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Why Did We Assume B’Tselem Fire Was Arson?

When news broke last night of and its cause was not yet clear, most of us feared the worst: arson. Since then, the smoke has cleared — literally — and a preliminary investigation has been concluded. The Jerusalem fire brigade has announced that the cause of the fire was likely an electrical fault.

Although the fire was a terrible accident, we should ask ourselves why so many of us immediately suspected foul play. And if the status of Israeli society is indeed so dire that we in the United States take it for granted that a fire at Israel’s leading human rights organization must be arson, that should give us pause.

Many were quick to assume arson at B’Tselem’s office because the fire followed months of vitriolic mudslinging against Israel’s human rights community and a political climate lenient, if not downright encouraging, of vigilantism. Look no further than the right-wing commentators and self-appointed social media pundits that began espousing variations on the “they deserved it” theme before the smoke even cleared. Initial media reports indicating that police suspected arson spread quickly, as did a video released by the Israel Fire and Rescue Service showing the charred entrance to B’Tselem’s office and the unscathed adjacent office entrance, as if to suggest a targeted attack.

For months, the message that human rights defenders are the problem in Israel has been repeatedly delivered with sledgehammer strength: Im Tirtzu’s video labeling four human rights activists, including B’Tselem Executive Director Hagai El-Ad, “moles”; the government’s ongoing legislative crusade against organizations receiving foreign government funding, and last Thursday’s sensationalized report on an Israeli TV news program that aired false accusations against a B’Tselem field researcher. All this is done to hide the dire situation they expose, the real evil, which is the occupation, the human rights violations it produces in the occupied Palestinian territories and the fascism increasingly required of Israel to maintain it.

B’Tselem and the other members of Israel’s human rights community know this and they expose it without apology. They are fearlessly and relentlessly committed to ensuring the free flow of information regarding the occupation’s myriad injurious policies. In the coming days, B’Tselem may not have a functional office, but its work will continue because its mission is crystal clear: hasten an end to occupation through information regarding its ills. Without B’Tselem, I shudder to think of how little we would know — and that is the current Israeli government’s desire.

Before we forget that our first suspicion was arson, I want to encourage us in the United States to remember why: There is a slow and steady fire burning in Israel. The occupation tarnishes everything it touches and we need to put its flames out for good. It’s high time to demand an end to it by not being afraid to say: We are watching our values burn, and we refuse to be silent.

Chelsey Berlin is the director of B’Tselem USA.


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