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Right-wing cyber 'soldiers' take on Israeli human rights organization

The Israeli conservative organization My Israel has rallied its members to vote for human rights activists from around the world in a campaign to sabotage the candidacy of B'Tselem, currently a finalist for the Human Rights Tulip award.

It is doubtful that the Israeli public would have even been aware of the competition held by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs for its Human Rights Tulip award, if not for the right-wing Israeli activists who organized to keep the B’Tselem organization from winning the prize and 100,000 euros ($113,000). Thirty organizations and human rights activists from around the world have reached the competition's final stage, among them two Israeli organizations, Adalah and B’Tselem. But while the Adalah nomination was met with apathy among right-wing Israeli activists, the B’Tselem nomination was a red flag.

According to the Tulip statutes, voters around the world may vote online for one of the organizations or activists who reached the final stage of the competition. The three nominees who garner the most votes by Sept. 18 will enter the finals. Then the Dutch foreign affairs minister will add another three candidates to the three chosen nominees.

Members of the My Israel movement are convinced that thanks to their rallying of the movement’s members and supporters, they have succeeded in knocking B’Tselem from third place (which it had reached until last week). The movement's chair, Sara Haetzni-Cohen (the granddaughter of veteran right-wing activist Elyakim Haetzni), spoke to Al-Monitor shortly before the onset of Rosh Hashanah on Sept. 13. She said that the activists are gratified at their work, but are also concerned that the timeout they were obligated to take in order to observe the New Year holiday will harm their progress. “Although our goal is important, we are forced to [halt our activities] to honor the holiday and the Jewish people,” Haetzni-Cohen said. “But when the holiday is over, 24 hours still remain until the end of the competition and we’ll work full steam ahead.”

My Israel is a virtual movement that works over the social networks and coordinates more than 140,000 members. Haetzni-Cohen, born in the Kiryat Arba settlement on the outskirts of Hebron, is a mother of two and currently lives in Jerusalem. She replaced Ayelet Shaked, who chaired the movement until she was elected to the Knesset. Until a few months ago, the My Israel chair was a volunteer position, but recently, Haetzni-Cohen said, it was decided to pay a modest, symbolic salary.

“We, the Nationalist Zionists, are the largest movement on the Web today. We are almost completely lacking in resources, but we have very disciplined soldiers. We operate on the social networks and only once called our ‘soldiers’ out to the field. That was the period when the terrorists were being released. We decided that that was a critical ethical issue that we could not ignore nor remain silent. We knew we had the ability to stop the release. There were demonstrations involving thousands of people, and I can claim to our credit that we were successful in halting the third stage — release of terrorists with Israeli citizenship. The public spirit that we led, with bereaved families and terror victims, caused the ministers to think twice.”

Thus the disciplined members of the My Israel movement mobilized again to hinder B’Tselem in the Dutch competition. “Their budget in 2014 was about 9 million shekels [about $2.3 million],” said Haetzni-Cohen. “To their credit, let it be said that they are transparent in their financial reporting. In the last three years, B’Tselem received about 18 million shekels [about $4.7 million] from foreign governments. While the prize of 100,000 euros may seem like relatively small change, it has much moral significance.”

Therefore, they recommended to movement members to vote for other “strong” candidates, so as to bypass B’Tselem. “On the list of candidates appear worthy people who truly do operate on behalf of human rights,” said Haetzni-Cohen. “The difference between real human rights groups and B’Tselem is that the heads of those other groups are either in jail or in exile or are persecuted. I am happy to note that in the State of Israel, the heads of B’Tselem walk freely on the street, hold key positions in academia, in the media, on executive boards and sometimes even in the Knesset. What is certain is that there’s no persecution here. Therefore, the goal was to remove B’Tselem from the top three by advising our members to vote for three candidates that we winnowed out of the 30 candidates.”

My Israel encouraged its members to vote for the following three candidates: Phyoe Phyoe Aung from Burma, Azizullah Royesh from Afghanistan and Maziar Bahari from Iran. Another supporter of the candidacy of Phyoe Phyoe Aung, a female human rights activist from Burma who has been sitting in a Burmese prison since March 2015, is Ronen Shoval, one of the founders of the Im Tirtzu organization and chairman of the academic circle Professors for a Strong Israel. After sifting through the candidates and estimating their chances for winning, he decided to turn his WhatsApp friends’ attention to the Burmese candidate. In an interview that Shoval granted to a Dutch newspaper, he spoke about his support for Phyoe Phyoe Aung and was amazed to see a response from her husband, who thanked him for supporting his wife. Shoval publicized the correspondence on his Facebook page, along with a call to his friends to continue the fight to the last minute. My Israel activists and members were requested to convince family members and everyone else possible to join the efforts. Just after the New Year holiday ended the night of Sept. 15, the following appeared on the movement’s Facebook page: “Turn to all your friends, recruit your brothers and sisters, Mom and Dad as well as grandma and grandpa. Anyone who can vote, should vote today.”

B’Tselem Executive Director Hagai El-Ad told Al-Monitor that he is very satisfied about the organization’s candidacy for the Tulip, saying it served to bring the Israeli occupation back under the spotlight. According to El-Ad, the organization racked up another important achievement: It succeeded in attracting right-wing voters to vote for human rights activists. “It is ironic,” he said, “that in their great wrath, right-wingers are voting for very brave individuals who are fighting for human rights and for values that are very different than the values they espouse. When have we seen right-wing activists, supporters of the occupation, find the time to vote in their thousands for human rights activists from different places around the world?”

As of this writing, it seems that the right-wing efforts to topple B’Tselem from their third-place spot will be successful. But they also have not forgotten that Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans has the right to select three additional organizations or activists. Without a doubt, the Tulip organizers are very aware that right-wing activists in Israel mobilized against the B’Tselem nomination.

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