Europeans funding 'Breaking the Silence'

Exclusive: NGO reporting of Gaza war crimes funded by UK and Dutch embassies, EU, New Israel Fund.

IDf arrest Hamas Gaza 248/88 ap (photo credit: )
IDf arrest Hamas Gaza 248/88 ap
(photo credit: )
A day after releasing a damning report on Operation Cast Lead, and amid accusations that it is operating without transparency, the group Breaking the Silence on Thursday presented The Jerusalem Post with its donor list for the year 2008, which included several European governments. On Wednesday, Breaking the Silence released a report including testimonies from 26 unnamed soldiers who participated in the campaign and which claimed that the IDF used Gazans as human shields, improperly fired incendiary white phosphorous shells over civilian areas and used overwhelming firepower that caused needless deaths and destruction. On Thursday, military sources and NGO Monitor - a Jerusalem-based research organization - raised suspicions regarding Breaking the Silence's setup as a nonprofit limited company and not an amuta, or nonprofit organization. The difference is that an amuta is required by law to publicly declare the identity of its donors. A limited company is not always required to do so. "From our work, going through the files of dozens of Israeli nonprofits, we feel that groups like this that are not listed [as an amuta] raises a lot of red flags," said Prof. Gerald Steinberg, the head of NGO Monitor. In response to the claims, Breaking the Silence presented the Post with its donor list for 2008. The British Embassy in Tel Aviv gave the organization NIS 226,589; the Dutch Embassy donated €19,999; and the European Union gave Breaking the Silence €43,514. The NGO also received funding from the New Israel Fund amounting to NIS 229,949. In 2007, Breaking the Silence received a total of NIS 500,000, and in 2008 it managed to raise NIS 1.5 million. "We have nothing to hide," said Yehuda Shaul, one of the heads of Breaking the Silence. "We are open to complete transparency and are prepared to share this information with the public." The 110-page report, which included videotaped testimonies in which soldiers' faces were blurred out, did not represent a cross-section of the army. Rather, they were troops who had approached the group or were reached through acquaintances of NGO members. Two were junior officers and the rest were enlisted personnel. Many questioned the overwhelming use of force. One soldier said the army used weapons such as mortars and white phosphorous "to show off its strength." Another soldier said white phosphorus artillery shells were used to ignite a house suspected of housing munitions. "The house went up in flames," he said. In response to the IDF Spokesman's assertion that Breaking the Silence did not submit the report prior to its publication, Shaul said he sent the report to the IDF via e-mail 24 hours before it was published. A senior IDF officer responded that even if the report was sent 24 hours before publication that would not have been enough time to properly investigate the findings. "It appears to us that the organization's real motive was to slander the IDF and not to initiate a thorough investigation," the officer said. "If it had wanted to allow for a real investigation it would have given us the identities of the soldiers, the location where the alleged crimes took place and other identifying parameters." Shaul rejected this assertion as well and said the report included unit names as well as most of the locations. One senior security official noted the Breaking the Silence report came fast on the heels of highly critical reports issued earlier this month by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross, giving the impression that the groups were coordinating the timing of their reports to "magnify their impact." The Breaking the Silence report was for the most part based on hearsay and rumor, and not facts, the senior security official said. Meanwhile, reports that Human Rights Watch used its work against Israel, and its withstanding "pro-Israel pressure groups" as a selling point to solicit funds in Saudi Arabia, are creating waves in the blogosphere, with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic monthly asking HRW's executive director Ken Roth in an e-mail exchange if this was indeed what the group did in Riyadh in May. "Did your staff person attempt to raise funds in Saudi Arabia by advertising your organization's opposition to the pro-Israel lobby?" Goldberg asked Roth, in the exchange that he posted on his blog Wednesday. "That's certainly part of the story," Roth responded. "We report on Israel. "Its supporters fight back with lies and deception. It wasn't a pitch against the Israel lobby per se. Our standard shpiel is to describe our work in the region. Telling the Israel story - part of that pitch - is in part telling about the lies and obfuscation that are inevitably thrown our way." According to an article that appeared in May in the Saudi English-language newspaper The Arab News, a delegation of senior members of HRW were in Saudi Arabia and were commended at a dinner attended by prominent members of Saudi society, human rights activists and dignitaries, for work on Gaza and the Middle East as a whole. According to the newspaper, HRW presented a documentary and spoke on the report it had compiled "on Israel violating human rights and international law" during the Gaza operation. "Human Rights Watch provided the international community with evidence of Israel using white phosphorus and launching systematic destructive attacks on civilian targets. Pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations have strongly resisted the report and tried to discredit it," Sarah Leah Whitson, director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa Division, was quoted in the Saudi paper as saying. Roth admitted to Goldberg that the dinner included people connected to the government, including "a guy from the national human rights commission," which is a government body, and "someone from the Shura Council." The Shura Council is Saudi Arabia's state-appointed religious leadership, a council which, as Goldberg pointed out, oversees, on behalf of the monarchy, the imposition in the kingdom of the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic law. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev said in response that "Human Rights Watch has admitted conducting a fund-raiser in Saudi Arabia with the Saudi elite, with representatives of different branches of the Saudi government in the room. They also admitted that they have used their criticism of Israel as a fund-raising tool in dealing with Arab audiences. "Surely this fundamentally undermines the objectivity and the credibility that all too many in the past have attached to their reports." Regev's comments come two days after the Prime Minister's Office said Jerusalem would begin waging a more aggressive battle against NGOs it deems biased against Israel.