Israel bans rights group from national service programme

Criticism of Gaza offensive leads to disqualification of B’Tselem members

Israel has disqualified its foremost human rights group as a volunteer option for youths who choose civilian national service over military conscription, officials said yesterday, citing the group's criticism of the Gaza offensive.

The government move against B'Tselem, while unlikely to affect the group's operations, reflected growing anger within Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's rightist coalition at Israeli activism it sees as stoking pro-Palestinian sympathy.

Hoping to close ranks with minority Arab citizens and ultra-Orthodox Jews exempted from the draft for ideological reasons, and to accommodate pacifists, Israel has been sponsoring alternative service in public bodies in areas such as education and health.

Civilian national service volunteers have their living expenses covered by the state and later become eligible for benefits akin to those extended to discharged soldiers.


No more staff

The government’s Authority for National-Civic Service said it would stop providing staff for B’Tselem after the group argued that some military strikes in Gaza, where 1,945 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have died in a month-old war, were illegal. B’Tselem currently has one national service volunteer, authority director Sar-Shalom Jerbi told Israel’s Channel 2 TV.

“The volunteers represent one camp, in that they want to contribute to the country, to society and to their community,” Mr Jerbi said. “B’Tselem crossed the line in wartime [by] campaigning and inciting against the state of Israel and the Israel Defence Force, which is the most moral of armies.”

B’Tselem director Haggai Elad, responding in the broadcast, described the ban as politically motivated and undemocratic. “We act out of a deep commitment to the values of the society we are part of,” Mr Elad said, calling on Uri Orbach, the government minister in charge of the Authority for National-Civic Service, to overturn the decision.

Mr Orbach, a member of the ultranationalist Jewish Home party in Mr Netanyahu’s government, was unmoved.

“Israel is in the midst of a difficult military and diplomatic campaign against terrorists,” he said, referring to Hamas-led Gaza militants who have killed 64 Israeli soldiers and three civilians inside the Jewish state.

“An organisation that works to prove allegations that Israel is committing war crimes should be so good as to do so with its own resources and not with civilian national service volunteers and state funds.”

Trim funding

Rightist lawmakers have been advancing legislation to trim foreign funding for advocacy groups they view as encouraging international censure of Israeli policies toward Palestinians. Left-wing lawmakers fear an attempt to stifle dissent.

An investigation by the UN Human Rights Council into possible war crimes committed by either side has been dismissed as a "kangaroo court" by Israel.

During the fighting, Israel’s state broadcaster rejected a B’Tselem request to air names of killed Palestinian children. The group appealed to the high court of justice, which upheld the broadcaster’s decision.

Meanwhile, a new, five-day truce between Israel and Hamas appeared to be holding yesterday despite a shaky start, after both sides agreed to give Egyptian-brokered peace negotiations in Cairo more time to try to end the war. – (Reuters)