Washington — A new and unusual player is joining the Israel advocacy scene in the nation’s capital.
B’Tselem, Israel’s leading human rights watchdog organization, launched its Washington operation September 24, aiming to spread information regarding Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians to the crowd of Capitol Hill policymakers and Middle East think tanks, and to the American Jewish community.
B’Tselem is among the few foreign human rights groups to set up shop in the United States and to target American decision-makers on issues regarding abuses in their home countries. It is the only Israeli human rights organization to take its case overseas, and some critics say that the move will leave B’Tselem on the wrong side of Israeli advocacy — or worse, ignored.
“This is definitely not a common phenomenon,” said Hadar Harris, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at the American University in Washington. “There is a unique opportunity for education and outreach by maintaining a Washington presence that B’Tselem will try to take advantage of.”
B’Tselem was founded in 1989 and quickly became a primary source of information on human rights issues in the Palestinian territories. It documents events of mistreatment and abuse of Palestinians, whether by the Israeli military, the government or settlers, and publishes periodic reports.
Recently, the group launched its Shooting Back program, in which video cameras were provided to Palestinians in areas prone to settler violence. Their footage is being used to identify abusers and to file official complaints.
Jessica Montell, the group’s executive director, said that the cameras also have a deterring effect. “Sometimes, just holding the video camera, even if it ran out of batteries, is enough to deter the settlers,” said Montell, who visited Washington for the opening of the new office.
Montell sees two primary goals in establishing an American presence for the human rights group: One is to “inject information” into policymakers who deal with issues relating to Israel, and the other is to “open up the dialogue” about Israeli human right abuses. “Being an Israeli voice in the American debate is valuable,” Montell said. The group believes that the special relations between the United States and Israel and the important role that American Jews play in the political system provides the rationale for opening a branch in Washington.
The office will include two full-time staffers, one Israeli and one American, and will focus on disseminating information to Congressional offices and other policymakers, while reaching out to Jewish communal leaders and, later, synagogues and community centers. “So far, the reaction in the community is very positive,” said Mitchell Plitnick, the group’s U.S. outreach director. “We offer constructive criticism. We’re trying to make a better Israel.”
But not all in the community buy into this approach.
Morris Amitay, former head of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and currently vice chairman of the hawkish-leaning Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, views B’Tselem activists as “Israel detractors” and predicts that they will not have much clout in the Washington scene. “There were always Jewish groups who chose to present the worst side of Israel. Welcome to their miserable club,” Amitay said. He added that while a small minority of Congress members could be receptive to B’Tselem’s reports, the majority of lawmakers would not take interest in the new group’s work.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, disagrees. “Policymakers are interested in the human rights aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but they are afraid to act on this issue, out of fear of retaliation from the American-Jewish community,” said Roth, whose group monitors human rights abuses around the world. “There is a thirst for this kind of objective information.”
Some on the Jewish left, too, are skittish about B’Tselem’s move, but for a different reason: They fear that the presence of the new group might not serve their case of promoting a two-state solution. “There is something wrong in internationalizing the issue of human rights in Israel,” said an official with one of the groups, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official added that B’Tselem and its leadership are not viewed as pro-Zionist.
Others in the pro-peace community welcome the new player. Larry Garber, CEO of the philanthropic organization New Israel Fund, which funds such liberal Israel groups as B’Tselem, said the group is unique, since it is Israeli-based but well respected in the international community. “Support for Israel should be based on full understanding of what is going on,” Garber said. “Their challenge, however, will be in dealing with those who will try to use their information to promote specific advocacy agendas.”
B’Tselem’s reports are frequently quoted in the international press, and its documentation of events on the ground has led to many lawsuits in Israel. Montell says the group enjoys good access to the higher command of the Israel Defense Forces and that both military and civilian investigators often turn to it for information on violent events in the territories.