B’Tselem, Israel’s human rights watchdog organization, made waves recently when it announced that it will no longer refer cases of alleged abuse to the Israel Defense Forces for disciplinary action. In a report, B’Tselem says that “cooperation with the military investigation and enforcement systems has not achieved justice, instead lending legitimacy to the occupation regime and aiding to whitewash it.”
The numbers are grim. With 739 cases since 2000 in which soldiers are alleged to have “killed, injured, or beat Palestinians, used them as human shields, or damaged Palestinian property,” in only 25 cases did the military bring charges against soldiers, with an additional 13 being “referred for disciplinary action,” the report says.
There is the fact, according to B’Tselem’s spokespeople, that the system glosses over inconsistencies like contradictory testimony without following up. And then there is the emotional toll wrought on Palestinian families who are typically denied a sense of justice. “Many families of victims have a feeling of being hurt twice: the first time with the injury and killing,” B’Tselem’s executive director, Hagai El-Ad, said, “and then…realizing that justice is not going to happen.”
B’Tselem had been serving as a sort of subcontractor for the military investigative system, translating hospital documents and victim testimony and arranging meetings between military investigators and victims or eyewitnesses. As El-Ad told me, “We shouldn’t have to be the middle man.” Still, as spokesperson Sarit Michaeli told i24 News, it remains the state’s responsibility to investigate wrongdoing.
But the decision also raises important questions about the role of human rights organizations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Should these organizations use every available tool to minimize harm in the short term, or should they play the long game, raising awareness about structures of power and oppression?
Since taking the helm of the organization two years ago, El-Ad has sought to expand B’Tselem’s role to include challenging the occupation itself. El-Ad explained that through this move, B’Tselem hopes “to rob the occupation of the guise of legality and expose it for what it is.”
If part of B’Tselem’s mission is to bring about policy change, the organization has its work cut out for it. A recent poll revealed that 72% of Israelis do not believe that the Palestinians in the West Bank are even under Israeli “occupation” in the first place. Part of the problem may lie in semantics. The Hebrew word for occupation is “kibush,” which also means conquering. But part of it may be willful blindness as the status quo drags on. “From a pure human rights perspective,” El-Ad said, “not to draw conclusions from the passage of time…doesn’t make any moral or professional sense to me.”
B’Tselem’s report notes that the system is skewed toward punishing the lowest-ranking officers — the “shin-gimel,” as El-Ad put it, using army slang for entrance guards. “No one thinks to question the Minister of the Interior or Jerusalem’s Police Chief.”
Take the case of Sergeant Elor Azaria, the IDF soldier who was filmed fatally shooting a Palestinian lying in a Hebron street. The incident made headlines thanks to B’Tselem having distributed 200 cameras to Palestinian volunteers. Azaria has been charged with manslaughter, but higher-ranking officers remain untouched. While human rights activists were quick to vilify Azaria, it’s important to remember that he is as much a product of the occupation as he is someone helping carry it out.
Yet for all of B’Tselem’s claims that it must not participate in the IDF’s “whitewash” mechanism, you might ask whether the Israeli human rights industry itself serves the same function. After all, Israeli leaders might argue, if there’s such an array of active human rights and civil rights organizations, that must mean the country’s democracy is robust! This claim might be true if Israel made it easier for such NGOs to operate. But in actuality, the Israeli government — buttressed by increasingly extremist elements in society — has made this kind of work uncomfortable and even downright scary.
B’Tselem’s funding comes from European and North American foundations, and private donors worldwide, including from Israeli citizens. But the organization does not enjoy Israeli charitable tax status. (B’Tselem’s application has been denied.) Some other civil rights organizations — like Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Sikkuy — do have tax-deductible rights. In what was widely considered a political move, Physicians for Human Rights had its tax status revoked in 2014. Fearing rejection, Breaking the Silence has not bothered to apply, according to Haaretz. B’Tselem’s American arm — B’Tselem-USA — enjoys 501(c)(3) status.
An NGO bill snaking its way through the Knesset has placed added pressure. A previous version demanded that NGOs who receive more than half of their funding from foreign governments must wear a badge specifying this when in the Knesset. The softened version would require disclosure of this funding on all public documents. In effect, the bill targets “left-wing” — civil rights and human rights — NGOs as those organizations tend to receive funding from foreign governments, whereas “right-wing” NGOs — those buttressing current Israeli policies — tend to fill their coffers from private donations.
And then there’s the Israeli societal backlash against human rights work. A video campaign by the right-wing Israeli group Im Tirzu attempted to paint human rights NGOs as foreign implants. Targeting El-Ad by name along with the heads of three other organizations, the video declared, “While we fight terror, they fight us.” (And yes, Im Tirzu enjoys tax-deductible status.)
So how will the decision to cut ties with the IDF — except when required by law — affect B’Tselem’s work? Most important, the organization will continue to document the nature of the occupation. B’Tselem’s camera project helps shine a light on hidden dark corners. And its staff and volunteers compile and publish data about the machinery of occupation: settlement expansion, numbers of checkpoints, minors in detention, the use of torture.
Critics of B’Tselem’s decision might accuse the organization of launching a publicity stunt. Graphic designers seemed at the ready with shareable social media memes and clever slogans. With tongue-in-cheek phrasing, B’Tselem published an 8-page Hebrew supplement in Haaretz titled “B’Tselem is being released from the army.” An Arabic-language ad ran in two Palestinian newspapers, Al-Quds and Al-Hayat. Beneath a picture of a bullet and a stick of lipstick, the ad reads, “Military investigations are just a cosmetic fix for the occupation.”
But the broadest aspect of B’Tselem’s mission — ending the occupation — will only come from a seismic shift from within Israel, the holder of the lion’s share of power. And such shifts come from changing hearts and minds. So one person’s publicity move may be another person’s attempt to seriously engage the public. We want to emphasize, El-Ad stressed, that the occupation is not just “business as usual.”
Mira Sucharov is associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.