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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Former Israeli soldiers face backlash for opposing occupation

Spokesman for group that chronicles military abuses in West Bank causes outrage by describing his own actions

Israeli soldiers arrest a Palestinian for reportedly throwing stones at Israeli settlers and Jews during a religious procession in the West Bank city of Hebron on November 11, 2017. Hazem Bader / AFP
Israeli soldiers arrest a Palestinian for reportedly throwing stones at Israeli settlers and Jews during a religious procession in the West Bank city of Hebron on November 11, 2017. Hazem Bader / AFP

A former Israeli soldier leading a campaign against Israel's occupation of the West Bank has found himself in the fight of his lifetime, facing relentless criticism from the country's leaders who have labelled him a traitor.

For Dean Issacharoff, the battle is even more personal: his father is Israel's ambassador to Germany, a respected longtime diplomat tasked with defending the same policies his son so adamantly opposes.

Mr Issacharoff is the spokesman of Breaking the Silence, a group of former fighters who served in the West Bank and now collect testimonies about the damaging impact of the Israeli occupation. While the group says it is acting in Israel's best interests by sparking a public debate, it has become perhaps the most reviled anti-occupation protest group in the country. The nationalist government sees it as foreign-funded subversives seeking to shame Israel by targeting its most hallowed institution, the military.

Amid a larger campaign to crack down on dovish advocacy groups that rely on donations from foreign governments, Breaking the Silence has drawn the most scorn for touching on a sensitive nerve. The government has responded by shunning foreign dignitaries who meet with its members and pushing for legislation to curb its funding.

"We are soldiers who have been there and seen what the occupation does. We have earned our right to speak," said Yehuda Shaul, a co-founder of the group. "They are trying to intimidate people into not opening their mouths about the occupation."

The current clamour around Breaking the Silence was sparked when Mr Issacharoff, seeking to highlight the corrosive effect of his own service, publicly shared how he once kneed an unarmed Palestinian in the face until he was bloodied and dazed because he had resisted arrest. The confession sparked an inquiry that nationalist critics hoped would either find Mr Issacharoff guilty or prove he was a liar.

After a swift investigation, the state prosecutor's office announced last week that it was closing the case because it deemed Mr Issacharoff's testimony to be false — a decision welcomed by hardliners long opposed to the group as vindication.

"Breaking the Silence lies and defames our soldiers around the world. Today we got more proof of that, if anyone had a doubt," prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted after the announcement.

But since then, questions have arisen over the state's investigation. The group says the probe was politically motivated and bungled from the start, with investigators interviewing the wrong Palestinian victim and refraining from questioning fellow soldiers who backed Mr Issacharoff's account.

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Mr Issacharoff himself says he wants to be tried for his actions to highlight the moral price Israel is paying for its occupation of lands captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

"The right-wing government is afraid of the truth, and with good reason. Because if I take responsibility for my violence, they will have to take responsibility for sending us to serve in the territories," he said in a video statement. "As long as there is occupation, there will be soldiers who break their silence. I know what I did and no political campaign will be able to change that. These hands beat a Palestinian in the territories. I am not proud of it but I won't let you hide reality."

On the advice of his lawyer, Mr Issacharoff declined to speak to The Associated Press.

In a heated television debate, deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely called members of Breaking the Silence "liars" and "traitors", and later instructed Israeli embassies in Europe to seize on Mr Issacharoff's case to press local governments to stop their funding of "an organisation based on lies".

That put his father, Jeremy Issacharoff, Israel's ambassador to Germany, in the uncomfortable position of having to denounce his own son. A nationalist advocacy group then launched a drive to have the ambassador fired because of his son.

The uproar prompted Dean Issacharoff's mother to plead with politicians to "stop using incendiary and hateful language" against soldiers who risked their lives for the country.

"Such words undermine any respectful public discussion and are inciteful," she wrote on Facebook.

Ms Hotovely later took a step back, calling Jeremy Issacharoff an "esteemed diplomat."

"Our ambassador in Berlin is an excellent man of values, and we must draw a distinction between his diplomatic activity and his son's participation in an organisation that is problematic for Israel," she said.

It is not the first time Germany has been drawn into the commotion over Breaking the Silence.

Earlier this year, Mr Netanyahu cancelled a meeting with visiting German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel because he insisted on meeting the group. Mr Netanyahu, who also serves as foreign minister, said that henceforth snubbing visitors who meet with Breaking the Silence would be official policy.

Since 2004, the group has collected testimony from more than 1,100 soldiers describing the consequences of Israel's military rule, including routine mistreatment of Palestinian civilians.

Instead of sparking the public debate they had hoped for, the former fighters found themselves branded as public enemies who hide behind anonymous testimony to smear Israeli soldiers, fuel boycott calls against the country and help its enemies press future war crime charges against it.

Even those sympathetic to their cause have bemoaned how they have aired their criticisms to foreign audiences rather than keep the argument in house.

Mr Shaul insists the group vets all soldiers' testimonies carefully and submits its material to the military censor before publication, to avoid inadvertently harming Israeli security. He said the government — and large segments of the public — cannot handle the inconvenient truth and that the Issacharoff saga was just the latest attempt to clamp down on legitimate criticism.

"We want our army to be a defence force, not an occupation force. Over time, that is just something you cannot morally defend and it is a strategic threat to Israel," he said. "But all they [the government] want to do is attack anyone who speaks out against it."