Left-wing Israeli Activists Facing Violence, Death Threats

Prominent figures in Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem and other organizations report harassment of family members, and say the delegitimization campaign against them starts in the government.

Breaking the Silence activists hold signs saying 'this is what the occupation looks like'  at a rally against incitement, Tel Aviv, December 2015.
Moti Milrod

Late one night a few months ago, Nadav Weiman, the public relations coordinator of Breaking the Silence, received a terrifying telephone call: “We will kill you, your wife and your dog,” said the caller. To prove the threat’s sincerity, the caller mentioned the dog’s name.

Breaking the Silence collects testimonies from soldiers serving in the Palestinian territories and highlights instances of perceived wrongdoing by the Israeli army. Phone threats were common at the time, when Breaking the Silence was repeatedly criticized by politicians. Weiman’s telephone number was published on right-wing websites, and calls to him spiked whenever the organization was denounced in public.

The harassment didn’t stop there. Colleagues at Breaking the Silence have faced physical violence, and Weiman himself was assaulted twice. One incident occurred when Weiman and other people from Breaking the Silence were at Sapir College. A student sent a picture of the group to the extreme right-wing rapper Yoav Eliasi, known as “Hatzel” (“The Shadow”). In response, Eliasi posted a Facebook message that Weiman describes as meaning: “They should shut us up.”

A different student then came and said: “If you don’t scram, I’m bringing the lions: You have one hour,” referring to the rapper's followers, Weiman said. When the hour ended, the student began punching Weiman. “A riot broke out, the police came and in the end they arrested him and he was charged with assault,” Weiman said.

In a different incident, while Weiman was visiting Hebron, a Facebook post from Eliasi led settlers to stir things up, and Weiman was evacuated from the city with a police escort.

In addition, an attempt was made to hack the group’s website in an effort to discover the identities of the soldiers who provided information. Right-wing activists even came to the organization’s office to threaten them.

Breaking the Silence spokeswoman Achiya Schatz said relatives of people from the organization have been threatened, in some cases after their phone numbers were posted on Facebook for the purpose. The grandparents of Yuli Novak, the organization’s executive director, have been harassed by anonymous callers more than once.

On one occasion, they were told their granddaughter was in a hospital after being injured. On another, they were told that her wedding would be disrupted. “The goal is for everyone to be afraid, all the circles around you, so all the pressure would be to silence you,” said Schatz. Breaking the Silence decided to hire security services, and for a while they went to events accompanied by bodyguards, and more than once they were forced to come with a police escort.

Political capital

Breaking the Silence is not the only ones suffering from such attacks: In general, activists in left-wing and human rights organizations have felt for a long time that a dangerous campaign of delegitimization is being run against them. The daily condemnations of the activists have turned into what they view as persecution, intimidation and silencing, along with an easy way for politicians to acquire political capital.

Last week, activists told Haaretz about their experiences under attack: the threats, insults, fears and changes needed in their lifestyles, as well as their determination not to give up the fight.

The campaign by the Im Tirtzu organization that began at the end of last year, and which included billboards and video clips in which four left-wing activists were described as “foreign moles” who protect terrorists, included Yishai Menuhin, who was at the time the CEO of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel.

“For a long time I had unidentified phone calls, there was a period when people called and started to curse me until I stopped answering,” said Menuhin. “When I went out into the street I looked carefully to the right and left.”

At the time, the organization was careful to keep the door to its office locked, and it decided that no employee would remain alone in the office in the evening. Recently Menuhin left the job but he continues to volunteer for Yesh Gvul and Amnesty International. He said the threats are not what led him to leave his job.

Another person labeled as a “mole” by Im Tirtzu was the director of B’Tselem, Hagai Elad. He said the organization’s researcher who filmed Sgt. Elor Azaria, the soldier who shot a subdued and wounded Palestinian terrorist in Hebron and is now on trial for manslaughter, received death threats against himself and his family, and settlers threw rocks at his house.

B’Tselem files complaints with the police and requests restraining orders, but Elad said he does not have the impression that the police give it any special importance. Recently the group announced it would stop filing complaints with the Military Police over Israeli violations of the law in the West Bank, because they’ve reached the conclusion that the military law enforcement system has become a mechanism for covering up the violations.

Many human rights organizations do not make do with just locking the door. After Rabbi Arik Ascherman, one of the founders of Rabbis For Human Rights, was attacked a few months ago by a settler, the group instructed its volunteers how to act in both the office and the field, and the organization appointed a security head. Executive director Ayala Levy said: “We don’t open the door without looking through the peephole.” Their website was brought down, too, after the owner of the site that hosts them was threatened.

It is not only the security arrangements that have changed, but also the way the NGOs operate. Hagit Ofran of Peace Now said their tours in the West Bank avoid areas that are dangerous for them, and they no longer announce the routes in advance because this has led more than once to the roads being blocked, as well as to disturbances and loud confrontations. In 2011, Ofran’s house was spray-painted with abusive graffiti.

Ofran, who is in charge of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch program, said she also feels a major change in the way the settlers relate to the organization. “In the early 2000s, when we would come to the settlements they would invite us for juice,” she said. “In the past decade, I see much greater hostility toward me in the settlements. There are places which are really dangerous for us.”

For example, three years ago rocks were thrown at a Peace Now tour bus in Shiloh, and a rock was thrown at Ofran in the settlement of Dolev, breaking her camera. “There are places I don’t enter, and I don’t leave the car to take pictures. I need to do it quickly without attracting attention,” she said.

Yariv Oppenheimer, a board member and former director of Peace Now, told of a threat he experienced on Independence Day in Tel Aviv. “A young man turned to me and told me that ‘if it was not Independence Day, I would finish you off.’ These are events I cannot forget. It does not matter if he touched you or not, you feel physical force was used against you.”

Hostile government campaign

All the organizations see the statements against them as a part of a campaign that starts with the country’s leaders. “I see a direct connection between the attack on me in October and the incitement and delegitimization that comes from the top political leadership,” said Ascherman. “When the law doesn’t change anything, the message is translated into action.”

Novak also said the truly worrying thing is the involvement of cabinet ministers and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the incitement. “This is a government campaign against organizations and activists in an attempt to silence and intimidate,” said Novak. She notes that former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, current Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett have taken an active part in this campaign.

Yet the incitement also has an upside for these NGOs. Some report record demand for their tours and lectures. “We are flooded with requests,” said Novak. Oppenheimer said there has been a sharp rise in people asking to come to Peace Now lectures, especially from the right wing. In addition, it turns out the calls against the groups have led to a large increase in donations from overseas, as well as in Israel.

“People overseas understand that Israeli democracy is in danger and are afraid of it, so they contribute more,” said Talia Sasson, president of the New Israel Fund. “Whoever thought this would reduce contributions was wrong.”

Sasson said deterrence does not work on them. “That is exactly the goal. If we shut up we have lost the battle.”

Oppenheimer likewise does not intend on giving up. “I believe the counter-campaign is to continue to struggle for what we are doing,” and not to give in or disappear, he said.

But they still cannot avoid worrying. “There has already been murderous political violence in Israel,” said Elad. “Anyone can see that [delegitimizing] opposition to the occupation will entail violence.”

Schatz said she feels that anything could happen. “If someone is murdered here, will it surprise me? No. The opposite, I will know who to point at, I will know to say, ‘look at the process that has gone on here.’”