The head of Israeli human rights group B’Tselem called Friday for the United Nations to take action against the Jewish state’s settlements, telling a special session of the Security Council that Israel was creating facts on the ground in advance of any peace agreement with the Palestinians.
The session was broadcast live on the UN website.
The NGO’s executive director, Hagai El-Ad, began his presentation to the Council at the UN headquarters in New York by airing two videos that he said illustrated life for Palestinians under Israeli occupation, and drew attention to what he called non-reported “regular” days under occupation.
He cited “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.
“With every breath they take, Palestinians are breathing in occupation,” El-Ad told the session titled “Illegal Israeli Settlements: Obstacles to Peace and the Two-State Solution.” He claimed that “ever-present” settlers live in a first-world community “that exists only for them.”
Israel, El-Ad added, used the peace process “to buy time” to establish facts on the ground for the settlements. The country could not occupy a people for 50 years and call itself a democracy, El-Ad said, adding that the rights of the Palestinians must be realized, and the occupation must end.
“The UN Security Council must act and the time is now,” he concluded.
The forum, hosted by Malaysia along with Egypt, Senegal, Angola and Venezuela, was convened to focus on “a wide range of issues emanating from or caused by the Israeli settlement activities,” Malaysian media reported ahead of the session. The meeting was reportedly requested by the Palestinian delegation to the UN.
Kicking off the meeting, the Malaysian envoy said the sponsors wished “to signal to the international community that the issue of settlements is still very much on the Council’s agenda.”
The session also included speeches from Lara Friedman, director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now, and Prof. Francois Dubuisson of the Free University of Brussels.
Friedman told the Council that Israel’s settlement policy “is ending the chance for peace.” She also called on the UN “to send a message to Israel and to end this policy.”
She said actions by Israel threatened its character as a democracy and criticized settlement expansion, a significant portion of which she called “illegal growth.”
Friedman also criticized campaigns “by reactionary groups in Israel and by the Israeli government itself” against human rights groups, such as her group’s Israeli sister organization, Peace Now.
“These groups are being targeted because their work reveals facts that some prefer to hide — facts that challenge the official Israeli government narrative,” she said.
On Israel’s settlement expansion, Friedman said some was illegally granted government authorization under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. She said the expansion would “lead inevitably to permanent occupation.”
Dubuisson, an expert in international law, called for an international boycott of Israel’s settlements and the implementation of measures against foreign companies that invest in them.
Following the three speakers, representatives for the Security Council member states spoke. US envoy David Pressman said Washington was “deeply concerned about continued settlement activity,” which he called “corrosive to the cause of peace.” Pressman also condemned Palestinian incitement to terrorism, citing last week’s shooting attack in Jerusalem that killed two Israelis.
Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon later slammed B’Tselem for taking part in the forum, citing Thursday’s passage of a resolution by UNESCO that rejects Jewish ties to Jerusalem’s holy sites.
“After anti-Israel forces approved a resolution intending to sever the historical bond between the Jewish people and Jerusalem, Israeli organizations chose to slander and besmirch Israel’s good name at an event organized by the Palestinian delegation,” Danon said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that Israeli organizations have joined the Palestinian attempts to wage diplomatic terror against Israel at the UN.”
B’Tselem had also faced criticism from Danon and other Israeli leaders on Thursday, ahead of the session, with the envoy saying it would be “providing moral cover for anti-Israel activities at the UN.” In a separate statement, Yesh Atid party chairman Yair Lapid described the group’s participation as “a declaration of divorce” from Zionism.
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.
Danon said the meeting was an attempt by the Palestinian Authority to avoid direct negotiations with Israel and instead wage “diplomatic terrorism against us.”
While Danon’s statement also berated Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now for attending the meeting, the group said it had turned down the invitation from Malaysia at the beginning of the week and that Americans for Peace Now was an independent US organization that did not represent it.
“Our work is public to everyone [and] we are proud of it, but most of our activities are based in Israel and we didn’t see a need to participate in the meeting in order to present it,” Peace Now director general Avi Buskila told The Times of Israel.
Instead, Buskila called on Danon to participate in the meeting. “He needs to explain why Israel is endangering the two-state solution, not us.”
Peace Now was established in 1978 as a group promoting the signing of a peace accord between Israel and Egypt. In recent years it has focused on publicizing Israeli settlement activities and pushing for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
B’Tselem and Peace Now have been accused in the past of working to undermine Israel’s legitimacy by lobbying international forums, and are both now subject to the so-called “NGO Law” obligating certain nonprofit groups to declare all their foreign funding.
The law — approved by Knesset in June — mandates that non-government organizations that receive more than half their funds from foreign governments or state agencies disclose that fact in any public reports, advocacy literature and interactions with government officials, or face a NIS 29,000 fine ($7,500).
The government has defended the law as a way to increase transparency of foreign government intervention in Israeli affairs, but it has been widely pilloried by critics in Israel and abroad who see it as targeting leftist groups and clamping down on free speech.
Supporters of the law, including one of its authors, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, said Monday that it was intended to create public awareness about large-scale foreign governmental intervention in Israel’s domestic politics. The law’s authors charge that advocacy groups funded by foreign governments “represent in Israel, in a non-transparent manner, the outside interests of foreign states.”
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report