It’s a question that defines the debate over Israel’s policies and the state’s grand strategy: do Israeli human rights organizations monitoring the occupation merely serve as a fig leaf, adding an ethical patina to what is a fundamentally immoral situation?
Four months into his new position as head of B’Tselem, having come from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Hagai El-Ad and I spoke by phone recently about this and other issues. [To read the JI’s interview with El-Ad, click here.]
Given that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was supposed to be “temporary,” El-Ad is well aware that “at some point the term loses its meaning.” So, as he took the helm of B’Tselem last May, the organization issued a position paper provocatively named 47 Years of Temporary Occupation. As El-Ad put it, B’Tselem is shifting its focus from “fighting against human rights violations under occupation to a strategy [emphasizing] that the occupation will forever violate the human rights of Palestinians.” To this end, B’Tselem is now trying to end the occupation – not just help manage it.
It’s a laudable goal. But how achievable is it?
B’Tselem is starting with some concrete steps, however limited. For one, they have recently announced that they will not cooperate with Israel Defence Forces military investigations around Operation Protective Edge. Calling it “theatre of the absurd,” El-Ad believes that the military investigation system is one intended to “always result in impunity.” And this protected military violence is a necessary “lifeline of the occupation.” Hence, the need to squelch it.
As far as the bigger picture goes, El-Ad was cautiously optimistic: probably a necessary blend for anyone in human rights work in the Israel/Palestine morass. He takes comfort from what he sees as B’Tselem’s mission being fundamentally buttressed by the very human rights discourse extant in Israel. That the concept of human rights is a “relevant currency” in Israeli politics gives the organization an important starting point by which to leverage societal consensus. Though without the clout or mandate to engage in electoral lobbying efforts, working to end the occupation must be done very much at arm’s length from the policy sphere. Still, it’s a start.
El-Ad adds that he invites others to see what they can do “in their own communities” to disrupt the idea of the occupation as “business as usual.”
OK, so most of us can agree that the occupation is an undesirable situation, but what about the argument, issued frequently by Israel’s most strident defenders, that the status quo is a security imperative? If Hamas didn’t launch rockets, the thinking goes, the war in Gaza wouldn’t have been necessary. And, if West Bank Palestinians didn’t seek to blow up Israelis, the checkpoints and night raids and (the various) separate roads could be dismantled. And we all know about the apartheid, uh, separation, ahem, security wall.
Trading off between security on one hand, and human rights and ending occupation on the other, is a false dichotomy, El-Ad explained. In Gaza, “we’ve encountered time and again the theory that using more and more force will provide the desired outcome. But that’s not really working.” When it comes to day-to-day military policing in the West Bank to ensure the safety of Israeli citizens, we all know the chicken-egg argument: the internal checkpoints would be unnecessary were there not settlements (illegal under international law) to protect, hence, B’Tselem’s claim, in its 47 Years of Temporary Occupation document, that settlements are “the heart of the matter.”
Now that the fighting in Gaza has died down, B’Tselem is reflecting on its work compiling data on casualties, monitoring international humanitarian law violations – including by Hamas – and collecting first-person testimonies, attempting to put a face to the Palestinians in Gaza. El-Ad is quick to note that the media coverage in Israel tended to be one-sided, with little coverage of the war experience for Gazans. As an antidote, B’Tselem relied heavily on social media and web coverage to get additional information disseminated, despite a hacking attempt that left their website site crippled for a few days.
After talking to El-Ad, I’m left with a strange combination of hope and cynicism. As someone who cares deeply about seeing an end to the occupation, I’m buoyed by the fact that the head of Israel’s most important human rights organization has this broader goal top of mind. At the same time, absent the apparent political will in the top echelons of the Israeli government, I can’t escape the belief that intelligent, passionate and committed Israeli change-makers like El-Ad are too often left clapping with one hand.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. A version of this article was originally published on haartez.com.