which he claimed to have seriously assaulted a Palestinian during his service with the Israeli army, a number of Israeli human rights organizations have denounced the case as a cynical attempt to “intimidate and silence critics of the occupation.”

Dean Issacharoff is currently under investigation in light of testimony of the assault he provided for Breaking the Silence, a group that provides testimonies of Israeli soldiers and veterans recounting their experiences serving in the occupied Palestinian territory.

Breaking the Silence was previously accused of “treason” in March for releasing accounts by soldiers reportedly containing classified information -- a charge the group has consistently denied.

After the Israeli attorney general demanded the group release the identity of soldiers who gave accounts of human rights abuses and war crimes committed in the occupied territory, Breaking the Silence said the move was a government attempt to shut down the organization and prevent it from continuing its work, which is dependent on maintaining the anonymity of soldiers.

Israeli news site The Jerusalem Post reported Sunday that Israel Education Minister Naftali Bennett claimed there was a hypocrisy in defending the Breaking the Silence spokesman, who was questioned by the police for an hour-and-a-half on Thursday, but blaming Elor Azarya, an Israeli soldier who was filmed shooting and killing a wounded Palestinian at point-blank range last year.

“We see here someone who comes from the extreme Left’s Breaking the Silence, and he claims that he conducted awful war crimes against innocent Arabs. Why wouldn’t we open an investigation against him?” asked Bennett on his Facebook page. “And if Elor Azarya was called Dean Issacharoff and was also a member of Breaking the Silence, would he be immune from investigation?”

Azarya was sentenced in February to 18 months in prison for the execution-style shooting, which has been appealed by both the defense for being too harsh and the prosecution for being too lenient. Prior to the sentencing, the case had already been denounced as a “show trial” for aiming to distract from a wider culture of impunity for Israeli forces.

Meanwhile, Bennett previously warned that “We will find out if (Issacharoff) is a criminal who needs to be in jail or a liar spreading lies while touring the world,” and added: “I served as a company commander in Jenin, Qabatiya, Ramallah, and Gaza. We never, ever used unnecessary force.”

However, rights groups have repeatedly accused Israeli forces supporting a shoot-to-kill policy against Palestinians, while Human Rights Watch has meanwhile documented “numerous statements” made by senior Israeli politicians and religious figures “calling on police and soldiers to shoot to kill suspected attackers, irrespective of whether lethal force is actually strictly necessary to protect life.”

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman for his part said on Twitter that “Whether he hit an innocent Palestinian or lied to defame the State of Israel and the IDF soldiers -- he should be questioned and be punished.”

Issacharoff's commander during his Israeli army service has also set out to defame him, and reportedly said that the assault incident “never happened.”

In a statement Sunday morning, 18 Israeli human rights organization issued a statement of solidarity with Breaking the Silence, following the police questioning of Issacharoff. “We stand with our friends at Breaking the Silence; we, too, will keep speaking out -- until the occupation is brought to an end,” the statement began.

The statement addressed Israel’s justice minister, attorney general, and a state attorney, saying, “your newfound determination to address instances of violence towards Palestinians is impressive, but Palestinians have been living for fifty years under systemic, institutionalized violence that is at the core of the occupation -- a regime of military control over civilians.”

“The civil and military systems of law enforcement, along with the courts, lend a veneer of lawfulness to killing, injury, torture, collective punishment, land grabs, movement restrictions, administrative detentions, and other like actions. Even investigations of suspected grave violations of international law are skillfully whitewashed or left to fizzle out.”

“It was not as part of a move to promote accountability that the spokesperson for Breaking the Silence was brought in for questioning. On the contrary -- it was meant to intimidate and silence critics of the occupation. We stand with our friends at Breaking the Silence. We, too, will keep speaking out -- until the occupation and its injustices are brought to an end.”

The investigation also comes after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would seek to push forward ever more stringent regulations of foreign funding of Israeli NGOs, a move that has been denounced as another attempt to stifle human rights organizations in Israel.

Netanyahu said during a meeting that the controversial NGO law passed in 2016 was not strong enough, and that the Israeli government needed to prevent any foreign government funding from reaching NGOs.The law compels organizations to reveal their sources of funding if more than 50 percent came from public foreign entities.

In February, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, also introduced legislation that would limit human rights organizations’ access to government information.

The overwhelmingly majority of affected NGOs have been left-leaning, as organizations in Israel that rely on public foreign funding tend to oppose the government’s right-wing policies and human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territory. Meanwhile, the law does not affect right-wing organizations, who rely largely on private, as opposed to public, funding from overseas.

As international criticisms around Israel’s human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territory have increased in recent years, the Israeli government has responded by fast-tracking a series of right-wing policies that rights groups claim are aimed at weeding out any criticisms aimed at the Israeli state.

In April, Netanyahu also canceled a meeting with Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, after the latter planned meetings with representatives of Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem -- who were both targeted by the “NGO transparency” law and aim to expose the crimes of the Israeli occupation.

The Israeli government has also introduced anti-BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) policies, including passing a law in March banning foreigners who have openly expressed support for BDS from entering the country.
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