Recording Israeli abuses despite ‘organised whitewash’
Hagai El-Ad is director of B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. Founded in 1989, during the first Palestinian intifada, B’Tselem’s Israeli and Palestinian researchers document human rights abuses. The group campaigns for an end to the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem.
El-Ad, who served in an elite unit during his obligatory Israeli military service, studied physics and astrophysics before becoming an activist, first for gay and then for Palestinian rights. In October, he addressed the UN Security Council. He said the Israeli government “will not silence us,” for which he was labelled a “traitor” by right-wing Israelis.
El-Ad (HEA) spoke with The Arab Weekly (TAW) via telephone.
TAW: What drew you to activism and how does it sit with your military past?
HEA: “I think it was a gradual process of waking up to reality. The way things are here isn’t fine. We live in a situation of prolonged injustice but it’s hard to see that and it’s hard to wake up to that.
“Of course, once you wake up to that it’s hard to imagine how you didn’t see it because it’s so self-evident and unacceptable. I’ve never said anything about [my military service] because I think there’s a tendency in Israel for people to need to celebrate their military career in order to have credibility and I reject that.”
TAW: Has B’Tselem’s work changed?
HEA: “This is year 30 since the organisation was established. Unlike most NGOs that are pleased when they have an occasion to celebrate a round birthday, we’re not that organisation. No one thought in 1989 when the organisation was founded that it would reach 30 years because no one thought the occupation would persist for such a long time. We would have been delighted to go out of business a long time ago.
“It’s not just the passage of time, it’s the accumulation of facts on the ground and the immense investments in building infrastructure and permanent settlements in the West Bank.
“What has changed in recent years is that we can skip the lip service because the Israeli leadership is speaking with more sincerity about its genuine intentions. There is a closing of the gap between what Israel does and what Israel says, it’s becoming more transparent.
“So we can cut to the chase to statements by [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu and by others on everything from ‘there will be no Palestinian state’ and ‘all the settlements will stay where they are,’ ‘we will always control all of Jerusalem,’ ‘we will always control the Jordan Valley’ and so on.
“By this point in time, Palestine is gone. These are all frank statements of one variation or another of the reality we’ve all been living in for the past half-century.”
TAW: How are you dealing with this situation?
HEA: “For B’Tselem, this has translated into a number of strategic changes in our work in recent years. One is a human rights-based demand for an end to the occupation. We’re saying it’s obvious there’s never going to be a realisation of the human rights of Palestinians as long as occupation continues.
“How do we see a path to that? The only way we see that happening in a non-violent fashion is through assertive international action hence the consistent voice you’ve been hearing from B’Tselem in recent years to the international community, before the UN Security Council and many other places around the world. We say loud and clear that there are international responsibilities to protect human rights, they are not being met, and if the world actually stands up to its responsibilities then we have a fighting chance to end the occupation in a non-violent fashion.
“In terms of practical changes to our strategy, two years ago we decided to stop filing complaints to the military authorities. The issue of accountability in instances in which the Israeli security forces have abused or injured or killed Palestinians in circumstances that are not justified, this is a key human rights issue. We’ve investigated hundreds of case files over the years.
“We realised we had to follow where the facts lead us, which is we’re not dealing with a broken system that needs our assistance in order to function well. In fact, what we’re dealing with is an organised whitewash that is meant to deliver impunity while at the same time providing a pretence of a credible investigation. We decided two years ago to stop working with that system, to stop filing complaints to the military authorities, to call a spade a spade.
“We continue to investigate such cases but we publish our findings to the public and not file complaints to the army and not give them any credibility, which they do not deserve.”
TAW: How do you cope with the criticism and abuse you’ve received?
HEA: “It’s not enjoyable to deal with this. At the same time, I’m a Jewish citizen of this country and that comes with many privileges and protections that Palestinians do not enjoy. I’m well aware of that and I think that people of privilege need to use that to advance justice because I’m exposed to almost none of what my Palestinian colleagues are exposed to.
“A quarter of our team are Palestinian researchers, three of them in Gaza and the others in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and they are exposed along with all of the Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation to harassment, beatings, detention and worse.”