Israel Bars Group From Army Bases, Fueling Debate on Criticism

Israel has banned a group critical of the military’s treatment of Palestinians from engaging with soldiers, escalating debate over what constitutes legitimate dissent and whether the government is trying to stifle it.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon accused Breaking the Silence, which publicizes testimony of soldiers serving in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, of malicious propaganda and barred its members from visiting army bases or attending military events.

“Their claims are hypocritical and false propaganda against the military and the State of Israel, and part of the campaign of delegitimization being waged against us,” Ya’alon said in a Facebook post overnight. “If Breaking the Silence were really concerned about our moral values, it would honestly engage the Israeli military, and not go abroad to malign our soldiers.”

Breaking the Silence, whose donors include individual European governments and the European Union, accused Ya’alon of trying to muzzle its members.

The defense minister “crosses the red line of every democratic society when he chooses to lash out at the Israeli soldiers that serve in the occupied territories,” the group responded in an e-mailed statement. Breaking the Silence “has documented the personal testimonies of over 1,000 soldiers, vetted and approved by the military censor, to describe in a clear, loud and fearless voice their experiences serving in the territories.”

The dispute is the latest skirmish in the growing debate between governments led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and private groups that advocate for the rights of Palestinians and an end to Israel’s occupation of land they claim for a state. A previous Netanyahu-led administration was forced to scuttle bills designed to limit funding for such groups after the attorney-general deemed them unconstitutional.

Critics contend that some of these organizations -- including the New Israel Fund, B’tselem and Adalah -- undermine Israel’s world standing by criticizing its policies internationally in a bid to pressure it to make concessions to the Palestinians. They also say these organizations’ unflattering accounts of Israeli military conduct aids criminal prosecutions of Israeli officials and soldiers in international courts.

Declare Funding

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, whose Jewish Home party opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state, is promoting legislation that would compel organizations that receive the majority of their budget from abroad to openly declare themselves as foreign-funded. Groups such as Adalah, which advocates for Palestinian legal rights, say they are already transparent regarding donors and accuse Shaked of trying to intimidate them.

Culture Minister Miri Regev had tried to cut state funds for art she finds politically objectionable. Among other things, she threatened to withhold funding for an Arab play inspired by the story of a Palestinian imprisoned for murdering an Israeli soldier. The attorney general told her she couldn’t legally link funding to a work’s content.

Advocates for the groups critical of government policy, including Netanyahu’s political opposition, accuse him and his supporters of trying to suppress legitimate dissent amid an impasse in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking that broke down last year.

“It is a dangerous development when the the government, instead of contending with those who criticize its policies, seek to silence and delegitimize them,” said Zehava Galon, head of the opposition leftist Meretz party, in an interview Monday with the parliament’s TV channel.

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