Sting videos and what responses to them say about democracy

The dominant political news story of the past few weeks in Israel is one that's unfortunately familiar to observers of the past few years in American politics: a shadowy, previously unknown right-wing organization sent hidden camera-equipped moles into left-wing organizations and came out with highly edited but seemingly damning clips of left-wingers confessing to horrible crimes. As an aficionado of the right-wing sting video who's suffered through significant portions of the oeuvres of American cinematic geniuses such as James O'Keefe and David Daleiden, I'm fascinated by this development, and what it says about the differences between the political cultures of the US and Israel.

First, some background. About two weeks ago, a sting video was aired by the Israeli TV show Uvda (lit: "Fact", it's an investigative journalism show somewhat similar to 60 Minutes or Nightline). The video was produced by Ad Kan ("No More"), a previously unknown right-wing group with ties to the West Bank settlement movement. The target of the first video was a group called Taayush, a loosely organized left-wing group that primarily organizes and conducts demonstrations and civil disobedience in the South Hebron Hills area in the southern West Bank. You can read some background on the situation in the South Hebron Hills area here.

As an informal group, Taayush doesn't have a leader, per se, but the group is strongly associated with a Jewish activist named Ezra Nawi. Nawi has been an interesting and controversial figure for many years. In many ways, he's the antithesis of the stereotypical highly educated, Ashkenazi, Tel Aviv-residing Israeli leftist: Nawi is a Mizrahi Jew who speaks fluent Arabic who was born in Jerusalem and was trained as a plumber. Openly gay since the 1970s, he became involved in activism with Palestinians after being convicted of allowing his partner, a Palestinian man, to live illegally with him in Israel. He has a bit of a troubled past (which, perhaps, is an understatement); in the 1990s, he spent some time in an Israeli prison for the statutory rape of a 15-year-old Palestinian boy. Because of these issues, some on the left have described him as "an easy target". Despite these issues, Nawi and his fellow activists have become widely respected in the South Hebron Hills. Nawi and his fellow activists have helped to serve the material needs of the Palestinian communities in the region, which are some of the poorest in the West Bank, and, most controversially, guard the Palestinian communities against settler attacks and act as "human shields" to protect communities against attempted demolitions by the IDF. Nawi's Wikipedia page is pretty comprehensive, and I've linked to it above.

So what did the video show? You can watch it yourself, or, at least, the key 30 seconds that produced all of the drama, with English translations courtesy of the right-wing group StandWithUs:

This video is clearly highly edited in the vein of an O'Keefe or Daleiden masterpiece, that's fairly obvious. However, Ezra Nawi does seem to be saying some bad stuff! Let's put aside the creepy music and stock photos and figure out what's going on here, with the help of this Haaretz report.

The footage of Nawi was captured by a right-wing activist who reportedly became his close acquaintance. In the footage, Nawi, who is unaware of being recorded, is heard telling of four Palestinian landowners who contacted him, thinking he was also involved in the land trade.

”I give their photos and their phone numbers immediately to the [Palestinian] Preventive Security Force,” Nawi says in the recording. “The Authority catches them and kills them. But before they kill them they beat them up.”

In another recording, Nawi is heard talking about a Palestinian who “made deals with the settlers.” The Palestinian, Nawi says, let the settlers till his uncles’ lands in return for farming other lands. Nawi goes on to say that he handed the Palestinian’s name over to the Palestinian security services, and that the Palestinian later “suffered a stroke.”

The investigative report also shows Nawi and a Palestinian member of B’Tselem plotting to meet a Palestinian land broker with the alleged intent of turning him in to the Palestinian security services. In footage documenting the meeting with the land owner, Nawi says he is interested in buying lands near the settlements. Nawi collects documents from the land broker and tries to schedule another meeting, allegedly with the intent of notifying Palestinian agents and setting up an ambush.

In the recorded conversation, the Palestinian land broker warns Nawi that any work on the lands can only start three years after the deal is made, to conceal the transaction from the Palestinian Authority. Nawi is later heard saying that he “feels like crap” about the alleged deception, but continues to act against the broker.  

There are two issues here: the supposedly gleeful comment about turning Palestinian land brokers over to be tortured and executed, and the alleged entrapment of the Palestinian land broker, in partnership with the B'Tselem staffer, a Palestinian man named Nasser Nawajah who  lives in the village of Susiya (I visited this village and met Nawajah a few months ago). The comment about turning over Palestinian land brokers attracted lots of interest in the media, which is interesting, because I think it's the less troubling of the two. It is true that the laws of the Palestinian Authority provide for the death penalty for people who sell land to Israelis. However, there is absolutely no evidence that anyone has been executed or tortured by the PA for selling land to an Israeli, as a result of Nawi's actions or otherwise. (However, some alleged land brokers have been murdered under mysterious circumstances in the past years, in what could probably be fairly called lynchings. There is no evidence to suggest that Nawi was involved in any of these incidents.) Given this reality, I'm inclined to believe that Nawi's comment was an off-color joke taken as evidence of nefarious acts or intent, which is common in the right-wing sting video genre.

Let me be clear: I don't want anyone to be tortured, executed, or lynched, and I condemn the PA if it has any role in these acts. I'm also uncomfortable with the Palestinian prohibition on land sales to Israelis, although, given the current context in which land sold to Israelis is used to build Israeli-only settlements, I'm more inclined to accept it than I would be inclined to accept a similar law in other contexts. Housing discrimination is awful, but discrimination to prevent other discrimination somehow seems...less awful? That being said, the portrayal of the land dealer that was allegedly being entrapped isn't exactly as it's been characterized by some right-wing pro-Israel organizations who have described it as a violation of Palestinian "freedom to make decisions about their own property." It's common for Palestinian land dealers to use forged documents to, literally, sell peoples' land out from under them. This would of course be a crime in any jurisdiction in the world.  

This is what Nawajah and Nawi claim they believed was occurring when Nawi was approached by the right-winger disguised as a land dealer, and given the history of Palestinian land dealers doing exactly this, it was a reasonable assumption, I think. I'm not sure what Nawajah and Nawi could have done, other than gather evidence of the supposed fraud to report it to the PA. Report it to the Israeli administration in the West Bank? The Israelis have been trying to evict Nawajah from his land for years. That leaves reporting to the PA as the only viable option for Nawajah to avert being robbed of his property through fraud. Is it ethical to report someone whom you credibly believe is committing a serious crime against you, even if you know that the person may be tortured, executed, or lynched as a result of reporting the crime? This is a difficult ethical question, I think. That being said, it's in no way comparable to "conspiracy to commit murder," which is what it's been called by Israeli politicians and by Israeli media.

So what happened as a result of all this? Several days after the video was released, Nawi was arrested at Ben Gurion airport while attempting to board a flight to Europe. The government claimed he was fleeing, even though he had not been charged with a crime or barred from leaving the country by a court. He was held without charges for several days before being charged with "being in contact with a foreign agent"; that is, the Palestinian Authority. He was also barred from contacting his lawyer.  Today, he was released to house arrest after over a week of detention. There's no indication that there is any evidence against him other than the sting videos.

Last night, Nawajah was arrested at his home in Susiya. It's unclear what the charges against him entail. At a preliminary hearing today, a judge ordered him released to house arrest, but the police refused to release him. He'll be held for another day at least. Again, there is no indication that there is any evidence against him other than the sting videos. (Another Jewish Taayush activist was also arrested and charged with "being in contact with a foreign agent," as well).

It's impossible to not compare the response to these sting videos to the response to the Planned Parenthood videos. I certainly wouldn't call the Planned Parenthood videos, and the response to them, the finest hour in American political history. I don't need to remind you of the unfortunate details: the grandstanding in Congress and every Republican state legislature, Carly Fiorina's lies on the debate stage, and, most unfortunate of all, the shooting rampage at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic that killed 3 people. These sorts of right-wing sting videos are harmful, deceptive, and destructive, regardless of whether they occur in the US or in Israel. 

Nevertheless, there seemed to be an understanding of what the Planned Parenthood videos were and what they represented; an essentially political project aimed at a political goal (the defunding of Planned Parenthood), not a serious investigation . Congress grandstanded and continues to grandstand about the videos, but no one sent the FBI to arrest Cecile Richards, and no one seriously expected that the FBI was going to arrest Cecile Richards (or, that Texas or some other red state would send the state police to arrest local Planned Parenthood officials). Here, all bets are off. These sting videos have already been used to crack down on the left using the full power of the state, without even a modicum of the due process protections expected in a democracy, and I fully expect the fallout to continue.

The differing responses to sting videos say a lot about the differences between American democracy and Israeli democracy, I think. It actually makes me feel more confident in American democracy. Despite an organized campaign of deceptive incitement against a left-wing group that connected right-wing activists and right-wing politicians, the institutions of democracy and civil society-the checks and balances of the different levels of government, the courts, the media, the long-established norms that prevent even sympathetic actors from conflating political pursuits with criminal justice, for the most part-prevented the kinds of prosecutions we're seeing in Israel now. The converse, of course, is that this case is a sign of the relative weakness of Israel's democracy and civil society institutions. That's not all that surprising, I suppose-Israel is a young country with a strong paranoid, "us or them" mentality that's been brought on by decades of conflict. Nevertheless, it's troubling.