US ‘troubled’ by attacks on Israeli rights group B’Tselem

State Department says Washington values watchdog’s information on West Bank, after NGO is blasted in Israel for appearing at UN

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)

A US official on Monday defended Israeli human rights group B’Tselem as the organization came under fierce criticism in Israel, saying Washington valued the information it provided about the situation in the West Bank and that free speech must be protected, Haaretz reported.

B’Tselem was slammed in Israel for its participation Friday in a session of the UN Security Council, in which the NGO’s director criticized Israeli settlement policy.

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 said the group was helping to advance “the libel and demonization of Israel.” A Labor party activist even lodged a police complaint for alleged treason by the organization.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, September 27, 2016. (AFP Photo/Pool/Atef Safadi)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, September 27, 2016. (AFP Photo/Pool/Atef Safadi)

Asked to comment on the matter on Monday, US State Department 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, B’Tselem director 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.”

El-Ad had 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.

B’Tselem, along with other left-leaning NGOs, has been accused in the past of working to undermine Israel’s legitimacy by lobbying international forums, and is 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.

Amid debate over the legislation, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, who has since been appointed defense minister, called B’Tselem traitors, charging that the left-leaning group was funded by the same people who finance Hamas.

Rapul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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