Israelis’ Civil Liberties Under Fire — A Call With B’Tselem’s Hagai El-Ad

January 7, 2016

Note: The views expressed in this post are Hagai El-Ad’s, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of J Street.

On December 22, 2015, J Street held a call with Hagai El-Ad, the Executive Director of B’Tselem, to discuss threats against him, other Israeli civil rights advocates and Israeli democracy. The briefing with El-Ad came in the wake of a video produced by Im Tirzu, a far-right Israeli organization, which dangerously accused him, along with other Israeli human rights activists, of fomenting terror against Israelis. The video is the latest piece of a well-choreographed campaign designed to marginalize progressive NGOs, which also includes new legislation designed to impose stringent requirements on B’Tselem and other, like-minded groups.

J Street: What’s your overview of the latest attacks against progressive NGOs?

Hagai El-Ad: There are promising and challenging aspects of the latest attacks against NGOs. The challenge comes from the fact that the latest Im Tirzu video is only the most recent expression of growing fascist trends in the Israeli government — themselves a consequence and product of the occupation. These powers are here to stay, and they will likely continue to attempt to undermine progressive Israeli NGOs. The promising news is that, despite tremendous pressure, the response from Israel’s NGOs has been extremely productive. In the wake of the latest attacks, Israeli NGOs have done a remarkable job unapologetically putting forward the case for their work and speaking out against the occupation. This is a good sign for the organizations involved, as well as the significant minority of Israelis who share our values; the leadership of progressive NGOs over the course of the last few weeks inspires and empowers like-minded Israelis committed to justice and human rights.

J Street: How has the ongoing anti-NGO legislation proposed by Justice Minister Shaked affected B’Tselem and other NGOs?

Hagai El-Ad: While the government spends weeks or months pondering the legislation, it gives them opportunities to present us in the light that it desires. So regardless of whether the bill becomes a law or not, the harassment and the inaccurate depiction of human rights organizations continues all the time while this is happening.

From the way they are talking about us as servants of foreign powers, one would think that these foreign powers are Israel’s worst enemies. But in fact the foreign states that are funding human rights organizations in Israel are Israel’s closest Western allies. So there is something quite sinister and rude about talking about those kinds of funds as if they’re contaminated at the source.

J Street: You were targeted in this horrible video by Im Tirzu, your face was shown, your name was shown, it seemed like an open invitation for someone to attack you personally — are you satisfied that the police and authorities are taking this seriously?

Hagai El-Ad: It’s extremely unpleasant. On Sunday, I was still in New York speaking at the Haaretz/ New Israel Fund conference and then I flew back Tuesday, which was when the video was released. So basically I flew back and realized now this is what’s happening in my country.

You ask about the police. Our experience is that the police are extremely ineffective in this regard and that they don’t take the situation seriously. Basically we need to count on our own resources in order to provide security for our staff, and that’s what we’re doing.

I’d also like to say that with B’Tselem we have 11 Palestinian field researchers in Gaza, the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. My colleague, a researcher in Hebron, was documenting a recent demonstration and had her hand broken by a rubber-coated bullet fired by the Israeli security forces. While she was healing, her only desire was to get better quickly so that she could get back to work. So among all of us we have sources of inspiration and of courage, and we have colleagues that help us in continuing to work.

J Street: We want to ask about B’Tselem’s investigation into isolated incidents where the attackers were disarmed and shot and killed — can you give us some details on them?

Hagai El-Ad: We are absolutely against violence against civilians — which is never justified. However, the way the government presents it with no context and that it is just the result of incitement or Palestinians being anti-Semitic themselves is complete nonsense.

Obviously the context for what is happening is the occupation itself. And what we’re seeing is the failure of the government’s fantasy that it would be possible to go on with this endless occupation. And I think it’s also very clear that the government doesn’t really have an answer, at least not in the deep sense, for what to do about these circumstances. And maybe that’s part of the explanation of why we’re seeing this incitement against human rights organizations — they seem to have no other plan so they need to find someone on whose doorstep to lay the guilt. This is what they’re doing.

With regard to the street executions, what we’re seeing is a phenomenon that, on one hand, officially, the government is saying that there’s no change in the rules of engagement and it’s only legal to use force to the extent needed, and so on and so forth. And we have gone through the data when it was available. There are a number of cases where the facts seem to be very clear that an individual was already – the term used in Israel is “neutralized” or not causing any danger anymore — and yet he or she was shot multiple times afterwards and, in many of these cases, was killed. And this has happened a number of times. So that’s the accurate description of this unfortunate reality and an entire outline of all of the cases that we’ve looked at and documented and what our research has revealed is online and at our website — that’s

J Street: Do you think that the activities of American pro-Israel groups like J Street can have any influence in supporting your organizations and helping to create a better path forward?

Hagai El-Ad:I was very encouraged by and very thankful for the statement that J Street issued very quickly in response to the recent incitement. And I think that the international context is very significant for the state of Israel, both in its relationship with Europe and the US and in its relationship with the world Jewry.

The attack on us raises the larger issue of the legitimacy of speaking about the occupation internationally. I guess that this is a familiar challenge for J Street activists who are talking about these issues within their own communities and in Washington, DC. I think that all of us together need to be absolutely unapologetic about the importance of conquering fascist trends in Israeli legislation and in talking about the root cause — the occupation itself and the human rights violations that it causes.