Alon Sahar, a former Israeli soldier displays photographs
Zurich - AFP
Israel has lodged a formal protest with Bern over Swiss funding for an exhibit by an Israeli NGO critical of the army's conduct in the Palestinian territories, officials said Wednesday.
The exhibition, which will open in Zurich this week, is being staged by Breaking the Silence, a rights group whose members are veteran combatants who testify about the abuses they have seen or taken part in during their military service in the occupied Palestinian territories.
But Israel's newly appointed deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely is determined to prevent the show from taking place, ordering both the ministry and Israel's embassy in Bern to examine ways of preventing it, ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon told AFP.
"We cannot accept the actions of an organisation whose aim is to smear soldiers in the Israeli army in the international arena and to cause serious harm to Israel's image," he said.
Israel's ambassador had already voiced his "indignation" to the Swiss foreign ministry, Nahshon said.
Since the non-governmental group was founded in 2004 by soldiers who served in the southern West Bank city of Hebron, it has regularly locked horns with the political and military brass which denounce its activities as harming Israel's image abroad.
Last month, the group angered the military establishment by publishing a report accusing the army of having caused an unprecedented number of civilian casualties through indiscriminate force during the 2014 Gaza war.
The 50-day conflict claimed the lives of about 2,200 Palestinians, most of them civilians, and 73 on the Israeli side, mostly soldiers.
Using photos and testimony, the exhibit seeks to shed light on the day-to-day reality of life in the occupied West Bank, and has received funding from both the Swiss foreign ministry and the city of Zurich, officials told AFP.
A foreign ministry spokesperson confirmed Bern made a contribution of 15,000 Swiss francs ($16,000; 14,300 euros) to the exhibit.
A spokesman for Zurich's finance department confirmed donating 10,000 Swiss francs from a fund which can be used for various non-profit organisations.
"We thought long and hard before giving this money," said spokesman Patrick Pons, calling the exhibit "very balanced" and saying it opened the way for dialogue.
"We understand that there has been criticism," he told AFP.
"But we think that people in Zurich who come to visit the exhibit understand this and can make up their own opinion."
The exhibit opens in Zurich on Thursday.
Andrea Konig, director of Kulturhaus Helferei, the organisation hosting the exhibit, said she was surprised by the intensity of the criticism.
Those who disagreed with Breaking the Silence had been offered a chance to participate in discussions to be held alongside the exhibit, she said.
Konig's organisation also asked the Israeli embassy to participate but it declined, she said.
Members of Breaking the Silence made last-minute preparations on Wednesday and defended themselves against accusations of seeking to smear the military.
"We think that there is a gap between what the Israelis and the international community know about what happens and what really happens there," said Shay Davidovich, who served in the Israeli army for three years.