The head of human rights group B’Tselem hit back Sunday at criticism over his decision to speak out against Israeli settlement policy at the United Nations last week, saying he condemned the “occupation” at the global forum, not Israel.
B’Tselem’s decision to address the UNSC meeting on Friday titled “Illegal Israeli Settlements: Obstacles to Peace and the Two-State Solution,” reportedly at the behest of the Palestinian mission to the UN, has drawn fierce denunciations from Israeli politicians, including the prime minister and at least one left-wing Knesset member.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night lashed out at B’Tselem, saying the organization had joined the “chorus of mudslinging” against Israel and had “recycled the false claim that ‘the occupation and the settlements’ are the reason for the conflict.”
In an interview with Israel Radio on Sunday, Hagai El-Ad defended his appearance, arguing that Israeli organizations should not be prevented from criticizing government policy on the international stage.
“I didn’t speak against my country, but against the occupation,” he said. “The determined action of hundreds of thousands of Israelis against an occupation that’s about to turn 50 is the best way to bring about change.”
On Friday El-Ad called for the United Nations to take action against the Jewish state’s settlements, telling members of the Security Council that Israel was creating facts on the ground in advance of any peace agreement with the Palestinians. El-Ad spoke of “invisible, bureaucratic daily violence” that dominates Palestinian life “from cradle to grave,” including Israeli control over entrance and exit from territories, and even farming rights.
“At the UNSC there wasn’t a single country that took the Israeli side, not one country that didn’t speak against the occupation and settlements. This is true of the United States and Britain, and of Russia and China that the prime minister says are our best friends now,” El-Ad said on Sunday.
Asked why the group needs to turn to international forums to present its message, El-Ad told Israel Radio: “The occupation isn’t an internal Israeli issue, but a major international issue. There’s no such thing as a democratic occupation. This can’t be an internal matter.”
El-Ad also hit back at an announcement by Netanyahu that he would move to change the law of national service — undertaken by some young Israelis as an alternative to mandatory military service — in order to bar B’Tselem from the list of organizations approved for volunteer work.
“The prime minister is trying to make the conversation about a single post that no one has been in for months. It’s ridiculous,” he said.
A spokesman for B’Tselem noted on Saturday that there were currently no national service volunteers at the NGO.
Echoing Netanyahu’s announcement, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel of the right-wing Jewish Home Party told Army Radio Sunday that Israel would not become as “suicide state.”
“We will not fund groups that put a knife in our back,” he said.
B’Tselem, which describes itself as an Israeli human rights group, uses Palestinian photographers and videographers to document the conduct of Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank. In March, one of the group’s volunteers, Imad Abu Shamsiyeh, filmed IDF soldier Sgt. Elor Azaria shooting a disarmed, injured Palestinian in the head after he carried out a stabbing attack in Hebron. That footage sparked a nationwide debate over excessive force and IDF values.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.