TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Former Israeli combat soldiers who were thrust into the center of a diplomatic row between Israel and Germany say the sudden international spotlight has given them a bigger stage to speak out against Israel's 50-year rule over millions of Palestinians.
Breaking the Silence is a group of ex-soldiers-turned-whistleblowers who view Israel's open-ended occupation of lands sought for a Palestinian state as an existential threat to their country.
Since 2004, the group has collected testimony from more than 1,100 fellow soldiers who describe the dark side of that rule, including seemingly routine mistreatment of Palestinian civilians stripped of basic rights. The veterans hope such accounts by former fighters will carry weight and spark public debate about the moral price of the occupation.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and top officials in his nationalist government have a starkly different view. They have branded Breaking the Silence as foreign-funded subversives who are trying to defame Israel and its military.
Netanyahu even seemed willing to rattle Israel's relationship with key European ally Germany to score points against Breaking the Silence, which has 16 paid staffers, several dozen volunteers and an annual budget of about $2 million.
Two weeks ago, he said he would not receive German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel if the visitor stuck to plans to meet with Breaking the Silence. Gabriel chose the soldiers instead. Netanyahu, who also serves as foreign minister, said that shunning visitors who meet with Breaking the Silence is now official policy.
The dispute cast a shadow over what would otherwise have been a routine visit to Israel by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier this week.
In a speech in Jerusalem on Sunday, Steinmeier did not refer to Breaking the Silence by name, but said that civil society groups "deserve our respect as democrats, also at times when they are critical of a government."
Steinmeier, who met with Netanyahu on Sunday, said he disagreed with the decision not to receive Gabriel. Steinmeier said he decided against canceling his Israel trip because it might have allowed relations to "move deeper into a dead end, which would have harmed both sides."
Yehuda Shaul, a co-founder of Breaking the Silence, said the recent attention has been a mixed blessing.
The focus on the diplomatic dust-up "diverts a lot of attention from the real issue, what goes on in the occupied territories," he said in an interview at the group's office, tucked away in an old walk-up in a grubby industrial area of Tel Aviv.
"On the other hand, it gives us more stages to speak about it," said Shaul, citing more media attention and public speaking invitations that draw larger audiences.
Israelis have been bitterly divided over what to do with lands captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Israel annexed east Jerusalem immediately after the war and retains overall control over the West Bank, with enclaves of Palestinian self-rule. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and has enforced a border blockade since the Islamic militant Hamas seized power there two years later.
Many Israelis support Palestinian statehood in principle, but believe it's not safe to cede territories now. Fears were stoked by three Israel-Hamas wars since 2008 and an escalation of regional conflicts. Meanwhile, partition is increasingly difficult, with 600,000 Israelis already living on occupied lands and settlements expanding steadily.
Netanyahu has said he is willing to resume talks with the Palestinians, but gaps remain wide. A majority of his Cabinet opposes a two-state solution and some even call for annexing parts of the West Bank.
Shaul said he and his comrades are the true patriots.
"I believe Jews have a right to self-determination in the Holy Land. But I refuse to accept that the only way I will be allowed to implement my right to self-determination is if I strip my neighbors, the Palestinians, of the exact same right I demand for myself," he said. "A permanent occupation is the most anti-Zionist position one can ever have because it says we are doomed to live in a sin."
The beginnings of Breaking the Silence go back to Hebron, the West Bank's largest Palestinian city, where hundreds of troops guard roughly the same number of Jewish settlers in an Israeli-controlled center partly off limits to Palestinians.
Shaul, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home, served part of his compulsory military service in Hebron during an armed Palestinian uprising that erupted in 2000.
He became increasingly disillusioned with his mission, which he felt was largely aimed at making Palestinians fear Israeli soldiers. He said that while his parents and grandparents fought against armies to defend Israel, "the stories I can tell you about is breaking into houses in the middle of the night to intimidate people and seeing children crying and peeing in their pants."
In 2004, Shaul and dozens of members from his unit presented a photo exhibit about Hebron in Tel Aviv.
Since then, the group has collected recorded testimony from hundreds of soldiers, including veterans of recent wars.
More than 100 soldiers have gone on the record, while the rest remain anonymous, for fear of repercussions, but are known to the group's researchers, who check their stories, Shaul said. The research department was able to flag four false testimonies by right-wing activists trying to undermine the group's credibility, he said. All material is submitted to the military censor before publication to avoid inadvertent harm to Israel's security, he added.
Critics allege that the group is hiding behind anonymous testimony to smear Israeli soldiers and help Israel's enemies press future war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court. They say the group, which does not call for a boycott of Israel, nonetheless feeds into what many Israelis believe is a global trend of unfairly singling out and delegitimizing Israel.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely recently said her office is urging European countries to stop funding what she called "anti-Israel organizations," including Breaking the Silence. "We will ask our friends in the world to respect this red line," she said.