Arrests signal intensifying crackdown on Israeli human rights groups

Taayush activist Ezra Nawi in 2010.

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Israel has arrested three human rights defenders amid what appears to be a concerted campaign, backed by authorities, to sabotage domestic organizations documenting Israeli abuses of Palestinians.

Last week, Israeli forces arrested Ezra Nawi, a member of Ta’ayush, a Palestinian and Jewish activist group that defends the rights of Palestinian farmers in the South Hebron Hills area of the occupied West Bank.

Often Ta’ayush members place themselves between the farmers and the Israeli settlers and soldiers who attack them.


Nawi’s arrest followed the airing on Israeli television of video filmed by the right-wing group Ad Kan (Hebrew for “No More”).

Two people working for Ad Kan had infiltrated Ta’ayush.

Ad Kan was set up to spy on the “tiny Israeli left wing,” according to Amira Hass, a reporter for the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz.

Hass characterized the television report as “a puff piece for a privatized, mini-Shin Bet” – a reference to Israel’s secret police agency.

The two Ad Kan spies set up a hoax land deal falsely claiming the sale of the family land of Nasser Nawaja, a Palestinian field worker for the human rights group B’Tselem.

The video footage showed Nawi responding to the supposed land deal with claims that the land dealer would be arrested, tortured and executed by the Palestinian Authority. Nawi knew Nasser and therefore knew the sale would be fraudulent.

Although there was no land deal, Israel decided to arrest Nawi anyway.

The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has carried out no executions for any crime since 2005.

Gag order

Meanwhile, Israel arrested a second person from Ta’ayush on 19 January and questioned him on suspicion of being an “accomplice to manslaughter, conspiracy to commit murder, passing on information to a foreign agent, transporting a person without a legal entry permit into Israel and use of drugs.”

Israeli media have not named the activist due to a gag order, but social media users have identified him as the filmmaker Guy Butavia.

Just like Nawi, Butavia was reportedly arrested after passing through airport border control, on the way out of the country.

In the current climate of hatred and incitement against human rights groups, the two apparently felt they were no longer safe in Israel.

The story does not end there. On Wednesday morning, B’Tselem announced on Twitter the arrest of its fieldworker Nasser Nawaja whose family land was the subject of the fake deal:

Most details of these arrests are kept from the public by Israeli authorities under gag orders, and the detained persons have been denied access to lawyers.

In July, Nawaja had written in The New York Times about his own family’s history of expulsion from their land and the ongoing efforts by settlers to take over the South Hebron Hills.

Settler front

According to blogger Richard Silverstein, the human rights defenders are being interrogated by Israeli police operating in the occupied West Bank, rather than by the Shin Bet.

This may indicate that the Shin Bet does not see them as a “security threat” and that the West Bank police wants to silence the activists in the South Hebron Hills, an area of intense colonization by settlers.

Research by Silverstein reveals that Ad Kan was founded by Aviram Zeevi, a former official of the internal security ministry, together with current and former army officers, to attack Israel’s human rights organizations.

Earlier, Ad Kan targeted Rabbis for Human Rights and Breaking the Silence, according to the Israeli online publication Walla! News.

According to Walla! News, Ad Kan is funded by the Shomron Settlers Committee, a body representing Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank. The Shomron Settlement Committee was founded in 2008 and is funded by the Shomron Regional Council, a local government body.

Silverstein says Ad Kan was established as a front for the settler council as well as to hide the involvement of other powerful right-wing groups and government bodies such as the Israeli military and a security ministry.

The Shomron Settlers Committee contributed “tens of thousands of shekels” to Ad Kan, according to Walla! News.

The two persons infiltrating Ta’ayush for Ad Kan were identified by Silverstein as Itzik Goldway and his girlfriend Yulia Tarantarova.

Last February, Goldway was awarded a medal for his part in Israel’s 2014 invasion of Gaza.

The Israeli military protected his identity by referring to Goldway only by his initials.

Silverstein says such a procedure is normally followed to protect the identity of agents from espionage and assassination agencies like Mossad or Shin Bet.

“Is the army associated with Ad Kan, and is it protecting Goldway from exposure, so he can spy on the left?” Haaretz’s Amira Hass asked regarding the anonymous citation.

Israeli interrogators are known for extracting confessions by applying heavy pressure amounting to torture. Human rights defenders Ezra Nawi, Guy Butavia and Nasser Nawaja are at risk.

Other Israeli right-wing groups have advertised their efforts to infiltrate human rights organizations, amid an intense atmosphere of incitement.

Jewish Voice for Peace has launched a petition demanding Nawi’s freedom.


Adri Nieuwhof

Adri Nieuwhof's picture

Adri Nieuwhof is a human rights advocate based in the Netherlands and former anti-apartheid activist at the Holland Committee on Southern Africa. Twitter: @steketeh