Monday, January 20, 2014

The Telegraph exposes "Breaking the Silence" (and the entire NGO funding ecosystem)

The Telegraph exposes "Breaking the Silence" (and the entire NGO funding ecosystem)

When you get NGO money involved, all of a sudden the truth is less important than pleasing your sponsors. This is a must-read from Jake Wallis Simons:
In a grimy corner of downtown Jerusalem, tucked away on the top floor of an anonymous-looking block of offices, is the headquarters of an organisation called Breaking the Silence.

This is a group of former Israeli soldiers who have served in the West Bank, and aim to “expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories”.

I liked all the members personally, and at first found them to be sincere in their beliefs. But when the interviews began, something didn’t feel right.

For one thing, the majority of the testimonies seemed to reflect the roughness of the military rather than any human rights abuse. The indignity of checkpoints; the intrusion of house-to-house searches; the unpleasantness of curfews. All of this stuff is awful, but only a small percentage of it appeared to warrant court martial.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that Breaking the Silence was milking it.

It was only a hunch at first. But later, the bias of the organisation became clearer. During a break between interviews, I asked Yehuda Shaul, one of the founders of the organisation, how the group is funded. It was with some surprise that I learned that 45 per cent of it is donated by European countries, including Norway and Spain, and the European Union. Other donors include UNICEF, Christian Aid and Oxfam GB. To me this seemed potentially problematic....It appeared that these former soldiers, some of whom draw salaries from Breaking the Silence, were motivated by financial and political concerns to further a pro-Palestinian agenda. They weren’t merely telling the truth about their experiences. They were under pressure to perform.

Indeed, I later discovered that there have been many allegations in the past that members of the organisation either fabricated or exaggerated their testimonies.

The matter became more unsettling when one of Breaking the Silence’s former soldiers accompanied me to Hebron...

We set up our video camera outside an army base in the Israeli sector of Hebron, and I began to interview the former soldier from Breaking the Silence. He was talking about his army service, and came out with the line, “the first time I ever met a Palestinian was when I entered his house in the middle of the night”.

While he was speaking a car drove by behind him, drowning out his words. I said: “Just give me it one more time about how… the first time you ever met a Palestinian was when you kicked down his door in the middle of the night”. This was my mistake; he hadn’t said that he kicked down anything.

He duly repeated it. This time, however, he took my lead and changed his account from “entered his house in the middle of the night” to “kicked down his door in the middle of the night”. On the surface it may seem like a small detail. But when we played back the tape I found the ease with which he exaggerated his story very troubling. We didn’t use the interview.

Most worryingly of all, Breaking the Silence focuses almost exclusively on Hebron, presenting it as typical. Several times a month it ships foreign diplomats, officials and ordinary folk to this unhappy place, showing them the grim military infrastructure and providing testimony about the abuses carried out by settlers and soldiers.

The group does not offer tours to any other settlements on the West Bank. This one city, they say, is a “microcosm of occupation”.
Now, there is no doubt that Hebron is a highly disturbing place, or that violence takes place there on a regular basis. But all the anti-settlement organisations I spoke to, including Peace Now, B’Tselem and Rabbis for Human Rights, acknowledged that Hebron is the exception rather than the rule. Most settlements are far more peaceful and less abusive. A few even have supermarkets where Arabs and Jews shop side-by-side.

This isn’t to justify the existence of the settlements, or to soften the debate about their legality. It is to illustrate the simple point that Breaking the Silence appears to be sexing up the harshness of the Israeli presence on the West Bank by focussing only on its very worst manifestation. That is to say, it is warping the terms of the debate. And it is funded largely by Europe, and by extension the UK.

Whatever your view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is surely self-evident that it must be based on the truth of the situation, not a biased and partial interpretation of it.
This is the problem with all of these anti-Israel NGOs. They depend on funding to exist, and that funding comes from sources that want them to justify their existence by fulfilling the agenda of the funders. The pressure to constantly issue anti-Israel reports is literally existential. No one is paying anyone to create reports that say that Israel treats Arabs well - there is no political gain from that.

The decision to oppose Israeli policy has already been made by the EU, and it funds groups to support that decision, not to uncover the truth. The NGOs, in turn, happily fulfill that role to continue to receive tens of millions of dollars. Lazy reporters, in turn, are happy to parrot the findings of these biased reports, because it is easy to cut and paste and they can get to their pubs earlier in the day. It is a self-feeding cycle.

The entire ecosystem of NGO funding is rotten, but that story isn't sexy enough to attract funding either. And most reporters aren't energetic or honest enough to dig behind what the NGOs themselves are saying.

Kudos to Jake Wallis Simons for looking beyond the stories being hand-fed to hundreds of journalists in Israel.