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Amid right-wing attacks, suspected arson at B'Tselem offices

Headquarters of Israel’s oldest human rights organization sustain heavy damage. Spokesperson says if fire turns out to be arson, ‘it must be seen in the context of the wave of government incitement and smear campaigns against Israel’s human rights groups, and B’Tselem in particular.’

A fire broke out at Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem’s offices in Jerusalem Sunday night. Police said they suspect arson.

[Update, January 11, 2016, 11 a.m.: The preliminary results of the fire inspector’s investigation indicate that the fire the result of an electrical shortage and not arson.]

Right-wing organizations, government ministers and the media have launched seemingly concerted attacks against human rights and anti-occupation organizations in recent weeks, which many have called incitement. The government is currently advancing a law targeting human rights organizations that would portray them as serving foreign agendas.

A handful of right-wing Israelis gathered outside the building and celebrated the blaze while firefighters sought to extinguish it Sunday night, +972’s Orly Noy reported from the scene.

A handful of right-wing Israelis revel at the fire that engulfed B’Tselem’s offices in Jerusalem, January 10, 2015. (Orly Noy)

A handful of right-wing Israelis revel at the fire that engulfed B’Tselem’s offices in Jerusalem, January 10, 2015. (Orly Noy)

“We are still waiting for the findings of the fire investigator,” B’Tselem said. “However, if it is discovered that this was an arson attack, it must be seen in the context of the wave of government incitement and smear campaigns against Israel’s human rights groups, and B’Tselem in particular.”

Video footage released by the Jerusalem Fire Department showed extensive damage to the organization’s offices.

“Naturally, the damage to our offices will not stop our work of documenting and exposing the harm to human rights under the occupation,” B’Tselem said in a statement.

No B’Tselem staff was in the building at the time of the blaze, which broke out around 10 p.m. Other people in the office building, which houses at least one other NGO and a synagogue, did have to be evacuated, and one person was treated for smoke inhalation.

A firefighter stands in front of the charred door of B’Tselem’s offices in Jerusalem. (Photo: Fire Department Spokesperson)

A firefighter stands in front of the charred door of B’Tselem’s offices in Jerusalem. (Photo: Fire Department Spokesperson)

Hand in Hand, an organization that runs Israel’s only Jewish-Arab integrated school system, also has its offices in the building. A Hand in Hand school was also the target of an arson by right-wing Israelis just over a year ago. It was not immediately clear if its offices were damaged in Sunday’s fire.

Hyper-nationalist group Im Tirzu published a video accusing B’Tselem executive director Hagai Elad of being a foreign agent several weeks ago, suggesting that he and other human rights activists are somehow connected to the wave of stabbing attacks in recent months.

A separate right-wing organization put B’Tselem in its crosshairs this past weekend when it published hidden camera footage of one of its Palestinian field workers allegedly informing on a man who allegedly wanted to sell his family’s land to Israeli settlers. Israeli politicians and right-wing organizations used the video to smear the entire spectrum of human rights and anti-occupation organizations in Israel.

Peace Now executive-director Yariv Oppenheimer lay blame for the suspected arson on the doorstep of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government, saying that next political murder is closer than ever. “The government must stop its campaign of incitement against the Left and order Israel Police to protect left-wing organizations from further attempts to harm them,” Oppenheimer wrote on Facebook following the fire.

Some human rights and anti-occupation organizations have hired security guards in recent weeks in response to the delegitimization campaigns being waged against them.

Joint List chairman MK Ayman Odeh also blamed the government for the suspected arson. “We don’t know who threw the punch but the source of the fire that was set tonight at B’Tselem’s offices is the government and the [prime minister] who are conducting an incitement campaign against human rights organizations,” Odeh said late Sunday night.

Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova responded with dire warnings about those who celebrated the fire, and those who may have set it. “We won’t allow them to drag us down, into a bloody civil war,” she wrote on Facebook. “We simply can’t allow it.”

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    1. Ron Temis

      Right wing attacks? You have been demonizing Israelis for years, and finally we fight back. Your people send Palestinians to their death, and you talk about the right? All Israelis are disgusted with you.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        Here in the U.S. if you open any decent newspaper you will see stories about the problems of our society: racism, murder by police, environmental pollution, corruption, lack of regulation in the financial industry, and on and on and on – that’s the function of the press, to expose this stuff. That’s the purpose of human rights groups.

        But in Israel normal investigative journalism becomes “demonizing” and human rights work is equated with anti-semitism.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        These creepy right wing smear attempts have a concerted, formulaic, campaign feel. Make sure to use the words like “demonize” and “you people” and “all Israelis.” Ignore the fantastic, lifesaving, daily hard work and good will of dedicated human rights organizations. Shed crocodile tears for Palestinians (the insincerity and the hypocrisy are breathtaking) and don’t mention the brutal price, the decades-long death toll on the Palestinians that the occupation has exacted.

        Ron Temis’ post, saying “finally we fight back,” in the context of what at the time he posted this was a suspected arson attack, comes awfully close to incitement if you ask me. Extremist forces are feeling confident. Prime Minister Netanyahu, with calculated incitement against his own citizens, and calculated passivity in the face of others’ incitement, is to blame.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Sternhell published this in January, 2011. Four years later, it’s even more true:

        The extreme right turned Israel into an anachronism
        Unlike Europe, where the right has significantly grown but is still not in power, in this country the racists, the extreme and clerical right is the government, with only a vacuum opposing it.

        Zeev Sternhell


        Reply to Comment
        • Victor

          What nonsense. The extreme right isn’t in power anywhere else but Israel? How about Denmark, where the Danish People’s Party is part of the ruling coalition. Or Poland where they have just been voted into government, and are already committing a quiet coup d’etat.

          Victor Orban and his ultra right coalition have been in charge in Hungary for a while now, Italy had the extreme right represented by Lega Nord in several governments already. And in the near future, we will probably see the extreme right play a role in governing, in countries that have so far resisted them. France perhaps. In Sweden the SwedishDemocrats are predicted to be the biggest party in the next elections. Polls have them at 20-25% currently.

          So no, Israel isn’t the only country with the extreme right in government. Cold winds from the right are blowing all over Europe. The Israeli left is uniquely terrified about it however, and hysterically cries “fascism!” seemingly every month or so.

          Reply to Comment
          • Baladi Akka 1948

            Nope, Dansk Folkeparti (the Danish People’s Party) is NOT member of the ruling coalition, and it never has been, no matter how many times Hasbara states so.
            And even Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French National Front is to the left of the Likud.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Well this is an illuminating conversation. The Israeli far right is certainly getting cockier about declaring itself openly as you do, Victor. You’re deceptively mixing a lot of very different political apples with your Israeli orange there but you, a welcomer of cold far right winds, certainly have a point about the thoroughly unhappy, nasty, and reactionary Hungarians. In fact there are remarkable similarities between Israel and Hungary today:

            Viktor Orban Wades into Hungary’s Dark Waters

            Remarkable. And the similarities are not flattering.

            Don’t miss the part where Gyongyosi starts talking about Jews. And these are the people whose path you want to emulate?

            Note that Netanyahu was reduced to begging the likes of the Hungarians and Poles to soften the EU resolution. This is the company Netanyahu is keeping and these are the people Netanyahu is allying himself with and pitting against England, France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, and Germany. I’m sure Netanyahu really engendered loads of good will with this move.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            The Israeli Prime Minister allies himself with the Polish government against the EU. Naturally:

            The European Commission last week launched a preliminary review into whether Poland violated the European Union’s rule-of-law standards after its new right-wing government ignored rulings from the country’s top court.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            POLAND is giving Europe a headache. Since the socially conservative and mildly Eurosceptic Law and Justice party (PiS in Polish) won the parliamentary elections on October 25th, the country has gone from being the poster child of European integration to enfant terrible. The new government has defied the European Union’s warnings, pushing through laws that critics see as weakening constitutional checks and balances and media freedom. Centrists and liberals warn of “Orbanisation”, fearing that Poland is following the illiberal path of Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister.

            Reply to Comment