Net closes on Israeli rights activist as watchdog takes up his case

Oppression can only survive through silence
By Marianne Azizi

Frontline Defenders, the international foundation for the protection of human rights campaigners, has appealed to Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to stop the intimidation and harassment of those who are speaking out for the thousands of people suffering human rights abuse in Israel.

Its appeal highlights the unreported tragedy of systematic family breakdown, despair and suicides among adults and children in Israel.

I visited Israel for a few months to gather data on families and children affected by the policies and practices of the welfare authorities and social workers. The information gathered is enough to fill two books, and this is only the tip of the iceberg.

No Exit Orders, arbitrary arrests

Mahatma Gandhi once said: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win.”

The process is already in motion.

For nine years I have campaigned singlehandedly against the use of No Exit Orders in Israel which have trapped Israelis and foreign nationals. People are held in Israel on the word of another, without proof or checks, and are held to ransom for exorbitant amounts of money. At the time of writing there are several people I met who are still trapped. One such man is an American citizen who has been homeless for almost nine months, with no visa or work permit. He is deteriorating rapidly. A fight for his freedom is also a fight for his life.

People are held in Israel on the word of another, without proof and checks, and are held to ransom for exorbitant amounts of money.

I have been fortunate in my campaign not to have been arrested, detained or imprisoned by the Israeli authorities. But those in Israel are not so lucky.

Once the authorities have got past ignoring or laughing at you, the fight becomes deadly. Police detentions become almost a daily occurrence. Interrogations may last up to three hours by law, at which point a person must be released or arrested and put into prison, pending a court case. However, there are countless stories of people being held for much longer. Interrogations are not always polite, and some of the people who stand up to be counted have experienced beatings and arrests.

Strangely, it is permitted in Israel to demonstrate or protest outside the actual home of a public official. Many protests are carried out this way. It is also permitted to hold public protests – with police permits if a crowd exceeds 70 people.

One or two protests by small groups are ignored. They are considered a nuisance, or deemed to be the work of a few crazy people.

During my few months the demand grew to expose abuse by the family courts. As more stories were publicised regarding men, women and children who were suffering needlessly, it seemed that a fight was about to begin. The Ministry of Welfare and Social Services is not to be messed with or questioned.

The case of Moti Leybel

Moti Leybel, a children’s rights campaigner and independent journalist, was arrested and held in prison for staging a 30-second protest. A social worker had visited a police station and claimed that Mr Leybel had broken a restraining order. This was accepted at face value, and Mr Leybel was promptly arrested. Despite lawyers proving that the social worker’s claim was false, prison ensued and a restraining order was issued. The social worker in question had full authority to instruct the police, which is common practice in Israel.

More was to come. Mr Leybel was arrested a second time, on this occasion during a vigil by dozens of people for a young mum who had her son forcibly removed from her by a social worker and police. Forty-two police officers turned up and arrested Mr Leybel, just seconds after he had parked his car. No other participants in the vigil were detained. This time it was claimed that since more than three people were in the vigil, it was an illegal gathering. Yet from the moment the numbers increased past three, no action had been taken. Both arrests carry an inevitable 18 months in prison, but for just one of the people in the vigil.

The message is clear: shut up, stay at home and do not complain. We have a business to run. Children are not your business, they are state property.

Criticising a social worker in Israel is a risky business. Junior social workers choosing to make a complain against a member of the public have to pay for their own lawyer. However, senior ones can count on the might of the attorney-general, Yehuda Weinstein, and the government lawyers, who are paid high fees to produce files and cases. The message is clear: shut up, stay at home and do not complain. We have a business to run. Children are not your business, they are state property.

In January 2015 Weinstein’s office prepared a huge case against Mr Leybel, for criticising a senior social worker publicly, and it lost. The judge decreed that the defendant had the right to be a voice for people who could not speak for themselves. Despite this judgment, the net is closing again on Mr Leybel, and another lawsuit has been filed.

Frontline Defenders, after checking and researching Mr Leybel’s case, have concluded that this is excessive intimidation of a human rights activist.

Fear and intimidation

As I look on social media, I see resurgent fear among the Israeli public. They have been conditioned to stay quiet about the welfare authorities. They risk losing the children they have. They are warned over and over again. They have evidence of social workers threatening them, with some even being told that they would lose their children if they challenged the authorities. One mother received a letter telling her she would never see her daughter again. Another, whose child was taken within two days of birth, was told by a social worker: “I said if you ever had another child, I would follow you to the end of the world to take it, and here I am.” She promptly took the baby. Only a public protest reversed this cruel act.

It is hard to believe these things are happening under our noses. People in Israel are crying out for help to overcome their predicament but do not believe the world will help. Jews abroad cling on to the idealised concept of Israel, even if the reality is terrible.

Ten thousand children are snatched annually in Israel (population: 8.3 million) – and will never know a normal, loving family environment.

Corrupt officials are falling. Attorneys are indicted, and a leading police officer has committed suicide. These events and scandals are rocking the country. Many have been predicting them, and know there are many more officials who will face trial. Whistleblowers have lists of names, and can see who is to come.

So, while Israel plays politics and the world feels powerless to do anything, millions of Israelis are equally disempowered – but the game for them is life or death as they fight to keep their children safe from private institutions, unnecessary medication and the end of their world.

Frontline has taken the first step. Many more will follow and raise the issue on the international arena.

Now that you know, it is impossible to un-know. Ten thousand children are snatched annually in Israel (population: 8.3 million) – and will never know a normal, loving family environment.

Those who are defending the human rights of the affected families need their freedom of speech so that they can tell the world what is going on. In any country we need to protect journalists, or else before we know it our own freedom of expression could be stolen through our own silence.

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