Likud Chairman Threatens Citizenship of B’Tselem’s Executive Director

Earlier today, Likud Knesset Member, David Bitan, who chairs the governing faction in the Knesset, stated on an Israeli talk show that he would try to find a way to strip the citizenship of Hagai btselem-logoEl-Ad , executive director of B’Tselem. Bitan described El-Ad’s testimony to a special session of the United Nations Security Council on Israeli settlements as “explicit breach of trust by an Israeli citizen against the state, and as such he should find himself another citizenship.”

Zehava Gal-On, the Chairwoman of the Meretz party, described Bitan’s comments as “dangerously close to incitement to murder.” That characterization is important considering right wing efforts over the past two years to incite violence against peace and human rights activists in Israel.

To be clear, Bitan’s threat to revoke El-Ad’s citizenship is mere posturing. Despite the gathering strength of anti-democratic forces in Israel, the country’s laws prevent the revocation of citizenship simply for presenting a case against settlements at the United Nations (which, incidentally, cannot and has not been challenged on its merits). But as another log on the already frighteningly largefire of incitement against progressive activists in Israel, it is quite significant.

The same can be said about conditional citizenship. Once, it was Avigdor Lieberman threatening the citizenship of Palestinian citizens of Israel based on their ethnicity. Now the Likud chair threatens the citizenship of a Jewish human rights advocate based on his politics. As MK Gal-On said, “In a democracy, citizenship is a basic right. It’s not a gift given to those who appeal to the chairman of the coalition.”Bitan’s actions are just one more reflection of the disdain the Israeli right has for democratic principles. This disdain is fundamental to the case they make against El-Ad. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his own attack on El-Ad and B’Tselem, said that “What these organizations cannot achieve through democratic elections in Israel, they try to achieve by international coercion.” For Netanyahu and his supporters, the future of the occupation is a matter for Israeli citizens alone to decide, while millions of Palestinians who suffer under it get no say in the matter. That’s not democracy. It is, in fact, as anti-democratic as anything can be.

The United States Department of State has already indicated that they understand the grave threat to democracy that the Netanyahu government’s attitudes represent. In a statement to the Israeli daily, Yediot Ahoronot, State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said, “In general, we believe that a free civil society free of inhibitions is a central component of democracy… As we have said many times in the past, we believe that it is important that governments defend the freedom of expression and create an atmosphere in which all voices can be heard. We are concerned by any incident in the world when these principles are under threat.”

A stronger message, from governments and supporters of peace, needs to be sent. These incidents represent a steadily mounting effort to erode Israeli democracy, which is already reeling under the weight of fifty years of occupation. Arresting that erosion is crucial for Israelis, Palestinians and the cause of peace and justice for both.

Breaking the Silence Responds to Unfounded Allegations

The past months have witnessed an unprecedented series of attacks on Israel progressive, peace and human rights groups. Right-wing organizations, many with close ties to the Netanyahu government, have worked to paint these groups as “plants” for foreign powers, or even as traitors. Back in December, the Foundation for Middle East Peace issued a statement in support of these groups, and we reaffirm that support today.1446906402_152994b6ec_z

No group has faced more frequent or aggressive attacks than Breaking the Silence. This group of veterans who served in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in the West Bank and Gaza gathers
testimony from other soldiers, goes to enormous lengths to corroborate those testimonies, clears them all with Israel’s military censor before publishing and then uses those testimonies to explain to Israeli citizens what the occupation is and what their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, and parents do when they serve there.

Breaking the Silence opposes the occupation, and their purpose in gathering and publicizing these testimonies is to make Israelis understand both the human rights violations that occur as a result of the occupation and experiences of the soldiers whose job it is to maintain it. Because they are IDF veterans, and all of their testimonies are gathered from other veterans (including many who do not share the views of BtS), they are special targets of the right.

On March 17, Israeli Channel 2 aired a report based on information gathered by Ad Kan, an organization of right-wing settlers with a history of using deceptive methods to build their cases against progressive Israeli groups. Yet Channel 2 aired their charges unquestioningly. According to Breaking the Silence:

“The report showed footage of members of BtS, filmed with hidden cameras by moles of Ad Kan who infiltrated our organization. Among the false claims in the report was the argument that BtS collects confidential information that could potentially endanger the security of the state. Another grave claim was that we persuade pre-military youth to enlist in specific IDF units to collect intelligence and spy on the IDF from within. The implications of such claims led to public turmoil and accusations that BtS members are guilty of treason, in the words of Defense Minister Moshe (Boogie) Ya’alon. Needless to say, both of these claims are false. They are also malicious and slanderous and it is highly disturbing that they come from the highest political echelons.”

In response to these attacks, Breaking the Silence has published a response, and answers to some of the questions that these accusations have raised:

How does Breaking the Silence collect testimonies?

Since the founding of Breaking the Silence in 2004, we have interviewed over 1,000 Israeli soldiers who testified about their service in the occupied territories. These testimonies serve as the basis for our public outreach. We’re very proud of our thorough, meticulous research methods, for which our researchers, all former soldiers who broke their silence, undergo an extensive professional training process. Each testimony undergoes a rigorous process of corroboration and is examined by both our legal advisors and the Israeli military censor.

To date not a single testimony has been disproven, which attests to our reliable and professional verification process. In fact, there have been four unsuccessful instances in which the right-wing settler organization Ad Kan attempted to submit false testimonies to BtS through four different moles: Amir Beit Aryeh, Oren Hazan, Haim Fremd and Roy Peled. None of their testimonies successfully passed our corroboration process, thus none were ever published.

Does BtS plant soldiers in the IDF to spy for the organization?

Of course not. BtS does not “plant” soldiers in the IDF, nor do we send anyone to covertly collect information in any forum. The vast majority of the over 1,000 soldiers who have broken their silence testified after having been released from the IDF.

BtS explicitly does not collect classified information. Prior to conducting an interview with IDF soldiers, we always forewarn them not to discuss classified information or military secrets. Everything BtS publishes is sent to the military censor prior for approval. Nothing has ever been, nor will ever be published without undergoing this process.

Did BtS urge a young female solder to serve in a specific unit of the IDF?

Ad Kan attempted to stigmatize a young woman, who sincerely wished to serve the country in a meaningful framework of her own volition, as a spy for BtS. The woman in question is a recently hired employee of BtS. She was secretly filmed by an Ad Kan mole. Their conversation was reduced to a shallow sound bite by Channel 2.

The following is a summary of her heartfelt account, regarding her deliberations prior to enlisting in the IDF. Having studied in a modern Orthodox high school and pre-military academy, she could have easily received an exemption from the IDF. However, she felt compelled to serve the country through truly meaningful service.

Prior to enlisting she was offered a wide variety of roles. She struggled with that choice. As a young woman with a strong political awareness, she wondered whether it would be possible to serve as a “good soldier” within the complex reality of occupation and whether she could contribute to the best of her ability.

While deliberating what to do, she conducted an earnest discussion with a former member of BtS who she had met during a tour. She expressed that she was considering whether or not to serve in the civil administration in the occupied territories, or rather in a position within the education corps, like the majority of her friends did. Seeking guidance regarding her own doubts, she asked the former BtS member whether he believed it to be possible to change the occupation from within. He advised her to serve where she believed she would have the most meaningful service and joked that she should not simply serve in the occupied territories in order to be able to testify later before BtS. After further consultations with additional people, she decided to enlist in the civil administration, so that she may pursue a humane path in improving, even if not changing, the process from within. Even if merely through warmth, generosity and professionalism, she preferred to confront the reality of occupation, rather than avoid it. Years later, she indeed returned to provide testimony before BtS, completely on her own accord.

Does BtS collect classified information?

BtS explicitly does not collect classified information. Prior to conducting an interview with IDF soldiers, we always forewarn them not to discuss classified information or military secrets. Everything BtS publishes is sent to the military censor prior for approval. Nothing has ever been, nor will ever be published without undergoing this process.

In the recent Channel 2 report, through manipulative editing, one of the primary claims made was that two of Ad Kan’s moles were asked by BtS researchers to share classified information:BtS explicitly does not collect classified information. Prior to conducting an interview with IDF soldiers, we always forewarn them not to discuss classified information or military secrets. Everything BtS publishes is sent to the military censor prior for approval. Nothing has ever been, nor will ever be published without undergoing this process.

  • The first mole, Haim Fremd, was interviewed regarding remotely operated weaponry on the Gaza border. Channel 2 claimed that the information was classified. However, not only did the military censor approve it, but Channel 2 had published a piece in January 2016 on the topic, aptly titled “The Unmanned Vehicles that Protect the Southern Border.”
  • The second mole, Roy Peled, continually insisted on sharing classified information relating to his service on the border with Syria, even though that is out of the realm of BtS’s scope, as was revealed in a news item by Raviv Drucker on Channel 10. His testimony was not published by BtS.

In interviews with testifiers do you ask questions that are out of the realm of your research?

The Channel 2 report accused BtS of asking broad questions that aren’t directly related to the IDF’s activities in the occupied territories before a civilian population. Moreover, they claimed that we gather tactical intelligence about how the army functions.

As most good researchers are aware, holistic research requires comprehension of the broader context at hand. By asking questions about the broader circumstances in which testimonies take place, we’re able to gauge whether the individual was indeed present during the instances he/she describes and better equipped to verify testimonies case-by-case based on specific details.

A prime example of this is indicated by one of the moles who tried to provide fabricated testimonies to BtS, MK Oren Hazan. The gaps in his interview made it clear that he was fabricating elements of his story, and thus his testimony was not publicized. This story was revealed months ago in a news item by Raviv Drucker on Channel 10.

What is BtS’ response to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call for an investigation of the organization by the Israeli Security Agency?

Unfortunately, Prime Minister Netanyahu has decided to turn Israel’s security services into a political tool, in order to silence soldiers who oppose the occupation and thereby challenge his political agenda. Not only did he call for an investigation of BtS, but Defense Minister Ya’alon went so far as to accuse us of treason, furthering the government’s campaign of incitement against us. We’re not afraid of being investigated, as it would only prove that we work strictly according to the law. Threats to investigate BtS are merely political manipulations intended to divert the public’s attention from the government’s failures.

Who is “Ad Kan”?

Ad Kan is a right-wing organization affiliated with the (Israeli government co-funded) Samaria Settlers’ Committee, along with both the Jewish Home and Likud parties. They have been planting moles in various human rights NGOs over the past three years, to secretly document them with the purpose of “exposing” their work to the Israeli public. Their work is part of a larger campaign of incitement being conducted against Israeli human rights NGOs in general and BtS in particular.

As part of a campaign to support segregation of buses in the West Bank, Ad Kan fabricated alleged documentation of the sexual harassment of female bus passengers by Palestinians in the West Bank. This footage was later exposed to be fake in an investigation conducted by Haaretz journalist, Chaim Levinson. The woman who claimed to have been harassed had not been, and was in fact an Ad Kan operative working with another operative who was wringing out sexually-related statements from a Palestinian passenger on the bus. All this was done for the sake of promoting the separation of Jews and Palestinians on public transportation in the West Bank. This is typical of the way Ad Kan operates.

A Hopeful Opposition In Israel: FMEP Interviews MK Ayman Odeh

In 2015, Israel ushered in the most right-wing government in its history. But the same election produced another notable outcome: for the first time, Arab parties joined in a bloc with the sole Jewish-Arab party, Hadash, to form the Joint List. The bloc garnered 13 seats in the current Knesset, making it the third largest party and second largest in the opposition.

Ayman Odeh is the Chairperson of the Hadash party and the head of the Joint List. In these roles, MK Odeh has established himself as a respected leader, bringing a principled voice to the Aymanopposition while balancing the diverse and sometimes contradictory politics of his own List. It is not always easy, and MK Odeh has managed to keep his coalition together while positioning himself as a leader of a progressive movement within Israel. While other opposition leaders such as Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) and Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) have largely backed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in many of his policies dealing with both internal security and the Israel-Palestine conflict, MK Odeh has given voice not only to the views of minority groups within Israel, but also to moderates all over the world who support peace, Palestinian rights and a two-state solution.

In December, MK Odeh embarked on a groundbreaking visit to the United States, his first as well as the first of its kind for a political leader of Israel’s Palestinian community, where he met with many politicians, community leaders and activist groups. The trip, which was supported in part by the Foundation for Middle East Peace, demonstrated that there is a significant opposition in Israel, and that Palestinian citizens of Israel, like MK Odeh, believe themselves to be a part of the country and instrumental to charting a better future for both the citizens of Israel and the Palestinians living under occupation.

FMEP conducted this interview with MK Odeh between December 23, 2015 and January 2, 2016. 

How do you respond to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statements, in the wake of the deadly attack in Tel Aviv on January 1, that he “will not permit lawlessness” in Arab areas of Israel and that he has enacted “a new plan to allocate funds and resources to dramatically increase police enforcement in Arab communities throughout Israel, namely in the Galilee, the Negev and the Triangle?”

Before addressing the words of PM Netanyahu, I wish to convey the pain I feel for the horrible shooting in the streets of Tel Aviv last Friday. Although the details of what happened are not yet clear, I condemn and denounce all violence against innocent civilians, and send my heartfelt condolences to the families of the dead and injured.

Prime Minister Netanyahu continues to renounce his responsibility for the situation and incites against an entire public, portraying the Arab population as criminals. Netanyahu’s political strength is based on his incitement against the Arab population on the day of the general elections, which has continued throughout his term in office.

The leaders of the Arab public in Israel, myself included, have repeatedly approached the government and authorities over recent years demanding to strengthen the law enforcement in the Arab towns and villages. Our main demand was the collecting of unauthorized firearms from our streets. The primary victims of these weapons are us, the Arab citizens. It is our children whose safety is in jeopardy in the streets of our towns. The Prime Minister has refused until now to allocate funds for this goal. But now, when a weapon is turned against Jews, he suddenly decides to confront the issue.

After the current media attention fades, we will continue to demand that the police consider us as equal citizens and will take responsibility for our personal safety. First and foremost, weapons must be collected from our streets.

Secretary of State John Kerry recently said that Israel is reversing the Oslo Process. Most understand this to mean creating facts on the ground with settlement expansion, among other measures. Meanwhile, many members of Congress are angry at the European Union for labeling products from settlements as such. How important is it that the rest of the world differentiate between Israel and its settlements?

One of the greatest accomplishments of the Palestinian struggle in recent years is the fact that most of the world, with the latest addition being Greece, has already recognized the Palestinian state. But this also results in the realization that recognition is not enough, and the world must bring real and substantial pressure to bear on Israel. The only solution to the current situation is the end of the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state, according to the 67 borders, alongside Israel. If the world truly believes in this, labeling settlement products is a first and essential step in order to make it clear to Israel that the international community does not accept the settlements as part of the state of Israel. The settlements are illegal according to international law, while even under Israeli law they are not part of sovereign Israel, and therefore labeling is a minimal requirement. Furthermore, we must not forget that the settlements themselves cause systematic damage to all areas of life and the human rights of Palestinians, and this is another essential and compelling reason for the international community to object and protest their existence.

Many Americans are very concerned about the recent video circulated by Im Tirzu calling leaders of peace and human rights NGOs foreign “plants.” Along with this, we see legislation in the Knesset to label such NGOs as foreign agents. What does this say about the current state of Israeli democracy?

Netanyahu’s extreme right wing government is bad and dangerous not only for the Arab public, but for all the citizens of Israel. One of the most flagrant examples is the ferocious incitement against the human rights organizations originating from the Prime Minister’s Office, which trickles down from there to the ministers and organizations that do their bidding, such as Im Tirzu. The incitement and demonization campaigns that were initially aimed solely at the Arab public and its elected leadership, are now spreading throughout Israeli society. The purpose of this incitement is to silence any expression of opposition or criticism against the government, and consequently human rights organizations have been turned into enemies of the state. This is a concerted attempt at total de-legitimization, in order to deafen and blind the Jewish public from the reality that these organizations expose.

I hope that now, especially now, more people will awaken and understand that when they turn a blind eye to incitement against an entire sector of the public, this incitement will, further down the road, reach them. We must stand together, Arabs and Jews, against the incitement and hatred, and offer a genuine alternative based on equality, peace and democracy.

The community of Palestinian citizens of Israel is often seen as separate from the larger Palestinian people. How do you see the relationship of Palestinian citizens of Israel to the rest of the Palestinian people, and how do you think this might help Israel and the Palestinians reach an agreement to end their long conflict?

As a Palestinian citizen of Israel, I have no difficulty with my national identity – I am a Palestinian, yet I do not turn my back on my citizenship. I believe that it is precisely this duality that enables us – and only us – to see the entire picture. I speak Hebrew and Arabic, read newspapers and watch the news in both languages. I have in-depth familiarity with the culture and history of both the Palestinian and Israeli societies, and it is precisely because of this that we can serve as a third and crucial party in talks between the sides. Currently, while the Israeli side has no desire or intention to reach a solution, I see our role as being in the public arena, as people who can speak to the conscience of Israelis and convince them that it is in the common interests of both peoples to end the occupation and establish an independent Palestinian state.

No Israeli government has ever included Arab parties or even explicitly mixed parties like Hadash. You have said that peace is not possible without the 20% minority of Arabs in the country. Do you see any possibility in the near future that mainstream parties like Labor (or Zionist Union) or Yesh Atid would ever agree to a governing coalition that included the Joint List?

We are determined to bring down Netanyahu’s extreme right government. It is indeed true that parties with a majority of Arab voters have never been members of a government coalition, yet there is broad agreement among the Arab public that the best period, in parliamentary terms, for the Arab population was the early ’90s when the Rabin government was based on support from outside the coalition from five MKs from Hadash and the Arab Democratic Party. If and when it will be possible to form a left wing coalition committed to choosing the path of peace, equality and building a real democracy – we will consider the options.

Can you talk about your idea for uniting the various marginalized communities in Israel to support democratic progress in the country?

There are many differences between the marginalized communities in Israeli society. We, the Arab citizens of Israel, are a minority nationality, and this of course distinguishes our struggle. But in social and economic matters, the difficulties and obstacles that we face are often very similar to those of other groups. The right is aware that alliances between marginalized communities may undermine and ultimately cause the downfall of their government, and therefore they try to pit one population against the other.

Even during the election campaign I reached out to the ultra-Orthodox community that also suffers from discrimination and severe poverty. True, there are still many barriers, and ultra-Orthodox parties now sit in an extreme right-wing government, but familiarity with the political processes in Israel leads me to think that this reality is in constant flux. Already, behind the scenes, the cooperation between us is expanding.

Several months ago, grassroots protests by Ethiopian Israelis erupted in protest against police violence. I chose to join them from the first night of demonstrations in the streets of Tel Aviv. I was taking a moral position as well as reacting to an issue that is close to my heart. But I was also acting on a desire to establish an alliance and partnership.

The path of change inevitably progresses through the formation of new alliances with marginalized populations, and in cultivating the deep conviction that our interests are not conflicting but rather common.

VIDEO: Yuli Novak of Breaking the Silence, A Brilliant Interview

Appearing on Walla! TV in Israel, Yuli Novak, the Executive Director of Breaking the Silence lays out, in a clear manner, the case Breaking the Silence is making. She takes on the tough questions of why the group speaks abroad and its attitude toward BDS, and shreds the opposition’s arguments about Breaking the Silence’s EU funding.

It’s worth praising Walla! as well. This is the sort of TV journalism we do not see in the United States. The interviewer asks the tough questions in a respectful manner, and neither party shies away from the issues. Yes, the voices are raised, but anyone who has been to Israel knows this is standard fare.

The interview is in Hebrew, but the accompanying English subtitles are very good. Yuli Novak, and the rest of Breaking the Silence are the best of Israel. It says a great deal not only about radical rightists like Im Tirzu, but also about the Netanyahu government itself that they are hostile toward or ashamed of Breaking the Silence. They should, instead, be treated like the patriotic heroes they are.

Across the Spectrum: Responses to Im Tirtzu’s Inflammatory Video

Recently, the right wing Israeli group Im Tirtzu created a highly inflammatory video singling out leaders of four leading Israeli human rights groups as “plants” by foreign powers seeking to undermine the State of Israel and supporting terror attacks. The video has been widely condemned as incitement to violence against these individuals and their organizations. The Foundation for Middle East Peace quickly moved to support our Israeli colleagues, as did many other organizations.

Still from Im Tirtzu’s video showing mock “files” on Israeli human rights leaders

Still from Im Tirtzu’s video showing mock “files” on Israeli human rights leaders

The groups – B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, Hamoked, and the Public Committee Against Torture In Israel – are among the many peace and human rights NGOs that are increasingly targeted by hateful rhetoric and even by anti-democratic legislation in the Knesset, much of which has been spurred by Im Tirtzu and their allies in the Likud and Jewish Home parties, the two largest parties in Israel’s governing coalition.

Defenses of these human rights workers and condemnations of Im Tirtzu have come not only from the Israeli left and its supporters, but also from key officials in the Israeli government, military and intelligence communities. Read more at “Facts on the Ground,” FMEP’s blog