Israel probes anti-occupation NGO over 'leaked secrets'

Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, speaks at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, on Feb 14, 2016.
Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, speaks at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, on Feb 14, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel's defence minister ordered the army on Friday (March 18) to investigate allegations that former soldiers revealed military secrets to an NGO that publicises abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories.

"I have instructed the Israel Defence Forces to open an inquiry to determine if discharged soldiers passed classified material about their service," Moshe Yaalon wrote on his Twitter account.

The NGO, Breaking the Silence, provides a platform for military veterans to describe what they say are disturbing aspects of their service in the 2014 war in the Gaza Strip and in operations in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the group of having "crossed another red line".

"The investigative security bodies are investigating the matter," he wrote on his official Facebook account.

It comes after Israeli TV station Channel Two aired a report Thursday that it said showed the activists collecting testimony from ex-soldiers and asking them about military equipment and operational methods.

Yuli Novak, president of Breaking the Silence, denied any improper behaviour by her group.

"I can tell you unequivocally that Breaking the Silence does not collect classified material," she said in an interview Friday on Israeli public radio.

"There is an attempt to frighten and silence anyone who criticises the government." Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked was unconvinced.

"It is of the utmost gravity that an organisation takes upon itself the authority to collect tactical intelligence about various military units," she said in a statement.

"Those collecting such information are trying to damage their country by illicit means, in a manner reminiscent of espionage activity," she added.

Haaretz newspaper said that the Channel Two footage "was based on hidden camera footage recorded by the right-wing 'Ad Kan' group, which plants activists in leftist organisations to collect incriminating information."

In a January sting operation, Ad Kan secretly filmed anti-settlement activist Ezra Nawi saying that he told Palestinian authorities about clandestine sales of land to Israelis, an offence which carries a theoretical death penalty under Palestinian law but has never been applied by its courts.

Last month five NGOs, including Breaking the Silence, jointly condemned attempts to depict their leaders as foreign agents, saying that such claims had led to harassment and even death threats.

They said they were speaking on behalf of 50 pro-peace or human rights organisations.