Last week, Hagai El-Ad, the Executive Director of B’Tselem, testified before the UN Security Council. El-Ad put forward a passionate denunciation of the occupation. In addition to listing a litany of facts and figures, which shed light on the painful day-to-day of life for Palestinians on the ground, he warned that Israel cannot remain a perpetual occupying power as well as a democracy.
Israel’s reaction was swift and hyperbolic. Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that he would amend the National Service law to make it impossible to do national service with B’Tselem. Israelis are required to serve in the military or national service after they turn 18, and Netanyahu’s proposal would make it impossible to do so with B’Tselem. Danny Danon called for the UN to halt funding to B’Tselem, calling it a “direct interference in the democratic process of Israel.”
The United States was quick to respond:
“We thank these NGOs – B’Tselem and Americans for Peace Now – for sharing their technical expertise … as we recognize other NGOs around the world who shed light on difficult issues … it is vital that all governments protect and create an atmosphere that all voices can be heard,” he said.
These comments comes against the backdrop of recent legislation targeting progressive NGOs and efforts by far-right groups to silence and intimidate critics of the Israeli government. That bill came under intense international and American Jewish pressure because of fears that it would help undermine Israel’s democratic fabric.
The Prime Minister’s announcement raises similar concerns about the persecution of human rights activists to the NGO bill. It seems that in Netanyahu’s view, to criticize the settlement movement is to attack the very fabric of the state. To oppose one is to fundamentally oppose the other. By asserting that Israelis cannot fulfill their service to the state by engaging in human rights work, Netanyahu is creating a false choice between supporting Israel and opposing settlements. That invariably produces a chilling effect amongst activists critical of Israeli policy – Netanyahu is essentially labeling them as enemies of the state.
On Monday, the State Department announced their concern over the move, stating that:
We believe that a free and unfettered civil society is a critical component of democracy…we believe it is important that governments protect the freedoms of expression, and create an atmosphere where all voices can be heard. We are troubled by instances anywhere in the world where these principles are threatened.
This evinces another consequence of Netanyahu’s attitude towards B’Tselem – it further undermines Israel’s standing in the international community. Netanyahu objected that B’Tselem was joining the “chorus of slander” against Israel on the world stage. Netanyahu is right that in some international forums Israel is regularly and unfairly singled out. However, there is good cause for concern in the international community about settlements, occupation and the attacks against progressive civil society groups.
In that sense, Netanyahu’s announcement about barring B’Tselem from offering national service is self-defeating. He ostensibly wants to push back on international criticism about Israel, but targeting civil rights activists will only invite it. So too will ignoring El-Ad’s important call to cut back on settlement expansion and work toward an end to the occupation.