A war of words being waged on billboards in Helena is bringing home the international debate on Israel and the Palestinians.
It started when Helena Service for Peace and Justice and the Coalition to Stop 30 Billion placed two billboards in Helena calling into question the United States’ aid to Israel. The organization StandWithUs put up a third billboard Monday in response to those two, and a second is planned.
Three issues are spurring the different sides. One issue is American foreign aid to the Israeli army that critics say supports the military’s human rights abuses of the Palestinians.
Secondly, StandWithUs says the effort to erode support for Israel is a bid to leave it vulnerable to hostile nations and groups who have vowed to destroy it.
And lastly, the Albuquerque, N.M., group Coalition to Stop 30 Billion in aid to Israel sees Israel as more of a strategic liability to the United States than an asset.
Armen Chakerian, who heads the billboard project for the coalition, said Monday that his organization provides half of the funding for billboards.
It doesn’t get involved with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and instead looks at how being an ally of Israel affects the United States.
“Supporting this country (Israel) hurts us more than it helps us,” he said.
The use of the American flag on the billboards is the organization’s attempt to focus attention back on the United States.
The coalition agreed to help fund the two billboards critical of Israel after it was approached by the Helena Service for Peace and Justice, Chakerian said.
Frank Kromkowski, one of the founders of the Helena Service for Peace and Justice, said the organization is concerned with how the Israeli government is treating the Palestinians.
An online search for the service goes to the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which notes that the Helena Service for Peace and Justice was founded in 1990 as a grassroots community of peace and justice workers.
“We’re focusing on Israel as not many people realize $8 million tax dollars a day goes to the Israeli military,” Kromkowski said.
The Israeli military, on a daily basis, violates the human rights of the Palestinians, he said, adding that the U.S. aid for the Israeli military through the use of tax dollars raises serious legal, ethical and moral questions for him.
Will Boland, who says he’s an activist and part of the Helena Service for Peace and Justice, said he led the effort to have the two billboards placed in town.
“We would like to change Israel’s behavior” toward the Palestinians, he said.
One of the Helena Service for Peace and Justice’s billboards, on Euclid Avenue, says, “Tell Congress: Spend Our Money At Home, Not on the Israeli Military.” The sign that greets people entering the city from the west says it was paid for by the Helena Service for Peace and Justice and refers people to the website stop30billion.org.
Another billboard is on North Montana Avenue and just north of Custer Street.
To counter those messages, the Los Angeles-based organization StandWithUs put up a billboard showing the faces of six people with the message: “Israel Celebrated Diversity.”
Another billboard is also slated to be placed in Helena by StandWithUs.
“We didn’t want to leave the playing field to these negative and hostile people,” said Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs.
The website for StandWithUs says it’s an international organization founded in 2001. The group’s mission is to inform people about Israel and combat the extremism and anti-Semitism that often distorts issues.
“We believe that knowledge of the facts will correct common prejudices about the Arab-Israeli conflict and will promote discussions and policies that can help promote peace in the region,” its website notes.
“These groups are desperately trying to erode support for Israel so they put up these billboards,” Rothstein said. “They want Israel not to be able to defend itself.”
“It’s meant to destroy the only democracy in the Middle East,” she continued.
Boland explains his billboard saying it’s an attempt to get people’s attention and spur debate on how Israel is treating the Palestinians.
“It’s not about destroying. Israel’s there to stay,” Boland said.
The billboards aren’t an anti-Israeli campaign, he said, adding, “It’s a campaign for human rights.”
To be accused of being opposed to Israel, Boland said, “is a little disingenuous.”
He said he’s been to Israel three times since first going while in Europe to see the biblical Holy Land sights. The treatment of the Palestinians, he explained, astounded him. Each trip is more emotionally difficult for him.
Palestinians are “murdered with impunity,” he said and points to the Israeli army. He also alleges violations by Israeli settlers and asserts this is done with support from the Israeli army.
According to the online site for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the international fact-finding mission on Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory, a news release on the report states that “a multitude of the human rights of the Palestinians are violated in various forms and ways due to the existence of the settlements.”
“These violations are all interrelated, forming part of an overall pattern of breaches that are characterized principally by the denial of the right to self-determination and systemic discrimination against the Palestinian people which occur on a daily basis,” the statement continues.
“In compliance with Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention Israel must cease all settlement activities without preconditions,” said Ms. Christine Chanet, chair of the Mission from France.
The behavior of the Israeli army with its U.S. foreign aid reflects upon the United States, Boland said.
“We are complicit; we pay for that,” he added.
Rothstein said her organization has placed billboards in response to billboards in communities across the nation.
StandWithUs placed billboards in Missoula in March to counter a similar anti-Israel billboard campaign, a news release from the group noted.
“We always do,” she said of the response by StandWithUs to billboards targeting Israel. “It’s a pattern of ours as it’s a pattern of theirs,” she said.
The groups that pay for the billboards are engaging on a city-to-city campaign. She places the Coalition to Stop 30 Billion to Israel as part of those groups engaging in a smear campaign against Israel.
A combination of anti-Israel groups pretend to be pro-Palestinian, Rothstein said.
“The bottom line is they don’t want an Israel. They want Israel to be gone,” she said.