The Strange Case of the Insistent Suspect

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An Israeli soldier in Hebron

The suspect describes his act publicly. The police investigate. The prosecution concludes that the incident never happened. The suspect, adamant, responds that the police botched the investigation.

As a criminal case, this is bizarre. You can excuse the Israeli public for being confused by the drama that has played out in recent days on front pages and TV studios.

But the case of Dean Issacharoff is only superficially a legal one. It's political, and the political story line is this:

Dean Issacharoff is a former army officer, the kind of all-Israeli guy whom Norman Rockwell would have painted if he'd lived in Tel Aviv. He's also the spokesperson of Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli military veterans that publishes testimony from soldiers about what they experienced while serving in occupied territory. The underlying theme, if I can sum it up, is that even if each individual soldier behaved as he or she needed to in an individual situation, the task that the country gave them is immoral—and the public should be talking about it.

More than any other Israeli group opposed to the occupation, Breaking the Silence upsets the ruling political right. Discrediting the spokesman looked like a way to discredit the group—but the job was botched.

Here's the story: Last April, Issacharoff was one of the veterans who spoke at a Breaking the Silence event, giving brief accounts of incidents during their service. Issacharoff talked about Hebron. It's the only place in the West Bank where Israelis have settled inside a Palestinian city. Three-way tension between the far-right settlers, Palestinians, and soldiers is constant.

Issacharoff told about being there as a newly minted platoon commander in early 2014. As regularly happens on Fridays, a disturbance broke out. His direct superior, the company commander, told him to arrest and handcuff a Palestinian who'd been throwing stones. The man refused to go with the soldiers. In the end, Issacharoff recounted, he kneed the Palestinian in the chest and face; by the time he got the handcuffs on, the man was dazed and bleeding.

It's an example of why the veterans who talk to Breaking the Silence feel that being the police force of an occupation is far from what they're meant to do to defend their country. It's a harsh story, but as Breaking the Silence co-director Yehuda Shaul told me, by the standards of testimony to the group, not an extreme one.

The video footage was edited and recycled by two separate right-wing groups. One added an intro text calling it “incriminating testimony of a senior Breaking the Silence figure” and “horrifying.” That is, the real criminals are the leftists. The other found soldiers who'd served under Issacharoff in a different unit at a different time, and who insisted the incident never happened. That is, the left is slandering the army.

After seeing one of the clips, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked called for a criminal investigation. Shaked and her party have starred in the right's campaign to stain human rights groups, and Breaking the Silence in particular, as subversive. The minister, as a political appointee, is not supposed to order investigations or prosecution. Nonetheless, the police questioned Issacharoff, his commanding officer, and a Palestinian from Hebron who was mistakenly identified as the man he'd arrested. The deputy state prosecutor who oversaw the investigation claimed last week that it had nothing to do with Shaked's comment. If we accept that claim, it means that the State Attorney's Office independently took the exceptional, and plainly political, step of investigating a three-year old incident involving a since-discharged soldier and a Palestinian who never filed a complaint.

The case faded from public sight—until recently, when the State Attorney's office issued a statement saying it had closed the investigation of Issacharoff—and that his version of events was “a falsehood.”

For prosecutors to use that term in closing a case is “unique and unprecedented,” according to Michael Sfard, the human rights lawyer who represents Breaking the Silence. A normal statement would say something like “insufficient evidence.” Again, there's a very strong scent of politics. Justice Minister Shaked quickly declared that “Breaking the Silence lies and slanders the State of Israel worldwide.”

A medium storm has ensued. Issacharoff and Breaking the Silence identified a different Palestinian as the one Issacharoff arrested. A TV reporter found a video clip substantiating that claim. A veteran whose job put him constantly at the company commander's side made a video statement backing Issacharoff up. Breaking the Silence is demanding to see the investigation files. The legal battle will have more chapters.

For my money, the most surreal moment in the affair was an episode of Israel's Meet the Press featuring another Breaking the Silence representative and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely. She accused the veteran's group of getting funds from “foreign countries, some of which are engaged in a campaign of delegitimizing Israel” and from “BDS organizations.” He struggled to get a word in, but managed to call attention to the soldier who'd confirmed Issacharoff's version. She suggested that Breaking the Silence had paid him to say that, perhaps “with the money you get from Germany.”

I contacted Hotevely's office. In a written response, a spokesperson said Hotevely's comments were based on a web page by NGO Monitor, a key player in the right's campaign against human rights groups. That page (like Breaking the Silence's own site) indeed shows that the veterans organization has received funding from the European Union and European governments, including Germany. But contrary to Hotovely's "deligitimizing Israel" claim,  EU-Israel relations are close. Germany is a major arms supplier to Israel. Presenting the support of European allies for democracy building in Israel as nefarious is a favorite tactic of the right.

The spokeswoman provided no evidence for Hotevely's suggestion that the veteran supporting Issacharoff's account was paid off. No surprise here. While claiming that Breaking the Silence maligns soldiers, Hotevely baselessly painted the organization and individual veterans as corrupt.

Her words hint at the reasons for the right's fixation with Breaking the Silence. “Stand with our troops” is a classic political gambit of a government under criticism.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political allies would like to discredit criticism of their policy of permanent occupation by casting it as an attack on the army and on the men and women serving their country. When soldiers come forward to say that maintaining the occupation harms them and the military as a whole, the gambit could collapse. One response is to attempt to label the dissenting veterans as lying in the employ of purported foreign enemies.

A second gambit is to judicialize. Government figures regularly demand that Breaking the Silence reveal the names of soldiers who gave testimony anonymously, and that it cooperate with army prosecutors to investigate reports of mistreatment of civilians. The demand casts each case as an aberration by individual soldiers. Breaking the Silence, on the other hand, aims at forcing the public to discuss a policy and the people at the top who make it.

In the current case, the decision to launch an investigation put Issacharoff in the seemingly absurd situation of insisting on a possibly incriminating account. But the real double bind is the prosecution's. “The biggest nightmare of the prosecution is to try Dean,” says Yehuda Shaul.

Because we'll turn it into a political trial. A hundred Breaking the Silence witnesses will testify. ... In court, we'll prove that there's no occupation without violence, that it's impossible to rule over millions of people for 50 years without kneeing people.

The first mistake of the prosecution was to open a politically motivated investigation that could lead to such a trial. The second was to botch the work so obviously, and to close the case with an accusation that insures the controversy will continue.

And the one thing that Shaked, Hotevely and their allies have proven is that their concern is not the military, nor the honor of the men and women who serve. It's maintaining the silence.

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