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In the crosshairs: Israel's war of attrition on political dissent

The attempt to outlaw Israeli human rights organizations means the Jewish state may soon be forced to shed its image of a liberal democratic state. Are Israelis ready for that?

Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev walks behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset during the opening of the winter session, Jerusalem, October 31, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev walks behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset during the opening of the winter session, Jerusalem, October 31, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The war of attrition against Israel’s human rights community took a dark turn last week. Hardly anyone noticed.

According to reports, Minister of Tourism Yariv Levin is currently working on a new bill that would outlaw Israeli anti-occupation NGO Breaking the Silence, along with any other organization that harms IDF soldiers or promotes boycotts of the Jewish state. The bill reportedly has the full backing of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who will review it for approval ahead of voting.

Breaking the Silence, an organization made up of former Israeli soldiers that collects and publishes testimonies of IDF transgressions in the occupied territories, called the bill an attempt by Netanyahu to distract the public from numerous corruption investigations that threaten to topple his rule.

The claim isn’t unfounded: Netanyahu’s cronies in the Likud Party are carrying out a parliamentary scorched earth campaign to shield the prime minister from accountability, including establishing a parliamentary committee to investigate foreign government funding of left-wing NGOs. Levin’s bill, then, does away with etiquette. No longer will the Israeli Right harp on the issue of funding alone. In its war of attrition, the goal has become the total elimination of dissent.

A public reading of Breaking the Silence testimonies in Tel Aviv to mark 10 years since the organization was founded, June 6, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

A public reading of Breaking the Silence testimonies in Tel Aviv to mark 10 years since the organization was founded, June 6, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

This war has been years in the making — it is, after all, a project of patience. The collapse of the Oslo process and the consequent foundering of the peace camp gave rise to a galvanized brand of right wing, one that sought to carefully undo the work of its predecessors in the Zionist Left. Doing so required a number of carefully crafted steps: supplanting peace negotiations with endless settlement building; creating physical and psychological distance between Israelis and the reality in the West Bank and Gaza; marking Palestinian citizens of Israel, long suspected as fifth columnists by the Israeli establishment, as enemies of the state; and silencing political dissidents through draconian legal warfare, and often the threat of real violence.

A bygone era

Breaking the Silence, from its onset, aimed straight for the heart of the Israeli consensus. Long before its members toured American campuses and spoke to the United Nations, the organization was simply a way for members to hold a frank conversation about the things they did and saw as soldiers of occupation. There was nothing especially revelatory about the group; public discussion about the goings on in the occupied territories was not uncommon in the early 1990s, as the First Intifada awakened a significant part of the Israeli public to the deleterious nature of holding a civilian population hostage while plundering its land and labor.

Israeli soldiers detain a Palestinian man following a house raid in the West Bank city of Hebron September 20, 2016. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Israeli soldiers detain a Palestinian man following a raid in the West Bank city of Hebron September 20, 2016. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

The consensus at the time certainly did not espouse the establishment of a Palestinian state, but talk of the human cost of maintaining the occupation — that is, how military dictatorship was affecting Israelis first and foremost — was not yet considered taboo. On the contrary, rolling back the occupation piecemeal could be considered a veritable form of patriotism. In that sanguine era, Breaking the Silence would have fit hand in glove.

But the Israel of Oslo no longer exists. Gone are the days when soldiers could have a safe space to discuss the traumas they endured by beating civilians and raiding homes. And while neither the Right nor the Zionist Left has ever been particularly fond of these groups (Prime Minister Rabin once famously maligned Israeli human rights group B’Tselem for hindering his ability to effectively fight Hamas suicide bombings), they did provide something of a countervailing force to Israeli policies.

We just want quiet

Today the status quo allows Israel to maintain its occupation with relatively little trouble; the costs of war or sporadic violence are worth the price for maintaining control over nearly every aspect of Palestinian life if it means Israelis get to live b’sheket, in peace and quiet.

Quiet for Israelis, however, means something quite different for Palestinians. And so, as Israeli intransigence increased, so too grew the calls from within and outside to place pressure on the Jewish state to do what it now seems incapable of doing: granting Palestinians their basic, fundamental rights. Breaking the Silence, realizing it could no longer mobilize a public that had grown accustomed to quiet, decided to take its battle to the international community. The government, abetted by a sycophantic media hungry for high ratings, would no longer tolerate this kind of behavior, placing Breaking the Silence — along with groups such as B’Tselem — in its crosshairs.

Israeli police carry away documents and computers from offices of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, November 17, 2015. (Photo by Israel Police Spokesperson)

Israeli police carry away documents and computers from offices of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, November 17, 2015. (Photo by Israel Police Spokesperson)

The persecution of political movements by the Israeli state has, for the most part, affected its Palestinian population. In the 1960s, Israel outlawed Al-Ard, a Palestinian nationalist organization that opposed Zionism and sought to establish a secular democratic state. In 2016, it banned the Islamic Movement over incitement, raiding its offices and shutting down a number charity organizations associated with the movement.

In 1994, Israel banned the extreme right Kach party for its support for a number of terrorist attacks committed by Jews against Palestinians, including the Tomb of the Patriarchs massacre. Today, it is becoming increasingly clear that the government is planning for the day it can ban Arab political parties from participating in the Knesset. Human rights NGOs had thus far been spared that fate.

Bringing the occupation home

Right wing activists protest in front of the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv during Operation Protective Edge, July 29, 2014. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Right-wing activists protest in front of the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv during Operation Protective Edge, July 29, 2014. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The Israeli government no longer fears a mass, violent uprising reminiscent of the Second Intifada. Armed with the most advanced military technology in the world and a docile Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, Israel has managed to turn military dictatorship into a feature, rather than an aberration, of its policies. Public acquiescence means the occupation can march on, that the government’s war on human rights will certainly face little resistance.

“Israeli society is obeying the dictates of a government that doesn’t want people to know, that wants people to look the other way,” Jewish American author Michael Chabon told me as we drove through the hills of the West Bank earlier this year. “The disinclination to see the occupation only serves the policies and agenda of the Israeli government. It makes sense then that Breaking the Silence would engender the harassment it encounters.” The psychological distance between the glitzy boulevards of Tel Aviv and the refugee camps of the West Bank, then, is not a bug — it’s built in to the design. Attempts to upend that distance, to bring the occupation home, will not be tolerated.

The chilling effect does not mean Israeli human rights organizations have closed up shop. On the contrary: B’Tselem announced last year that it would stop working with the Israeli army after 25 years, while Breaking the Silence has repeatedly proven that it is willing to face the onslaught head on. The very existence of these groups is often used to portray Israel as a pluralistic liberal democracy. The question is whether Israelis are prepared for the day that veneer fully unravels before their eyes.

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    COMMENTS

    1. JeffB

      Israel has a technological economy it won’t be able to meaningfully censor. I suspect all this ends up doing is forcing NGOs that are “Israeli” to be funded through Israeli agencies. While NGOs that want to take foreign funds simply openly register with in the country of their funders. I have to agree with Netanyahu on this one, this isn’t much different than American laws regarding foreign lobbyists. If you take money from abroad you are considered to be working for foreign interests and represent those interests. You can’t pretend to be a domestic interest group and take foreign funds.

      As for Breaking the Silence talking to an International audience is the problem. That’s circumventing the Israeli democracy by trying to create outside pressure. Yes I think the State of Israel has every right to prevent its citizens from raising a foreign force undermine the domestic democracy so as to enact policy reforms they like.

      The Israeli left needs to be talking to Israelis primarily not Americans, not Europeans. They need to have credibility in their own society first.

      Finally I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “liberal democracy”. Israel’s reputation is taking a hit. But ultimately having millions of people without civil or political rights is a much bigger hit to the reputation than fixing up its political financing laws.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “…talking to an International audience is the problem. That’s circumventing the Israeli democracy…

        The problem here is that the occupation is NOT an “internal” or “domestic” problem. It involves ruling over and oppressing millions of non-Israelis on foreign soil. So it is every bit the business of the international community, legally, morally, interests-wise, etc.

        “The Israeli left needs to be talking to Israelis primarily not Americans, not Europeans….”

        They tried it for years and no one listened. Going outside, like boycotts, are last resorts and justified. Israel wants to have it both ways. You blithely write as if it were thirty years ago. The situation is way beyond needing to establish “credibility.” Breaking the Silence has LOADS of credibility. It’s for that very reason, their credibility, that Israelis hate them. And demonize them and fling quasi-fascist terminology at these people, their own citizen-soldiers, such as “traitors.”

        I think the attempt to go the East German style route and outlaw Breaking the Silence will backfire mightily. It’s the international publicity the organization has been waiting for.

        (It is, btw, false to imply the USA does not allow foreign funding of NGOs.
        https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/fs/2017/266904.htm
        “Sources of finance may also include foreign governments. There is no prohibition in U.S. law on foreign funding of NGOs; whether that foreign funding comes from governments or non-government sources.”)

        Reply to Comment
        • JeffB

          @Ben

          USA law does allow for foreign funded lobbyists. It just requires disclosure and making it clear you represent the foreign interest not a domestic one. NGOs which aren’t lobbies don’t play as much of a political role in the USA since the USA has explicit lobbies.

          The problem here is that the occupation is NOT an “internal” or “domestic” problem. It involves ruling over and oppressing millions of non-Israelis on foreign soil. So it is every bit the business of the international community, legally, morally, interests-wise, etc.

          If that is what you claim they are doing: assisting foreign governments in undermining and attacking the policies of the government of Israel. Then they are guilty of what the right is charging them with. Working for a foreign government against your own government is a very serious matter. Add in the fact you are indicating the Israeli government has the full support of the Israeli people “no one listened…” and they are traitors.

          I think the attempt to go the East German style route and outlaw Breaking the Silence will backfire mightily. It’s the international publicity the organization has been waiting for.

          If Israeli society is firmly convinced of the rightness of the occupation such that no dialogue with them is possible, international publicity won’t matter. The issue is decided already by the only power for whom the disposition of the West Bank is a vital interest.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            @JeffB: Nope. That it is not simply an internal, domestic Israeli issue simply defines an aspect of the problem (reality is what it is, this is not a fairy tale, it is real life) it does not define the solution. It is in Israel’s interests to end the occupation–it corrupts Israeli society–a pressing Israeli vital interest. So, as Bruce correctly pointed out, you can reasonably take foreign funds and claim to be representing the interests of Israel; there are many examples of NGO’s doing this in various places. The soldiers of Breaking the Silence are patriots. They are not “working for a foreign government.” That is base right wing propaganda, and you are merely reproducing it.

            Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @JeffB: No, you can reasonably take foreign funds and claim to be representing the interests of Israel; there are many examples of NGO’s doing this in various places.

        Reply to Comment
      • john

        “ultimately having millions of people without civil or political rights is a much bigger hit to the reputation” agreed, the gov’t should acknowledge world consensus and reform those policies – even if only to save face.

        Reply to Comment
        • JeffB

          @John

          Yes. Agreed. I think the right is making steps forward. On another forum I’ve been talking to Palestinians and they have been expressing support for Emanuel Shahaf’s plan: http://www.federation.org.il/index.php/en/the-federation-plan

          So we have a rightwing plan that actual Palestinians like that would allow for full citizenship for all West Bankers without endangering Israel as a Jewish State.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Lewis from Afula

      I agree with Ben’s comment that:
      “It involves ruling over and oppressing millions of non-Israelis…”
      Hence, the problem is unsolvable until we repatriate all the Jordanians home. Then, we will not be oppressing them because they won’t be here.

      Reply to Comment
    3. john

      back on topic, the israeli gov’t is trying to silence criticism – or simple acknowledgement – of that oppression: the current rightwing agenda puts bad optics on a bad reputation.
      (& it looks like average israeli rightwingers prefer ethnic cleansing to segregating gaza in a hypothetical federation)

      Reply to Comment
    4. Ben

      In America, Self-declared Nazis Can Get State Aid. Israel Boycotters Increasingly Can’t
      Israel’s already criminalizing its anti-occupation dissenters. Don’t let America do the same

      Simone Zimmerman Oct 23, 2017 12:12 PM
      read more: https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/1.818606

      Reply to Comment
    5. i_like_ike52

      Ben-You claim that the Left has failed in its attempt to sway Israelis to carry out the policies that they want, so they have to turn to international pressure. Have you ever asked yourself WHY a clear majority of the Israeli public reject the policies of the Left? Do you agree with people like Herzog and Amir Peretz (among others) that the bulk of the Israeli public is an ignorant, brainwashed rabble?

      Reply to Comment
    6. i_like_ike52

      Ben-
      I took a look at your twitter and Facebook sites. I note that you have a picture of the revered sage, the Hafetz Haim, making a harsh condemnation of Zionism. Apparently, you don’t know very much about his views. What he said did not mean what you mean when you denounce Zionism. He certainly held that the Jews had a right to make aliyah and set up a state and defend it, even in the face of Arab opposition. What he opposed was the extreme anti-religious trends that were powerful at the time he made such a statement (I am assuming that he did make this statement, although I have never heard of it before). In any case, if he did make the statement, it was something like 100 years ago or more. Since then, the Zionist movement has undergone massive internal ideological changes regarding the attitude of the movement towards the Orthodox/religious community. Thus, in terms of today’s context, he would be criticizing groups like your Jewish Voice for Peace which is quite hostile to much of pro-Zionist world Jewry.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        My twitter and Facebook sites? News to me. Could you please point me to these twitter and Facebook sites that you say are mine? I have no idea what you are talking about. I’d like to see these sites. Thanks.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        And btw I don’t “denounce Zionism.”

        Reply to Comment
        • i_like_ike52

          I was under the impression that you are Ben Lorber of JVP. Is that correct?

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            That is not correct.

            Reply to Comment
          • i_like_ike52

            I stand corrected. Sorry.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            I have the impression you may be with Canary Mission? Is that correct? Or just a loyal follower? Is that correct? I’ve had a look at the Canary Mission hit job on Ben Lorber and find it faintly East German Stasi-like. I love that “close connections” section and the whole page that follows. So…paranoid-conspiracy-insinuation-slander peddling. But I also like this response by David Moshman, the person Canary Mission makes out to be the foremost academic anti-Semite in Nebraska (I’m not David either):
            https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/ive-been-blacklisted-at-canary-mission_us_595a5ef1e4b0c85b96c6639e

            Reply to Comment
          • i_like_ike52

            You do have the same first name and similar positions…that is what led to my confusion.
            No, I am not affiliated with any organization, other than the Jewish people in Israel.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Thank you, I appreciate your replies. I did not see your response on Oct. 28 before I sent mine.

            It is interesting to characterize as you do the Jewish people in Israel as an “organization.” I think that is what Ayalet Shaked would like to make it. As you know I have used the term “organized crime” or crime organization to describe the entity comprising Israel and the territories it occupies or at least “the settlement enterprise.” I think the Jewish people in Israel have to strive to be more than an organization, of whatever kind. They have to be more than a large AIPAC or a large Yesha Council or at its worst a large mafia-run state like Italy at its worst. At this point they have to strive to be a healthy group within a healthy larger nation, the Israeli nation, or the Israeli people. It is a large challenge. But the Jewish people in Israel have insisted on it. There is no going back to a two state solution, only forward to a one state solution, and, to repeat myself, it is the Jewish people in Israel who have adamantly insisted on that. And they keep wanting to have it both ways but like anything else in life that is not going to work in the long run. 

            Reply to Comment
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