They’re called “traitors.” They are accused of “sticking a knife in the nation’s back.” Investigators rummaged through their garbage seeking incriminating evidence. But they have no intention to stop.
Who are these leftist organizations? Who are these people? Where does your funding come from? What lines won’t you cross? What are you afraid of? Do you think you’ve succeeded or failed?
On Sunday, attorney Gaby Lasky managed to release B’Tselem investigator Nasser Nawaja from custody. The next day Lasky proposed a motion to Tel Aviv City Council to provide more shaded public spaces. It’s hard to find something extreme or outrageous in this environmental proposal, but these are not good times for games of light and darkness. The two events, the release of Palestinian B’Tselem activist and the discussion about the Sun Canopy ended in a very similar way.
“I had a minute left to speak after introducing the motion,” Lasky says. “I asked the city councilors to speak up in every event they attend and tell people that the Israeli democracy is in danger, freedom of speech and association are under threat, and people are called traitors if they think differently. Just as I finished speaking, Arnon Giladi, the Deputy Mayor and head of Likud in the council, started yelling at me: ‘You are a fifth columnist’ and ‘You’re a disgrace to the country.’ And all this happened at a city council meeting where usually things like this don’t usually happen. Meretz members started fighting with him. But no one joined either side except for us. The mayor said nothing. As far as I am concerned, these days, those who stay silent support evil.”
Arnon Giladi, what happened?
“Unfortunately, Mrs. Lisky or Lasky, whatever is her name is, confuses local and national issues. Maybe she wants to get elected to the Knesset on the backs Tel Aviv residents. But as an activist and a Breaking the Silence board member, she has no right to preach at a City Council meeting about silencing people. They [Breaking the Silence] are exposing our soldiers to foreigners and undermining the foundations of the State of Israel in the world. They cannot preach to us what is justice and what is democracy. Even a democracy must defend itself against those who try to sabotage it. Someone here is trying to use illegal means to change election results. They are an insignificant minority in Israel and they undermine Israel’s reputation around the world.”
Isn’t it a bit of an exaggeration to call a few sentences in a city council meeting an attempt to change election results?
“I understood exactly what she meant. And they are the ones silencing people and undermining the democratic foundations of the State of Israel. Besides, she talked about the fact that it is difficult for her to walk around in the sun. She wants Tel Aviv to be like a kibbutz. I did not understand what she wants.”
Gaby Lasky, maybe the city council is not a place to speak about such concerns?
“Democracy is a civic matter central to our lives. I have no doubt that a forum of elected officials is an appropriate palce to say what I said. I will continue saying this on every platform and I suggest that anyone who thinks similarly do the same.”
IT WILL END WITHOUT CHARGES
Lasky, 49, a mother of two, a well-known human rights activist and former CEO of Peace Now, does not deny that she would like to be in the Knesset. In the last election she was number seven on the Meretz list, and for a while it seemed possible. “I very sorry I was not elected,” she says. “Our Knesset members stand in the frontline of fire and defend our democracy with inspiring courage. I have a lot of arenas to fight in, but I think I would have served best in the Knesset’s Constitution Committee, where I would have revealed the legal measures this government takes to change the rules of the game.”
Of the three who were arrested after the TV documentary “Uvda,” which was based on the work of Ad Kan, Lasky represents Nasser Nawaja, the Palestinian investigator who was the last detainee in the affair. Attorney Leah Zemel represents Ezra Nawi, the main suspect, and Smadar Ben Natan’s office represents Guy Batavia.
Nasser Nawaja. photo by: Be'tzelem
Although she has not spoken with Ezra Nawi since his arrest, Lasky knows him well and had represented him in three different cases, all, according to her, related to “his [big] mouth.” He once called an officer “a war criminal.” On another occasion, he told an officer in the Civil Administration: “You behave like Nazis.” Nawi has either won or the charges were dropped in all these cases (he has been convicted of other offenses over the years). Lasky seems unimpressed with Nawi’s choice of words or the way he runs his business, but the police’s conduct leaves her speechless. She almost has no doubt that this case will too end without charges. She says “almost” because of the spirit of the times and not the evidence as she understands it.
A brief summary of the facts: there are two interrelated cases here: the story of the deceased Abu Khalil and the story of the very much alive Musa. The first was a land dealer and the second identified as a land dealer. Nawi bragged to the Ad Kan activist that he turned Abu Khalil into the Palestinian Authority for selling land to Jews. Later he said that the Palestinian Authority tortures people like that and then executes them. Indeed, Abu Khalil is dead, but there is no evidence that he was murdered, and his family says he died of an illness in his bed. The Palestinian Authority has not executed anyone in the last decade.
Musa came to Nawi on his own initiative and offered to sell Palestinians’ land to Jews. The Ad Kan infiltrator filmed the events and then the subsequent conversations between Nawi, Nawaja and Batavia about reporting the seller to the Palestinian Security forces. Musa was not harmed. He was not turned in and as far as we know and nothing happened except for those phone calls.
On January 11, a few days after the broadcast, Nawi was arrested at the airport. Batavia and Nawaja were arrested a few days later. They face a series of accusations—attempted murder and contact with a foreign agent. Nawi also face his usual charges: minor drug possession, transporting an illegal alien and possessing a knife.
The army arrested Nawaja at his home late at night. He was handed over to the police and brought to court for a remand hearing. He was accused of contact with a foreign agent, even though he’s a Palestinian, as is the person he supposedly approached. Two civil courts accepted Lasky’s argument that they have no authority to investigate non-Israeli citizens for offenses that did not occur in Israel and ordered him released. The second time the police used a delay that the district court allowed for filing an appeal to transfer Nawaja, against all acceptable practice, to the army. He was imprisoned in the Offer military prison and brought before a military court where he was remanded for a few days. The court released him after that because the investigation was not progressing and there was no reason to hold him. Unlike his friends, he has not been placed under house arrest.
The investigating police unit is the same one responsible for the investigation of the Duma murders. It was recently the target of much settler hatred. Maybe settler anger explains the enthusiasm with which Ad Kan’s complaint was investigated. The unit’s spokesman was asked whether foreign considerations intervened in the arrest. He has yet to respond.
Ezra Nawi. photo by: אורי זקהם CC BY-SA 3.0
Lasky is convinced that the arrests have no legal basis. “It was an attempt to prove that there are extremists on both sides, and to show that not only right-wingers are arrested for the killing of innocent people. They tried incriminating Leftist activists and to produce an indictment against the Left in general. This is part of the war against the Left. They use state mechanisms designed to be neutral as political weapons.”
A complaint was made and the offense on its face looks serious. What’s the problem anyway?
“They have to investigate when there is a complaint. But before arresting someone there are other things the police can do: conduct a preliminary investigation of the evidence, search for an evidentiary basis for the nonsense people say, and invite people in for questioning. In Nasser’s case they had to get the Attorney General’s written permission to judge a foreigner for an offense that didn’t occur in Israel. They didn’t get it and one judge after another ordered his release.”
If you think the system is biased, why do you assume that the court would not convict them if they were indicted?
“I do not agree with all rulings, but I trust the legal system. I would hope that despite the pressures the police will properly assess the evidence and put an end to this farce.”
THE INTIMIDATION IS SUCCESSFUL, PEOPLE ARE AFRAID
“The dam has been breached,” Lasky said in our conversation last week. And in a moment of weakness, she asked not to speak about a certain subject because “I have no energy for another assult on me. I deal with the house demolitions front, the Breaking the Silence front, and the Nasser front. Sometimes I read Facebook comments . . . and I do not have (Meretz chairperson) Zehava Galon’s strength to ignore people who write “Why didn’t they kill you and your children in the Tel Aviv terrorist attack.” They even try to attack Meretz through me. There are Facebook posts out there “revealing who I am and attacking Meretz.”
You can’t get upset from every Facebook status
“But there are 4,000 Likes on this nonsense! And I see that people are beginning to be afraid of liking our posts. The intimidation is successful. People are afraid. They don’t feel comfortable. They canceled events, like Breaking the Silence events for example, or changing locations. They lower their heads until the darkness passes. I believe there will be casualties. The gloves have fully come off from the Prime Minister on down. They delegitimize the Left, they don’t condemn violence [against it], and this is how they support it. ”
Were you afraid of casualties two years ago too?
“I didn’t imagine it would happen. I’m not afraid of debate or criticism. But we are not in the same place we were two years ago.”
Are you afraid?
“It’s not a fear that prevents me from saying what I have to say, but also affects my mind and my daily conduct. I, for example, lock my office doors. I still don’t do that with the kids. I’m worried about my friends and hope because they are elected officials, they receive adequate protection because we are all exposed. And I cry a lot. Now too the tears are streaming. I cry out of real sorrow about what is happening here right in front of our eyes. I don’t want future historians to analyze how it happened. It’s happening now. We see it “.
THEY WANT TO OUTLAW MERETZ
But what actually happened? What changed?
“In the Israeli reality sometimes the Right ruled and sometimes the left. But they always played by the same rules which allowed dialogue and competition of ideas and permitted people to choose, like in any democracy. What is happening now is that they are changing the rules of the game. A tiny parliamentary majority is using democracy to put an end to democracy. What have they been doing? First, they undermine the conditions that allow people to present views contrary to the government. They take money from organizations and cut budgets. Suddenly there are things we can’t speak about, like the boycott law and the Nakba law. Suddenly speaking becomes a criminal offense and they can sue you for speaking out. They even cut the funding for pluralistic Jewish organizations.
“On the second level, they are trying to change reality by changing the civics textbook, allowing religious organizations to teach in secular schools, but not vice versa. Restrict all possible narratives only to their false narrative. The next step is delegitimizing anyone who thinks differently as “traitors’, “infiltrators,” “enemies of the people,” “disloyalty.” From a historical perspective, this is the means to overthrow a democratic government and establish a fascist movement. I hear Likud members saying we should outlaw Meretz. This phenomenon started on the fringes of the far Right and has now entered the centrist Likud party. Not even a non-extreme social democratic party opposes them.”
Do you really believe Netanyahu wants to become a fascist dictator?
“Netanyahu, as far as I understand his mindset, is busy prolonging his rule. And to do that he is willing to violate the fundamental values of the State of Israel. I don’t think he sits at home and imitates Mussolini or Franco. But in practice, the way he leads the country is very similar to what happened in Argentina at the beginning of the military dictatorship. Books were forbidden there too, including The Little Prince, critical thinking and questioning [the status quo] became unacceptable.”
On the other hand, this is a democracy. He was elected, he represents his constituents, maybe you should accept defeat.
“Democracy is not a formalistic mechanism of majority rule. It is based on the protection of minority rights and principles that allow persuasion and criticism. Freedom of expression and freedom of association, which developed in the direction of social rights and collective – and environmental – that’s part of the fabric of Democratic thought.”
Maybe Israel today isn’t interested in your extensive definition of democracy. It simply wants to elect a strong leader and go about its business?
“It’s okay, but that is not a democracy. Those who decide to abandon democracy and the values it empowers choose to abandon the principles of the Israeli Declaration of Independence. You want to tell me you gave up of this too? Do you want a Jewish state in the land of Israel based on a nationalist and messianic vision? Great, then say it. I think most people in Israel will wake up dazed and say that’s not what they want. I have no doubt about it. I learned from Shulamit Aloni to always return to the Declaration of Independence in order to understand what’s our purpose in this place. We established the state on a social contract, and I am convinced that most people want to live in a democracy that promotes social wellbeing and the values of openness and equality. When things are expressed in such a way, when we don’t call those who want to maintain the social contract “traitors,” then we come back to reality. This does not guarantee a leftwing rule, but it ensures a decent democracy.”
I AM THE FIRST TO ADMIT THAT WE HAVE FAILED
The topics you spoke of overlap with recent headlines in Haaretz. Is it possible that this is one way to tell a story that can also be told differently? Does it play into the hands of the government that the Left jumps every time it is punched? Punching the Left is after all the main agenda of the Right now, and it has recently become very easy.
“I can analyze the government’s actions that are merely a distraction. Take the social protest, for example (Lasky represented most of the detainees). When they arrested and indicted the activists, they moved the focus of the public interest from the causes of the protest to the courts. All the energy was focused on freedom of speech, is it legal to erect tents, and why the activists were indicted.
“In the demonstrations against the gas deal—I represent many of the activists there too—they started arresting those who asked for permits to demonstrate in order to keep them away from the demonstration. The discussion again shifted to freedom of speech and instead of talking about the core issues, the public talked about something else. I agree these spins are good, but what can we do about it? Should we leave people detained without grounds? Should we ignore what is happening with the NGO Law and the banning of books?”
But the main agenda of the Left is not Dorit Rabinyan’s book but the two state solution. And this solution was accepted by the majority of the Israeli public and its leaders.
“It’s true that the two state solution was successful, but this is not the agenda of those in power right now and it is contrary to the position of the Likud’s primary partner, the Jewish Home (Habayt Hayehudi), and some members of the Likud Party like Tzipi Hotovely and Miri Regev. On the ground they continue transferring funds to settlements, building, giving benefits to settlers, and attempting the de-facto annexation of the territories.
“It’s wrong to say that Netanyahu is stalling to avoid reaching a two state solution. The truth is that Netanyahu is leading toward a different solution: as time goes on the number of settlers increase, more housing units are built, and more Palestinian areas become isolated. Stalling actually advances the Jewish Home’s preferred solution – a binational/apartheid solution. Netanyahu’s inaction is leading to this. The two state solution requires action.”
Are you still sure this is the right way? Maybe your perception of human rights is detached from Israeli reality?
“I think and ask myself a lot of questions all the time, and every once in a while I come to the conclusion that most people in Israel—Jews and Palestinians—want to live their lives in peace, and raise their children in safety. And when I examine how we can realize this dream, I am convinced that this is best way. People get used to a lot of things, but the fact that someone got used to something does not mean that it’s their dream for their children. Even people who gave up on their dreams don’t stop dreaming that their children would have a better life. I believe all children should have opportunities to be exposed, regardless of the economic situation and place of residence, to critical art and civic textbooks that put the citizen rather than Jewish identity at the center.
“There is a difficult situation here. Innocent people are killed, and the residents of the Gaza envelop and Israel’s north are under terrorist threats. Yet the only answer the government offers is to call leftists and nonprofits presenting an alternative traitors. I am angry at the attempt to plant a lie in people’s hearts, so they won’t believe that we, the people who want what’s best, are the majority. We should raise our voices and defend the country, and we will win in the end.”
This position was not successful here.
“I’m the first to admit that we have failed. We have had great successes: Ran Cohen’s Public Housing Law, Ilan Gilon’s Handicap Accessibility legislation. But here is the root of Israeli political abnormality: it is impossible to disconnect the social from the political. There is an fantasy that you can promote social justice under occupation. But this is impossible.”
Do you believe victory is attainable?
“Yes. I have doubts sometimes, but I do not stay there. I regroup very quickly. This is what allows me and others like me to continue doing what we do.”
Do you sometimes think of failure? That in 10 years your worst predictions will materialize?
“I will not let myself. I wasn’t born here. I immigrated from Mexico by myself at 15 years old Youth Aliyah boarding school. My family moved here intentionally, and I have no intention of giving up. I did not come here for that.”
Transtaled to English by Maya Haber.