Analysis from Israel

Granted, everyone is (justly) preoccupied with the Iran deal right now, and, granted, the original scoop was in Hebrew. But I still can’t believe this news has gotten so little attention: During last summer’s war with Hamas in Gaza, two Israeli “human rights” organizations – B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence – requested and received special grants from Palestinian middlemen in order to finance reports accusing Israel of war crimes.

Under most circumstances, taking money from the enemy in wartime to produce propaganda against your own side would be considered treason. In this case, legally speaking, it definitely isn’t. But morally speaking, it’s not merely skirting close to the edge; it’s well over the line.

The news was first reported by Gidon Dokow on the Hebrew-language news site NRG. But you needn’t take Dokow’s word for it; he helpfully included a link to the funding organization’s English-language annual report.

The organization goes by the unwieldy name of the Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law Secretariat. According to its annual report, it is “a project implemented by NIRAS NATURA AB – Sweden, and the Institute of Law, Birzeit University, Birzeit, Palestine, with generous support from the governments of Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland.”

In other words, the money itself is European. But the ones who decide what to do with it are Niras Natura – which describes itself as an international consultancy firm in the field of sustainable development – and the faculty of Birzeit. And since the Birzeit people are the ones actually on the ground, they presumably have considerable influence over how the money is spent.

The Secretariat’s main job appears to be funneling money to other organizations. According to the annual report, it had 24 “core grantees” and 19 “project grantees” last year. Nine of the former and two of the latter are Israeli; the rest are Palestinian.

When the war broke out in July 2014, the Secretariat put out a call to its core grantees soliciting emergency funding requests. “The emergency funding call focused on activities related to monitoring and documentation of IHL [international humanitarian law] and human rights violations in the Gaza Strip, arising from the then ongoing war,” the report said. Requests were received from 11 organizations, including three Israeli ones, and the Secretariat decided to fund nine of them, including two Israeli groups – B’Tselem and BTS.

But the money was intended for “monitoring and documentation” of alleged violations by one side only – Israel. That’s crystal clear from the report’s summary of its emergency grantees’ “achievements”: Not one of the nine says a word about the massive Palestinian violations of international humanitarian law.

The section on Breaking the Silence is particularly blatant. The Secretariat would have considered its money well spent, the report declared, had BTS managed to scrounge up even a single anti-Israel testimony from Israeli soldiers:

Breaking the Silence (BTS) presented a unique proposal for emergency funding whereby BTS attempted to interview (collect testimonies) from Israeli soldiers who were engaged in the war. BTS were very cautious about how effective their work would be at the peak of the conflict. At first, they were not even sure they would be able to interview soldiers or even feel safe to issue testimonies. The Secretariat was ready to accept even one testimony.

Of course, had the alleged violations been real, one could argue that B’Tselem and BTS were doing holy work. But most of what they produced was a calculated smear campaign.

Here, for instance, is a particularly blatant example from the BTS report, courtesy of the Elder of Ziyon blog: A soldier testified about an apparently mentally disturbed girl who kept getting close to his company. The soldiers feared Hamas had wired her with explosives, having encountered an old man earlier that day – “70 or 80 years old” – who “turned out to be booby-trapped from head to toe.” Consequently, they fired at the ground near her in an attempt to drive her away. The soldier testified that at one point, when she kept refusing to leave, he really wanted to shoot her. But none of the soldiers actually did.

The headline of the testimony, however, was, “I really, really wanted to shoot her in the knees” – which would leave any casual reader thinking the immoral Israeli had in fact done so. And thus BTS warped a story of self-restraint in the face of Hamas’s gruesome tactics (the same soldier also later encountered booby-trapped sheep) into an anti-Israel smear.

As noted earlier, B’Tselem and BTS probably weren’t breaking any laws. Beyond the fact that the checks were presumably actually cut by the Europeans, Israel doesn’t recognize the popular international fiction whereby the West Bank and Gaza constitute a single Palestinian state or state-to-be; it distinguishes between the Fatah-controlled West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza. Birzeit is located in the former, and Israel was only fighting the latter.

But the Palestinians themselves claim the West Bank and Gaza constitute a single Palestinian entity, which means that in their own understanding, the Birzeit faculty who decided to award those grants to B’Tselem and BTS were on Hamas’s side in this war. Effectively, therefore, these two groups solicited and received money from an enemy during wartime in order to produce propaganda against their own country.

It might be legal, but morally, it stinks. And it ought to put both B’Tselem and BTS permanently beyond the pale.

Originally published in Commentary on August 27, 2015 under the title “Who’s Funding Pro-Palestinian Israeli ‘Human Rights’ Groups?”

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Israel’s constitutional crisis has been postponed, not resolved

After years of leftists crying wolf about democracy being endangered, Israel finally experienced a real constitutional crisis last week. That crisis was temporarily frozen by the decision to form a unity government, but it will come roaring back once the coronavirus crisis has passed.

It began with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s refusal to let the newly elected Knesset vote to replace him as speaker and culminated in two interventions by the High Court of Justice. I’m one of very few people on my side of the political spectrum who considers the court’s initial intervention justifiable. But its second was an unprecedented usurpation of the prerogatives of another branch of government, in flagrant violation of legislation that the court itself deems constitutional.

Edelstein’s refusal, despite its terrible optics, stemmed from a genuine constitutional concern, and was consequently backed even by Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, who had opposed Edelstein many times before and would do so again later in this saga. The problem was that neither political bloc could form a government on its own, yet the proposed new speaker came from the faction of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party that adamantly opposed a unity government. Thus whether a unity government was formed or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s caretaker government continued, the new speaker would be in the opposition.

But as Yinon told the court, speakers have always come from the governing coalition because an opposition speaker can effectively stymie all government work. And once elected, he would be virtually impossible to oust, since 90 of the Knesset’s 120 members must vote to do so. An opposition speaker would thus “hurt democracy,” warned Yinon. “We’re planting a bug in the system, and this, too, undermines our constitutional fabric.” That’s why Edelstein wanted to wait, as Knesset bylaws permit, until a government was formed and could choose its own speaker.

Yet despite this genuine and serious concern, the fact remains that a newly elected majority was being barred from exercising its power. Moreover, it had no parliamentary way of solving the problem because only the speaker can convene parliament and schedule a vote. Thus if you believe majorities should be allowed to govern, the court was right to intervene by ordering Edelstein to hold the vote.

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