The Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence (BtS) published a study in December 2020 titled: “Highway to Annexation: Israeli Road and Transportation Infrastructure Development in the West Bank.” The study is highly critical of Israel’s transportation infrastructure projects in the West Bank areas of Judea and Samaria.
In content and tenor, the study portrays all transportation projects connected to Israel’s administration in those parts of the territories under its control through an extremely narrow political prism. Through this prism, any and all development is seen as “further entrenching Israel’s deepening hold on the occupied territories through continued suburbanization of Israeli settlements and the fragmentation of Palestinian territory.”
While transportation infrastructure in any modern society serves as a basic, logical and essential means of connecting people, modernizing society and ensuring efficient supply routes, the BtS study presents all Israeli infrastructure development projects in the West Bank as a means of advancing plans for de facto annexation.
BtS is a highly controversial and partisan organization, established in 2004 and ostensibly composed of Israel Defense Forces veterans. Its aim, as stated on its website, is “to bring an end to the occupation through exposing alleged abuses by Israeli soldiers and by boosting public awareness with the aim of giving the Israeli public access to the reality that exists only minutes away from their own homes, yet is rarely portrayed in the media.”
The BtS organization’s initial mission statement specified that it was oriented to give information to the “Israeli public.” Within a few years, BtS evolved into an international and multi-language organization seeking out international audiences and sponsors.
The expansion of the organization’s initial aims regarding actions by Israel’s soldiers into the field of government policy and transportation infrastructure projects is perhaps indicative of the inherent linkage between BtS and other organizations connected to the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. The campaign and its agents are financed and supported by foreign states and organizations active in undermining Israel’s status in the territories.
Misleading and partisan portrayal of settlements
The flawed premise of the BtS study is fundamentally contrary to the actual legal and political situation pursuant to the Oslo Accords. BtS views the area in question as “occupied Palestinian territories,” and all Israeli settlements as illegal and intended to entrench and deepen Israel’s hold, with the ultimate goal of annexation.
By the same token, all road and transportation infrastructure connecting Israeli towns, villages and settlements to each other and Israel’s major population centers are considered equally illegal since they are solely intended to serve the policy of annexation.
While the study’s descriptions of the infrastructure and road projects may well be technically accurate, its repetitive, fatiguing terminology makes its extreme partisan political nature obvious even to the casual reader. The study makes a point of presenting the transportation infrastructure in loaded terms taken from the most extreme Palestinian propaganda and indoctrination narratives, as well as from European Union Council resolutions and the BDS campaign.
This manipulative and exaggerated use of terminology, indoctrination and word-gaming barely disguises the weakness of any genuine, substantive argumentation presented in the study, and displays a complete lack of understanding of the international legal aspects inherent in the administration of territory after armed conflict. It ignores the relevant provisions in the agreements between the PLO and Israel regarding settlements, as an agreed negotiating issue between the two sides.
Regrettably, this study has recently been taken up and reproduced by reputable journals such as France’s Le Monde, in an article published by its Jerusalem correspondent Louis Imbert on Dec. 7 under the politically suggestive title, “In the West Bank, Colonization by Roads.”
Echoing Le Monde, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an article on Dec. 11, by its West Bank correspondent Hagar Shezaf, reproducing the BtS study, with a typically political headline: “Highways to Annexation: Across the West Bank, Israel Is Bulldozing a Bright Future for Jewish Settlers.”
This shallow study by Breaking the Silence, and its publication and circulation, are meant to delegitimize Israel’s presence in the territories and undermine an agreed negotiation process. It cannot be divorced from those international and national non-governmental organizations and member states of the European Union and elsewhere, including some Israeli organizations, that advocate an identical anti-Israel political line and finance and support Breaking the Silence.
According to the BtS web page, the study and the organization’s activities are supported financially by the following groups:
- The Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID) (Spain)
- Bertha Foundation (U.S.)
- Broederlijk Delen (Netherlands)
- Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development CCFD – Terre Solidaire (France)
- Dan Church Aid (Denmark)
- Die Schwelle, Foundation for Middle East Peace (Germany)
- Medico International (Germany)
- German Catholic Bishops’ Organisation for Development Cooperation Misereor (Germany)
- The Moriah Fund (U.S.)
- New Israel Fund (Israel)
- Open Society Foundation (U.S.)
- Pro Victimis (Geneva)
- Rockefeller Brothers Fund (U.S.)
- Sigrid Rausing Trust (Sweden)
- Support Committee for Israeli Peace and Human Rights Organizations SIVMO (Netherlands)
- Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs
- Delegation of the European Union to Israel
- Trocaire (Ireland)
- Oxfam (U.K.)
- Danish Representative Office in Ramallah (Denmark)
- NGO Development Center (PLO and Sweden)
- ZIVIK IFA Institut fur Auslandsbezeihungen, Germany
Misleading political and legal assumptions
The false and flawed premise that serves as the basis for the study, namely that Israel’s settlement policy is illegal and, therefore, the infrastructure and roads are illegal, adopts the Palestinian/European Union narrative. This narrative is based on false assumptions emanating from the premise that “occupation,” in and of itself, is illegal and that the territory belongs to the Palestinians.
Status of the territories
Israel’s entry into the territories in 1967 and subsequent control and administration of them were in accordance with international law as set out in the United Nations Charter, the internationally-acknowledged 1907 Hague Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land and the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.
Occupation of territory during the course of an armed conflict is not illegal. To the contrary, it is an accepted and recognized legal state of affairs. Pending a negotiated resolution of the conflict, Israel committed itself to abide by the international humanitarian and legal norms for the administration of such territories, and its administration of them has been under strict judicial supervision by its Supreme Court.
All the relevant U.N. resolutions accepted by the parties that serve as the basis for the Middle East peace process, such as Security Council resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973), call for negotiation and agreement between the parties as the sole means of settling the territorial dispute, including such issues as recognized boundaries, refugees, territorial inviolability and political independence.
Apart from numerous politically-generated, non-binding U.N. resolutions and statements by regional organizations, there exists no binding, recognized agreement, contract, or any other binding international determination or resolution that determines that the territories are Palestinian.
Similarly, according to the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO, and specifically the 1995 “Israel-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,” the permanent legal and political status of the territories has yet to be negotiated and agreed upon between the PLO and Israel, both of whom agreed in the Oslo Accords to negotiate the permanent status, without any unilateral action aimed at altering such status prior to the outcome of the negotiations.
Furthermore, and pending a permanent status agreement, the parties agreed in the Oslo Accords to divide between them the control and jurisdiction over the territories, such that the Palestinian Authority (established for that purpose) attained control and jurisdiction over the populated towns and villages in Areas A and B, whereas Israel retained control of Area C where Israel’s military and civilian infrastructures are located.
Thus, any determination that the territories are “Palestinian” is legally flawed and an attempt to undermine and prejudge the outcome of negotiation between the parties that has yet to be completed.
Status of settlements
Israel’s settlement policy has consistently been based on the applicable rules of international law, which enable legitimate utilization by the authority administering the territory of non-privately-owned land and property, pending the permanent settlement of the dispute. Thus, the use of non-privately-owned land for settlement or for agriculture is fully consistent with accepted international norms, as long as the status of the land is not changed pending its final negotiated outcome.
As such, Israel’s settlements cannot be seen to be a violation of international law. Any such determination is based on a selective, politically biased viewpoint taken outside the accepted international practice.
Furthermore, Israel and the PLO acknowledged in the 1993-94 Oslo Accords that the issue of settlements is an agreed negotiating issue between them as part of the permanent status negotiations. The Accords enable both sides, pending the completion of the permanent status negotiations, to conduct planning, zoning and construction activities in the areas under their respective jurisdiction (Palestinian Authority in Areas A and B, and Israel in Area C).
Thus, any attempt to claim that Israel does not have the authority and jurisdiction to construct transportation infrastructure in the area under its control displays a willful disregard or utter ignorance of the relevant instruments of international law, as well as of the provisions of the Oslo Accords. It is even at variance with the Palestinian agreement to the fact that Israel has the right and responsibility to administer Area C.
According to its website, the basic aim of Breaking the Silence, initially directed toward the Israeli public, is to “expose alleged abuses by Israeli soldiers and boost public awareness” and thereby “bring an end to the occupation.”
This aim appears to have evolved and deepened into an extensive international outreach campaign aimed at the international public and financed by some of the most extreme elements in the international community, intent on undermining the legitimacy of Israel’s status and policies regarding its administration of the territories under its control.
The adoption of extreme political and ideological bias against Israel and the use of false and misleading accusations devoid of legal or historic substantiation undermine any credibility the organization and its founders might have had upon its establishment in 2004.
It is incumbent upon those organizations and states that support and finance Breaking the Silence to review their backing in light of the damage that the organization causes to their own credibility.
Alan Baker is director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center and the head of the Global Law Forum. He participated in the negotiation and drafting of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, as well as agreements and peace treaties with Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. He served as legal adviser and deputy director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry and as Israel’s ambassador to Canada.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.