Will Guardian/Telegraph update B’Tselem fire stories to note arson likely not the cause? (Update)

The Jerusalem Fire Department is now saying that a fire which broke out Sunday night at the offices of the NGO B’Tselem “was likely caused by a short-circuit and not arson, which was initially suspected.”  As Ynet noted, the fire “raised concerns” by some “of a deliberate, politically motivated attack on the group’s headquarters” by right-wing extremists.

Indeed, the Guardian and Telegraph both published stories based on the initial speculation of a politically motivated arson, both using the fire to buttress the narrative of incitement against human rights defenders by the government and right wing groups

The Guardian published a report by Reuters (Fire breaks out at Jerusalem offices of human rights group, Jan. 11) which feature the following quote by a B’Tselem spokespeson:

A spokeswoman for the group said the blaze had caused extensive damage.

“A fire broke out at B’Tselem’s office in Jerusalem this evening. None of our staff were in the building,” she said.

“Initial reports published by the media indicate that police suspect arson. If it is discovered that this was an arson attack, it must be seen in the context of the wave of government incitement and smear campaigns against Israel’s human rights groups, and B’Tselem in particular.”

But she said the fire would not stop the organisation’s work of documenting and exposing human rights abuses under the occupation.

The article ended thusly:

Vandalism attacks, including torchings, by suspected far-right Israeli groups have caused damage to Palestinian property and mosques and churches.

Two Israelis were charged last week over the death of a Palestinian baby and his parents in the West Bank last year after their home was set on fire.

Israel’s right-wing government has proposed legislation to limit foreign donations from governments and private benefactors to B’Tselem and many other Israeli NGOs, something that could severely restrict the organisation’s ability to operate.

In addition to the misleading narrative concerning the possible political significance of the fire, the Guardian misleads readers in their characterization of the proposed NGO legislation – a bill which would in fact only require greater transparency of NGOs which receive a significant amount of funds from the EU. 

However, The Telegraph published a story by Raf Sanchez (Suspected arson attack damages offices of Israeli human rights group, Jan. 11) which was even more tendentious, based almost entirely on speculation that the fire was the result of arson. The strap line immediately reveals the desired narrative.

Headquarters of B’Tselem badly damaged by flames in what would be a major escalation to weeks of mounting hostility by against Israeli human rights NGOs

After 3 paragraphs introducing the story, 11 of the remaining 12 paragraphs contextualize the fire as possibly part of an “escalation” against human rights groups.

If politically motivated arson is confirmed as the cause of the blaze, it would be a major escalation to weeks of mounting hostility by Right-wing groups against Israeli human rights NGOs.

A Right-wing video made last month accused several prominent Israeli human rights campaigners of being “foreign agents” who side with Palestinian terrorists against Israel.

The director of B’Tselem, Hagai El-Ad, was one of those named in the video and he was described as “a planted agent of the European Union”. The European Union is a major funder of B’Tselem.

A spokeswoman for the group said: “If it is discovered that this was an arson attack, it must be seen in the context of the wave of government incitement and smear campaigns against Israel’s human rights groups, and B’Tselem in particular.”

This week, a prominent Left-wing Israeli activist was caught on camera saying he tried to help Palestinian security forces arrest and kill Palestinians who sell land to Jews. He was reportedly accompanied by a Palestinian member of B’Tselem.

The tension has been rising as Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, debates a controversial bill that would put new regulations on NGOs which receive significant funding from foreign governments.

The bill was proposed by Israel’s Right-wing justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, who argues it is will increase transparency and protect Israeli democracy from interference by foreign governments.

Critics argue the bill is designed to stifle dissent and will disproportionately impact Left-wing groups who are dependent on European countries and the EU for their funding.

The bill would force NGOs to declare their funding sources in all meetings and correspondence with legislators and their representative would have to wear special labels during visits to the Knesset.

The Foreign Office said it “has concerns about a number of elements in the proposed NGO Bill”.

“We are concerned that focussing only on NGOs receiving a majority of funding from foreign Governments would unfairly stigmatise these organisations, who represent legitimate voices in – and contribute to – Israel’s active and vibrant democracy,” a spokeswoman said.

Right-wing Israeli groups also receive funding from abroad but their donations tend to come from wealthy individuals rather than governments, meaning they would be unaffected by the proposed bill.

Following the fire department report suggesting that arson was likely not the cause, we tweeted Raf Sanchez the following:


We’ll update you if either the Telegraph or Guardian update their reports.

UPDATE: The Guardian and Telegraph recently updated their report to include the initial conclusions of the Fire Department. 

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