U.S. Defends Israeli Anti-occupation Group, Says 'Freedom of Expression' Must Be Protected

State Department criticizes Netanyahu's attack on B'Tselem and Americans for Peace Now for participating in UN Security Council session on settlements.

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B'Tselem director Hagai El-Ad addressing the UN Security Council, October 14, 2016.
B'Tselem director Hagai El-Ad addressing the UN Security Council, October 14, 2016. Credit: Chelsea Berlin

The U.S. criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s verbal assault on anti-occupation and human rights groups B’Tselem and Americans for Peace Now over their participation in a UN Security Council session on the settlements Friday. 

State Department spokesman John Kirby told Haaretz on Monday that the administration values the information published by the two nonprofits about the situation in the West Bank and stressed that governments should defend freedom of speech.

“I am not going to comment on everything that has been said," Kirby said. "In general, we believe that a free and unfettered civil society is a critical component of democracy. As we have said many times, 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," he added.

B'Tselem director explains: Why I spoke against the occupation at the UN

The UN Security Council’s session on Friday was held at the behest of member states Egypt, Venezuela, Malaysia, Senegal and Angola, with a push from the Palestinians. Israel boycotted the proceedings. The executive director of B'Tselem, Hagai El-Ad, and Lara Friedman, director of policy at Americans for Peace Now, the sister organization of the Israeli-based Peace Now, took part in the meeting.

The State Department spokesman’s comments came following a statement released by Netanyahu on Saturday against B’Tselem and Americans for Peace Now.

“In a session of the UN Security Council, B’Tselem and Americans for Peace Now joined the chorus of slander against Israel, and recycled the false claim that the 'occupation and the settlements' are the reason for the conflict,” Netanyahu posted on his official Facebook page.

Netanyahu wrote that B’Tselem’s director Hagai El-Ad had urged the Security Council to act against Israel. “What these organizations cannot achieve through democratic elections in Israel, they try to achieve by international coercion. This is an unworthy act,” he said.

A few minutes after Netanyahu published the Facebook post, he posted another statement in which he said he would take steps, as soon as the Knesset reconvenes, to remove B'Tselem from the list of organizations in which young Israelis can do civilian national service. Netanyahu’s bureau said the prime minister had discussed the matter with the coalition whip MK David Bitan (Likud) and instructed him to move forward on the issue.

In 2012, the National Civilian Service Administration national service allocated one position to B’Tselem, which is currently not filled. In the past, the Administration has tried to cancel the position, but the move was stopped by Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber.

Kirby noted that, as the deputy U.S. ambassador to the UN said during the session on Friday, the U.S. was "grateful for the efforts of NGOs both in the United States and in Israel, including Americans for Peace Now and B’tselem," as well as efforts to keep it "apprised of critical issues on the ground" in the West Bank, including settlement construction.

"We remain deeply concerned about continued settlement activity," Kirby said. "We have been consistent and clear in strongly opposing these actions, which are corrosive to the cause of peace.”

During Friday's meeting, the B'Tselem director called on the Security Council to take action after 50 years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank. El-Ad aid that the Israeli government had used the peace process to play for time to take over areas of the West Bank by building settlements.

“After so many years, one has to draw certain conclusions Israel will not cease being an oppressor simply by waking up one morning and realizing the brutality of its policies,” he told the Security Council. “So far the world refuses to take effective action We need your help. The rights of the Palestinians must be realized; the occupation must end, the UN Security Council must act; the time is now.”

U.S. Deputy Ambassador David Pressman said at the Security Council session that the United States was “deeply concerned about continued settlement activity” and that the United States “strongly opposes settlements which are corrosive to peace.”

Pressman said Israel’s activities in the West Bank, particularly settlement-building “creates a one-state solution on the ground.” He called on both sides to pursue steps “to start implementing the two-state solution right now.”

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