EU backs B’Tselem over UN appearance on settlements
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EU backs B’Tselem over UN appearance on settlements

While left-wing group faces accusations of treason in Israel, the EU echoes the US in tweeting its support

Hagai El-Ad, executive director of B'Tselem, at a press conference in Tel Aviv, February 5, 2016. (AFP/Jack Guez)
Hagai El-Ad, executive director of B'Tselem, at a press conference in Tel Aviv, February 5, 2016. (AFP/Jack Guez)

The European Union sent a public message of support to Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem Tuesday, amid anger in Israel over a speech by the organization’s director to the United Nations Security Council criticizing Israeli settlement policy last week.

B’Tselem and director Hagai El-Ad were slammed by Israeli officials for participation Friday in a session of the Security Council, in which El-Ad criticized Israeli settlement policy.

“We support B’Tselem to maintain human rights of vulnerable Palestinian communities in Area C,” read the tweet from the EU delegation to Israel, linking to a webpage of a EU-funded project run by B’Tselem entitled “Maintaining Human Rights of Vulnerable Palestinian Communities at Risk of Forced Displacement in Area C.” The project is funded primarily with €250,000 ($275,000) provided by the European Union.

B’Tselem’s decision to address the UN Security Council meeting on Friday, titled “Illegal Israeli Settlements: Obstacles to Peace and the Two-State Solution,” drew fierce denunciations from Israeli politicians, including the prime minister and at least one left-wing Knesset member from the Zionist Union party.

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 farming rights.

US State Department spokesman John Kirby briefs reporters on August 18, 2016. (screen capture/US State Department)
US State Department spokesman John Kirby briefs reporters on August 18, 2016. (screen capture/US State Department)

The US State Department on Monday also lent its support to B’Tselem and expressed concern about the threats against the organization.

Spokesman John Kirby said: “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.”

In an interview with Israel Radio on Sunday, El-Ad defended his appearance, arguing that Israeli organizations should not be prevented from criticizing government policy on the international stage.

“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, which the prime minister says are our best friends now,” El-Ad said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday that the organization had joined the “chorus of mudslinging” against Israel and denounced it as “shoddy and unhinged.” He threatened to advance a law to block national service volunteers from working with the organization, even as the group pointed out that it only had one such volunteer annually, and the position was currently vacant.

Zionist Union MK Itzik Shmuli seen at the Labor Party conference in Tel Aviv on December 14, 2014. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Zionist Union MK Itzik Shmuli seen at the Labor Party conference in Tel Aviv on December 14, 2014. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Zionist Union MK Itzik Shmuli said the group was helping to advance “the libel and demonization of Israel.” And a Labor party filed a police complaint for alleged treason against the group. Yuval Mor Musli, an attorney by trade, alleges that B’Tselem has worked to damage the sovereignty of the state, give land away to a foreign entity, and has taken steps that could cause a war. The three accusations are listed as clauses in Israel’s criminal code under “Treason.”

In an op-ed article in Haaretz Sunday, El-Ad explained the reason he believes the involvement of the international community is crucial to end the occupation.

“There is no chance Israeli society, of its own volition and without any help, will end the nightmare. Too many mechanisms insulate the violence we conduct in order to take control of them,” he wrote. “In the end, I’m sure, Israelis and Palestinians will end the occupation, but we won’t do it without the world’s help.”

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. Azaria is on trial for manslaughter.

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