Israeli TV broadcast extraordinary claims by a far-left Israeli activist: that he had delivered to the Palestinian Authority the names of Arabs who wished to sell land to Jews and that he anticipated they would be tortured and killed. What happened next poses profound questions for a much broader segment of the Left.
On 7 January 2016, Israeli news show Uvda broadcast an exposé concerning an apparent conspiracy by representatives of B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights watchdog, and Ta’ayush, a far-left activist group, to report to the Palestinian Authority (PA) an Arab who planned to sell land in the West Bank to Jews – despite claiming, on hidden camera, that he would face torture and execution. The raw footage was supplied by Ad Kan (‘No More’), a shadowy new outfit which infiltrated left-wing NGOs to expose alleged wrongdoing.
The exposé shows Ezra Nawi of Ta’ayush being contacted by ‘Musa’, a Palestinian who wishes to sell land to Israelis. Nawi and B’Tselem activist Nasser Nawaja conspire to lure ‘Musa’ into the custody of Palestinian forces. For his part, Nawaja later claimed that ‘Musa’ had been trying to fraudulently hawk land belonging to the Nawaja family. But Nawi appeared to boast, on hidden camera, that this was not his first rendition: ‘I hand over their photos and phone numbers to the Palestinian security forces … [The PA] catches and kills them,’ he says. ’Before it kills them, it beats them a lot, tortures them,’ he adds with a smile.
As the programme concluded, it was possible to believe that in question were the actions of two rogues. However, as the dust cleared, parts of the Israeli left begun digging themselves into a deeper hole.
Immediately after the screening, anchor Ilana Dayan interviewed Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy in the studio. ‘A few things here disturbed me very much,’ Levy said, ‘but more than that … I was deeply disturbed that you broadcast this feature.’ Perfunctorily condemning Nawi’s actions, Levy stressed that they were the deeds of ‘one man’ who ‘got carried away.’ He simultaneously downplayed the problem as ‘Ezra Nawi’s big mouth,’ quipping: ‘that’s just how he talks.’
B’Tselem’s response was no less galling: ‘Informing the relevant authority,’ it said, ‘cannot be considered “rendition” in any sense.’ This, despite knowing that the ‘relevant authority’ considers such deeds a capital offense and despite the stern disagreement of one of its key funders, the New Israel Fund, who told the press: ‘handing over people to places where they are liable to be exposed to torture and physical harm is grave and forbidden, and cannot be defended.’
In a further statement, B’Tselem stressed its blanket opposition to ‘torture and execution, extrajudicial or after a trial, in all circumstances,’ but defended actions liable to facilitate precisely such crimes. Moreover, in failing to even mention Nawi and Nawaja, B’Tselem ignored the elephant in the room: that human-rights activists stood accused of complicity with such crimes. Instead, it accused the show’s producers of sloppy journalism, under the slogan ‘Uvda [Fact] for Hire.’
The reaction from some other figures on the Israeli far-left was no less depressing.
Firstly, deflection. The exposé was decried as part of a right-wing conspiracy against left-wing NGOs. Haaretz writer Amira Hass attacked it as a hit-piece and, in an astonishingly un-self-aware moment of McCarthyism, wrote that ‘unless proven otherwise, in every Israeli lurks a little Shin Bet security officer.’
Then, apologism. Fellow Ta’ayush activist Michal Peleg ignored the allegations against Nawi in a Haaretz article calling his ‘big and unruly mouth’ as ‘irrepressible’ as his ‘freedom, generosity and courage.’
And then denial. When Nawi was detained at Ben Gurion Airport, ostensibly trying to flee the country, and then the police appealed against his release to house arrest, the Jerusalem branch of Meretz demonstrated for his release citing ‘baseless accusations with no proof.’ Numerous voices stressed that nobody was killed, as if the conspiracy were excused by its failure, overlooking Nawi’s recorded boasts of previous executions. Jessica Montell, former executive director of B’Tselem, brushed it all off: ‘Demagogues are having a field day. NO ONE WAS MURDERED. No executions in PA since Abbas took over in 2005.’ ‘Musa’ is indeed still alive; but as Uvda reported, he has yet to set foot in PA controlled territory, where he could be apprehended, and fears the publication of his real name.
The PA considers selling land to Israelis a capital offence; it is a hangover from Jordanian law. Although Abbas is reported to have withheld his signature for death warrants since assuming power, courts continue to sentence land-brokers to death, and a Palestinian court upheld this in 2010. Moreover, there remain fears about covert executions: in 2006, gunmen from Fatah even claimed responsibility for the murder of a Palestinian who sold property to Jews. In the Uvda scoop, Nawi himself says such a fate was meted on ‘Abu Khalil’, a Palestinian on whom he had previously informed; these claims deserve investigation, not ridicule.
In any case, torture is prevalent in the basements of the Palestinian security forces; according to Palestinian civil rights activist Bassem Eid, several Palestinian East Jerusalemites have been abducted and tortured to death in Ramallah by Palestinian secret services. Above-board penalties are also gruesome: Abbas has decreed a punishment of hard labour for life for anyone ‘diverting, renting or selling land to an enemy state or one of its subjects.’ It beggars belief that some human rights activists could give the benefit of the doubt to a kleptocratic thugocracy.
Certain key figures on the Left immediately recognised this folly, and urged others not to fall into the trap. Meretz leader Zehava Galon, one of the founders of B’Tselem and formerly its General Manager, unambiguously excoriated Nawi: ‘he is not left-wing and does not represent left-wing organisations,’ she wrote, calling for a thorough investigation. Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid stirringly called on his comrades: ‘A few scoundrels don’t make us less right. Instead of playing the victim and going on the defensive, we need to shake off Ezra Nawi and check if there are any more wrongdoers among our ranks.’ Indeed, Rabbis for Human Rights immediately suspended all collaboration with Ezra Nawi.
However, other flaccid responses on the Left appeared to cede a monopoly on outrage to the Right. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home Party, demanded of the British and French ambassadors that their states cease funding NGOs that ‘send people to their deaths in order to harm Israel.’ Ronen Shoval, founder of the far-right group Im Tirtzu, tweeted a mock-up of the B’Tselem logo with a man hanging from a noose. The fact that right-wing figures presented themselves as almost uniquely concerned for Palestinian lives, while many on the Left focused preferred to shoot the messenger, illustrates the topsy-turvy political alignment over this disturbing issue.
‘How did we get here?’
This question was posed by a bewildered Ilana Dayan on live television. ‘I see people who devote their lives to human rights, and I ask myself, “Where has the humanism disappeared? Where has the concern for human life gone to?”’
Sections of the Israeli left had plainly performed a serious moral blunder. Indeed, Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit denounced the Israeli left collectively, for ‘commit[ting] moral suicide’ over this issue. Taking no hostages, he cautioned: ‘The arguments the left used this week were exactly – but exactly – those the chauvinist right uses again and again.’
As the question of foreign government funding for NGOs becomes a political hot-potato, it is difficult to imagine future Knesset debates on this issue devoid of outrageous accusations that B’Tselem is an accomplice to murder. This error was no fluke: indeed, in the abovementioned column, Ari Shavit, witheringly accused the Left of ‘committing … magnificent political suicide for years.’
How could so many on the Left have misjudged this issue so spectacularly?
Firstly, left-wing NGOs face considerable pressure and, not unreasonably, feel increasingly persecuted. The proposed Knesset bill on transparency requirements for NGOs affects only those primarily funded by foreign governments – largely left-wing NGOs. Im Tirtzu continues to wage a public campaign against these groups as foreign ‘moles’. In this context, a reluctance to ‘shoot inside the armoured personnel carrier’, to use the Hebrew idiom, is an understandable instinct. Closing ranks can be a natural response to external threats – but political actors should act strategically, not impulsively, so this answer does not suffice.
The second reason is provided by a tendency among parts of the Israeli left to give up on Israeli democracy – despairing that the electorate is unlikely to ever willingly adopt their platform. Post-Oslo, after one intifada and three campaigns in Gaza, the Israeli public is increasingly sceptical of the likelihood of a peace agreement.
Consequently, certain NGOs on the Left have increasingly focused their efforts on foreign audiences. The Breaking the Silence exhibition in Zurich, Switzerland, was hardly intended to educate the Israeli public, but rather enlist a foreign public in the hope that external pressure might persuade Israeli citizens. Alon Liel, former Director-General of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meant precisely this when he told Breaking the Silence activists: ‘Every article of yours, every meeting with politicians can reach the public, and reach some head of state who will give directions on whether to vote for or against [Israel at the United Nations].’ Breaking the Silence is a rational organisation. It maintains that most of its activity is in Israel, but it has been willing to sacrifice its credibility inside Israel by sustaining lobbying and campaigning efforts abroad. In turn, large swathes of the Israeli public perceive Breaking the Silence and other more insular groups on the Israeli left as only talking to itself and the outside world.
The third and central reason lies at the heart of much of the Israeli left’s worldview. The belief that in order to secure human rights for Palestinians, the Occupation must end: Palestinian independence is seen as a necessary (though insufficient) condition for human rights. As such, ending the Occupation is their concrete practical objective. But whereas the concern for human rights might have been the original causal impetus for this movement, over time it has come to be superseded by the immediate desire to end the Occupation as an end in itself.
Simultaneously, as sections of the Israeli left have built connections with a dogmatically anti-Israel global left, they have internalised the axiom that justice requires Israel to be pressured into making concessions to the Palestinians, while making no demands and having no expectations of the Palestinians themselves. This has arguably rendered such groups, in effect, vectors for the advancement of the Palestinian national cause.
Consequently, exposing human rights abuses assumes instrumental, rather than intrinsic, value for human rights groups. Revelations that expedite the dissolution of Israel’s military rule are good; those that postpone this outcome are bad. Human rights are to be advanced if and only if doing so hastens the end of the Occupation.
When the human rights community is confronted with inconvenient facts, there develops cognitive dissonance between these facts and the desire to end the Occupation. When the dissonance is resolved in favour of the latter, this discomfort is suppressed through resort to the coping mechanisms so embarrassingly displayed here: deflection, apologism and denial.
Whistleblowers and watchdog groups play an irreplaceable role in free societies. They test the openness of an open society, exposing to sunlight what some may wish to sweep under the rug. Liberal democracies need them. And so when they give an easy ride to perpetrators of human rights abuses for reasons of political expediency, they do not just shoot themselves in the foot – they injure the polity to which they belong.
As the Israeli left digests the consequences of these revelations, there are flares of clarity through the moral smoke. If the Left is to meet Shavit’s demands of becoming ‘realistic, moral, democratic, liberal and decent,’ it will have to examine where it went wrong as the start of a conversation of where it can go right. Its prophets will have to devise credible solutions for engaging with the Israeli public that exists – not the one that they would prefer exist. As ‘Nawi-gate’ suggests, however, that is going to require picking up the broken pieces and rebuilding atop the ashes.