Netanyahu vows to bar national service volunteers from B’Tselem

Group responds: We don’t have any; PM says ‘shoddy, unhinged’ Israeli watchdog ‘recycled settlement falsehoods’ before UN Security Council

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on October 9, 2016. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on October 9, 2016. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out at Israeli rights group B’Tselem on Saturday, calling it a “shoddy and unhinged” organization, and said he would move to bar national service volunteers from working with the organization, after the watchdog criticized Israeli settlement policy at the UN on Friday.

But a spokesman for the group noted there were currently no such volunteers in the NGO.

Netanyahu wrote on Facebook that B’Tselem and Americans for Peace Now, which also took part in the session, 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.”

The prime minister said that “Palestinians attacked Israel for 50 years before there was a single settlement. They have continued to attack Israel from the Gaza Strip, even after we left it entirely. They attack us from Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], demanding not only those territories but a right of return to Jaffa, Acre and Haifa.”

He contended that Palestinian rejection of the Jewish state “in any borders whatsoever” was the true cause of the ongoing conflict.

As for rights groups, the premier said “what these organizations are unable to achieve in democratic elections in Israel, they try to achieve through international coercion.”

“Israeli democracy facilitates such shoddy and unhinged organizations as B’Tselem, but the majority of the public knows the truth,” he said, vowing to defend Israel from foreign pressure.

He then added 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.

B'Tselem director Hagai El-Ad speaks to the UN Security Council on October 14, 2016 (YouTube screenshot)
B’Tselem director Hagai El-Ad speaks to the UN Security Council on October 14, 2016 (YouTube screenshot)

The group said in response that it would not be intimidated by Netanyahu.

“We will not stoop down to the prime minister’s level. We will not be cowed and neither will the hundreds of thousands in Israel who opposed the occupation,” a statement by B’Tselem said. “We will continue to tell the truth: The occupation must end.”

A spokesman noted that there were no volunteers in the group in the framework of civilian service, and that there had only ever been three in total.

The New York-based New Israel Fund, a supporter of B’Tselem, came to the organization’s defense on Saturday.

Its CEO Daniel Sokatch said in a statement, “Prime Minister Netanyahu chose to misrepresent the messages that Americans for Peace Now and B’Tselem brought to the Security Council yesterday. B’Tselem and APN expressed the urgent need to end the occupation. The prime minister is attempting to spin that message as if it were a call for action against Israel.

“Prime Minister Natanyahu must finally understand that ending the occupation is the most pro-Israel move there is.”

The criticism of the non-governmental organization was not reserved to the Israeli right. Zionist Union Knesset member Itzik Shmuli had earlier blasted the group as well, saying the move was “unhelpful” and helped promote the “demonization of Israel.”

Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon had slammed B’Tselem for taking part in the forum, saying it was helping to “slander and besmirch Israel’s good name.”

The NGO’s executive director, Hagai El-Ad, told a special session of the Security Council that Israel was creating facts on the ground in advance of any peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Hagai El-Ad, Executive Director of B'Tselem, at a press conference in Tel Aviv, February 05, 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)

El-Ad had spoken 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.

“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.

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.

AFP, Raoul Wootliff and JTA contributed to this report.

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