OneVoice NGO did not use US funds in bid to topple Netanyahu, Senate inquiry finds

The NGO OneVoice did not use U.S. funds in its campaign to unseat Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a Senate inquiry found, and the State Department did not violate policies by funding the group.

However, the report issued Tuesday suggested the State Department did not adequately assess the risks of funding OneVoice, considering the nongovernmental organization had been involved previously in Israeli electoral politics.

The report by the bipartisan Senate subcommittee on investigations was prompted by revelations that OneVoice, a nonpartisan group that advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, partnered with a partisan group called V15 ahead of the 2015 Israeli election in a bid to replace Netanyahu with a leader more amenable to a two-state outcome.

“OneVoice Israel fully complied with the terms of its State Department grants,” the report said. “OneVoice designed and executed a grassroots and media campaign to promote public support for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations for the Department, as it said it would.”

The subcommittee also “found no evidence that OneVoice spent grant funds to influence the 2015 Israeli elections.” However, the report added, the NGO used “campaign infrastructure and resources built, in part, with State Department grants funds to support V15” once the election season was underway, which fell after the period the grant money was spent and OneVoice’s relationship with the State Department ended.

The report considered more than $300,000 in State Department grants to the Israeli and Palestinian arms of OneVoice “to support peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine over a 14-month grant period ending in November 2014.” Netanyahu called for the election in December.

OneVoice, in a statement to JTA, said the report reflected its compliance with State Department terms and noted the grants in question had the backing of the U.S., Palestinian and Israeli governments.

“The Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. governments all supported the State Department grant that helped to fund One Voice Israel’s work to support peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians,” it said.

In funding OneVoice, the report said, the State Department did not adequately assess the risks of a group that had been politically active in an earlier election.

“Despite OneVoice’s previous political activity in the 2013 Israeli election, the State Department failed to conduct any assessment of the risk that, were an election called, OneVoice would continue its political activities using State-funded resources,” it said.

The State Department “normally” keeps a grant file assessing such risks, it said, but added that the problem was also endemic to State Department policies that do not take into account how grantees might shift to a more partisan posture.

“OneVoice Israel’s conduct fully complied with the terms of its agreements with the State Department and governing grant guidelines,” it said. “The experience under the OneVoice grants, however, reveals the ease with which recipient organizations can repurpose certain public-diplomacy resources for political activities.”

It concluded: “Despite the fact that influencing a foreign election is across a ‘red line’ for U.S. grantees, all of this activity was permissible under Department guidelines and the terms of the grants.”

Knesset passes controversial ‘transparency’ law on NGO funding

The Knesset passed controversial legislation that requires nongovernmental organizations to publicly declare their foreign government funding.

The so-called NGO transparency bill, which was proposed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home party, passed its second and third readings late Monday night after six hours of debate by a vote of 57-48.

Left-wing human rights organizations, which would be disproportionately affected, had slammed the measure. In a statement, Peace Now said it would challenge the law in Israel’s Supreme Court.


Under the law, NGOs that receive more than half their support from “foreign political entities” – including foreign governments or state agencies — must declare that funding and detail it every time they put out a report and advocacy literature, or speak with a public official.

An earlier draft would have required representatives of such groups to wear badges identifying themselves as lobbyists of foreign governments, but the provision was scrapped. However, the NGOs are required to inform the chair of a Knesset committee that they are on the list whenever they appear before the committee.

Nearly all the 27 Israeli organizations identified by the Justice Ministry as being affected by the new rules belong to the left wing, including B’Tselem, Yesh Din and Breaking the Silence.

Many right-wing NGOs are funded by private Jewish individuals in the United States and other countries — sources whose disclosure is not required under the new law.

In a statement, Peace Now said the law “is a blatant violation of freedom of expression.”

“Tailored specifically to target only peace and human rights organizations, its true intention is to divert the Israeli public discourse away from the occupation and to silence opposition to the government’s policies,” the group said. “While the law will delegitimize left-wing organizations, pro-settler NGOs who receive millions of dollars in foreign donations without any transparency will remain unaffected.”

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel also issued a statement saying the law “is intended to harm organizations that promote democracy and worldviews that differ from the views of the majority in the current coalition.”

It also said: “The law is but one of a series of bills and initiatives that oppose legitimate social and political action. Instead of facilitating debate, there are individuals who wish to silence criticism.”

EU says Israel’s new NGO law risks ‘undermining values’

The European Union said on Tuesday an Israeli law targeting foreign-funded NGOs risked undermining democracy and free speech, and a leading Israeli rights group said it would appeal the legislation in the Supreme Court.

Israel's parliament passed the NGO bill during a late-night session on Monday by a vote of 57 to 48. The law will require NGOs that receive more than half their funding from foreign governments or bodies such as the European Union to provide details of their donations.

“The reporting requirements imposed by the new law go beyond the legitimate need for transparency and seem aimed at constraining the activities of these civil society organizations,” the European Commission said.

“Israel enjoys a vibrant democracy, freedom of speech and a diverse civil society… This new legislation risks undermining these values,” said the commission, the executive arm of the EU.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose far-right justice minister sponsored the bill, said the law aimed to prevent “the absurd situation in which foreign countries interfere in Israel's internal affairs”, without the public knowing.

Most of the Israeli NGOs that receive support from foreign governments are left-wing and many oppose the policies of Netanyahu's right-wing government toward the Palestinians.


Rightist groups – including those that finance settlement-building – are largely funded by Jewish foundations and wealthy individuals abroad, and will not be affected by the law.

The so-called “transparency bill”, under discussion for more than a year, has previously drawn criticism from the United States and the opposition, with center-left leader Isaac Herzog describing it as indicative of “budding fascism”.

Peace Now, a foreign-funded NGO opposed to Israeli settlements, said the bill was tailored specifically to target only peace and human rights organizations.

“Its true intention is to divert Israeli public discourse away from the occupation and to silence opposition,” it said. “While the law will delegitimize left wing organizations, pro-settler NGOs that receive millions of dollars in foreign donations without any transparency will remain unaffected.”

The group said it would challenge the law's validity before Israel's Supreme Court, even though it may not be subject to its provisions since less than half its funding may come from foreign governments in 2017, when the law takes effect.

Other rights groups were equally critical, with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel saying the law was “intended to harm organizations that promote democracy and worldviews” that differ from the governing coalition.

Human Rights Watch condemned the heavy burden and potentially large fines that the law can impose on foreign-funded groups. It said a better approach would have been to require the same level of transparency from all NGOs.

Transparency bill for NGOs advances in Israel

An Israeli bill requiring nongovernmental organizations to state publicly that they receive funding from foreign countries has advanced to the full Knesset.

On Sunday, the so-called Transparency Bill unanimously passed the Knesset’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the right-wing Jewish Home party sponsored the measure, which would disproportionately affect left-wing human rights organizations.

Under the bill, NGOs that receive more than half their funding from foreign governments must declare it publicly, including noting it on official documents. NGO representatives also would be required to wear identification badges when they attend Knesset sessions, as required of lobbyists.

“It is a black day for civil liberties, associations, and Israeli thought,” opposition leader Isaac Herzog tweeted. “The government decision to approve the twisted NGO bill is a bullet between the eyes for Israel’s standing in the world.”

Peace Now in a statement following the vote called the bill a “hate crime against democracy” and called on Shaked to “promote legislation requiring right-wing organizations to expose the millions they receive from private donors abroad and from the state budget.”

Holy to half of humanity – the polluted water of the Jordan River

This article first appeared on The Media Line.

When US Naval officer William F. Lynch became the first Westerner to sail the lower Jordan River in 1847, he traversed the Sea of Galilee down the Jordan to the Dead Sea over current so strong that, according to his journal, he required four metal boats, one of which was smashed on the rocks of the powerful rapids. Lynch goes on the recount the broad and forceful flow of the then-mighty river.

Today, though, the Jordan is barley a trickle – just four meters wide and two meters deep in some parts. Its color is an opaque brown; and despite being holy to the world’s three major religions, a mouthful of the river’s water would most likely lead to a variety of rather unpleasant effects.

Throughout the years, successive governments in Syria, Israel and Jordan have redistributed the water supply for various reasons. Sewage has been leaked or directly pumped into the river; while a variety of overflows from agricultural and fish farming add to the flavor. A variety of plants and wildlife, including willow trees and otters, which had formerly followed the banks of the meandering river can no longer be found along its shores.

If you had told William F. Lynch that a rejuvenation program costing billions of American dollars would be required to restore an adequate flow to the Jordan River within a mere 150-years, it is a fair guess to say it’s unlikely he would have believed you.

EcoPeace, a non-governmental organization formerly known as the Friends of the Earth Middle East, sees the restoration of the Jordan River as a problem for all people of the region: especially Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians. Not only is the degradation of the water supply harmful to the environment and the communities which rely on it, but it is wasting the huge financial potential of the valley which could improve the living standards of many.

The successful transformation of the river would lead to huge economic and environmental advantages, argues Gidon Bromberg, the organization’s director in Israel. He told The Media Line that EcoPeace believes that if its proposals were enacted, the number of tourists and pilgrims visiting the Jordan Valley would increase to as many as ten million each year –a tenfold increase that Bromberg called “a game changer” for the region’s economy.

EcoPeace has put together a series of policy proposals which it has termed the “Master Plan for Sustainable Development in the Jordan Valley.” A variety of measures ranging from pollution control, water resourcing and ecological management; to the development of tourism and cultural heritage sites make up the organization’s wish list, forecasted up to the year 2050.

The benefits would be felt in agriculture and industry as well as in the tourism and environmental sectors, Bromberg said, while explaining that changes in perception would need to be made. “It requires that we treat the river differently – as a livelihood source, as the healthy economic engine, instead of seeing the river as the sewage canal and as the dumping ground.”

“We feel that the Jordan Valley is part of the common cultural heritage of this region and it is being shared between three parties here: the Palestinians, the Jordanians and the Israelis,” Lars Faaborg-Andersen, the European Union’s ambassador to Israel, said, keen to show that the EU was a partner to the Master Plan.

The benefits of cooperation and of sustainable development when living in a well-populated compact area were clear to see, the ambassador said, suggesting that this is true in Europe and in the Jordan Valley as well. Bottom-up cooperation, as evidenced by EcoPeace’s past work, could lead to peace building, Faaborg-Andersen said, adding, “We hope that the (local) governments will take inspiration from this.”

Europe’s economic and political integration following the Second World War, and the decades of relative peace which have followed since are a model to follow according to Bromberg, who argued that just as steel and coal, the continent’s two most important resources, were were able to form ties in Europe, water and energy could do the same in the Jordan Valley.

Yet, inevitably, as with everything in the region, the discussion devolves into a political one. “Water is not a problem, it is not a zero sum game. Some people, especially in Israel, have a surplus of water,” Dr. Nader Al-Khateeb, EcoPeace’s director in the Palestinian Territories, told The Media Line. Politics, and not a shortage of water, was causing the pollution and lack of economic resourcing seen in the area, he charged. According to Al-Khateeb, it is for this reason that the NGO EcoPeace weighs in on politically-charged issues and debates and is “very clear about our political position, [supporting] a two state solution, within the international (consensus) on recognized 1967 borders.”

A stance on politics is not unnatural Bromberg said, “Our name is EcoPeace: ecological peace – we are an environmental organization at heart but we are also a peace organization.” In order to move forward on the environmental agenda, Bromberg argued, such issues have to be touched on and therefore EcoPeace advocates for a two-state solution.

“We don’t think that this is particularly radical – our Israeli Prime Minister says he’s in favor of a two-state solution,” Bromberg pointed out.

But he did acknowledge that EcoPeace is not without its detractors. Activists in the Palestinian Territories and in Jordan have received threatening phone calls and activities by the organizations have been disrupted by individuals aligned with the “anti-normalization campaign”[Editor’s Note: a movement in the Arab world opposing all efforts to “normalize” relations with the state of Israel or institutions located inside the Jewish state.] In Israel, EcoPeace has found itself labelled as traitorous.

Extremists on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are hostile to EcoPeace’s work, Bromberg said. Such individuals believe that any cooperation with the other side prior to a resolution of the conflict is an attempt to maintain the status quo or is collaboration against your own people, the Israeli Director said. “We think that has no analytical or practical basis what so ever,” Bromberg concluded.

A pro-Israel think tanks maintains that water has increasingly become a politicized weapon in the discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is being used as a tool to delegitimize the Jewish state. NGO Monitor, an organization which aims to expose anti-Israeli sentiment among many of the groups working in Israel, listed a number of NGOs it felt were using water as a political tool. EcoPeace was not among the list, reinforcing its assertion that “it focuses on the environment and not on the conflict.”

In the meantime, while the politics is debated, the Jordan continues to trickle by and thousands of pilgrims come to be baptized in its sickly beige water each year. If environmentalists are able to get their way, within a few decades the water such visitors bathe in might even be clean.

Israel says U.N. grants Hamas-linked group NGO status

Israel on Monday accused a U.N. committee that oversees non-governmental organizations of granting U.N accreditation to an association that it said promotes “anti-Israel propaganda in Europe” and is linked to the militant Palestinian group Hamas.

Israel's mission to the United Nations issued a statement condemning the decision, by the 19-member U.N. Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations, to approve the application of the Palestinian Return Centre (PRC), an organization based in Britain.

The statement said that in 2010 Israel banned the PRC because of its ties to Hamas, labeling it “an organizational and a coordinating wing of Hamas in Europe” with members that include senior Hamas officials.

“Until today, the U.N. has given Hamas discounts and let it strengthen its activities,” Israel's U.N. ambassador, Ron Prosor, was quoted as saying in the statement. “Now, the U.N. went one step further, and gave Hamas a welcoming celebration at its main entrance, allowing it to be a full participant.”

“According to this script, one day we may find Hezbollah sitting at the Security Council and ISIS (Islamic State) voting at the Human Rights Council,” he added. “This is the peak season for the U.N.'s Theater of the Absurd.”

The Israeli statement said 12 countries voted in favor, including Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Turkey, Venezuela, China and Cuba, and three voted against, the United States, Uruguay and Israel. India, Russia and Greece abstained, and Burundi was absent.

Official U.N. status as an NGO gives groups access to U.N. premises and opportunities to attend or observe many events and conferences at United Nations sites around the world.

Neither the PRC nor the British or U.S. missions to the United Nations had an immediate response to Reuters requests for comment on the vote or the Israeli announcement. A U.N. spokesman said it would be up to member states to comment since it was their decision.

The United States and European Union have designated Hamas a terrorist organization.

Since Hamas, and not the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, is the de facto governing authority in the Gaza Strip, the United Nations maintains limited contact with it in terms of aid delivery, education and other activities.

The United Nations' principal Palestinian interlocutor is the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank.

Backers of anti-Iran group create group against violent Islamists

Imagine taking the 6-year-old NGO (non-governmental organization) United Against Nuclear Iran and swapping out the word “Iran” with “violent extremists.”

That pretty much sums up the Counter Extremism Project, an NGO launched Sept. 22 that aims to expose the financial, ideological and recruitment architecture that supports violent Islamic extremists.

The new project will be led by many of the same people behind the anti-Iran organization, one of several pressure groups on Iran with influence in Washington.

Mark Wallace, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, is the CEO of both groups, and former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman is one of several Washington heavy hitters serving on both boards.

While the Counter Extremism Project’s published materials do not specifically identify Islamic extremists as the target, organizers made clear at the launch event which extremists they have in mind.

“I think the real hope here is to empower the majority within the Muslim world, who are as horrified as we are outside the Muslim world by violent Islamic extremism, to stand up and fight back,” Lieberman said at a news conference Monday in New York unveiling the organization.

Governments and armies may do the lion’s share of the work, but there is a distinct role for private citizens, organizers said.

As United Against Nuclear Iran does with Iran, the Counter Extremism Project plans to help identify the sources of funding and support for violent extremists and share the information with lawmakers in a bid to propel government action. The project also plans to shame publicly those who do business with extremists, such as the buyers of oil from the fields in Iraq seized by ISIS, the extremist Sunni group in Iraq and Syria also known as the Islamic State.

“We will hopefully be fearless in calling out,” Wallace said. “We want to affect what we think is a very grave foreign policy challenge.”

Wallace said he wants to work with governments across the world and not just the usual suspects. Although the Counter Extremism Project is backed by a host of pro-Israel stalwarts, Wallace sought to put distance between his group and Israel when asked if any partnership was planned — perhaps in an effort to leave the door open for partners who wouldn’t want to be seen as working with Israel.

“I’d like to say that I’m collaborating with all friends and allies, and maybe even others in the region at some point,” Wallace said. “This is an all-hands-on-deck time.”

Some of the project’s work overlaps with that of existing organizations. For example, the project plans to compile daily translations of Arabic media related to extremism; the Middle East Media Research Institute already does selective translation of Arabic, Persian, Urdu-Pashtu and Dari media.

And notably, some of the Counter Extremism Project’s work might seem to fall under the purview of the U.S. Treasury Department, which enforces U.S. laws barring financial dealings with terrorist organizations and implements U.S. sanctions legislation against Iran and other countries.

But Lieberman said it’s not clear the Treasury Department has the statutory authority to do the same against ISIS — at least, not yet.

“That’s where I think this Counter Extremism Project and the resources we’re going to build will supplement what the Treasury Department is doing,” he said.

Fran Townshend, a former Homeland Security adviser to President George W. Bush who is on the board of the new organization (and that of United Against Nuclear Iran), said the idea is to create an effective public-private partnership.

“We all have the experience in government. This is a problem that can’t be attacked by government alone,” Townshend said. “This is a problem that can’t be solved by military power by itself.

“We’re working together with a broad-based coalition. It’s a bipartisan effort.”

The project has opened offices in New York and Brussels, where the European Union is headquartered, and plans more. Wallace declined to identify the project’s sources of funding except for Thomas Kaplan, a billionaire commodities investor who also backs United Against Nuclear Iran and, along with Wallace, runs the Tigris Financial Group.

Kaplan, a New York native who was educated at Oxford, is married to Dafna Recanati, a scion of one of Israel’s wealthiest families, and has focused his philanthropy on Jewish causes, medical institutions and animal conservation.

Among the board members of both the Counter Extremism Project and United Against Nuclear Iran are Gary Samore, who formerly served under President Barack Obama as White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction and is now at Harvard’s Kennedy School; August Hanning, a former director of Germany’s secret service, the BND; ambassador Dennis Ross, an adviser on Middle East affairs to Presidents Bill Clinton and Obama and now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Irwin Cotler, a liberal parliamentarian and former justice minister in Canada

What really happened in the battle of Khuzaa, Gaza?

No neighborhood along the eastern half of the Gaza strip — the half closest to Israel — emerged unscathed from the recent 50-day war in Gaza, which left more than 2,000 Palestinians dead.

But in Khuzaa, a middle-class farming town of around 10,000 in southern Gaza that pushes up against Israel’s border fence, survivors of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) ground invasion remember a separate kind of drawn-out agony.

During the first four days of the ground war, thousands of terrified civilians in Khuzaa found themselves caught in a tornado of deadly metals — bullets, bombs, shells, shrapnel — with no way to escape. More than in other areas, Khuzaa residents were forced to come face-to-face with armed Israeli soldiers who had taken control of the area.

Based on interviews with these civilians, as well as conversations with IDF soldiers who fought in the area, the Journal has compiled a rough outline of the battle in Khuzaa. None of the soldiers felt they could speak on the record.

Ahmad Al Najjar, 78, described the moment his elderly uncle wandered out into Khuzaa's main street and was shot dead.

IDF soldiers told the Journal they were instructed to fire warning shots at anyone who came too close to them or one of their bases — then to kill them if they came any closer. They said Hamas’ choice of an urban battlefield, and Hamas’ history of deploying plainclothes fighters and suicide bombers, made it impossible to determine who was or was not a threat.

However, more than a dozen Khuzaa residents who spoke to the Journal, and many more interviewed by Human Rights Watch and the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights — non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with operations in Gaza — said they and their neighbors were deliberately targeted by the IDF while trying to flee their homes during the fighting.

The United Nations Human Rights Council suggested a few days into the Khuzaa incursion that both Hamas and Israel may have violated the international laws of war by targeting civilians.

“It is imperative that Israel, Hamas and all Palestinian armed groups strictly abide by applicable norms of international humanitarian law and international human rights law,” Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said to the council on July 23. “This entails applying the principles of distinction between civilians and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives; proportionality; and precautions in attack. Respect for the right to life of civilians, including children, should be a foremost consideration. Not abiding by these principles may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Despite repeated requests, spokespeople at the IDF refused to comment on Palestinian witness accounts collected by the Journal.

The IDF’s foreign press branch initially said in a statement to the Journal that the events of the battle in Khuzaa were “currently under investigation” and that “once investigations will be completed, we will be able to supply you with all the information about the different occurrences.”

Later, after additional attempts over several days asking the IDF to respond to Palestinian allegations, the foreign press branch stated: “The events that you requested information about are not familiar to the IDF, according to our resources and investigations. If we receive additional details regarding these events they will be looked into again.”

Today, more than one month after the initial invasion, Khuzaa’s residential area is a gray wasteland of crumbled stucco and cement. The air, once sweet, reeks of dust and death. At the edge of Khuzaa, olive orchards have been reduced to piles of sticks and leaves, and shreds of white greenhouses jut like broken wings from sand pits where IDF tanks roamed. All that’s left of the town’s central mosque, one of nine mosques reportedly destroyed in the Israeli incursion, are a dome and a minaret wedged into a mountain of rubble.

The Ebad El Rahman mosque in central Khuzaa, along with an adjacent water tower, was destroyed in the IDF ground invasion.

“This was the best area in all of the Gaza Strip, it was a tourist area — secure and safe, with no problems and good people,” a dazed member of the municipal council told Reuters, standing next to the rubble of his former home. But after the war, he said, “Khuzaa no longer exists. It is like an earthquake hit.”

The ghost town’s demolished exterior also hints at the prolonged human suffering felt here during the first days of the IDF ground operation.

Residents of Khuzaa who were stuck in the city during the messy battles between Israel, Hamas (Gaza’s ruling government party) and other armed Palestinian factions said they tried to arrange an exodus for days. Finally, in small groups, most were able to escape via a dusty farm road on the southeast edge of town — emerging injured, dehydrated and incredulous about the horrors they’d just seen.

More information about their ordeal is likely to emerge as human-rights organizations and a United Nations fact-finding mission sift through the widespread devastation in Gaza and collect more testimony from Khuzaa and other hard-hit areas.

“We don’t know every single story that’s happened so far,” said Mahmoud Abu Rahma, international relations director for the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, an NGO in Gaza whose donors include federal agencies from Switzerland, Holland and Norway. “But for us, it’s really important to arrive at the truth. We will only introduce allegations when we are sure that a war crime was committed.”

(Abu Rahma has also been openly critical of human-rights abuses by Palestinian leaders in Gaza. In 2012, he was attacked by masked assailants after he penned an op-ed slamming violence by Palestinian armed groups against Palestinian civilians — and the silence of Gaza authorities, led by Hamas.)

Getting to the bottom of the recent battle in Khuzaa, Abu Rahma said, poses a unique challenge. “In Khuzaa, many people stayed behind,” he said. “So it’s the area where you find the most interaction between the Israeli army and civilians, and for quite a while — four days. That’s why we’re focusing on how civilians in Khuzaa were treated during these days.”

“Clouds of glory”

The Gaza ground incursion began on July 17 as an Israeli mission to take out Palestinian tunnels and rocket launchers used to attack civilian areas. On the first day of the mission, an IDF spokesperson told the Journal that “phone calls were made by IDF representatives to Palestinian leaders in the area to notify the residents of Khuzaa to evacuate the premises.”

Located just a few hundred meters from the Israeli border, Khuzaa has always been on the frontline of the Israel-Gaza conflict. Following the IDF’s brief 2009 ground invasion of Khuzaa, the United Nations found evidence that at least one woman was shot dead there while waving a white flag. At least 16 Khuzaa residents were reported killed in that operation.

This summer’s death toll in Khuzaa is believed to be more than four times as high as in 2009. The Al Mezan organization has counted around 75 deaths inside the town, although it is not known which of those were fighters and which civilians.

“It was the first time Israel attacked this area like that — they didn’t do that before,” the town’s community doctor, Kamal Qdeih, said.  Residents told the Journal that based on past operations, they vastly underestimated the IDF’s intentions in Khuzaa — one reason why thousands of civilians ignored evacuation leaflets, deciding instead to stay home, brace themselves and ride out the attack.

Kamal Qdeih, a doctor in Khuzaa, said he cared for more than 100 wounded residents at once in his small home clinic during the ground war.

Again, on July 20, the IDF said it “informed the citizens of Khuzaa, via telephone and local media, to evacuate the area due to IDF scheduled operations against terror sites and infrastructures in the area.”

But when no bombs had fallen by the night of July 20, hundreds who had fled to Khan Younis, the nearest city — crowding into friends and relatives’ houses and United Nations schools — decided to risk returning home.

Hundreds of Khuzaa residents escaped via one small farm road at the edge of town on July 24, starving, injured and dehydrated after days stuck in the battle zone.

They soon realized their mistake. Residents said that the next day, the IDF bombed craters into the road leading from Khuzaa to Khan Younis, so that no vehicles — including ambulances — could come or go. (An Al Jazeera video report a few weeks later, when fighting had died down, showed this to be true.)

In homes across Khuzaa, electricity was shut off and water stopped running from taps.

In response to an inquiry about the level of threat posed in Khuzaa, the IDF stated: “During the time the IDF forces were in Khuzaa, they exposed many terror sites which were located in central residential areas, including terror tunnels and many weapon caches.”

Daniel Nisman, a military analyst at the Levantine Group and former IDF soldier who participated in Israel's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, said: “Khuzaa, like Shujaiya, is what the Israeli military refers to as ‘the shell’ of Gaza, where the border towns are reinforced and the center is soft. In this context, Khuzaa is the main defense of Khan Younis and east Rafah.”

Like in other neighborhoods where Israel fought Hamas, the initial IDF aerial bombings cleared the way for columns of Israeli tanks and soldiers to more safely enter Khuzaa. According to young Israelis in the battle, the Khuzaa team included soldiers from the Combat Engineering Corps (who specialize in blowing up tunnels), the Paratroopers Brigade and some from the elite Golani brigade.

But they said the majority of Israeli combat soldiers who fought in Khuzaa were from the Givati brigade, the southern infantry brigade trained specifically to fight in Gaza.

As Givati tanks rolled toward Khuzaa, Col. Ofer Winter, the brigade’s commander, famously said in an interview with the Orthodox weekly Mishpacha that “clouds of glory” had guarded the fleet. “Only when the soldiers were in a secure position did the fog dissipate,” he said.

One young Givati soldier, too, told the Journal: “God was with us in every step on the way.”

Mohammed Abu Reeda, 12, peered into a partially destroyed home that IDF soldiers had occupied near their tank staging area.

Once inside Khuzaa, soldiers occupied some of the town’s multi-story, ornately decorated homes — transforming them into bases where they could take turns sleeping, strategizing and watching for Palestinian fighters below.

During various temporary cease fires in August, Khuzaa residents eagerly showed journalists the evidence they’d found of IDF soldiers living in their homes, now trashed and riddled with holes. One boy retrieved a green IDF jacket. Another pointed out a hole in his floor where the IDF had checked for tunnels. Seven-year-old Adam Abu Erjala, wearing a shirt that read “I’m a happy boy,” held out a bag of Israeli bullet casings he’d collected from his cousins’ home and posed with an Israeli mine-clearing device five times the size of his body, which he had found lying in his cousins’ front yard.

Adam Abu Erjala posed with a spent Israeli mine-clearing device he found outside his cousins' house.

Upstairs, in the frilly pink bedroom of Abu Erjala’s cousins, soldiers had drawn maps of the neighborhood onto the girls’ beds in permanent ink.

Adam Abu Erjala, 7, pointed out a map that IDF soldiers had drawn on his cousin's bed.

A pair of reporters who entered an all-girls school in Khuzaa found an anti-tank weapon that Israeli soldiers had left behind in the principal’s office. Stars of David had been spray-painted onto the walls.

Another building on the outskirts of Khuzaa, a partially demolished red-and-white farm house belonging to the Qdeih family, was filled with soldiers’ detritus — a Hebrew-Arabic dictionary, an IDF newsletter, snack wrappers, empty toothpaste tubes, rotting tomatoes and heaps of other trash. IDF tanks had ransacked the garden, turning it into a big sand pit by using it as a parking lot for armored vehicles.

But while soldiers were taking up residence in Palestinian homes, panicked civilians were sometimes hiding in homes right next door, just meters away.

“We knew the air force dropped leaflets calling for civilians to evacuate the area, but we also knew some might remain,” a 22-year-old combat soldier in the Givati brigade said. Nevertheless, he was shocked to see so many civilians still in the area when he arrived.

“The most difficult challenge in Khuzaa, in my opinion, was the citizens,” the soldier said. “Most of the fighting was in populated areas that Hamas had turned into a battlefield. And as a result, innocent civilians were injured.”

Multiple IDF soldiers said they were told Hamas was threatening to kill any civilians who left their homes. More than a dozen Khuzaa residents who spoke to the Journal, however, strongly denied this, and blamed the IDF for refusing to let them leave once fighting had begun.

A Human Rights Watch report released on Aug. 4, based on Palestinian witness accounts, found that IDF soldiers had shot, and sometimes killed, unarmed civilians as they were trying to flee. “The failure of civilians to abide by warnings does not make them lawful targets of attack… since many people do not flee because of infirmity, fear, lack of a place to go, or any number of other reasons,” said the report. “The remaining presence of such civilians despite a warning to flee cannot be ignored when attacks are carried out.”

“Khuzaa is destroyed”

Khuzaa residents sat in the rubble of their homes on the final day of a 72-hour cease fire in August.

One of the oldest men in the village, Mohammed Hussein Al Najjar, a former businessman whose relatives believed he was over 100 years old, wandered out of his home after an Israeli warplane bombed the building next door. “He was almost deaf, so he couldn’t hear us crying for him to come back,” said his nephew, 78-year-old Ahmad Al Najjar, whose dark and wrinkled face was crowned by a red keffiyeh.

Al Najjar said he heard Israeli tank fire outside. The next time he saw his uncle Mohammed, he said the old man was face-down in the road, dead in a pool of his own blood.

“I don’t know why they would do this. They’re going crazy,” Al Najjar said of the Israelis. “I used to believe in peace. But we don’t know anything about peace here.”

The 78-year-old said the Khuzaa invasion was the most horrific battle he’d seen in a lifetime of war.

Because of IDF orders to be suspicious even of apparent civilians, a 22-year-old Israeli soldier in the Combat Engineering Corps who destroyed tunnels in Khuzaa said he and fellow soldiers were forced to shoot an old Palestinian woman coming toward them when she didn’t heed their orders to stop. Even when wounded, he said, she continued crawling in their direction, so they fired again, killing her.

The soldier said he was deeply disturbed by the incident, but that Israeli soldiers had to protect themselves at all costs. While in Khuzaa, he said he was consumed by the omnipresent fear of death. Palestinian bullets were constantly whizzing by — killing one of his friends, the soldier said, and shattering the hand of another.

To effectively destroy the tunnels, IDF’s Combat Engineering Corps had to crawl deep inside them so they could lace them with explosives. They frequently came across Palestinian fighters inside the tunnels, on foot or motorcycle, and killed them on the spot.

The owner of this Khuzaa property said he had no idea how, or with what resources, he would begin to rebuild his house.

However, the young combat engineer said he watched some of his friends shoot indiscriminately at Palestinians in the area without proof they were fighters. He said they also wrote anti-Arab messages on the walls of the homes they occupied.

During a temporary cease fire in late August, evidence of the four-day Khuzaa nightmare was still everywhere in the home clinic of Qdeih, the local doctor, as he spoke to the Journal. His lone cot was streaked in blood; used bunches of gauze littered the countertops and shards of glass covered the floor; a Red Crescent apron lay crumpled in a corner.

Qdeih, a Hamas critic and supporter of the Palestinian political party Fatah, converted his modest Khuzaa home and office into an almost impossibly packed infirmary for more than 100 wounded Palestinians during the long days and nights they were boxed in by fighting, he said.

The first batch of injured was brought to his home after a group of hundreds, including Qdeih, attempted their first escape on July 22.

The group approached the line of Israeli tanks blocking the main road to Khan Younis, Qdeih said, and shouted to soldiers that they were civilians, lifting their shirts to show they weren’t wearing weapons. But, he said, the army began firing at them after telling them over a megaphone that the International Committee for the Red Cross wasn’t waiting for them on the other side, and that they should go home. (Various other witnesses confirmed this account.)

The welcome sign to Khuzaa, a lush farming town in southern Gaza, was cut down in fighting between Israel and Hamas.

According to the doctor, around 30 gravely wounded residents were carried back to his house after the attack. But one was left behind, stuck in her wheelchair: 16-year-old girl Gadir Abu Erjala, who had epilepsy and had received years of medical care in Israel.

Speaking to the Journal weeks later during a cease-fire, the girl’s mother, Hamda, was wracked with guilt about having to leave her daughter in the road. The interview took place in her home — remarkably intact compared to the rest of Khuzaa.

“The tanks were shooting at us and revving their engines,” Hamda said, raising her voice as tears fell onto her hijab. “There is no way we would have survived.”

Hamda said her teen daughter had initially begged not to go outside, but that the family needed to evacuate the girl as soon as possible, as she had run out of medicine. “There were a lot of civilians here, so we didn’t think they would do something like that,” her mother said of the IDF.

Gadir’s brother, Bilal, said he was pushing her wheelchair and approaching the line of IDF tanks guarding Khuzaa when he was shot in the hand. Bilal was forced to let go, and he and his family members — under fire — stumbled too far back to return for Gadir. The young man’s right arm is now wrapped in a thick cast.

Rasan, another of Gadir’s older brothers, said he placed countless calls to the Red Cross in the following days, trying to secure a safe passage with the Israeli army to retrieve his sister. He hoped she might still be alive. But every time he emerged from the house, Rasan said he came under fire again and had to retreat.

The Abu Erjala family lost their youngest sister Gadir, an epileptic 16-year-old in a wheelchair, when they tried to evacuate Khuzaa.

When presented with a detailed account of this alleged incident, the IDF said only that the entire battle of Khuzaa was “under investigation.” When the Journal presented more details about Gadir’s death and asked if the fire that killed her could have come from Hamas, the IDF stated that the entire incident was “not familiar to the IDF, according to our resources and investigations.” However, Israeli soldiers, speaking anonymously, said that although they didn’t witness this event, shooting at any Gazan who refused to retreat would be in accord with IDF protocol.

More than a week later, when it was finally safe for the Abu Erjala family to return for their 16-year-old, her corpse was unrecognizable — blown to bits, lying 20 meters from her wheelchair. “She tried to walk toward the soldiers,” Rasan said, his eyes wide and blank.

Her father interjected, furious. “Are there rules against that?” he asked. “Leaving people injured in the road after 10 days?”

Gadir was the light of Abu Erjala household, her mother said, and always made her brothers laugh when they were angry. “We’re missing something from the house,” Bilal said. “We still think this is like a dream. We don’t believe it happened.”

It seems that after this war, nearly every family in Khuzaa has its own tragic story of human loss.

In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Palestinian mother Faten Qdeih said that after watching her 7-year-old boy killed in the street, she made the impossible decision to leave his body behind and flee with her daughters, still alive. “I would rather I had died than see what I've seen,” she told the paper.

After he escaped Khuzaa on July 24, Mahmoud Ismail, a biomedical engineering student at an Egyptian university, took to Twitter to describe what he saw. “Khuzaa is destroyed… My folks and I came out alive, but I have no explanation as to how or why,” he wrote. (The Journal was not able to reach Ismail for an interview.)

While inside, Ismail said, “I watched from the window in my room, for hours, all the stages of death of a 20-year-old young man.”

The college student described running through Khuzaa with his family, looking for an escape route. “Right in front of my eyes a little boy fell from his mother's arm while she held a white flag in her other hand,” he wrote. “The boy died. She used the flag to wrap him and continued her way with the rest of her children. Horror.”

On July 24, according to the IDF, army planes dropped evacuation leaflets into Khuzaa. “This is part of the IDF's modus operandi to prevent harming civilians,” the army’s foreign press office said. “The leaflets contained messages instructing residents to evacuate areas in which the IDF was to operate. The leaflets were written in Arabic and often included visual aids.”

Another branch of the Qdeih family told the Journal they were still trapped in their basement in east Khuzaa on July 25, badly in need of food and water, when they heard bulldozers crashing into the side of the house and soldiers entering their home upstairs. When the patriarch, 64-year-old Mohammed Qdeih, decided to go upstairs to speak with them, carrying a white flag, his niece Raghad said she watched an Israeli soldier shoot him dead.

The soldier was young, with blonde hair and light eyes that showed “fear and dread,” she said. “He was trembling.”

Raghad said she and her relatives, including women and children, were then held in the house “under an atmosphere of intimidation and horror” for hours as soldiers used it as a base, moving family members into the same rooms from which they were shooting.

She was confused, then, by one small act of kindness by a Druze soldier. “We asked him to bring food for the children, and he brought bread and tuna, but then disappeared,” she said. “But the rest of the soldiers, they were fierce.”

The residents of Khuzaa are also skeptical of Israeli soldiers’ motives in their decision to transport a 75-year-old Palestinian woman to the IDF field hospital on the Israeli side of the border, and later to a hospital inside Israel, to be treated for dehydration.

“It’s confusing,” said Kamal Qdeih, 40, the neighborhood doctor. “Maybe that happened because they want to make the world think they’re OK. But if they’re really humanitarian, they should take care of humans. They shouldn’t kill civilians.”

Hamda, the mother of the epileptic girl who died, was also confused. “Why would they leave a special-needs kid, a 16-year-old girl, in the road, and they care for an old woman?” she asked. “I don’t understand.”

Yosef Al Najjar, 55, lives within eyeshot of the Israeli border fence. After his family escaped Khuzaa, he said he returned to their home compound during a brief cease fire to find six Palestinian corpses piled and rotting in the bathroom of his son’s house. Israeli bullet casings were scattered around the home, and a line of bullet holes studded the bathroom wall.

“My son doesn’t want to come back to this house anymore,” Al Najjar said. “He feels there are still souls screaming inside.”

“Khuzaa is a symbol of dignity,” a member of the Al Najjar family wrote a few meters from the bathroom where six Palestinian fighters were found apparently executed.

The human-rights organization Al Mezan has since identified the six victims of the apparent execution as fighters. All between the ages of 21 and 25, the men are “listed as combatants by Al Mezan on our lists,” a spokesman told the Journal.

Both Al Mezan and Human Rights Watch are currently investigating the incident. According to both organizations, if Israel did execute enemy fighters once they were in custody, that could constitute a war crime.

The Israeli army has repeatedly asserted that Hamas is the side committing war crimes by embedding military infrastructure inside civilian areas. For example, battlefield photos and videos released by the IDF show weapons caches and tunnel entrances located in public mosques.

A young Givati soldier who fought in Shujaiya, north of Khuzaa, told the Journal that he saw women and children used as combatants. A boy he estimated to be only about 10 years old came running toward IDF soldiers, the source said, yelling: “Allahu Akbar [God is great]!” After the IDF shot the boy dead, the soldier said they lifted his shirt to find a suicide vest.

But many Khuzaa residents believe the IDF sometimes targeted civilians and city infrastructure not to protect themselves, but to show their strength and avenge fallen Israeli soldiers.

Khuzaa residents set up a tent near their toppled water tower during a brief August cease-fire.

In a video uploaded to YouTube, confirmed to be authentic by the IDF, the army can be seen blowing up a mosque in Khuzaa. Soldiers cheer in the background. “This demolition is dedicated to the memory of three battalion soldiers who lost their lives since the beginning of the operation!” a narrator says in Hebrew, identifying himself as a member of the Givati brigade.

“Soldiers are perfectly entitled to be happy about destroying a tunnel used to carry out attacks against Israel,” the IDF said in a statement to the France 24 news channel.

Col. Winter, Givati's commander, used strong religious rhetoric throughout the war. “History has chosen us to spearhead the fighting [against] the terrorist ‘Gazan’ enemy which abuses, blasphemes and curses the God of Israel’s forces,” he wrote in a letter to his officers. And in an interview with Israeli media, Winter said of a surprise IDF air assault that killed more than 100 bystanders in Rafah, south of Khuzaa, after an Israeli soldier disappeared: “Whoever kidnaps has to know that he will pay a price. It was not revenge. They simply started up with the wrong brigade.”

The last “checkpoint”

For days at Kamal Qdeih’s home clinic, the wounded from the first mass escape attempt were laid out on every floor surface, waiting to die. Later, speaking to the Journal, survivors of the ordeal said they could see an Israeli soldiers staked out in the house next door through the doctor’s kitchen window.

Over the next few days, explosions rocked the neighborhood, and dozens more wounded were carried to Qdeih’s front door. When the doctor’s own 23-year-old brother, Ahmad, stepped outside to find water, he was killed by a drone rocket that hit just behind the home.

Qdeih’s 12-year-old daughter, Abir, tried to squeeze her neighbors’ open wounds to prevent blood loss. “I was helping my father,” she said. “I was afraid we were going to lose someone. I kept my hand there for as long as I could.”

By the morning of July 24, Qdeih estimates that the group sheltering in his home had reached around 140 people. So he squeezed everyone into a larger basement next door, thinking it would be safer.

But when a tear gas canister came flying through the window, Qdeih decided they had no choice but to try to escape again. “Injured people were lying here for days with no water, no food, no electricity,” he said. “There was one 4-year-old child. If we had waited five more hours to leave, he would have died.”

The doctor said his 9-year-old son, Hamza, told him: “Just go, don’t be afraid. I am going to support you.”

Qdeih had coordinated with the Red Cross and knew ambulances were waiting for them a few kilometers away, on the other side of the Israeli tank perimeter.

Khuzaa families searched through what remained of their demolished homes during various cease fires in August.

(The Red Cross and the Red Crescent reported that they had not, up to that point, been granted a humanitarian passageway into Khuzaa. When a Red Crescent ambulance attempted to enter the battle zone on July 25, one medic was killed and others wounded. By July 26, the Red Cross stated that “many more people in need are still in Khuzaa.”)

So the doctor’s group made one last effort, marching toward Khan Younis down a narrow farming road at the southeast edge of Khuzaa. They dragged their feet in the sand, heavy with heat and exhaustion. Survivors remembered children screaming for water.

When they reached what they called an IDF “checkpoint” on the way out of town, the Khuzaa residents said the Israeli soldiers told them to sit down. Soldiers took photos of them, they said, and peered at them through the scopes of their rifles. And after some time, when the soldiers released the group to walk the rest of the way to Khan Younis, witnesses alleged that IDF soldiers fired many rounds over their heads and near their feet to scare them.

“This was the most sad Ramadan we ever had,” the doctor said.

Members of another group that escaped via the same dirt road that same morning told the Journal that a man in their group, Mohammed Al Najjar, was shot dead by the IDF soldiers at the “checkpoint.” (Testimony provided to the Palestinian rights group Al Mezan described a similar incident.)

Khuzaa resident Khaled Al Karaa, 25, showed a reporter the road where he escaped on July 24.

The farming road where Khuzaa residents fled for their lives is now covered in a mash of cactus, greenhouse tents and tank-churned dirt. A few young men showed a reporter the spot where they said the “checkpoint” shooting had occurred.

“I think they did this to show us they’re strong and can kill us inside our own land,” Khaled Al Karaa, 25, said.

Sixteen-year-old Gadir’s wheelchair, too, sat on the main road to Khan Younis for weeks after she was killed, crumpled and gathering desert dust — another reminder to the residents of Khuzaa of all they had lost.

Israeli NGOs bringing their expertise to meet Africa’s needs

When they first arrived in northern Kenya in 2011 at the height of a massive drought, the Israeli refugee aid organization IsraAid planned to offer food and other core necessities to the 100,000 residents of the Kakuma refugee camp.

When the drought subsided a year later, IsraAid’s directors saw that this sort of assistance was becoming less crucial. Much larger organizations were providing food, clothing and medicine.

But rather than leave, IsraAid shifted its focus from short-term aid to long-term support through something Israelis do best: post-trauma counseling. Decades of terror attacks have equipped Israeli experts to serve the camp’s residents, many of whom are survivors of hunger, torture or the violent death of relatives. IsraAid has trained 18 camp residents to be social workers; most of them are now helping other camp residents cope with their pain.

“Part of the health of a person is mental health,” said Naama Gorodischer, IsraAid’s Kenya country director. “We can do what we know, and what we do in all our projects is use Israeli knowledge and specialization to perform capacity building.”

IsraAid is one of several Israeli NGOs working to improve the lives of Kenyans by importing Israeli technology and expertise. Their work is enabled by a history of friendly ties between Israel and Kenya and the relative stability of Kenya’s government and economy.

Nairobi, a booming city where new malls and roads intersect with destitute slums and gated communities, has emerged as a center of humanitarian work in East Africa. International organizations from the United Nations to Oxfam have located their regional headquarters there. Even after the terrorist attack on the city’s upscale Westgate mall in September, international aid workers continue to operate in Kenya with little fear.

“Nairobi is an international hub in East Africa for development,” said Gilad Milo, the founder of Israel for Africa, a Kenya-based nonprofit that teaches young people to farm using Israeli technology. “It’s like an entry point, spreading to Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Burundi. It’s a good melting pot for ideas.”

Kenya has been a friendly destination for Israelis since it gained independence in 1963. Israeli businesses helped build the country’s infrastructure and boost its agriculture sector, and the two countries coordinate on security issues. Exchange between the two countries has been robust, with Israeli military personnel advising Kenya in the wake of the Westgate attack and Kenyans routinely traveling to Israel for professional training programs. Israeli experts come to Kenya to lead seminars on everything from agricultural technology to Krav Maga, the martial art developed in Israel.

“There’s a strong sense of affinity with Israel as a country struggling for liberation,” Israel’s ambassador to Kenya, Gil Haskel, told JTA. “Kenyans understood that they could benefit from relations with Israel.”

Such close relations have led to a booming industry in Israeli humanitarian assistance. Israel for Africa provides impoverished young Kenyans with farming kits that include the equipment necessary to raise a small plot of crops, from Israeli-made greenhouses to Israeli-designed drip irrigation systems.

Members of one of the youth associations with which Israel for Africa partners, a dance group called Ramsa Africa, begin work at 6 a.m. on rows of tomatoes, peppers, spinach and kale, watering the crops with drip-irrigation hoses and checking each plant for signs of disease. After lunch they have dance rehearsals.

“It doesn’t make any sense that we invented drip irrigation [only] for our little strip of land,” Milo said as he rode a 4-by-4 along the bumpy roads of a Nairobi slum. “There’s got to be a bigger picture.”

A similar mission drives Brit Olam, an Israeli nonprofit running an agriculture development program in the semi-arid northwest region of Turkana. Droughts have made reliance on grazing cattle impossible, so Brit Olam imported Israeli technology for desert farming to give local residents economic independence.

“This is a change in mentality for people who never had to wake up early and go every day to the field to do a routine,” Brit Olam project developer Millet Biberman said. “But until you have water and food, you can’t do anything else.”

The Israeli nonprofit Save A Child’s Heart, which was founded in 2008 and is active in 44 countries, brings underprivileged Kenyan children in need of heart surgery to Israel. Its Kenya branch went on hiatus from 2009 until this year, when founding director Rina Attias returned to the the helm. According to Attias, the waiting list has 250 children.

Attias, who survived the Westgate attack by hiding in a closet, said that experiencing terror in Kenya only made her more dedicated to saving lives there.

“Every place has terror,” she said. “This can happen anywhere. If I was supposed to die, I would have died, but my time apparently has not come yet. So I chose to do more for this community.”

UNESCO postpones Israeli-Jewish history show

When UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, abruptly and indefinitely postponed the Jan. 20 opening of an exhibition in Paris on the 3,500-year history of Jews in the land of Israel, Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and co-founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Los-Angeles-based NGO that co-sponsored the exhibit with UNESCO, said he hoped Jews around the world would voice their displeasure with the decision. 

“Hundreds of thousands of letters they deserve,” Hier said on Jan. 17, three days after a representative from the Arab League persuaded UNESCO to put off the exhibition with a last-minute letter of protest. “Otherwise, UNESCO has fully adopted the Arab narrative of the history of the Middle East, and if Jews around the world don’t like that, we have to let them know.” 

In the days that followed, many did just that. Jewish leaders from around the world decried UNESCO’s decision to halt the exhibit, numerous news outlets covered the story, and the United States — even though it had refused to co-sponsor the exhibit one week earlier — called the move “wrong.” And, in a statement released Jan. 21, UNESCO said it was “in discussions with the Simon Wiesenthal Center to finalize the last points and inaugurate the exhibition in the month of June.”

The origin of the exhibit goes back to October 2011, immediately following UNESCO’s decision to admit Palestine as a full member state. UNESCO then worked for two years with the Wiesenthal Center to create the show titled “People, Book, Land —The 3,500-Year Relationship of the Jewish People to the Holy Land.” UNESCO personnel had vetted each of 24 informational panels to be displayed in the exhibition, and it had convened three separate  groups of outside academic expert overseers, who forced a few key changes to the exhibition, including removing the word “Israel” from the show’s title.

The display’s materials already had arrived at UNESCO House in Paris, thousands of invitations to the opening already had been mailed, and many dignitaries and supporters of the Wiesenthal Center already had made travel arrangements when Abdulla Alneaimi, a delegate to UNESCO from the United Arab Emirates, wrote on Jan. 14 to UNESCO, urging the organization to cancel the exhibition. 

“The subject of this exhibition is highly political, though the appearance of the title seems trivial,” wrote Alneaimi, chairman of the Arab group of countries with delegates to UNESCO. “Even more serious, the defense of this theme is one of the reasons used by the opponents of peace in Israel, and the publicity that will accompany and surely follow the exhibit can only cause damage to the ongoing peace negotiations, and the constant efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry, as well as the neutrality and objectivity of UNESCO.”

Hier said he first broached the possibility of UNESCO co-sponsoring an exhibition about the millennia-long Jewish connection to Israel on Oct. 31, 2011, the same day UNESCO granted full membership to Palestine as an official state. Six months later, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova visited Los Angeles and signed on to the idea of the exhibition. UNESCO agreed to host the exhibition; the Wiesenthal Center committed to fund the entire cost — more than $100,000 — and hired Robert S. Wistrich, a professor of European and Jewish history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, to compose the texts for the displays.  

Three other nations — Israel, Canada and Montenegro — joined as co-sponsors of the exhibit. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center, invited the United States to join as an official co-sponsor as well, but in a letter on Jan. 9, 2014, a State Department staff member declined, citing the “sensitive juncture in the ongoing Middle East peace process.” 

Hier called the U.S. decision not to co-sponsor the exhibit “very problematic” and even speculated that, had the United States joined in, UNESCO might not have postponed the exhibit. 

“Had the United States come in as a partner, [UNESCO] would have been frightened,” Hier said. 

In the wake of the controversy, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power called UNESCO’s decision to postpone the exhibit “wrong.”  

“UNESCO is supposed to be fostering discussion and interaction between civil society and member states,” Power told Reuters on Jan. 17, “and organizations such as the Wiesenthal Center have a right to be heard and to contribute to UNESCO’s mission.”

Hier initially called the postponement of the show tantamount to an outright cancellation, but after UNESCO said in a statement on Jan. 17 that it is “committed and actively engaged to working with Member States and partners to hold the exhibition in conditions that promote cooperation and dialogue,” Cooper declared himself willing to “go one more round to find out what it is the problems are.” 

Cooper, who met with UNESCO’s Bokova on Jan. 21, the day the Paris-based agency announced the tentative June date, said the Wiesenthal Center “will only officially react when we have it in writing.”

UNESCO has asserted that some elements of the exhibit hadn’t yet been agreed upon, including “unresolved issues relating to potentially contestable textual and visual historical points, which might be perceived by Member States as endangering the peace process.”

Cooper, who led the exhibit’s development for the Wiesenthal Center and held a press conference on Jan. 20 in Paris decrying UNESCO’s decision to postpone it, told the Journal on Jan. 20 he didn’t know what elements UNESCO was referring to. 

“We don’t have any plans to change the body of that exhibition,” Cooper said from Paris on Jan. 20. “It was already ready to be hung, which means it had been vetted by UNESCO.” 

The exhibit may eventually be mounted at UNESCO House in Paris, but it remains to be seen whether that will blunt the outrage that Jews and Jewish leaders have expressed in recent days at the decision to postpone. Cooper said the Jewish reactions he’s heard have been nearly unanimous. 

“I cannot recall, frankly, since Durban, 2001,” Cooper said, recalling the World Conference Against Racism where delegates to the United Nations likened Zionism to racism, “in which there was a kind of gut-level reaction from Jews all over the world, of different religious and political persuasions, that said, ‘You know what? We’ve just been slapped across the face.’ ”

Hier, as the head of an organization that focuses a great deal of its efforts on memorializing the Holocaust, took care to note that UNESCO will commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Paris later this month.

“They’re excellent at commemorating the Holocaust,” Hier said. “I applaud them for that, but it’s too bad that it stops at that.

“UNESCO prides itself on being a place of education, of culture, of freedom of expression,” Hier continued. “Only one idea is verboten in UNESCO: the idea that the Jews had a 3,500-year relationship with the land of Israel. 

“That? Take that idea somewhere else.”

The Bedouin, human rights, and ‘legitimacy’: A final word to Gerald Steinberg

Gerald Steinberg has asked that I respond to the specific charges he levies against human rights organizations, my colleague Rabbi John Rosove, and me regarding our involvement in protecting the rights of some 30-40,000 Bedouin to avoid forced expulsion from their homes. At the risk of prolonging our back-and-forth, I will reply one last time before returning to the more pressing work of engaging T’ruah’s 1800 rabbis and their communities in human rights.

In his response to Rabbi Rosove and me, Steinberg perpetuates the myth that the Bedouin settled in their current homes illegally, and without regard for zoning or environmental regulations. On Twitter, representatives of his organization have even used the word “squatting.”

This accusation against the Bedouin is a cruel one. As I indicated in my initial response, the Bedouin are living where the Israeli government moved them in the 1950s. Following the War of Independence, the new Israeli government used martial law to move the Bedouin who remained in the Negev into an area known as the Siyyag (fence), comprising a pocket of land between Beersheva, Arad, Dimona, and Yeruham. Bedouin property outside of this area was confiscated as state land.

This situation might have been sustainable if master zoning plans in the 1960s had not failed to acknowledge the presence of the Bedouin towns in the Siyyag. The villages disappeared from official maps, and all land within the Siyyag became zoned for industrial, military, or Jewish agricultural purposes. Thus, the Bedouin found themselves in a catch-22, forced to live in a place where they could not build legally, and where they were demonized as squatters. Furthermore, without official status, the “unrecognized” villages could not receive health services, schools, or other basic governmental services. No wonder that these are some of the poorest areas in Israel. Imagine what might have happened if the Israeli government had invested in building schools for Bedouin children, teaching sustainable agriculture, and providing medical services.

Tragically, the absence of the Bedouin towns from official maps allowed Israel to build a hazardous waste facility and chemical plants right next to the village of Wadi Na’am. Blaming residents of this village for“squatting in a toxic waste dump,” as one article NGO Monitor tweeted at me did is simply cruel.

Toward the end of the 1960s, Israel set up seven Bedouin townships and relocated approximately half the Bedouin populations there. By all accounts, these towns have been a failure. Separated from their traditional ways of life and their communal structures, most Bedouin have not thrived in these townships. This should be no surprise to any of us Americans who have seen what happens when low-income populations find themselves in cramped urban areas with subpar educational opportunities and few job prospects. Moving tens of thousands more Bedouin into these townships against their will promises to exacerbate the problem.

Are there problems within Bedouin communities? Yes, of course. I won’t excuse crime, mistreatment of women, or any of the other issues that those purporting to help the Bedouin often highlight. But this is not a zero sum game. Despite what Steinberg and often the Israeli government suggest, the choices are not either to allow the Bedouin to languish in their poverty or to move them against their will into townships. The most reasonable option is to build schools, health centers, and other social services in Bedouin villages, and to give these populations the tools they need to flourish. In some cases, as with Wadi Na’am, residents are willing to move, but want to have a say in where they move, rather than being shoved against their will into urban areas. It’s simply not fair to refuse social services to a population, and then argue that the population must move because they have no social services.

Nor is the question of building Jewish communities in the Negev versus sustaining Bedouin communities a zero sum game. The Bedouin claim only five percent of the Negev. There is plenty of room for new Jewish communities to flourish.

Steinberg argues that campaigns to support the Bedouin “erase 4000 years of Jewish history in the Negev (from the arrival of Abraham in Beersheva).” May I remind him that Abraham himself understood the need to share land, as he did with his nephew Lot. Each took land for his own family, lest there be squabbling among them. Furthermore, the Bedouin see themselves as descendants of Abraham and Hagar, and therefore also lay claim to a long history in the region. If we are to demand that others take seriously our own stories about ourselves, we must also pay respect to the stories of other peoples.

As for Steinberg’s claim that we or our Bedouin partners wish to delegitimize Israel, nothing could be further from the truth. What’s missing from his discussion is that the Bedouin are Israeli citizens, who are not trying to give up their citizenship, to question the right of Jews to live in the Negev, or otherwise to delegitimize the state. In fact, the Bedouin are claiming the rights of citizens within a sovereign western state to avoid forced displacement.

Finally, a word about rhetoric. In order to accuse me of a “harsh attack,” Steinberg puts words in my mouth, and then attacks these words. For example, he writes that I claim “that the issues I raised were nothing more than an effort ‘to defame lovers of Israel who dare to believe that the Jewish state can and should live up to the moral values of our tradition.’ Nothing more? Surely, the head of an organization that proclaims Jewish moral values and promotes tolerance might avoid such dismissive and immoral language.”

Actually, “nothing more” are Steinberg’s words, and do not appear in my piece. He further suggests that I do not respond at all to the specifics on the Bedouin dispute, without acknowledging that my piece does, in fact, include a condensed version of what appears above.

As for Steinberg’s accusation of “the soft-power warfare led by NGOs that exploit the language of human rights. (See the latest round of discriminatory academic boycotts.).” He fails here to distinguish between the demand that Israel live up to internationally-accepted human rights standards, which include protection from forced displacement, and specific tactics that some organizations choose to pursue. Neither I nor the organization I represent supports boycotting Israel as a tactic for holding Israel accountable to its human rights obligations. But the fact that some others do use this tactic does not render the human rights complaint itself any less legitimate. I will not attempt here to speak on behalf of other organizations that have not appointed me as their spokesperson.

This whole conversation leaves my wondering: What is Steinberg so afraid of? The question of the future of the Negev Bedouin is a complex, but not intractable problem. It is not an issue of national security, borders, or international diplomacy. There is a happy ending available—one in which the Israeli government does right by its Bedouin citizens, and in which these citizens build a sustainable life in the Negev, alongside their Jewish neighbors. Surely, the right and the left can come together to build this dream.


Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which mobilizes 1800 rabbis and cantors and their communities to protect human rights in North America, Israel, and the occupied territories.

A response to Gerald Steinberg on the Prawer-Begin plan

In his recent column for the Jewish Journal, Gerald Steinberg of NGO monitor once again seeks to defame lovers of Israel who dare to believe that the Jewish state can and should live up to the moral values of our tradition. He dismisses as anti-Semitic or misguided those of us—including 800 rabbis as well as the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal Movements—who opposed an Israeli government plan that would have expelled some 30-40,000 Bedouin Israeli citizens from their homes in the Negev.

This characterization is insulting, dangerous, and wrong.

Steinberg attacks those of us concerned about the fate of the Bedouin as “present[ing] a highly complex issue in simplistic terms, rely[ing] on unreliable sources, distort[ing] data, and ignor[ing] historic facts.”

In fact, it is Steinberg who is guilty of these sins. He insinuates that the Bedouin lay claim to “half the country’s territory,” when, in fact, Bedouin land claims cover only five percent of the Negev. And he misleadingly criticizes Bedouin communities for “illegal building, without planning or environmental considerations” without bothering to mention that the Siyag, the area to which the Israeli government moved the Bedouin in the 1950s, was never zoned residential, nor were the villages added to official maps. Thus, the Bedouin find themselves caught in a tragic Catch-22, forced to live in a defined area, but told that any homes or stores they build there are illegal.

[Related: Exploiting Israel’s Negev Bedouin]

The good news is that Prime Minister Netanyahu withdrew the Prawer-Begin plan this week, in response to widespread objections from rabbis and other Jewish community members in

North America and elsewhere, including the 800 rabbis and cantors who signed a letter organized by T’ruah and Rabbis for Human Rights and the T’ruah rabbis who met with staff at the Israeli Embassy and with General Doron Almog, who is charged with executing the plan.

Steinberg and his organization have a history of stifling discussion within Israel and the

Jewish community by maligning Jewish human rights organizations without engaging the specifics of the debate. This tactic is again evident in his sloppy attempt to classify those who opposed the Prawer-Begin plan out of love and concern for the state of Israel as intent on wiping out the state altogether.

Does he really believe that 800 rabbis and three of the major denominations oppose “Jewish self-determination and sovereignty”? More likely, Steinberg resorts to such name calling in order to avoid real discussion and open debate about Israeli policy.

The state of Israel should be the fulfillment of the dream of a state in which the Jewish people can be safe, and that exemplifies the best of our Jewish values.  These values include viewing every human being as a creation in the divine image; opposing injustice; and engaging in open and inquisitive debate. Steinberg instead proposes an Israel that ignores the voices of those most vulnerable, and that shuts down healthy debate.

That doesn’t sound very Jewish to me.

The forgotten refugees of Ghouta, Syria

The most infamous attack over two-and-a-half years of civil war in Syria – a silent sarin gassing in the city of Ghouta that killed more than 1,500 and sent allied countries to the brink of world war – came in the middle of the night.

When I woke up, I found that everyone in my neighborhood had died,” said Syrian refugee Alia Wahban, 18, as she tried to warm the hands of her wailing 8-month-old. “Everyone was on the ground, in the street. We brought water to put on their faces, but they didn’t wake up.”

Wahban knew she had to get out of Syria. So she made her way through the Syrian desert with the help of the Free Syrian Army, praying she wouldn’t be stopped at a military checkpoint, where she feared Hezbollah operatives might rape her – or, worse, kill her son.

A few months later, safe yet starving in a makeshift camp in Jordan, Wahban spoke of the hard new reality she faces as a refugee. A single light bulb – dangling from a cord in the center of her United Nations tent, sucking electricity from a nearby Jordanian home – gave dim shape to the two dozen people huddled alongside Wahban. They were perched along a ring of thin sleeping mats that lined the tent, drinking tiny cups of tea and batting at the flies that had taken refuge there, as well.

“We expect to die this winter,” said Shadua al-Hamdan, 40, a mother of four who fled Ghouta seven months ago, just missing the chemical-weapons attack. (Many of her friends and relatives back home, however, didn’t make it.)

Outside, as if on cue, thunder growled across the late November sky, announcing the second rainfall of winter. It was an ominous reminder of the icy storms to come, which meteorologists predict will be some of the worst to hit Jordan in decades.

[Related: Fifteen-year-old Amira al-Hamed, standing, and her little sister are living in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Mafraq. “There are no clothes, no water, no blankets,” she said. “It's very cold at night. … Please send the message to the world to send winter stuff to us.” Photo by Simone Wilson

Rabeit Na’eam nearly doubled in size following the chemical-weapons attack in Ghouta: The camp’s total population now sits at about 300 families, or 1,500 people, according to al-Khaldi. “The main worry for me now is if these organizations stop giving me aid for the camp, [because then] I cannot give any aid to the refugees in the camp,” he said in his office, lined in ornate gold wallpaper and hung with portraits of the Jordanian royal family.

Back at camp, the refugees are becoming anxious. “When it rains, the tent leaks and floods,” said al-Hamdan, mother of four. Her teeth were yellowed, and some rhinestones had flaked off the geometric pattern running down her abaya. “The water also comes up from the ground.”

Al-Hamdan turned from the visiting journalist to the accompanying JRO volunteer, a Syrian refugee himself, and grilled him about when she would receive a caravan to replace her tent.

The JRO volunteer, a friendly twenty-something with a buzz cut and a puffy thermal vest, pulled up a photo on his smartphone of the typical refugee caravan — a small rectangle, five meters by three meters, with double-paneled walls for insulation. “Very nice,” he said.

“Everybody wants a caravan,” said a spokesperson for UNHCR who wished not to be identified by name. “It’s a way of having a roof — literally a roof — over your head. You can lock your door. You can stand up. It’s also raised a little bit from the ground. And it certainly provides, on a psychological level, a sense of more protection.”

JRO director Al-Khaldi said the Rabeit Na’eam camp is currently populated by 300 tents and 20 caravans; however, refugees at the camp told the Journal that none of them had yet received a caravan.

Al-Khaldi also claimed the UNHCR originally promised to help with the camp, but that “the promises ran out.” However, the UNHCR spokesperson said she had never heard of the Rabeit Na’eam camp, nor its parent organization. “There are hundreds of informal settlements, ranging from a few tents to larger numbers,” she said in an email. “It doesn’t help us when people are not in an official camp setting, as they don’t have access to water, to food and non-food items, kitchens, medical clinics, schools, and to other assistance the humanitarian community provides.

“We do make every effort to support all Syrians in need, however the needs are so enormous, that it can be incredibly challenging to identify everyone,” she said.

At the UNHCR’s massive Za’atari refugee camp, 20 minutes east — whose 80,000 residents come mainly from the Syrian city of Daraa — all but 4,000 families live in caravans, and public restrooms dot the city grid. Some enterprising refugees even steal scraps to build their own private stalls. (“Have they stolen it, or have they privatized it?” asked the UNHCR’s Kilian Kleinschmidt in a YouTube documentary on the camp. “I think they privatized it.”)

Much has been written and observed about Za’atari, a 1.3-square-mile refugee haven equipped with schools, medical tents and marketplaces. Its internal issues are often less aid-related and more city-related: As the fourth largest “city” in Jordan, it sees theft, violence, contagious diseases, in-fighting between communities and other problems that would arise in any cluster of 80,000 people fenced into rows of caravans in the ruthlessly hot-and-cold desert.

“Although a camp situation is not the most desirable, at least we can support them,” said the UNHCR spokesperson.

Although the Syrian refugees camping outside the UNHCR’s Za’atari camp are using UNHCR tents, they don’t have access to the steady distributions of food and water available at Za’atari. And their tents, unlike the weatherproof caravans at Za’atari, become inundated with rainwater in the winter. Photo by Simone Wilson

In Arabic, Rabeit Na’eam means a desert oasis — a green “paradise” where water springs from the ground, according to a young Jordanian entrepreneur who helped translate at the camp.

The irony of this did not escape him. Water is scarce at the Rabeit Na’eam refugee camp, and the terrain harsh. One small boy, around 4 years old, padded over the desert rocks in bare feet, his dark toes coated in a layer of white-orange dust.

To go to the bathroom, al-Hamdan explained, she and the other Ghouta escapees must dig holes in the wet ground — which is especially difficult, and humiliating, for the women.

“In Syria, I had a safe life. I was in school, in the sixth grade,” said Amira al-Hamed, a shy 15-year-old girl living at Rabeit Na’eam with her mother and little sister. “I was playing every day with my friends in my neighborhood. My parents owned a house.”

But after Syrian forces destroyed the family home, al-Hamed, her mother and her sister were forced to leave Ghouta and camp Bedouin-style near the Syrian-Jordanian border for a few months. (Her father stayed behind.) Then, in October, they crossed the border into Jordan, where Jordanian soldiers delivered them straight to Za’atari.

However, because members of their extended family were already living at Rabeit Na’eam, they requested to be transferred.

Now, daily life is bleak. “There is no work or school for me. I just sit in the tent and sleep,” the 15-year-old said.

Although al-Hamed said she wishes she had a caravan like the ones she saw at Za’atari, the bigger camp frightened her: “There are many problems there, and violence,” she said. “It’s a dangerous situation. Also, I have relatives here.”

The No. 1 priority for the refugees at Rabeit Na’eam is to live alongside familiar faces from their old neighborhood, according to JRO Director al-Khaldi. “You can see that everyone knows everyone, and the kids play with each other, and everything is OK,” he said. “All of them come from the same family, so no problems will happen.”

The UNHCR spokesperson said another reason for avoiding Za’atari is that refugees aren’t allowed to leave or find work. Despite the Jordanian government’s ban on hiring Syrian refugees, “we do often find that those outside the camp are working informally, on farms for example,” she said. (A hotel manager in nearby Irbid, Jordan, confirmed this, saying he regularly hired Syrian men to work on his house in the cover of night, before inspectors came around at dawn.)

But the refugees at Rabeit Na’eam pay a price for their freedom. “There are no bathrooms here, and no water,” said al-Hamdan. “There are not enough blankets and clothes for the winter. There are no heaters, and no wood to make a fire. There is nowhere to buy bread. There is no money.”

Like most refugees in Jordan, the Ghouta natives at Rabeit Na’eam receive a limited ration of food coupons from the World Food Programme (WFP). But their remote location makes it more difficult for them to use the credit.

Most days, the refugees said, they eat only rice.

Asked what he does for fun, a 12-year-old boy named Hamed said he plays football all day on the desert flats. “But in the winter,” he said, “I’ll just sleep.”

The shelters at Rabeit Na’eam, which sleep around 12 to a room, are made from a patchwork of UNHCR tents and other assorted tarps and canvases. Donated rugs line the inside. Photo by Simone Wilson

As the sun set at Rabeit Na’eam, leaving behind a chill that cut to the bone, the lights of a Syrian border town blinked in the distance, beyond the tents.

“When Obama made the decision to go to Syria, I was very happy,” said al-Hamdan. “But now I think Obama supports Bashar [al-Assad].” A 70-year-old woman with dark, leathery skin who appeared to be the tent’s communal grandmother chimed in. “I thought America would help the Syrian people, but they didn’t,” she said, raising her voice to a shout. “If Obama wanted, he could help us. He doesn’t want to help us.”

The Ghouta survivors stressed that August’s infamous chemical-weapons attack, which they all blamed on Assad, was only one of thousands of assaults that have devastated their homeland. “The helicopters shot my house and my house broke down,” said Mohammad al-Ahmed, 35, a second cousin of al-Hamdan whose red-and-white keffiyeh was secured to his head with a circle of black rope. He crunched a string of yellow beads compulsively in his hand as he described hearing the helicopters overhead, running out of his house and watching as it was bombed to nothing. The same blast killed 13 of his neighbors, including a two-day-old infant.

On his flip phone, Al-Ahmed looked through photos of two happy memories at Rabeit Na’eam: The first, when the camp was gifted an entire sheep to kill and eat at Ramadan, and the second, when Patch Adams came to visit, dancing around in a red clown nose and stuffing kids into his signature pair of giant underwear. Cracks of laughter broke the musty hush in the tent as the refugees told stories about Adams’ visit.

But they can never forget the biting realities unfolding in their hometown, and their new temporary home, for long. Al-Ahmed said his brother recently told him over the phone that the Syrian government is surrounding Ghouta, blocking civilians from leaving the city and barring any food from entering.

A young girl named Noor said her father and her brother, too, are still trapped in Ghouta. “She cries every day and asks when her dad will come,” al-Ahmed said, his hand on the girl’s shoulder. As he said it, tears welled up again in Noor’s eyes. A pickup truck full of whooping Jordanian teenagers roared by on a road that cuts through the camp.

“I hope my father will be able to come here soon,” Noor said, hugging herself from the cold.


To support the refugees at Rabeit Na’eam and help keep them warm through the winter, monetary donations can be made to the Jordan Relief Organization through the following bank account: Arab Islamic Bank, account number 1060-11065-505, swift code iibajoam200. The most-needed items are currently blankets ($18 each), heaters plus bottles of gas ($141 each) and caravans ($2,260).

VIDEO: Israelis, get out or you’re dead

At a protest in downtown Toronto over the weekend, a speaker identified as Elias Hazineh, made this statement:

We have to give them an ultimatum. You have to leave Jerusalem. You have to leave Palestine … When somebody tries to rob a bank the police get in, they don’t negotiate and we have been negotiating with them for 65 years. We say get out or you are dead. We give them two minutes and then we start shooting and that’s the only way they’ll understand.

As the Jewish Journal reported yesterday, Hazineh is the former president of Palestine House, which lost Canadian governmental support last year because of what Ottawa called a “pattern of support for extremism.”

Today, the Centre for  Israel and Jewish Affairs, the lobbying arm of the Canadian Jewish federation, announced it was submitting information about the rally to police for review.

In Syria, peaceful demonstrators frustrated

This story originally appeared on

Khalid Walid spends most of his days drinking coffee and smoking French cigarettes on a dusty Aleppo street corner. With the war shutting down the local university, he no longer attends classes.

The paralysis that plagues Walid, 21, is a far cry from the passion that gripped him and others when the protests in Syria erupted in March 2011. Back then Walid was at the forefront of many of the demonstrations, whipping up the crowds with a bullhorn and rhythmic chants.

As Syria's once peaceful revolution has become a military inferno, however, Walid and other peaceful activists have been crowded out and relegated to the sidelines. Today it is the fighters and the networks that supply them who are at the forefront of the battle.

Things were not always so gloomy for Walid. As the international media hungered for information early on, the engineering student was eager to provide it. A Syrian expatriate group provided him and others with a video camera and satellite Internet equipment. Soon Walid was filming Friday demonstrations, uploading them to the Internet and talking to Western politicians and non-governmental organization (NGO) officials.

“It was great. We were filming, editing, and being interviewed,” he told The Media Line in broken English.  “We were getting word of the revolution to the world.”

But when fighting gripped Aleppo last summer, Walid's role changed dramatically. Documenting protests was no longer so chic. Walid and his cameras were sidelined in favor of the rebel fighter and his Kalashnikov. “The fighters became more important than anyone,” Walid laments. “Everyone wanted to help them, with food, gas, or beds. They needed supplies and the population provided them.”

Today, with the peaceful protests a distant memory and the continual shelling a constant reminder of the daily war, Walid has little to do.

“It's just as bad as before the revolution,” he says as a friends drives by, saluting Walid by honking his horn. “Maybe things are worse now with all the new problems. I don't know; it's just not the revolution we expected.”

Others share Walid's laments. Amal Basma, 19, was quick to latch on to the revolutionary fervor spreading through the Arab world in 2011. The Arabic literature student at Aleppo University gathered her friends and relatives to march in protests. Soon she was organizing women's groups to make posters and coordinating with revolutionary leaders to bring dozens of women to the street demonstrations.

“I saw what was happening in other cities and other countries, like Egypt and Libya,” she tells The Media Line in her cousin's cramped apartment in Aleppo's Haydariyya neighborhood. “I had to do something for my people.”

After rebels liberated the northern border crossings in the provinces of Aleppo and Idlib, she and other like-minded women travelled to Turkey, where Western NGO activists gave the women courses in organizing and political awareness. “I learned more than in 19 years in Syria,” she says, pulling on her head scarf. “I made so many friends and was so eager to come home and teach others.”

But soon after her return to Aleppo, she was forced to put aside her pen and bullhorn. “The protests stopped,” she complains. “No one was interested in marching anymore. It was all fight, fight, fight.”

The activists' complaints are just one critique of what they say is a revolution gone awry. With the rebel-led Free Syrian Army (FSA) locked in a stalemate with government forces, Al-Qa'ida jihadists pouring in from neighborhood countries and looting and kidnappings prevalent, Syrians are trying to figure out what went wrong with their once pristine revolution.

“We had so much hope when we began protesting,” says Mazin al-Masri, 28. But today we feel our peaceful revolution has been hijacked by gangsters and jihadists. What can we do? Throw stones at both sides?”

That is a sentiment prevailing throughout rebel-controlled Syria. The hope and optimism of the revolution's early days have been replaced by growing gloom and despair.

NGO: Eritrean asylum seekers pressured to leave Israel

Israel attempted to deport 25 Eritrean asylum seekers in violation of international conventions, according to an Israeli NGO supporting the rights of migrants.

A group of some 25 Eritrean refugees were pressured by Israeli immigration officials to sign a declaration saying they would agree to be deported to Uganda and then discovered that they were scheduled to fly to Eritrea, the Hotline for Migrant Workers charged. The Eritreans refused to get on the plane.

A spokeswoman for the Population, Immigration, and Borders Authority, Sabine Haddad, told JTA that she did not know about a group of Eritreans facing possible return, but did say that hundreds of north Sudanese have agreed to be repatriated in recent months, as well as a small number of Eritreans.

Haddad added that her office is checking this particular incident, and said that in no case does Israel deport migrants against their will.

The Hotline for Migrant Workers told Haaretz that the asylum seekers were told they either can be repatriated to Eritrea or remain in prison in Israel for at least three years.

As a signatory of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Israel cannot deport asylum seekers. Israel grants Eritreans protection, but does not recognize them as refugees.

Eritreans make up more than 60 percent of the more than 60,000 illegal African migrants are who are believed to be in Israel, according to Haaretz.

Asylum seekers who return to Eritrea are in danger of persecution or even death at the hands of the Eritrean regime, rights groups say.

EU court throws out NGO funding case brought by Israel-based group

The European Court of Justice threw out a lawsuit filed nearly three years ago against the European Union that would have required the E.U. to release details of its funding of NGOs.

The lawsuit filed in January 2010 by the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor charged that the European Commission had failed to fulfill European Union transparency obligations after the group had tried for 13 months to secure documents detailing nongovernmental agency funding by the EC, the European Union's executive branch.

Under the European Freedom of Information law, such funding details must be made available upon request. However, the EC cited “public security,” “privacy” and “commercial interests” in denying NGO Monitor’s information request.

NGO Monitor researchers identified nearly $48 million provided by the EC from June 2005 until the filling to nongovernmental organizations active in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Many of these organizations, the group said, are active in efforts that seek to isolate Israel by legal means and through boycott campaigns.

The court based in Luxembourg last month ruled in favor of the EC, rejecting NGO Monitor's claims for being “manifestly unfounded” or “manifestly lacking any foundation in law,” Ami Kaufman at the +972 magazine website reported on Monday. The court also ordered NGO Monitor to pay the costs incurred by the EC for defending itself.

NGO Monitor said in a statement released Monday that the decision “confirmed that the EU fails to act transparently in its funding of non-government organizations.”

“For over a decade, the EU has acted with impunity in funding political advocacy NGOs with near total secrecy,” said Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor. “Throughout, EU officials have attempted to justify the intense secrecy by using exaggerated claims of 'public security' and 'commercial interest.' The only reasonable conclusion is that the EU has something to hide.”

NGO Monitor said in a statement that EU funding, amounting to millions of dollars annually, has gone to what it calls a small fringe of highly politicized groups.

“In addition to violating basic principles of transparency in government, this secret funding for Israeli NGOs grossly infringes on and seeks to manipulate the Israeli democratic process,” Steinberg said.

Chanukah in Chad

Janice Kamenir-Reznik is the Co-Founder and President of Jewish World Watch (JWW), a leading organization in the fight against genocide and mass atrocities worldwide. JWW’s work is currently focused on the ongoing crises in Sudan and Congo. Janice is currently traveling along with Diana Buckhantz, JWW Board Member, on a site visit to the JWW Solar Cooker Project in the Farchana refugee camp in eastern Chad, home to approximately 30,000 Darfuri refugees.

[Farchana, Chad] — It is late into the evening, and I just remembered – tonight is the first night of Chanukah, even in the seemingly God-forsaken town of Farchana on the eastern rim of Chad.  Today my JWW travel partner, Diana Buckhantz, and I spent Shabbat visiting the Farchana refugee camp. We came to meet the Darfuri refugee women served by our Solar Cooker Project.  With all of the scores of organizations that support this massive camp, I was told today that the donor partners almost never actually come to the camp to meet, on a personal level, with individual refugees to engage in conversation.  Most donors, I was told, receive reports explaining how the funds are used and describing the benefits conferred.  As we met the women today, the vital importance of visiting the camps and talking to the people being served, which JWW has done in Congo and Darfur whenever possible, was clearer to me than ever.

One obvious reason that personal contact is so important is to bear witness to the women’s stories of loss, survival and resilience. Bringing these mind boggling and dramatically tragic stories home helps to educate and mobilize our community and give a face to an otherwise very distant, removed, hard to understand genocide, the effects of which continue to unfold. 

The other reason is more subtle, but it is equally, if not more, important.  Many of the women we met with expressed a similar sentiment when they heard who we were and why we came to visit. With faces that speak legions about their sense of isolation, their sadness and their understandable depression, they were so grateful to be remembered especially now, at a time when the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and other international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have announced huge reductions in resources previously provided to the Farchana camp.  The refugees at Farchana know that those resources are being redeployed from Farchana to be used in other, newer conflict areas around the world.  We learned that this week alone UNHCR reduced by 25 per cent, effective immediately, and in some cases even retroactively, the funds and services allocated to Farchana.  There was a further UNHCR directive issued this week that for the 2013 budget year, Farchana will take an additional 28 percent reduction in allocation.

Information about all of this redeployment of funds sends a very serious and provocative message to the refugee population; first and foremost, it means that their services will be drastically reduced.  To people living in abject poverty and profound squalor, drastic reductions in services could be the difference between life and death.  But what is also significant and quite painful to the refugees in Farchana, is the message of abandonment that the reductions imply.  The reduction of funds is a symbol of the sad truth that the world’s attention has moved on.

So in the midst of such depressing news, unwittingly, our trip to Farchana has taken on new significance – to the refugees, to the aid workers, and to us at JWW.  For the refugees and aid workers, a visit from an organization that is not reducing its funding but rather was interested in listening to ideas for future projects, lifted spirits and brought a degree of hopefulness.  For me, Diana and for JWW, it means an intensification of our responsibilities, as we are being relied upon by one of the most beleaguered populations in the world, a population that is increasingly isolated and abandoned.

Today, after I introduced myself and JWW to the women refugees, ending my words with JWW’s core value of “not standing idly by,” a woman, Awa, stood and said that Jewish World Watch gives her hope.  She continued by telling us, “with the passage of so many years, I was sure that by now everyone had forgotten about Darfur and given up that we should have a future. But hearing about your education and advocacy work on our behalf gives me back some spirit and makes me know that not everyone in the world has forgotten about us.”

This evening, as I remembered that it was the start of Chanukah, I reflected on Awa’s words and realized that we are faced with a serious challenge – an apt challenge to consider as I pulled my small menorah out of my duffle bag.  Chanukah is about fighting against great odds and ensuring that right prevails over might.  It is also a time of bright and shining lights.  Tonight is the first light of Chanukah, and I am very far away from home.  I came close to forgetting to light the first candle.  But, by myself (Diana was long asleep) in my hut late at night in the World Food Program compound in Farchana, two candles were lit.  As I watched the candles burn down, I felt renewed strength and obligation to continue our work here and to continue to shine a light on problems and circumstances others might prefer not to see.  This surely was a memorable, if not festive, Chanukah, and one that I likely will never forget.

No suspects in Malmö JCC attack, police say

Police in Malmö, Sweden have no suspects in September’s attack on the city’s Jewish community center.

Anders Lindell, a police spokesman, told JTA that all charges were dropped against the two young men whom police arrested shortly after the Sept. 28 attack.

“We have concluded the suspects could not have done it,” he said. “The investigation is ongoing.”

The two 18-year-old men were arrested shortly after an explosion was heard outside the city’s community center, which also houses a day school for Jewish children. The bullet-proof entrance door was smashed in the incident.

Police at first declined to define the attack as anti-Semitic, but eventually classified it as a hate crime.

In 2009, unidentified persons set off an explosive device outside the city’s synagogue. In the past few years, approximately 70 anti-Semitic incidents were reported annually in Malmö, a city whose population is 30 to 40 percent Muslim and whose Jewish community is a few hundred strong.

Malmö's mayor, Ilmar Reepalu, has equated Zionism to anti-Semitism, has said that the Jewish community had been infiltrated by extreme rightists and has advised Jews not to support Israel for their own safety.

The per capita prevalence of anti-Semitic incidents in Malmo is twice that of Stockholm, the capital.

There have been a number of marches to protest anti-Semitism in recent months, drawing both Jews and non-Jews and in one case, Reepalu.

Earlier this week, the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism, an NGO, recognized with an award Siavosh Derakhti, a 21-year-old Muslim from Malmö who filmed an educational trip he had made to Auschwitz.

Derakhti has screened the video in Swedish schools in an effort to educate young Swedes about the Holocaust.

Israeli NGO to advise UN on disabled kids

The UN Economic and Social Council has named an Israeli NGO as a special consultant on assisting disabled children.

The inclusion will allow Beit Issie Shapiro to “provide Israeli expertise in the field of disability rights and represent the innovations coming out of Israel,” according to the organization’s website.

The Council has 54 member states, including Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Qatar. Israel is not a member.

Beit Issie Shaipro was founded in 1980, and is now helping 30,000 children in Israel, according to its website. The organization also helps train thousands of therapists in Israel with its new therapies, and conducts research and shares best practices internationally.

The Israeli weekly Yedioth Hasharon quoted Noa Forman, an Israeli delegate to the UN on human rights issues, as describing the nomination as “a tremendous achievement.”

“The fact that an Israeli NGO made it past hurdles set by countries that are not exactly friendly toward Israel shows that no one can object to Beit Issie Shapiro’s work,” she saod.

Beit Issie Shapiro has a center in Kalansawa, an Arab city in Israel. Children from the West Bank also are regularly brought to Beit Issie Shapiro for treatment, Jean Judes, the NGO’s executive director, told the Israeli weekly.

Yang Sam Ma, South Korea’s Ambassador in Israel, gave the “initial push” to have the organization registered, Forman is quoted as saying. Sam Ma has sat on the committee in the past.

“The ECOSOC family is very happy about the nomination of Beit Issie Shapiro to Special Consultative Status,” Andrei Abramov, chief of the NGO branch of ECOSOC, said.

NGOs call on Israel to lift Gaza blockade

Some 50 nongovernmental organizations called on Israel to lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip.

“For over five years in Gaza, more than 1.6 million people have been under blockade in violation of international law,” the groups said in a petition issued Thursday. “More than half of these people are children. We the undersigned say with one voice: ‘end the blockade now.’ “

Israel initiated the blockade five years ago when the terrorist Hamas organization took over the coastal strip, which is home to 1.6 million Palestinians.

Signatories to the petition Amnesty International, Oxfam and the World Health Organization, as well United Nations bodies such as UNESCO, UNICEF, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the World Health Organization.

Israel relaxed the blockade restrictions two years ago, including expanding the list of building materials allowed in, but continues to inspect all goods entering Gaza to prevent terrorist activity.

Survey: EU hate crimes monitors lack reliable data

More than half of the nongovernmental organizations monitoring hate crimes in the European Union have no working definition for what constitutes a hate crime, according to a new survey.

The survey was conducted in the form of a questionnaire answered by representatives of 44 watchdog NGOs from across the EU. The results are to be released at a conference on hate crime registration in the EU sponsored by the Brussels-based CEJI: A Jewish Contribution to an Inclusive Europe, scheduled to end on April 19, exactly one month after a Muslim extremist killed a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France.

The lacunas exposed in the survey correspond with flawed registration by EU governments, according to CEJI director Robin Sclafani.

“The killings in Toulouse are a tragic reminder that hate crimes continue to grow unabated in Europe,” Sclafani said.

Of the 44 NGOs surveyed, 27 reported that they had no system to verify complaints. Seventeen did not share information with police.

The survey and conference is part of a larger project titled Facing Facts! to help watchdogs become more effective.

“There is an overall paucity of reliable data on hate crimes in the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] area, which impedes the formulation of effective policy responses,” Sclafani said. She noted that only 12 EU members collect “good or comprehensive” data, according to the 2010 Fundamental Rights Agency Report.

The Facing Facts! project is a partnership between CEJI and the Dutch gay rights center COC. Other partners include the British and Dutch Jewish communities’ watchdogs on anti-Semitism: respectively the Community Security Trust and the Center for Information and Documentation on Israel.

Egypt: U.S. aid cut may force Israel treaty review

The Muslim Brotherhood has warned that Egypt may review its 1979 peace deal with Israel if the United States cuts aid to the country, a move that could undermine a cornerstone of Washington’s Middle East policy.

Washington has said the aid is at risk due to an Egyptian probe into civil society groups which has resulted in charges against at least 43 activists, including 19 Americans who have been banned from leaving the country.

Egypt has been one of the world’s largest recipients of U.S. aid since it signed the peace treaty with Israel, and the Brotherhood, which does not yet hold the reins of power, said any decision to cut that aid because of the investigation would raise serious questions.

“We (Egypt) are a party (to the treaty) and we will be harmed so it is our right to review the matter,” Essam el-Erian, a senior Brotherhood leader, told Reuters in a telephone interview.

“The aid was one of the commitments of the parties that signed the peace agreement so if there is a breach from one side it gives the right of review to the parties,” added Erian, the deputy leader of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the biggest group in the newly elected parliament.

His remarks are likely to increase pressure on all sides to resolve one of the worst crises in U.S.-Egyptian ties since the treaty was signed. In similar comments, FJP leader Mohamed Mursi said in a statement that U.S. talk of halting the aid was “misplaced,” adding that the peace agreement “could stumble.”

He said: “We want the march of peace to continue in a way that serves the interest of the Egyptian people.”

The 1979 treaty made Egypt the first Arab state to forge peace with Israel and underpinned Washington’s relationship with Cairo during Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, during which the Brotherhood was officially banned.

The Sinai peninsula, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, was handed back to Egypt under the agreement, and diplomatic relations between Israel and Egypt were established.

The Brotherhood has emerged as the single biggest political force in Egypt since Mubarak was ousted a year ago, winning more than 43 percent of the seats in recent parliamentary elections.

But for now Egypt is ruled by a council of military generals to whom Mubarak handed power on February 11, 2011. They are due to make way at the end of June for an elected civilian president – a post the Brotherhood has said it will not contest.

The military council has repeatedly pledged to honor Egypt’s international obligations, including the peace deal with Israel, a position the Brotherhood has shared until now.

The group has become increasingly outspoken on foreign policy since its parliamentary success, directing harsh criticism at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government over its efforts to crush a revolt against his rule.


In his annual budget message to Congress this week, U.S. President Barack Obama asked for military aid to Egypt to be kept at $1.3 billion and sought $250 million in economic aid.

But General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Tuesday he had told Egypt’s ruling generals that the NGO issue must be resolved satisfactorily to allow military cooperation with Cairo to continue.

A State Department spokeswoman also said that failure to resolve the impasse could endanger the funds.

Charges filed against those accused in the investigation include that they worked for groups not properly licensed in Egypt and received foreign funding illegally. The Egyptian government has said the case is a matter of law.

But Egyptian NGOs accused the authorities on Wednesday of mounting a scare campaign aimed at deflecting attention from what they said was the failure of the army-led administration.

The 29 NGOs issued a statement accusing the authorities of “creating imaginary battles with other states.”

Tensions were further inflamed with the release of remarks made last year by Minister of International Cooperation Faiza Abul Naga in which she linked U.S. funding to civil society to an American plot to undermine Egypt. She spoke of what she called an attempt to steer the post-Mubarak transition in “a direction that realized American and Israeli interests.”

The rise of Islamist groups since Mubarak was ousted has caused deep concern in Israel. But despite their worries, Israeli officials do not believe the next president of Egypt will tear up the peace treaty.

A cleric seen as close to the Brotherhood said in an interview published on Wednesday that Egypt could not risk any military confrontation with Israel, adding that the country’s main concern must be its economic problems.

“Egypt cannot enter a struggle in the military sense and leave the affairs of building on the internal front,” Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian who lives in Qatar, told Shorouk newspaper. “Now the citizen cannot remain without work.”

Additional reporting by Omar Fahmy; Editing by Andrew Osborn

Israeli lawmaker says McCarthy was right

The Israeli lawmaker who sponsored a bill to limit funding to left-leaning NGOs said Joseph McCarthy “was right in every word he said.”

Likud lawmaker Ofir Akunis told a political television show on Dec. 4 that McCarthy, the Wisconsin senator who presided over a U.S. Senate committee in the 1950s that investigated Americans suspected of sympathy with the communists, “was right in every word. The fact is, there were Soviet agents.”

Akunis’ bill would ban political organizations in Israel from receiving donations of more than approximately $5,500 from foreign governments and international organizations. Its progress has been frozen in the Knesset at the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Akunis later told the Israeli daily Haaretz that he does not support McCarthyism and said he meant that McCarthy was right about Soviet agents infiltrating the United States.

Over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized the state of Israeli democracy, referring in particular to Akunis’ bill.

Knesset committee to vote on bill limiting foreign funding for NGOs

A Knesset committee will vote on two bills imposing restrictions on foreign funding to nongovernmental organizations in Israel.

The bills, which were discussed in June in the ministerial legislative committee and then frozen, are scheduled for a vote Sunday. They reportedly have the support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

One bill, introduced by Likud lawmaker Ofir Akunis, would ban political organizations in Israel from receiving donations of more than approximately $5,500 from foreign governments and international organizations. The second, initiated by Fania Kirshenbaum of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, would tax the organizations at a rate of 45 percent on all revenue provided by a foreign government.

The bills apparently are targeting the human rights groups that provided information to the Goldstone Commission, which investigated the monthlong Gaza War that began in December 2008.

Israeli human rights groups, which rely heavily on donations from foreign governments, are likely to be affected the most by the legislation.

“It is saddening to see that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has now joined the various members of Knesset who do not cease to try and harm the activity of Israeli organizations that are not to their liking,” said Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “These bills are dangerous, biased and hazy, which contradict the most basic principles of democracy: freedom of expression, protest, and assembly. These freedoms must be afforded to the entire spectrum of opinions and positions, not only to those that are approved by the prime minister, by MK Akunis and by MK Kirshenbaum.”

NGO Monitor said in a statement that “This legislation, as with similar previous ones, reflects the deep concern among Israel’s democratically elected representatives regarding foreign government funding to NGOs that are centrally involved in delegitimization campaigns. This concern is also reflected consistently in public opinion polls.”

Israel’s Supreme Court could reject the bills, according to reports.

Knesset approves panels to probe left-wing NGOs

The Knesset House Committee approved the establishment of parliamentary panels to probe the funding and activities of left-leaning human rights groups and NGOs.

The vote to establish two commissions of inquiries passed the committee Wednesday by a vote of 10 to 6.

One committee will investigate the involvement of foreign governments in the funding of Israeli left-wing organizations. The other will look into Israeli organizations attempting to delegitimize the Israel Defense Forces.

The opposition Kadima Party voted against the panels and has refused to allow its ministers to serve on them.

Eyal Yinon, the Knesset’s legal adviser, wrote on Tuesday that establishing the panels “is a precedent that raises basic questions that stand at the heart of democratic rule.”

Opportunity knocks

Is it possible that when you clink glasses and say, “Happy New Year,” someone is actually listening?

That’s what it felt like this week, with two enormous pieces of good news to start the year off.

First there was outgoing Mossad director Meir Dagan’s assessment that Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons is not as close as was once thought, is perhaps even as far away as 2015. For the past decade, Israelis have been warning that Nuclear Mullahs are just around the corner. Even when they moved the End Times back, it was never more than a year or two. After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bristled at Dagan’s optimistic assessment, the spy chief reeled it in a year, but the fact remains: This is very good news.

What happened? Analysts credit the focused efforts of President Barack Obama, who made strengthening sanctions against Iran a priority. But, even more effective, covert activities carried out by Israel and America have severely hampered the Iranians’ nuclear capabilities. Last weekend, The New York Times provided the most complete account to date of the Stuxnet computer virus, which experts say Israel likely developed.

This past Sunday at the Skirball Cultural Center, former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel used carefully coded language to tell a packed room at the annual conference of the American Friends of The Hebrew University’s Western Region that the Obama administration deserves some credit for Stuxnet.

“In some circumlocutions,” one attendee reported back to me, “he confirmed the Stuxnet story and the fact that it was approved. He said, ‘If you assume that what was in the New York Times was true, you have to assume that something like that couldnt happen without approval at the highest level.’” 

Silently, bloodlessly, the virus crippled thousands of Iranian centrifuges.  

That, combined with a series of unfortunate events that have befallen top Iranian nuclear scientists, gave us all the gift of time.

The second piece of good news came from Tunisia. On Jan 14, in the first popular Arab uprising against a dictator, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was deposed, forcing him to flee to Saudi Arabia after 23 years of despotic rule. The Times’ Roger Cohen called it “The Arab Gdansk,” proclaiming the overthrow to be as potentially momentous as the riots in a Polish shipyard that led to the crumbling of the Soviet bloc.

“Not once in my 43 years have I thought that I’d see an Arab leader toppled by his people,” Mona Eltahawy wrote in The Washington Post (another piece by Eltahawy on Tunisia appears on Page 10). “It is nothing short of poetic justice that it was neither Islamists nor invasion-in-the-name-of-democracy that sent the waters rushing onto Ben Ali’s ship but, rather, the youth of his country.”

Eltahawy and others, among them former Beirut Star editor Rami Khouri, believe that the Tunisian New Year’s uprising may have a profound effect on young, disenfranchised and unemployed Arab youth from Cairo to Tripoli, inspiring them to throw off their sclerotic despots as well.

For Israel, 2011 is off to an especially good start. Through foresight and ingenuity, the state has managed to delay an existential threat from Iran that it once believed imminent, allowing for, over the next three years, even more effective sanctions to take hold and further cripple the Mullahs, or a change in leadership that might bring a more conciliatory regime. Or perhaps Iran could go the way of Tunisia — who knows?

As for Tunisia, if countries could say, “I told you so,” Israel would be well within its rights. It turns out that it is not the Israeli occupation or Zionist expansionism or the Mossad conspiracies that can enrage the Arab masses to the point of open revolt — it is their own leaders, who have used Israel, waving it like a red flag in front of the angry mobs to distract them from their own corrupt, incompetent rule. Go ahead, Israel, say it: “I told you so.”

However, if, as the saying goes, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, so is good news. Israel and its American supporters now have some time to step out of crisis mode and figure out how to be safe, not just for the next four years, but also for the next 40. Israel must shore up what it is that has made the country strong enough and resilient enough to face down these external threats: its democracy. 

Israel rightly bills itself as “the only democracy in the Middle East,” a crucial selling point in the halls of the U.S. Congress, in public opinion here and, perhaps most importantly, in American Jewish opinion. But Israel’s democracy is imperiled by a policy of occupation that is now almost a half-century old. At some point in the not-too-distant future, Israel will have to give the Palestinians whose lives it controls the vote or the boot — either course will spell the end of the Jewish state or of Jewish democracy.

Within Israel, voices from the far right have called for parliamentary investigations of center- and left-leaning NGOs and for discrimination against Israel’s Arab minority. This is also a a threat to democracy.

If an organization is accused of a crime, let the attorney general bring charges. Anything else is a witch-hunt. As for Arab Israelis, the sooner Israel integrates them fully into society and makes use of their energy and potential, the faster its economy and civil society will grow and improve.

Americans who want to help Israel can help fast-track these difficult steps. Because the best way to kill the good buzz of the past two weeks is to imagine that in 10 years, “the only democracy in the Middle East” will be Tunisia.

Quash bill probing NGOs, Peres tells Knesset

Israeli President Shimon Peres called on the Knesset to reject proposed legislation that establishes a committee to investigate the funding of left-leaning human rights groups.

By a vote of 47-16, the Knesset earlier this month gave preliminary passage to the measure. The parliamentary panel would probe the funding and activities of left-wing and human rights organizations and NGOs.

“The investigation of organizations and foundations, whether from the left or right, must be left to law enforcement authorities,” Peres said in a statement Monday. “They possess expertise, are objective and hold the appropriate investigative tools. The establishment of such a parliamentary investigative committee harms Israeli democracy and is unnecessary.”

Peres quoted Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who said that politicians should not be judges and judges should not be politicians.

Peres in an address to the Knesset next week is expected to raise this issue, as well as the subjects of racism and incitement by fundamentalist rabbis, The Jerusalem Post reported, citing the president’s spokeswoman.

NGO inquiry committee has wrong focus, framework

Since the notorious NGO Forum of the 2001 Durban conference, nongovernmental organizations have implemented a coordinated strategy against Israel—isolation and demonization in the international arena. Influential Israeli and Palestinian NGOs are very active in this strategy, and their claims and agendas should not be immune to criticism and debate in the democratic process.

However, the Israeli Knesset vote to open an official inquiry into the funding of virulent political NGOs involved in delegitimization is more likely to polarize than to shed light or encourage informed criticism. The Knesset debate demonstrated the intense political nature of this initiative, as both ends of the ideological spectrum ignored the complex and substantive issues.

For the right, NGOs that use the language of human rights are portrayed as enemies of Israel, without distinction, while the left paints criticism of their actions as “anti-democratic” and “McCarthyist.”

Neither of these ideological responses helps Israel combat the real threat from delegitimization—in the form of lawfare; the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement; Durban III; and various “mini-Durban” conferences. Instead these divisions, which ignore broad and legitimate centrist concerns, feed the demonization and increase the divisions within Israeli society. The right provides the left with the “out” it needs to avoid criticism and accountability, further constraining the Israeli democratic process, which is highly vulnerable to manipulation from foreign governments.

The right’s tactics provide more ammunition for Israel’s most ardent critics to proclaim the “death of Israeli democracy,” further contributing to Israel’s isolation. Attacking the legitimacy of Israel’s parliament and judicial system are common tactics in the Durban strategy, and this inquiry will be yet another example for critics to reference.

Among the claims used to justify the Knesset inquiry is the role of Arab governments and terror groups as major funders of the Israeli NGOs involved in lawfare campaigns. If true, this would be a major source for concern.

However, the information released to date is limited, while detailed research by NGO Monitor indicates that the vast majority of NGO funding originates in Europe. A group known as Im Tirtzu published claims of Arab funding to the Ramallah-based NGO Development Center (NDC), which gave $5 million to radical Israeli NGOs. But the money to Israeli NGOs comes from European governments (Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland). Arab funding comprises only 5 percent of NDC’s total budget, which goes to Palestinian NGOs.

Therefore, in the case of NDC and other hostile frameworks, substantive discussion of foreign funding should begin with Europe.

On the left fringe of Israeli politics, the response to the Knesset’s move is an effort to deny the existence of any problems from NGO demonization and secret foreign government funding. Instead of engaging in substantive public debate on the manipulation of Israeli politics, support for BDS and lawfare, and rhetoric of “apartheid” and “war crimes,” these NGOs divert attention through false claims of “McCarthyism.”

At the same time, Europe certainly is in no position to criticize the Knesset and the debate on NGOs. While preaching democracy and good government to others, officials blatantly violate the basic rules of funding transparency and open debate. Great secrecy hides all aspects of the processes by which the EU funds groups such as Yesh Din, Adalah and PCATI (the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel), as well as many Palestinian groups.

The Dutch government, for example, recently was found by NGO Monitor to be supporting the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic actions of Electronic Intifada via a church-based humanitarian framework, ICCO. Electronic Intifada routinely abuses terms such as “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing,” and its executive director, Ali Abunimah, appears on many campuses to promote BDS and call for a one-state solution, meaning the elimination of Israel. He also compares Israel to Nazi Germany, referring to the Israeli press as “Der Sturmer”—a weekly Nazi newspaper that was a key part of the Nazis’ propaganda machine.

Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal, upon learning from The Jerusalem Post that his government was fueling the Arab-Israel conflict, said he would “look into the matter personally.” There are many more such examples throughout Europe.

As a result, the European-funded, NGO-led assault on the legitimacy of Israel, as well as the double standards and the false allegations of “war crimes,” continues. NGOs are a major part of Israeli democracy, yet by receiving funding through secret processes for use in delegitimization campaigns, they are undermining the basic tenets of democracy.

NGO double standards and political campaigns also subvert the universality of human rights norms and convert these moral principles into convenient political weapons.  These groups exploit universal jurisdiction statutes in Europe, as well as the International Criminal Court, for cynical attempts to label Israeli leaders as “war criminals.”

A partisan Knesset inquiry is unlikely to generate significant change, and may increase the political attacks against Israel. Rather, a parliamentary inquiry into abuses of NGO funding would be most useful in the European context, since this is the source of the money provided for lawfare, BDS and other forms of demonization.

Unfortunately, the European officials responsible for these practices have clung to the secrecy and the refusal to confront the critical analyses of their NGO funding policies.

(Gerald Steinberg is president of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institution that tracks NGOs that claim to protect human rights in the region. Jason Edelstein is the institution’s communications director.)

ANALYSIS: Israel and NGOs Clash Over Gaza War Assessments

The fighting in Gaza ended months ago, but the fight over the war rages on between Israel and NGOs.

NGOs have been issuing reports accusing Israel of war crimes. In response, the Israeli army recently released a 163-page, 460-point account seeking to rebut such claims and discredit those making them.

At issue is the three-week Israeli invasion of Gaza starting in December 2008, launched in response to thousands of Palestinian rocket attacks against civilian targets in the south of Israel. Approximately 1,300 Palestinians were killed in the fighting, many of them militant fighters associated with Hamas, the Palestinian group in control of Gaza. But hundreds of Palestinian civilians are also believed to have been killed.

Thirteen Israelis were killed, including several civilians. Hamas rockets during the war reached as far as the Israeli cities of Yavneh, Beersheva and Kiryat Gat.

Some of the arguments between Israel and the NGOs revolve around alternating versions of the facts of the war, others address theories of the laws of war, and still others lunge with ferocity at the very legitimacy of one side or the other to even make an argument.

The stakes are high — as high as the threat of charges against Israeli officers and an effort by some Israeli officials to use the law as a weapon to limit international funding of human rights groups.

From the outset, the Israeli report cites an array of international law readings to show that Israel’s war was just. It also takes aim at what it describes as the tendency of some critics to rush to draw conclusions of national guilt from scattered evidence. “Often,” the Israeli report stated, “these leaps of logic bypass the most basic steps, such as identification of the specific legal obligation at issue and explanation of how it was violated.”

To buttress its case, the Israeli army paper cited a wealth of recommended practice from U.S., British and Dutch military manuals, as well as rulings concerning the NATO action against Yugoslavia in Kosovo in 1999; the goal was to establish that there is a legally tolerable threshold of civilian deaths, particularly in cases of urban warfare.

At times, the Israeli report devolves into petty sniping at critics. Meanwhile, in recent weeks, top Israeli officials have smeared critics with ancient guilt-by-association accusations.

It’s not much prettier on the human rights side: Reconstructions of the horrific death of civilians replete with painstakingly gathered evidence are coupled with bewildering omissions of context and blended into a package that assumes an inherent Israeli immorality.

The Israeli report repeatedly expressed frustration with efforts to turn criticism of individual officers and soldiers into a wholesale indictment of Israel’s military establishment and the decision to resort to military force.

It’s a pattern that is in evidence in three successive reports published by Human Rights Watch, perhaps the most prominent of the groups engaged by the government since the end of the war. One in March dealt with the use of white phosphorous; another in June dealt with high-precision missiles fired from pilotless drones; the most recent, earlier this month, deals with the killings of individuals bearing white flags.

Only the first report, on the use of phosphorous, chronicles what could be described as an alleged pattern of abuse.

The other two reports from Human Rights Watch focus on a relatively small number of cases: six instances of Israeli drones allegedly hitting civilian targets isolated from fighting and seven shootings resulting in 11 deaths. Still, even in those reports, Human Rights Watch uses language suggesting pervasive violations.

The Human Rights Watch reports fail to assess evidence — including videos of Israeli forces holding their fire because of the presence of civilians — that Israel has provided to show that such incidents were the exception to the rule; they fail to examine what measures Israel has taken to prevent civilian deaths, which would be pertinent in examining any claim of war crimes.

Israeli officials are also guilty of omissions. The army report cites tonnage of food and medical equipment allowed into Gaza during the operation for humanitarian relief; it does not, however, translate these raw figures into proportions and fails to address claims by an array of groups — including Human Rights Watch — that Israel used humanitarian relief as leverage, and the result has been malnutrition and want.

Similarly, in describing the lead up to the war, the Israeli army provides a persuasive, blow-by-blow account of the intensification of indiscriminate rocket fire that led it to launch its invasion; but it omits any mention of the three-year siege Israel has imposed on Gaza, or that Hamas rulers in Gaza used the siege as a pretext for the rocket fire. In one line, the Israeli report states that Gaza is free of occupation, but fails to note that Israel continues to control all but one point of entry into the area.

One of the more bizarre omissions in the Israeli army report is how it deals with the deaths of 42 police cadets in a missile strike in the first days of fighting. Human rights groups allege that the police were not a legitimate target; they were recruits, drawn from the massive ranks of Gaza’s unemployed, who were “at rest” at a graduation ceremony. Moreover, they were supposedly slated for non-combat civil defense roles.

The Israeli army report does not mention the strike at all, or the deaths. Instead, it spends five pages generally justifying attacks on police, and noting that in some cases terrorists have doubled as police — although groups, including B’Tselem, have suggested that in the matter of the cadets, this assertion was questionable at best. Two high-ranking Hamas security officials present at the ceremony were also slain in the attack, one of at least 30 strikes on police stations on Dec. 28, the second day of the war.

Israeli spokesmen also repeatedly question the reliability of the human rights reports, saying witnesses must be compromised by fear of Hamas retaliation. “Human Rights Watch is relying on testimony from people who are not free to speak out against the Hamas regime,” Mark Regev, the prime minister’s spokesman, told the BBC on Aug. 13. In fact, Human Rights Watch attempts to get witnesses alone, and corroborates their accounts with medical examinations and forensic evidence.

Israeli government spokesmen, moreover, do not account for the fear of retaliation — albeit of a less lethal kind, involving social ostracization — when they dismiss accounts of atrocities compiled from soldiers by groups such as Breaking the Silence.

Then there are the examples where facts simply diverge: Israel says it used white phosphorous as an obscurant when it faced Hamas anti-tank forces; human rights groups have alleged that the presence, in some cases, of armed forces was minimal and did not justify the use of the phosphorous, which upon skin contact may maim and kill. Israel says the number of civilians killed numbered in the low hundreds; human rights groups place it at closer to 1,000.

Some divergences have to do with the perspective of the claimant. The Israeli army report says warnings to civilians to leave an area were as precise as they could be without betraying tactics and putting soldiers in danger; Human Rights Watch says the warnings, while welcome, were often too generalized and even confusing.

Such differences might have been addressed by dialogue and an exchange of information that would observe limits aimed at preserving Israeli tactical secrecy. Israeli officers, for instance, have said that they have names to attach to fatalities that show that the vast majority were combatants; but they have not provided these to human rights groups.

Human rights groups have constantly pressed Israeli authorities to address specific claims, and have been brushed off. Yet the release of information that at least 13 incidents were under criminal investigation prior to the July 29 publication date of the military’s report might have gone some way toward refuting claims that Israel was cavalier about abuse allegations.

Instead, Israeli officials have devolved into name-calling, backed by an array of pro-Israel NGOs and lobbying groups that distribute — sometimes anonymously — “backgrounders” that attempt through sometimes-tenuous links to discredit the human rights groups. The foreign ministry recently distributed material implicating Human Rights Watch editor Joe Stork with disseminating radical, anti-Israel and pro-terrorist material in the 1970s; it was an odd volley from the office of a minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who says police investigations of criminal conduct and a youthful flirtation with the racist Kach movement should not bear on his current diplomacy.

More substantively, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is now seeking ways to legally cut off foreign government funding for Israeli human rights NGOs.

The human rights groups are not above using the law to make an exception of Israel; Human Rights Watch frequently calls for international investigations, saying that Israel has repeatedly failed “to conduct credible investigations into alleged violations of the laws of war.”

The problem with such calls is that Israel believes such international mechanisms cannot be trusted because they are wrapped into the United Nations — a worry Human Rights Watch admits is credible. Moreover, left unsaid is the failure generally among Western democracies to dig too deep when human rights abuses are at hand. The Obama administration reportedly is considering a strategy for prosecuting individuals who carried out torture, but not those who ordered it.

Israeli army spokesmen say it is fairer to note what Israel is doing to prevent the recurrence of abuses, citing as an example the introduction of the ultra-precise missiles.