The Municipality of Jerusalem ordered the closure of a gallery on Wednesday, February 8, in which an Israeli peace organization that documents abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories was set to hold an event. “Breaking the Silence” held the meeting anyway, while around 200 people protested, among them Communist Party and Hadash activists, against the order outside the Barbur (“Swan” in Hebrew) Gallery in the city center. Chants of “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies,” and “Freedom of speech, the Barbur will not be silenced!” rang out from the line of protestors.
A much smaller, far-right group of activists also assembled outside the gallery. Leading the latter group was rabble-rouser Bentzi Gopstein, head of the far-right extremist Lehava organization, which works to prevent intermarriage and coexistence between Jews and Arabs. Gopstein is a follower of the late Meir Kahane, who advocated expelling the Arabs from Israel and the West Bank. Police formed human barriers to keep the two sides apart.
Breaking the Silence director Yuli Novak took time out from the lecture to tell the crowd: “It’s a victory that so many of you came. The battle for Jerusalem — for our home, for how this city will look — is only just beginning, and this is the way to go – without folding, without blinking, without being afraid of this nonsense.”
A statement from the office of Jerusalem’s Israeli mayor announced “the evacuation of the building containing the gallery [which is] to be used for other municipal purposes.” Mayor Nir Barkat, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, was quoted as saying the decision had nothing to do with freedom of expression. But media sources reported the order to close the gallery came in the wake of a request from fellow Likud member and Minister of Culture Miri Regev.
Attorney Yossi Havilio, a former legal adviser for the Jerusalem Municipality, who represents the Barbur gallery, accused Barkat, who recently joined Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, of political pandering. Attorney Havilio, who represents the NGO named “Bar Kayama” which runs the gallery, submitted a letter stating that the Breaking the Silence event is protected by freedom of expression and is in keeping with the gallery’s objectives. “The decision is an insult to one’s intelligence,” Havilio said. “They held a hearing a year and three months ago; yesterday Miri Regev writes a letter and suddenly there’s a decision to evict the gallery for other reasons. Can any reasonable person buy this? It is clear to any sensible person that this decision is political. They don’t want these opinions heard because Barkat wants to curry favor with Likud voters.”
Founded in 2004 by army veterans, Breaking the Silence has come under political pressure from Netanyahu’s government, the most right-wing in Israel’s history. Breaking the Silence provides a platform for Israeli military veterans to describe what they see as disturbing aspects of their service in the Palestinian territories
Yesterday (Thursday, February 9) Israeli Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu summoned the Belgian ambassador in Israel to be reprimanded by the foreign ministry after, a day earlier, Beligum’s Prime Minister Charles Michel met with representatives from Israeli rights groups B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence. “Israel views with gravity the meeting of the Belgian prime minister with the heads of Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem during his visit to Israel,” said a statement from the prime minister’s office. Michel met with B’Tselem director Hagai Elad and Breaking the Silence representative Yehuda Shaul on Wednesday, during which the organizations briefed the Belgian prime minister on the situation on the ground in the occupied West Bank.