A heavy-handed crack down on Israeli dissidents is drawing sharp criticism by human rights organizations and at least a mild judicial slap on the wrist for the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. The authorities are targeting such groups as B’Tselem, New Israel Fund (NIF), the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), as well as foreign activists in the occupied West Bank.
“There is an attempt to silence and crack down on dissent,” B’Tselem spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli told the Tobias Buck of the Financial Times. “Since [the Gaza war], the political climate in Israel has become extremely polarized. And this polarization has reached a level where anyone who is critical is presented as a traitor.”
The Netanyanu government has endorsed a bill that, if passed, will apply onerous registration conditions on NGOs and subject violators to up to a year in prison.
“These are classic McCarthy techniques, portraying our organizations as enemies of the state and suggesting we are aiding Hamas and terror groups,” ACRI head Hagai Elad told the Nazareth-based journalist Jonathan Cook.
On Jan. 15, police broke up a peaceful ARCI demonstration in East Jerusalem, arresting 16 people. The rally was protesting the eviction of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and their replacement with settlers. Demonstrators were held for 36 hours until a judge from the Jerusalem Magistrates Court released them without charge. The judge also refused a police request to ban the demonstrators from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.
Armored personnel carriers and a squad of heavily armed soldiers surrounded the West Bank Ramallah apartment of Czech national Eva Novakova, forced her to dress at gunpoint, and deported her to Prague for overstaying her visa. Soldiers also seized an Australian and a Spanish member of the International Solidarity Movement in Ramallah, but the Israeli Supreme Court ordered their release.
Jared Malsin, a Jewish-American English language editor at the Palestinian news agency was arrested at Ben Gurion airport and detained by Israeli authorities for deportation. The arrest and deportation order were blasted by the International Federation of Journalists as an “intolerable violation of press freedom.”
Israeli human rights lawyer Omar Schatz says the arrests are, “all about fixing the mirror, not fixing the reflection Israelis see in the mirror.”
The crackdown has even fallen on a group of women fighting ultra-orthodox Jews for the right to pray at the Jerusalem’s Western Wall. In November, Nofrat Frenkel of Women of the Wall (WW) was arrested for carrying a Torah and wearing a tallit at the site.
A week before the Sheikh Jarrah arrests, Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, was detained, fingerprinted, and questioned about the organization’s support for WW protests.
Naomi Chazan, the Israeli president of the U.S.-based organization NIF, has been subjected to a campaign of vilification, including posters depicting her with horns. A government press agency distributed an article to the foreign press accusing her of “Serving the agenda of Iran and Hamas.” She also lost her job as a columnist at the Jerusalem Post.
The attempt to smother any challenge to the Netanyahu government is a reaction to the worldwide criticism Israel is harvesting in the aftermath of the Gaza War. Tel Aviv’s continued refusal to allow any reconstruction of the more than 3500 homes destroyed in the Israeli invasion drew a letter signed by 53 U.S. Congress members calling for an end to the “de facto collective punishment of the Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip.”
U.S. Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wa) suggested taking forceful action to end the Gaza blockade. “We ought to bring roll-on, roll-off ships and roll them right to the beach and bring the relief supplies in, in our version of the Berlin airlift.”
But there are internal tensions behind the crackdown as well. The long occupation of the West Bank has begun to fray the Israeli military. According to the head of the Israeli military’s Personnel Directorate, Maj. Gen. Avi Zamir, increasing numbers of Israelis are refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. Three years of military service is compulsory for men, 21 months for women.
“Taking into consideration Israeli Arab youth, we’re facing a situation in which 70 percent of youths will not enlist in the military,” the general told UPI.
The “Courage to Refuse” movement has long supported soldiers who won’t serve in the Occupied Territories, and now there is an organization—Shministim— that advises young people on how to become a conscientious objector and supports “refuseniks” as well. Police have also detained several activists for New Profile, a group dedicated to demilitarizing Israeli society.
A new law makes it a crime for Palestinians to observe “Nakba,” or “Catastrophe,” Day commemorating the loss of their land when Israel was created in 1948.
According to human rights groups, the polarization is a serious threat to freedom of speech. A recent poll found that 57 percent of Israelis think “national security” is more important than human rights. The country, says Tel Aviv University politics professor and author Amal Jamal, is headed toward what he calls a “totalitarian democracy.”
CONN HALLINAN can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org