Israel scolds Belgian envoy over his PM’s meeting with left-wing groups
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Israel scolds Belgian envoy over his PM’s meeting with left-wing groups

Belgium’s premier held talks with heads of Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem, drawing Netanyahu’s ire

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) with Belgian President Charles Michel during a press conference in Jerusalem, February 7, 2017. (GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) with Belgian President Charles Michel during a press conference in Jerusalem, February 7, 2017. (GPO)

Belgium’s Ambassador to Israel Olivier Belle was summoned for a dressing down in the Foreign Ministry on Thursday over a visit by his country’s prime minister, Charles Michel, with representatives of two prominent left-wing Israeli rights organizations.

On Wednesday, during his three-day visit to Israel, Michel met with the heads of Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem, despite a direct appeal by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Belgium to end its support to groups he considers damaging to the country.

“The government of Belgium needs to decide if it wants to change direction or continue with its anti-Israel path,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office warned in response to the meetings.

The statement said Jerusalem viewed Michel’s meetings “with utmost gravity,” and noted Belgium’s “unfriendly” initiatives to prosecute Israeli officials for alleged war crimes during the 2008 Gaza war.

Israel’s Deputy Director-General for Europe Rodica Radian Gordon reprimanded Belle, foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said in a statement.

The ambassador “took note and will convey it to Brussels,” he added.

Belgium's ambassador to Israel Olivier Belle seen at a ceremony for new ambassadors at President Reuven Rivlin's residence in Jerusalem on November 7, 2016. (Harari/Flash90)
Belgium’s ambassador to Israel Olivier Belle seen at a ceremony for new ambassadors at President Reuven Rivlin’s residence in Jerusalem on November 7, 2016. (Harari/Flash90)

Breaking the Silence collects testimonies from former Israel Defense Forces soldiers about alleged human rights violations they witness in the Palestinian territories during their military service. The organization has often locked horns with the Israeli political and military brass and its numerous critics have denounced its reports as dishonest, inaccurate and part of an advocacy campaign intended to harm Israel’s image overseas.

Watchdog group B’Tselem uses Palestinian photographers and videographers to document the conduct of Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank. Last year, one of the group’s volunteers 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 nationwide debate over excessive force and IDF values and landed Azaria a prison sentence.

Both organizations have been accused in the past of working to undermine Israel’s legitimacy.

Amid intense public debate over the legitimacy of left-wing NGOs operating in Israel, Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem in recent months have been the target of Knesset legislation aimed at curbing their political activity.

A bill that would prevent left-wing groups from holding events at Israeli schools passed its preliminary reading in the Knesset last week.

Students protest during a talk by the Breaking The Silence NGO at the Hebrew University, December 22, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Students protest during a talk by the Breaking The Silence NGO at the Hebrew University, December 22, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The legislation is primarily directed at Breaking the Silence, but would give Education Minister Naftali Bennett the power to ban all groups “that work to damage the IDF” from entering any academic institutions.

In December, a bill that would ban national service volunteers from working with Israeli organizations that receive the majority of their funding from abroad — namely left-wing human rights groups — overwhelmingly passed its preliminary Knesset vote in December.

The legislation enjoys coalition support and is expected to pass the additional readings.

Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.

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