Israel Targets Its Civil Society Groups: (B’tselem) an Example

Prof. As’ad Abdul Rahman

The Israeli Knesset (Parliament) passed last July a draft law after the final reading designed to restrict the work of Israeli human rights and other civil society groups that track the occupation crimes and receive funding from western states and international organizations.  The law amounts to an act of incitement posing threat to the life of Israeli activists (both Jews and Arabs) opposed to the occupation of Palestinian lands. It is a law that discriminates against such civil liberal and progressive groups supporting the rights of Palestinians in the 1948 Palestine, while extremist far-right associations remain untouched by such restrictions.

On top of these centers and groups comes the ‘Breaking the Silence’ movement founded by Israeli soldiers and reserve officers in 2002 bringing out to the public testimonies on crimes and abuse committed against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Other groups included ‘Rabbis for Human Rights’ organization, ‘Peace Now’ movement tracking the colonialist settlement activity, the Israeli ‘Public Committee against Torture’, the ‘Association for Civil Rights in Israel’ and  ‘Yesh Din’ organization which works on improvement to human rights in the occupied Palestinian lands that involves engaging in advocacy with Israeli authorities and taking legal action in certain situations. B’tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, is the most targeted being the group that monitors the Israeli occupation crimes against Palestinians in the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

A report published by Haaretz newspaper said all these centers and associations regard the law and statements against them as part of a campaign spearheaded by the State’s leaders with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on top of them. The report said that activists have long been feeling that they are facing an attempt to delegitimize their activities and that the daily tracking has turned into an operation of chase and suppression and attempts of intimidation to silence them. Ishai Menuhim, Director of the ‘Public Committee against Torture’ declared that he  had received death threats from the right-wing Im Tirtzu organization which launched a campaign against human rights activists accusing them of being ‘moles’. ‘Breaking the Silence’ Public relations coordinator Nadav Weiman also said he had received phone calls threatening to kill him with his wife as well as the family’s dog. Arik Aschemran, co-founder of the Rabbis for Human Rights’, was also attacked and bodily harmed by a Jewish “settler”/ colonizer.

The assault on B’tselem in which Netanyahu and a number of Israeli politicians took part accusing the organization of siding with opponents of Israel, came after its representatives and others from ‘Americans for Peace Now’ spoke at a special discussion of political settlement at the UN Security Council saying that occupation and Jewish “settlements”/ colonies are the causes behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. B’tselem Executive Director Hagai el-Ad told the meeting that the occupation of the Palestinian lands is a legal guise for Israel’s organized violence.                             He said “for the past 49 years and counting, the injustice known as the occupation of Palestine and Israeli control of Palestinian lives in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem has become part of the international order. The first half century of this reality will soon be over. On behalf of B’tselem the Israeli Center for Information for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, I implore you today to take action. Anything short of decisive international action will achieve nothing but ushering in the second half of the first century of the occupation.”

El-Ad was slammed for his remarks, and  Netanyahu reacted by announcing he will act to amend “the national service” law so that young Israelis will no longer be able to serve at B’tselem. His notorious “justice minister” Elite Shaked accused B’tselem of being part of a campaign to delegitimize Israel, while Zeev Elkin the minister in charge of occupied Jerusalem affairs said that B’tselem pours oil on the fire of incitement against Israel in the world and it should be deprived of any tax privileges.

On the other side, the White House, along with other Israeli as well as European voices denouncing such an assault, criticized Netanyahu’s attack on B’tselem. US State Department spokesman John Kirby said “we believe it is important that governments protect the freedoms of expression, and create an atmosphere where all voices can be heard. He added “We believe that a free and unfettered civil society is a critical component of democracy”. The most remarkable comment came, however, in a very revealing editorial in Haaretz which said that “the assault on El-Ad shows the low level to which Israel’s democracy has fallen under the Likud government and the threat it is facing”. The newspaper added, “With the fact that Knesset members from the Zionist camp including Yair Lepid, who themselves should have spoken against the occupation, the picture grows much darker”. The editorial concluded, “B’tselem and similar organizations, only contribute to demonstrating an image of Israel in the world as a state which still has the democratic elements in civil activism for human rights. Israel’s politicians and policies in the occupied territories, the newspaper noted, are responsible for the other image of Israel as a pariah state. Netanyahu, Haaretz said, is the one causing damage to this image and not Hagai Al-Ad”.