B’Tselem is probably the most influential Israeli human rights group there is. The group was founded during the first Palestinian intifada, and thus has been working on compiling evidence of violations of Palestinian human rights in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip for more the 25 years.
While I have had disagreements with their approach at times, there is no doubt they have done some really invaluable work over the years.
A turning point in the group’s history came this week, as it published a new report titled “The Occupation’s Figleaf”. In it, B’Tselem announced that it would no longer refer complaints of abuses to Israel’s military law enforcement system in the West Bank.
In my opinion, this is an admirable and important step. The military courts that rule over millions of Palestinians’ lives is entirely illegitimate. The system set up to fail Palestinians and protect Israeli soldiers and settlers. All the while providing a pretence that there are “investigations” going for the purposes of global public relations.
Whenever Israeli spin doctors are asked about their soldiers’ abuses and war crimes directed at Palestinian civilians, the mantra is almost always the same: “We have launched an investigation.” But these investigations will almost inevitably be quietly dropped years later, often out of the glare of media attention.
The B’Tselem report explains the group’s reasons for this seminal decision: “There is no longer any point in pursuing justice and defending human rights by working with a system whose real function is measured by its ability to continue to successfully cover up unlawful acts and protect perpetrators.”
The meticulously documented report makes for sobering reading.
Since late 2000, B’Tselem has demanded the military system investigate 739 cases of alleged criminal conduct by Israeli soldiers. These included killings, injuries, beatings or using “Palestinians as human shields.”
In 71 per cent of cases, the investigations were either closed with no further action, or never opened in the first place. The report clarifies that “only in very rare instances (25 [cases, i.e. three per cent]), were charges brought against the implicated soldiers.”
The report states that evidence presented by Yesh Din, another human rights group, and Israel’s own figures suggest very similar levels of impunity.
During the Second Intifada, the Military Advocate General’s system changed so that killings of Palestinians would no longer be investigated as potentially criminal as a matter of course. “In 2003, B’Tselem and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) petitioned the [Israeli high court] against the change in investigation policy,” the report explains, “arguing that the new policy allowed soldiers to violate the law and enjoy near complete immunity.”
And so it has been. Case after case documented by B’Tselem shows that Israeli military “investigations” more often than not simply consisted of talking to the soldiers accused of abuse, who then denied they had done anything wrong. The military investigators then simply take the soldiers at their word and close the case.
This is what happened in the case of 66-year-old Palestinian shepherd Sharif Abu Hayah, who was beaten by Israeli soldiers while attending to his flock in 2009. B’Tselem demanded an investigation. The soldiers simply denied beating him and the case was eventually closed.
The report concludes that “the current military law enforcement system does not allow for justice to be done” because “those who issue the commands” are held immune “from accountability for harm to Palestinians … the military law enforcement system has been narrowly defined to begin with: it investigates only specific incidents in which soldiers are suspected to have acted in breach of the orders or directives they were given. The system does not investigate the orders themselves nor the responsibility of those who issue them and make or determine the policy” (my emphasis).
In other words, the military investigations system takes it as gospel that the Israeli military would never issue illegal orders. This is clearly not the case.
Even on its own, extremely narrow, terms, the system is not fit for its alleged purpose. “Investigators function more like stenographers taking dictation than staff tasked with uncovering the truth,” is the damning verdict.
The military system has “developed the expectation that human rights organisations, including B’Tselem, serve as subcontractors for the military investigative system,” the report says. “Although this is not B’Tselem’s job but the responsibility of the military system, we have elected to perform it for the last 25 years for a variety of reasons. One of the reasons we did so was that we hoped that in this way we were helping bring justice to the Palestinian victims and to establish deterrence that would prevent future similar incidents.”
The reality, the report concludes is that the human rights group’s “cooperation with the military investigation and enforcement systems has not achieved justice, instead lending legitimacy to the occupation regime and aiding to whitewash it.”
For these reasons, B’Tselem should be commended for coming to this decisions, one that was no doubt hard to make. B’Tselem is already something of a bogeyman in the increasingly fascist popular atmosphere in Israel.
In April, my colleague David Sheen was attacked while trying to film a crowd screaming “death to the Arabs” and calling for the exoneration of an Israeli soldier who had shot dead a defenceless Palestinian youth. The mob had assumed he was a B’Tselem cameraman (the soldier’s act of murder had been caught on film by a Palestinian videographer for B’Tselem).
This move could represent an important turning point in how seriously Israel’s “investigations” are taken by international media. Perhaps a logical next step would be for lawyers to boycott the military courts system altogether – something which Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups have debated for years.
Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London and an associate editor with The Electronic Intifada.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.