There is a campaign being carried out against anyone actively opposing the occupation in Israel, and it doesn’t matter if you’re an activist in the field, a human rights attorney or a former soldier talking about what you were ordered to do.
“Activists from the shady organization, “Ta’ayush,” who we tracked from within and outside, behind closed doors and during clashes on Saturdays, are going to fall one by one. Don’t worry friends. We will finish off Ezra Nawi and move on to Guy Butavia… and many others.”
That message was published and quickly spread on Facebook following the arrest of Ezra Nawi, and before the arrest of Guy Butavia, another activist in Ta’ayush, and B’Tselem field worker Nasser Nawajah. The three were arrested after a right-wing group, “Ad Kan,” gave allegedly incriminating materials to the police and primetime investigative news show, “Uvda.”
A month earlier, far-right group Im Tirzu marked other anti-occupation activists as targets: B’Tselem Executive-Director Haggai El-Ad; executive director of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, Yishai Menuchin; a prominent member of Breaking the Silence; and an attorney who protects Palestinians in Israeli courts on behalf of Hamoked — Center for the Defense of the Individual. This week it was revealed that right-wing group “Regavim” hired a private investigator to track human rights attorney Michael Sfard and Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din. There is a connection between each of these, of course.
The past few days have seen politicians and pundits comparing the “extreme left” to the “extreme right,” between the Ta’yush activists to the suspects in the Duma murders. Alon Idan wrote brilliantly about the mainstream’s tendency to create this kind of symmetry — replacing principled, moral judgment with statistics. But there is a different, more fundamental point that does not get the attention it deserves. In the case of Duma, the police went and looked for the perpetrators only after the crime was committed. The same goes for all the recent hate crimes by right-wing extremists, which were investigated by the state (the vast majority of so-called “price tag attacks” end with no indictment).
But in the case of the Ta’ayush activists, the process was reversed: “Ad Kan” did not go to the South Hebron Hills to investigate the harassment of land sellers. They went in search of ways to bring down Ta’ayush. To infiltrate the organization and get dirt on as many activists as possible. Like in the case of Michael Sfard and Breaking the Silence: first the Right found its target, and only then did it start looking for crimes. To the chagrin of Regavim, the materials it found and published about Sfard did not lead to the same storm that the Uvda report or recent articles on Breaking the Silence did. But the principle is identical.
The criminals from the South Hebron Hills
This is the fundamental issue. This is the reason left-wing activists feel it is open season on them. Because the targeting of activists has become personal, using their names and images. Because the goal is to find something — anything — to eliminate them, at all costs. If not through police investigations, then by tarnishing their public images, like in the case of former Ambassador to South Africa Alon Liel. Perhaps a recent article on him in Yedioth Ahronoth, in which he was secretly filmed giving a lecture to Breaking the Silence activists, will bring about a change in the law and Liel will find himself in prison. If not, then maybe someone will decide to wait outside his home and beat him up. When the head of Im Tirzu was asked about the possibility that his contemptible campaign could actually bring physical harm to the heads of these organizations, he shrugged and said that it “would be their responsibility.” Things have never been clearer.
A prominent right-wing journalist with whom I used to work often said, in an entirely different context, that “once you enter the system’s pipeline, someone will find something about you.” That is why in a state governed by law, the police investigates crimes rather than people. At this moment, the logic in Israel is the exact opposite — the Right is investigating people. The media, the police, and the pathetic politicians of the Israeli center are following in its wake. Before the land seller case, the Samaria and Judea Police Division tried to pin on Nawi a series of traffic violations. Only the fact that were able to mak an even better case stick saved us from reading opeds about how “the Left is protecting a traffic violator.”
The reason these people were targeted is crystal clear. There is not much in common between Ta’ayush and Michael Sfard, or between Breaking the Silence and Ezra Nawi, aside from the fact that they all struggle against the occupation.
They say Breaking the Silence is hated in Israel because they speak about the occupation abroad, and that B’Tselem is hated because they receive donations from foreign countries. Nonsense. Ta’ayush does not speak abroad. In fact, they aren’t even an NGO, but rather an informal organization made up of people who every Friday and Saturday head to the South Hebron Hills — in the hottest days of summer and in the freezing winter — to stand up to settlers from illegal outposts and the army that backs them. This is a boring, difficult task, which often includes accompanying Palestinian shepherds and farmers — so that they are not attacked by settlers — planting trees, or cleaning out water wells that have been either sealed shut or destroyed.
A decade and a half ago, when I served as a soldier in South Hebron Hills, the army still accompanied Palestinian children in order to prevent settler harassment. But the truth is that even back then, this was the wildest, ugliest place in the country. One of the settlers, who immigrated from apartheid South Africa, advised us to treat the Palestinians the way they used to treat blacks in his native land. Another settler, who lived in a cave in the West Bank, used to march his small herd of sheep directly into Palestinian fields, and when they tried to keep the animals away from their crops, the man would call the army because, well, the Palestinians were harassing Jews.
The reality of the Israeli Wild West did not interest the either the public or the media back then. It doesn’t interest them today. Uvda never bothered to go to the occupied territories to talk about the difficult reality farmers face there on a daily basis. The only people who cared were the activists in Ta’ayush, who do everything they can to stand up to much larger, far more organized forces. And now they are paying the price for it. Just like Michael Sfard, who argued before the High Court of Justice — and won — that the land belonging to the villagers of Bil’in was stolen for the sake of building a new neighborhood for Jews, all using deceptive claims of “security needs.” Just like B’Tselem’s field worker Nasser Nawaj’ah, who sat in jail following Uvda’s report while bulldozers demolished a protest tent against land expropriation in his home village of Susya. First they ignore the story, then they target those who speak about it, then they look for dirt, and then they demand the rest of the Left condemn the wrongdoers, lest everyone be considered a criminal.
The fact that Ta’ayush’s activities focus on Israel/Palestine, rather than abroad, hasn’t helped them much. Michael Sfard’s appeals to Israeli courts, rather than The Hague, were what led the Right to persecute him. The fact that Breaking the Silence does not reveal the names of the soldiers who give testimony, so that they do not face prosecution around the world or even in Israel, did not help. They are all fighting the occupation — that is their real crime. Instead of going to speak on television panels about the need for a “political horizon,” they tried to do something about the reality here. The occupation is the ruler, and it eliminates its opponents. Not because they are strong or threaten it, but because there really is no other way. Because the project of control in the occupied territories is in crisis, and we need to place the blame on someone.
The Right’s vision
It is no coincidence, of course, that Ad Kan’s campaign is backed by the publicly funded Samaria Settler Council, and that Regavim — which spends huge sums on tracking human rights organizations — is also backed by state-funded local councils in the West Bank. Ta’ayush, on the other hand, is run entirely by volunteers. Now it seems that the only people who actually received money for their trips to South Hebron Hills were Ad Kan’s moles, possibly funded by Israeli taxpayers.
The state and the Right are joining hands because the occupation is the state. Guy Butavia discovered in his interrogation that the questions he was asked by the police were passed on by Ad Kan. Israeli police in the West Bank, a division of the Israel National Police that is totally incompetent when it comes to solving recurring attacks against Palestinians — and which closes investigations into people who attack left-wing activists in broad daylight and in front of the cameras — suddenly acted with maximum efficiency in response to the Uvda investigation. Ezra Nawi was arrested at the airport despite the fact that there was no order preventing him from leaving the country. Why? How? Who cares. The arrestees were prevented from meeting with their attorneys, as if we were dealing with a “ticking bomb.”Not only were these blatantly political arrests, the most basic rights of the detainees were suspended.
Something dawned on human rights organizations and anti-occupation activists this week. It seems clear to all that a new campaign has begun. Much of the public is apathetic toward the Ta’ayush arrests, as goes for all political persecution. In history classes we used to ask ourselves how the “silent majority” and the “good people” allowed for such horrible things to happen. Now the answer is clear: if someone is being persecuted, there was probably a good reason, and the majority of people continue living their lives, because that is what people do. The weakness of Israel’s left-wing parties is far less clear to me. They are still playing the old game of trying to wedge themselves into the mainstream while the reality has changed completely.
It must be repeated: the Right has no solution for the current situation. The Palestinians will continue to resist the occupation, even if all the human rights organizations are shut down. Even if Israel manages to silence the Palestinians for a month, a year, or five. Those who view Arab citizens of Israel as enemies will turn them into enemies. Those who view Israelis who oppose the occupation as traitors won’t stop there. The only vision the Right is presenting is a civil war between Jews and Arabs, and between Jews and Jews. The only thing preventing that from happening is Israel’s sheer military strength. But desperation will also find a way to break through even that. With every day that passes, the price of changing direction only rises, and those who are able to step on the brakes prefer to sit on the fence.
This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.