The Azarya Case, B’Tselem, and the Polarization of Israeli Society

The trial and conviction of an Israeli soldier, Sgt. Elor Azarya and the detailed decision handed down by the court did not end the polarization and internal conflict over this case – if anything, the conviction increased the divisions. From the beginning, the anger and threats of violence that characterize political discourse in Israel (as elsewhere) exploited this tragedy in support of narrow ideological agendas. And with the sentencing, appeals, and arguments over whether Azarya should be pardoned, the polarization is likely to grow.

Although the case focused on the actions of one soldier in the always tense city of Hebron, the conflict immediately became one of right vs. left, erasing the complex reality in between. The network of civil society groups claiming to promote human rights and peace are among the core activists and polarizers, enabled by large budgets provided by European governments and some (mainly American) private foundations.

The political organization known as B’Tselem has played a central role in this process. As Prof. Asa Kasher, who formulated the IDF Code of Ethics, wrote: “most of the Israeli public became aware of the Hebron incident by watching a video produced by a Palestinian photographer working with the radical left organization B’Tselem.” Indeed, B’Ttselem and its supporters falsely claimed that it their video that led to Azarya’s trial.

But the facts are quite different. Immediately after Azarya fired his gun at the head of the wounded Palestinian terrorist who had attacked another soldier in Azarya’s unit, his commanders began an investigation and recognized that he had violated orders. Had normal procedures been followed, he would have been tried, convicted, punished and discharged.

However, as soon as B’Tselem’s full-blown public relations campaign began, this became impossible. Amidst the international media reports based on the B’Tselem video, the Defense Minister at the time, former IDF Chief of Staff – Moshe (Bogie) Yaalon, and the current head of the IDF, General Gadi Eizenkot, both condemned the shooting.  As Kasher noted, “This immediately created a wrong impression: that the soldier had been condemned by the IDF chief of staff and the minister of defense solely on the grounds of a piece of radical left propaganda.”

B’Tselem is a red flag to the Israeli public, who see it and allied groups as anti-Zionists agents who travel the world falsely and maliciously accusing Israel of war crimes. In Asa Kasher’s words, “The mistaken idea that an NGO that has often cooperated with enemies of Israel in international campaigns against the IDF could play a role in forming the views of the head of the IDF and minister of defense enraged many Israelis, not just those on the extreme right.”

This “mistaken idea” is facilitated or at least aided significantly by large grants that B’Tselem receives from European governments (in addition to small amounts from the private New Israel Fund [NIF]).  Of the NIS 9.3 million ($2.5 million) reported in the NGO’s latest published financials, two-thirds came from funds (usually through top-secret procedures) of the EU, Switzerland, Norway, UK, the Netherlands, Spain, and others. Together, between 2012 and 2014, Israeli political NGOs on the left (many of which are current or past members of the NIF network) reported receiving NIS 170 million or $45 million from European governments, adding massively to the anger and polarization of Israeli society.

The policy of secretly funding a select group of Israeli political NGOs such as Peace Now began in the 1990s, partly as a means of giving the Europeans some leverage in the Oslo peace process. These grants were an end in themselves, and no mechanism was created to assess what, if anything, was accomplished by these funds. Over the years, the amounts have grown significantly, but still without oversight. The funders and NGO recipients developed close relationships, and nobody questioned the wisdom or morality of this process.

European officials claim that the money promotes democracy, peace and human rights, but the details show that most of the funds are used instead for political warfare, through boycotts and false “war crimes” campaigns, in order to pressure Israel to “end the occupation”.  Indeed, the threat that phony NGO “war crimes” accusations will result in IDF soldiers being dragged before the International Criminal Court in The Hague is central to understanding the angry response to the role of B’Tselem in the Azarya trial.

Furthermore, Israelis, and not only on the right, ask how Britain would react if foreign governments were to fund organizations whose officials go around the world accusing their soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan of war crimes. Or whether any European country would approve of funds to pay for speeches like the one made by Hagai El-ad, the head of B’Tselem, in October, at the UN Security Council (following an invitation from such human rights stalwarts as Malaysia, Venezuela and Egypt) calling for measures to force Israel’s government to adopt his preferred policies.

Europe has its own political and moral crises, to which it could apply the millions in taxpayer funds channeled to B’Tselem and the other NGOs. And Israel faces enough challenges without adding to the dangerous polarization unleashed in the Azarya trial.

Professor Gerald M. Steinberg teaches political science at Bar Ilan University, and is President of NGO Monitor in Jerusalem.

About the Author
Gerald Steinberg is Professor of Political Science at Bar Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor. His latest book is "Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism", (Indiana University Press)
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