B’Tselem is one of the most controversial and exposed NGOs in Israel. It was founded in 1989, in the middle of the first Palestinian Intifada, with the mission of documenting human rights violations in the Israeli-occupied territories and creating a human rights culture in the state. In telling the reality about the occupation, B’Tselem is regularly accused of treason and disloyalty by the Israeli authorities and public.
The detailed investigations published by the NGO focus on human rights violations by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Using statistics, eyewitness accounts and testimonies, video footage and reports, B’Tselem paints a striking picture of the occupation. It reveals how Israel employs an elaborate, flexible system to fragment the occupied territories and transform them into a confetti of atomised Palestinian communities, described by B’Tselem as “Bantustans” — Apartheid South Africa’s “tribal homelands” — while expanding Jewish-only settlements in their midst.
Two years after it was formed, B’Tselem published a detailed report alleging the torture of Palestinian prisoners by Israeli security forces. The affair shook Israel, leading to the creation of official commissions of inquiry. Decades later, it was one of B’Tselem’s volunteers who filmed Israeli soldier Elor Azaria shooting and killing an injured and unarmed Palestinian after a knife attack in Hebron, sparking a national debate and international outcry.
B’Tselem’s investigations spare no institution: the army, the government, even the Israeli legal system. The organisation has also outlined the military-judicial infrastructure put in place to manage the occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Among the NGO’s concerns is the Gaza Strip and its dire situation; the UN has warned that the blockaded strip of land will be “unliveable” by 2020. According to the Director General of B’Tselem, Hagai El-Ad, 2020 is already here.
“The situation is already a humanitarian catastrophe,” he explained. “One created for political reasons. We don’t need to wait until 2020 to see that the two million people living in the largest open prison on the planet, only an hour away from Tel Aviv, are being slowly suffocated.” The situation, El-Ad insists, is already unbearable. “It’s no secret. From Israel’s perspective, this is acceptable, even after 12 years of a tight blockade. It keeps Gaza separated from the West Bank, in a strategy of dividing the Palestinian people. But still, many people in Israel don’t comprehend this reality. It’s not that they don’t know, they do know, but they are mostly OK with it, and that’s part of the problem.”
In 2016 and again in 2018 El-Ad addressed the UN Security Council. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by saying that B’Tselem had joined Israel’s “choirs of denigration” and “recycled false accusations that occupation and settlements are at the heart of the conflict.” The strength of El-Ad’s speech was that he portrayed the reality behind the word “occupation” in referring to “invisible, bureaucratic, daily, violence” that dominates Palestinian life “from cradle to grave”, including entries and exits, civil and political rights, land and labour rights.
While the NGO denounces the occupation, it refuses to advocate a specific political solution. “Our focus is, of course, human rights. For those committed to human rights, the question is not ‘how many states’, but whether all people enjoy full rights.” The hope, says El-Ad, is for a future that will bring a political solution that enshrines full human rights, regardless of the number of states. “The situation that is unacceptable for us is a system that perpetuates occupation and oppression.”
The Israeli parliament passed a law in 2016 targeting so-called “left-wing” NGOs whose objective is to protect human rights and denounce the occupation, by requiring them to report on the funding they receive from foreign governments. Netanyahu said that the law’s purpose was to prevent other states from interfering in “Israel’s internal affairs”.
B’Tselem responded robustly: “In compliance with the Israeli government’s anti-NGO law that seeks to equate the receipt of foreign funding with disloyalty, please note that we may, or may not, be primarily funded by foreign state entities. Either way we remain loyal – to human rights values, freedom, democracy and an end to the occupation.”
In December last year, B’Tselem and the Palestinian NGO Al-Haq were jointly awarded the 2018 French Republic Human Rights Prize at the Ministry of Justice in Paris. The prize is awarded to “organisations harassed or subjected to pressure for defending and promoting human rights.”
Hagai El-Ad acknowledges being under attack but insists that he and his colleagues at B’Tselem are not intimidated. “We have strong support. Even if we suffer intimidation, human rights activists in the Palestinian territories suffer more, so much more. We enjoy many protections and privileges, but they don’t.”
To date, this Israeli NGO, which receives significant funding from European governments, has gained influence mainly in Europe and at the UN. In March, B’Tselem hired Simone Zimmerman to lead the group’s US operations. Zimmerman is co-founder of IfNotNow (INN), an NGO of young American Jews who are against the Israeli occupation. Appointing her was part of B’Tselem’s internationalist strategy, with the growing importance it attaches to promoting a campaign for international sanctions against the occupation.
The B’Tselem website is in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English. Its English outreach is part of its strategy of advocating for international action. “Occupation should no longer be considered as an internal issue but as an international matter,” says El-Ad. This is necessary to overcome Israeli restrictions on human rights activities as well as public indifference, he added.
This shift towards internationalism also offers an effective strategy for the circumvention of Israeli law, aimed at extending and perpetuating the occupation. Israel must be held accountable for its obligations and duties under international law. Furthermore, Palestinians living under Israeli control but not as citizens should have the legal protection guaranteed to them by international law. The other advantage of this bypass strategy, notes El-Ad, is that it is non-violent. “As a human rights organisation, we have an absolute commitment to non-violence. We call the international community to speak out and stand up for our commitment to human rights, to take real actions to change the situation here. This is a realistic, non-violent way to bring an end to the occupation.”
He would like to see the international community take a more forceful stand on Israel’s violations of international law. “In many statements, we have noted the expression of ‘concerns’ by the international community, but we haven’t seen real actions.” He is very critical of US President Donald Trump’s yet-to-be-revealed Middle East peace plan, dubbed “the deal of the century”.
“We’d rather call it the ‘deal of the half century’, referring to the last 50 years, since the occupation began, with its inherent violations against Palestinians, without Israel suffering any consequences. Basically, as long as Israel is oppressing and dispossessing Palestinians slowly enough, it seems to be fine. It actually gives time for the rest of the world to look the other way and take no actions to stop Israel and hold it accountable. That’s unacceptable.”
B’Tselem seeks to expose the contradiction of Israel oppressing and disenfranchising millions of people while still being considered a “democracy” by the West. As El-Ad points out: “There is no democratic occupation. This cannot be an internal matter.” He believes that the international community must question the moral blank cheque given to Israel in the treatment of an entire people.
The NGO does not just address the international community, though. In April 2018, after the Israeli army opened fire on Palestinian protestors at weekly demonstrations inside the Gaza Strip, killing dozens and wounding hundreds, B’Tselem launched a campaign encouraging Israeli soldiers to refuse to shoot demonstrators in Gaza. The organisation argued that the use of live ammunition against demonstrators is only allowed in case of deadly danger and as a last resort, and described the IDF’s shoot-to-kill order as “contrary to international law.” Following this campaign, B’Tselem was threatened with prosecution for sedition.
Through its activities, B’Tselem reminds Israelis tirelessly of a reality that is taking place within an hour’s drive from their protected environment. In its reports and monitoring role, the NGO also contradicts the myths or self-narratives of a society that claims to be innocent. According to the accepted Israeli narrative, the IDF — as its name implies — is there purely for defensive purposes; it follows a strict code known as “purity of arms” and only uses force when there is no other option; and it struggles with agonising moral dilemmas, known as “shooting and crying”. All these are necessary to create a minimum of cohesion in Israeli society.
“Maintaining this illusion of innocence is important,” says El-Ad. “It helps maintain the impunity of the country as well. Every part of the legal system — legal advisers, the Supreme Court, attorneys general — help to build this illusion. To pretend that what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is legal. They insist on this point, but it’s a lie. It’s propaganda in legalese.”
The Director General of B’Tselem is adamant that the occupation does not leave Israeli society unscathed as it destroys Palestinian society. “It’s impossible to pretend that oppressing another people wouldn’t have consequences on one’s own society, on the identity of the occupying society. That’s impossible. First, the normative context in which Israel occupies Palestinians is in direct opposition with human rights and any democratic norm, which Israel pretends to support. Applying the same rules and laws to everyone, is, in fact, at the basis of any modern society. But not in the occupied territories. Within its own society, Israel normalises a reality which denies rights to millions of people for generation after generation. This undermines the very basic foundations of a society. Israelis are OK with the fact that so many people don’t have the same protection as they do. Occupation does have consequences – very different consequences – on both sides.”
Among the narratives elaborated patiently by the Israeli authorities, the idea that the occupation would only be temporary and only in response to a situation of insecurity, was built on a lie. B’Tselem’s reports prove that everything is done on the ground to ensure that the occupation is irreversible, a fait accompli that is legitimised by the Israeli legal system.
In its report “Fake Justice” from February this year, B’Tselem undertook to dismantle and denounce the Israeli judicial system, which provides the complex infrastructure of the occupation with an “acceptable” legal veil. According to the report, the epicentre of this self-justification is the Israeli High Court of Justice, which gives its seal of approval to demolitions, forced evictions and various acts involved in the dispossession of the Palestinians. However, as El-Ad says, “There is no legal question regarding the situation of the occupied territories. The situation in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem does not conform to international law. There is no real question about the reality of the occupation.”
Another “narrative” on which the NGO casts doubt is that of the status quo; the idea of a frozen situation between two camps waiting for a political settlement to put an end to their standoff. El-Ad warns that there is no status quo because the situation is always changing. “Israel is building more and more settlements, while further and further dispossessing Palestinians. Everybody got used to this situation continuing in the wrong direction, and mistakenly calling it the ‘status quo’. But the reality is one of more Palestinians killed, houses demolished, settlements expanded. This reality is allowed to continue to the benefit of Israel. Israel can have it both ways: more occupation, but no international consequences. From the Israeli perspective, that is the ideal outcome.”
Hagai El-Ad does not hesitate to make historic analogies. To the American public he cites the Jim Crow laws that enforced racist segregation in the Southern United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “Since Palestinians are under occupation, they are considered non-citizens, they cannot vote, and above all, have absolutely no representation in the Israeli institutions that govern their lives.”
He compares the occupation with Apartheid in South Africa. “Obviously, it is not a question of forcing the analogy but of awakening the consciences that believe that all this is in the past and will not come back,” he points out.
B’Tselem also draws on Jewish philosophy. The name of the association literally means “in the image of”. This is an allusion to Genesis 1:27: “And God created mankind in his image. In the image of God, He created them.”
“The name expresses the Jewish and universal moral edict of respect for and defence of human rights,” concludes El-Ad. “So the very idea of B’Tselem is the universality of human rights. It is not something that was invented in 1948 with the Declaration of Human Rights. It’s also a Jewish principle. However, we are living in a reality where Israel violates this principle every day.”