Occupation is the problem, not the people talking about it

Israel’s Foreign Ministry is going after Israeli human rights and anti-occupation activists overseas. Doing so will only make things worse for Israel.

By Ilan Baruch

Israeli soldiers blindfold and arrest a young Palestinian man in Hebron. (photo: Activestills.org)
Israeli soldiers blindfold and arrest a young Palestinian man in Hebron. (photo: Activestills.org)

It’s been less than a month since Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely instructed Israeli embassies abroad to explain to the nations of the world that the land of Israel is ours in its entirety. Global hostility toward Israel, she insisted, does not stem from the occupation or settlements.

Now, we have learned that she instructed the Israeli embassy in Switzerland to attempt to cancel a “Breaking the Silence” exhibition in Zurich. The exhibition presents soldiers’ testimonies on their experiences during their military service regarding the daily reality in the occupied territories.

In this fashion, Hotovely compelled the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to conduct a right-wing political campaign, which aims to eliminate any opposition to the ongoing occupation and settlement expansion. Leaders of this campaign, both in the Knesset and elsewhere, seek to perpetuate the occupation indefinitely. They aim to do so through complete integration of the occupied territories into Israel proper, by deepening Israeli military control over the territories, and through expanding settlements.

As such, they repeatedly attack organizations that oppose the occupation, accusing them of “delegitimizing” Israel with their public criticism abroad. This, in turn, condemns soldiers of conscience — who are merely exercising their right and duty to expose a reality that isn’t debated publicly — as enemies of Israel.

Having served in the foreign service for most of my adult life, and as a citizen concerned for the strength of Israel, I cannot remain silent about the severe damage this campaign has on Israel’s standing in the world. Criticism of Israel in Europe, the United Nations and the United States is not about the multiplicity of opinions in Israel. They are not concerned with those Israelis trying to prevent human rights violations and trying to end the occupation. The recurring criticism toward Israel harks back to one topic: the denial of liberty to the Palestinian people in the name of conquest through settlements.

It is important to understand that this criticism will not go away by silencing Israeli human rights organizations. The international community has opposed military control over the West Bank’s civilian Palestinian population for nearly half a century. When Israel acts contrarily to the spirit of democracy and freedom of expression, in silencing opinions that oppose its policy of occupation, it contributes to its own international de-legitimization. Of all the nations of the world, Israel, in particular, is in need of international legitimacy.

Occupation and the deprivation of Palestinians’ liberty endanger Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state. Within this reality of profound internal disagreements regarding Israel’s future path and values – and in light of growing external criticism regarding its policy toward the Palestinians – it is the State of Israel’s duty to ensure an open platform for the diverse voices of its civil society.

Thus the role of the Foreign Ministry is not to silence “Breaking the Silence,” but rather to strengthen its activists’ voices along with those of other groups working toward a more tolerant Israeli state, not reliant on the sword alone, alongside a Palestinian state.

Deputy Minister Hotovely, please do not contribute to this campaign of de-legitimization against human rights organizations, which will inevitably result in the deepening de-legitimization of the State of Israel. Do not sow seeds that undermine Israel’s commitment to democracy and freedom of expression. Do not provide other countries with reasons to view our country as one that shamefully hunts its critics. I appeal to the government of Switzerland to please continue supporting and cooperating with human rights organizations, and any other groups that seek to build a better future for the people of the region.

Ilan Baruch is a political adviser to the Meretz party Chairperson, a political activist, and former Israeli Ambassador to South Africa.

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