NEW DELHI: In order to prevent further damage to the image of Israel, it is now harassing its human rights groups. A recent revelation by award-winning British author and journalist Jonathan Cook delves deeper into how Israel is silencing the voices of human rights groups.

Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for B’Tselem, a prominent Israeli group monitoring human rights violations in the occupied territories, agreed.

“We are seeing a general assault by the government and right-wing groups on those parts of Israeli society that are still standing up for democratic values,” she said. “The aim is to silence us.”

Human rights activists, according to the government, are betraying their country by providing information that fuels criticism overseas of Israel and helps to bolster an international boycott movement.

Recently, 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.

“Netanyahu and his ministers want to shut down all voices in Israel that oppose the occupation. They are doing what fascists always do – looking to blame an enemy within,’’ said Yehuda Shaul, a former Israeli military commander and co-founder of Breaking the Silence.

Far right groups and the Netanyahu government have targeted human rights groups like Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem. Im Tirtzu, the Zionist extra-parliamentary group based in Israel recently carried out a publication in which it accused several anti-occupation groups of being “shtulim” – the Hebrew word for “moles” – on behalf of European governments.

“The government particularly fears Breaking the Silence because its testimonies show the army isn’t investigating evidence of brutality and wrongdoing by soldiers,” said Yossi Gurvitz, an Israeli analyst who has followed Im Tirtzu’s activities.

“If soldiers are going unpunished, then that removes Israel’s basic defence against investigations from outside bodies like the International Criminal Court. It makes it more likely that soldiers will one day face war crimes trials.”

Gurvitz added: “There is a clear pattern of Im Tirtzu being used as the government’s attack dog. It issues a report showing ‘traitors’ in our midst, and then the government immediately announces a law to tackle the problem.”

Last month the Defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, described Breaking the Silence as “malicious” and barred it from access to army activities.

Shortly afterwards Naftali Bennett, the education minister and leader of the settler party Jewish Home, banned the group from schools.

“Lies and propaganda against the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] – not in our schools,” he said.

The Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked, also from the Jewish Home party, has proposed a new bill, nicknamed the Transparency Law that casts suspicion on Israel’s human rights community.

Walla, an Israeli news website, published an investigation this month into Ad Kan, which recently issued video and audio recordings from spying operations on Breaking the Silence and Taayush, a loosely structured collective of anti-occupation activists.

A separate investigation this month by the liberal Haaretz daily revealed that Regavim, a state-funded group that tries to help settlers take over Palestinian land, had paid for a three-year spying operation, starting in 2010, against a prominent human rights lawyer.

Michael Sfard has been a legal adviser to several anti-occupation groups, including Breaking the Silence, Peace Now, which monitors settlement activity, and Yesh Din, which highlights violations of Palestinians’ rights.

Sfard had filed a police complaint after internal documents, apparently from his office, had surfaced in the media. In a years-long probe, police questioned several people under caution, including the founder of the right-wing movement Im Tirtzu, and found that between 2010 and 2013 Sfard and his office had been placed under the surveillance of a private detective. However, the police did not find who had commissioned the probe, and around six months ago they closed the case.

Haaretz revealed that the private investigation was commissioned and funded by Regavim, a nongovernmental organization that documents unlawful activities perpetrated by Arabs and Bedouin on state lands in Israel and across the Green Line separating Israel and the West Bank. The findings raise questions as to whether Regavim, which receives state funds, used taxpayer money to conduct private investigations of groups on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum.

Meanwhile, a separate investigation by Peace Now disclosed last month that nine far-right Israeli groups received income of nearly $150 million between 2006 and 2013. More than 93 per cent of the money was from undisclosed sources.

Jonathan Cook writes ‘The rightwing groups have received tens of millions of dollars in state funding, either directly from the government or via Israeli local authorities representing the settlements in the West Bank.’

Molad, an Israeli progressive think-tank, found in 2014 that the Netanyahu government had stepped up other forms of aid to far-right groups following the 2009 election.

The government transferred some $40m in special grants to the settlements but then required their local authorities to redirect most of the money to a private settler organisation, the Yesha Council, in apparent violation of Israeli law.

Currently, the rightwing ad campaigns, the spying operations and government and police responses have fuelled a climate of hostility towards peace activists.

(The writer is a doctoral student at JNU, New Delhi).