Israel’s most popular primetime news broadcast aired a segment about +972 and Local Call journalist Basil al-Adraa on Tuesday night, falsely claiming that he had set fire to a structure in the Palestinian village in the South Hebron Hills in order to frame Israeli settlers from a nearby outpost. Since the segment ran, right-wing activists have been accusing al-Adraa, as well as human rights group B’Tselem, where he volunteers as part of the organization’s “Camera Project,” of spreading lies.
The saga began on Tuesday evening when the far-right news site HaKol HaYehudi (“The Jewish Voice”) published an article under the headline “Exposed: B’Tselem activist suspected of setting fire to a building and shouting ‘The Jews set it on fire.’” HaKol HaYehudi — which is based in the settlement of Yitzhar, a bastion of Jewish extremism in the occupied West Bank — has been suspected by the Shin Bet of encouraging Jewish youth to carry out hate crimes against Palestinians.
That same evening, Channel 12 correspondent Ofer Hadad went on primetime television and presented footage taken from the body camera of an Israeli army officer, claiming that a Palestinian had attempted to set fire to a house and declare it a Jewish crime.
Neither HaKol HaYehudi nor Channel 12 News reached out to al-Adraa for a response. Rather, they said that their reports were based on testimonies from “soldiers on the ground,” without providing any evidence to support their claim.
The Palestinian activist, who was named in HaKol HaYehudi’s report and can be clearly seen in the video aired by Channel 12, is al-Adraa, who lives in the West Bank village of a-Tuwani. Over the past months, al-Adraa has reported extensively on settler violence backed by the Israeli army in the South Hebron Hills, and even exposed the murder of a Palestinian man at the hands of settlers, which led to the opening of a police investigation.
Al-Adraa was also at the scene during a settler pogrom on Sept. 28, during which at least 60 masked Israeli settlers carried out a coordinated attack on the village of Mufagara. The settlers beat residents, killed their animals, overturned vehicles, and threw stones — one of which fractured the skull of a three-year-old boy. It was during this pogrom, HaKol HaYehudi and Channel 12 claimed, that al-Adraa had set fire to the structure before blaming it on settlers.
A month of bad press
The body camera footage aired by Channel 12 News shows an Israeli army officer approaching al-Adraa and accusing him of starting the fire. The two can then be seen arguing, during which al-Adraa blames the soldiers for the fire. Footage shot by al-Adraa just minutes before clearly shows that the fire was caused by a tear gas canister shot by the army, which landed in a stack of dry trees.
It is unclear whether the officer handed over the footage directly to HaKol HaYehudi — which, if it were an unauthorized leak to the press, would be considered a crime under Israeli law — or whether the IDF Spokesperson gave it to the press. The IDF Spokesperson told Channel 12 and HaKol HaYehudi, without any evidence, that the “officer noticed a Palestinian setting fire to a building and claiming that it had been set on fire by Jews.”
While Channel 12’s Hadad did not say al-Adraa’s name on air, the correspondent wrote the following tweet following the news segment: “Basel al-Adraa is a B’Tselem activist. According to the testimony of forces on the ground, during the attack by right-wing activists, Palestinians tried to set fire to a Palestinian structure and began to shout at the cameraman who was accompanying them that Jews and soldiers were the ones who had burned their homes.”
Channel 12’s report comes after a month of bad press for both the Israeli army and the settlers. Three weeks ago, while left-wing Israelis were accompanying a Palestinian who was bringing a water tanker to his village, army officer Moshe Maor was filmed throwing an elderly Israeli activist to the ground before kneeling on the neck of another protester. Maor was reprimanded by his superiors, but continued serving in the area.
A week ago, during the attack on Mufagara, Maor was seen violently shoving a Palestinian down a slope as the latter was trying to assist one of the wounded residents.
The Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee was supposed to hold a meeting on settler violence next Sunday. Following a request by the army to postpone the discussion, the meeting is now slated to be held on Oct. 12. It is possible that the false accusations against al-Adraa could be used by certain groups to deflect attention from the settler and soldier violence against Palestinians.
Al-Adraa says that the attack on Mufagara was full of violent incidents, and that the conversation with the army officer seemed unimportant at the time. He recalls what happened when he arrived at the scene: “I saw the fire erupt in the trees, and the reason was that soldiers had fired tear gas that hit the trees. Two soldiers passed by — I told them to put out the fire, since it began because of them. They ignored me.
WATCH: Basil al-Adraa responds to Channel 12’s smears
“I shouted at people to hurry to get water to put out the fire,” al-Adraa continued. “When the soldiers saw people running [toward the fire], two of them came and started putting out the fire with their shoes, while Palestinians poured water. More soldiers, three or four of them, arrived and started speaking to me in Hebrew. I realized they were accusing me of doing it. I told them, ‘No, there is a tear gas canister here, it’s because of the soldiers.’ They continued to speak Hebrew, even though I don’t understand it save for a few words, all while using a GoPro camera.”
Placed side by side, it is clear that the footage aired by Channel 12 News was taken at the same time as that of al-Adraa. Both videos include the same pile of burned trees and the same silver vehicle whose windshield was smashed by stones. One of al-Adraa’s videos shows soldiers coming to put out the fire, along with a Palestinian man with a bucket full of water, just as al-Adraa explained. The man with the bucket is clearly visible in the video taken by the Israeli officer and aired on Channel 12.
In a tweet published on Wednesday, al-Adraa wrote that he feels the officer “resents him,” since al-Adraa has previously documented him acting violently, including when he attacked left-wing Israeli activists. As al-Adraa wrote on +972 yesterday: “This ordeal is not just a case of fake news — it is a desperate attempt to stop me from documenting the violence of the occupation, and to intimidate other Palestinians from doing the same.”
Channel 12: ‘We support the soldiers’
Since the settler attack on Mufagara last Tuesday, two videos taken from soldiers’ body cameras have been published — one of them on Tuesday by Channel 12, and the other by Kan News reporter Roy Sharon two days after the pogrom. Neither of the videos shows actual footage of the settler attack. Instead, the videos present a narrative that props up the army’s image.
The video published by Sharon shows what appears to be a drunk settler walking around the area being confronted by soldiers who peacefully ensure that he stays away from Mufagara. The documentation was intended to fend off criticism that the soldiers did nothing to prevent the settlers from attacking. +972 asked the army to provide the full video, but the request has not yet been granted.
The video in which al-Adraa is accused of arson serves a much broader narrative. An article in HaKol HaYehudi has already caused settlers from the South Hebron Hills to “look into whether the Arab child who was wounded in the incident, and became a symbol of the extremist left, was also injured by Arabs.” For the settlers, Channel 12’s segment lends credence to their allegations that all claims of settler violence are mere provocations by Palestinian and left-wing activists.
After the footage aired on primetime television, the Channel 12 News presenter turned to Hadad, who was in the studio, and said: “There was settler violence, but you are bringing a slightly more complex story.” Hadad himself argued that “those who document these events, those who try to spread them, these are also human rights organizations and left-wing organizations, [an attempt to] design a narrative, a serious event that they tried to take a few steps further.” But apart from the officer’s claims in the video, Channel 12 failed to present any shred of evidence to back their severe allegations.
In response to a tweet by +972 and Local Call reporter Yuval Abraham, who backed al-Adraa’s version of the events, HaKol HaYehudi’s Elhanan Gruner tweeted: “By the way, tell Basil that next time he creates a [fake] version, etc., that he not do it next to the hidden cameras of Ad Kan” — referring to the extreme right-wing group that has previously infiltrated and secretly taped Israeli human rights organizations. It is unclear whether such documentation does exist, but right-wing groups, including Ad Kan and the far right Im Tirtzu, celebrated the so-called “exposure” of Palestinians and left-wing activists, demanding that the authorities act against B’Tselem.
B’Tselem published a response to the allegations on Wednesday, saying that “last week, dozens of settlers, some of them armed, attacked the residents of Mufagara in Masafer Yatta in one of the most violent attacks by settlers in recent years. During the incident, Muhammad Baker Mahmoud Hamamdeh, who is three years and 10 months old, was wounded in his head by a stone. The event was documented by B’Tselem volunteers and was extensively covered in the media last week. The news channel did not bother carrying out a basic fact check before publishing the video and the baseless allegations against al-Adraa — whose response no one bothered asking for.”
Channel 12 said they do not intend to look into the incident, and that they “support the soldiers.”
B’Tselem spokeswoman Dror Sadot said that Channel 12’s request for a response from the organization only came 10 minutes before the segment aired. According to Sadot, she told Hadad “that we refuse to respond without seeing what took place before, but he chose not to read [our response].” Sadot later tweeted a screenshot of her correspondence with Hadad before the broadcast, with Hadad’s approval. Sadot further confirmed these details to +972.
The IDF Spokesperson has yet to respond to +972’s request for comment. It will be published here if and when it is received.
A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.