I was in New York when I discovered that I was a spy. It’s hard to remember now; after all, it’s been more than five years. But I think I heard about this at the university library.
Ofer Hadad of Channel 12 television had reported the shocking, ridiculous claim that we engage in espionage on prime-time news. He didn’t say it explicitly, but he openly implied it. The politicians then did the dirty work for him.
I know what it’s like to be on the other side and hear Israel’s defense minister accuse you of treason and espionage or hear the prime minister say he has ordered the Shin Bet to start investigating the tiny organization you work for. People would ask us at lectures how many employees our organization has and were always surprised to discover that there were only around 15. They had imagined an octopus-like corporation.
Obviously, I don’t blame them. Knesset members and ministers and former army officers had told them that’s what we were. The defense minister was talking about espionage. There must be something to it, no?
Actually, there was nothing to it, as became clear years later when the little hot air still remaining in this balloon finally leaked out, after all the relevant legal and defense officials had thrown this joke into the trash. But Channel 12, whose “espionage scoop” was broadcast with much fanfare, preferred to ignore the sorry outcome of their baseless report.
Nobody ever apologized. They simply moved on. That’s the way it’s done, we discovered. That’s also what happened when Ayelet Shaked, then the justice minister, ordered the system she was in charge of to launch a showy investigation into our spokesman because he described what he had done as a soldier in Hebron. That investigation also collapsed, but everyone moved on. After all, it’s just a person’s life; what difference does it make?
How can I explain this to someone who wasn’t there? You become paranoid. You joke about being tailed by the Shin Bet, but suspect that there may be something to it.
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You also become disappointed in people. People you knew and who knew you are suddenly willing to assume the worst about you. You even discover that it’s still possible to be disappointed by the system itself – by the entire defense establishment, about which you thought you merely had a lot of criticism, until you discovered from up close how fragile, biased and sometimes aggressively political it really is.
Therefore, I refuse to be impressed by Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s decision to declare six Palestinian human rights groups “terrorist organizations,” or by the repeated assurances of his party colleague, MK Ruth Wasserman Lande, that this decision wasn’t “a whim and certainly not politics.”
Because I remember very well how Israel deported an employee of Human Rights Watch, Omar Shakir, claiming that he “supported BDS.” I remember how the Defense Ministry accused an employee of World Vision in the Gaza Strip of transferring funds to Hamas, an accusation that effectively destroyed the organization’s Gaza office but has somehow remained unproven to this day.
I remember the Strategic Affairs Ministry’s involvement in attempts to smear Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations, and how it refused even to reveal its budget, much less name the organizations it was working with. Israel is waging a shady propaganda war against anyone who documents the brutal reality it has created in the territories, and that’s as true of the Palestinian group Al-Haq as it is of Israeli groups like Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem.
And the Palestinians are the first to have learned this.
I know how easy it is to become a “terrorist” with a single remark. When the defense minister, the former Shin Bet head and many other former and current senior officials claimed that Breaking the Silence was committing treason for money, thousands of ordinary people stood behind us and refused to erase us because of the defense minister’s claims. But we’re Israelis and they’re Palestinians.
We won’t see these Palestinians’ faces on our television screens. We don’t speak their language. And their access to justice is that of subjects with no rights. Nor will we hear from the thousands whom these organizations have helped to achieve a bit of justice under perpetual military rule.
Benny Gantz decided, and now he expects us to salute. But I’m done with saluting.
Avner Gvaryahu is the executive director of Breaking the Silence.