On March 12, 2015, journalist Eve Fairbanks published in The Guardian a lengthy homage to the Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem and its Executive Director Hagai El-ad. As seen below, a number of claims and statements about B’Tselem and its activities are not entirely accurate.
In addition, important aspects of the NGO’s activities and external funding, particularly from European governments, are missing from the article. Likewise, the article did not recount the incident wherein, during a conversation with journalist Tuvia Tanenbom, Atef Abu a-Rub, a “researcher” for B’Tselem, accused Germany of “giving money to the Jews” and then referred to the Holocaust as “a lie.”
Claim: “B’Tselem’s founders intended it to serve a purpose unlike any other organisation in Israel’s fractious political atmosphere: to provide pure information about the Israeli military’s treatment of Palestinians, without commentary or political agenda.”
Response: This claim is the premise of the entire piece and the fulcrum around which the narrative develops. However, this is an inaccurate depiction of B’Tselem, to understate the case. This NGO’s main goal, as evidenced in almost all its writings, is to end the occupation. This may be good or bad, but it is clearly and intensely political. Another major aspect of B’Tselem’s work is to change Israeli (as well as American and European) policy on some of the most important political questions facing Israel.
One representative example is a June 2014 publication, “47 Years of Temporary Occupation,” which concludes:
By taking advantage of a legal framework appropriate for short-term situations, Israel has produced a state of affairs in the West Bank that has not merely disinherited, stifled and trampled human rights for nearly half a century but also reveals Israel’s sweeping, long-term objectives….This reality cannot change unless the occupation is brought to an end. (Emphasis added)
Another example is the campaign (seen by many as callous and offensive) of June 2014, “Hitching a ride,” which criticized the Israeli security operation to locate three kidnapped teenagers and weaken the terror infrastructure in the West Bank. (The three teens were kidnapped and murdered while hitchhiking.)
As these and other examples demonstrate, and in contrast to the Guardian’s claim, B’Tselem has become increasingly political under the leadership of Hagai El-ad, the central figure in The Guardian article.
Claim: “For many Israelis, identifying human-rights violations by the Israeli military, but not its enemies, was tantamount to treason. When B’Tselem tried to run radio ads listing the names and ages of 20 Palestinian children killed in Gaza, Israel’s national broadcasting authority banned them on the grounds that they constituted a political message masquerading as neutral information.”
Response: B’Tselem itself viewed the radio ads and the accompanying campaign as a political act. (In addition, the NGO could not verify the circumstances of their deaths.) As noted by El-ad in an email to B’Tselem’s supporters:
“As missiles ‘knock on the roof’, little room is left among the Israeli public to allow for criticism of government policy. Yet the missiles don’t merely “knock” on the roofs; they bring death and destruction. This means that now, more than ever, is the time for us to document, analyze and voice dissent.” (emphasis added).
Claim: “…a journalist named Sharon Gal, pressed El-Ad over and over to agree that he believed Hamas is a ‘terrorist organisation’. El-Ad reminded Gal that B’Tselem, by its very core principles, declined to make that kind of characterisation because it believed doing so would be a political act. ‘We’re talking about armed Palestinian organisations; that is the professional term, and we criticise their activities when they are illegal,’ he said.”
Response: Contrary to El-ad’s statement, which was repeated without verification, there is an international legal definition of terrorism and terror groups. Hamas undeniably meets this standard, and, accordingly, is recognized by the United States, European Union, Israel, and other countries as a terror group.
Claim: “The group’s employees have always identified with the Israeli left and believed that the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza must end. They have also, historically, argued that it was important to remain objective and dispassionate in their work, to avoid full-throated political activism, in part because they believed neutrality would make their information impossible for Israelis to dismiss.”
Response: As noted, El-ad has increased the openly political advocacy of B’Tselem since he assumed the role of executive director in June 2014. As he wrote, “I believe that the struggle against the prolonged occupation is critical; that clearly for that aim B’Tselem is critically important; and that to this end I want to dedicate my skills, together with the great team at B’Tselem, in the coming years.”
Claim: “He and Jubran wanted to show me Bir Nabala because it represented a change in the focus of B’Tselem’s work – an effort to make visible what has remained out of sight for Israelis.”
Response: This sentence, suggesting “a change in the focus B’Tselem’s work,” contradicts both B’Tselem’s mission statement and the central thesis of the article. According to B’Tselem’s About Page, this has always been the purpose of the organization:
“It endeavors to document and educate the Israeli public and policymakers about human rights violations in the Occupied Territories, combat the phenomenon of denial prevalent among the Israeli public, and help create a human rights culture in Israel…. The focus on documentation reflects B’Tselem’s objective of providing as much information as possible to the Israeli public, since information is indispensable to taking action and making choices. Readers of B’Tselem publications may decide to do nothing, but they cannot say, ‘We didn’t know.’”
Claim: “The melee last summer over the radio ads reading the names of dead Palestinian children was a turning point….The ads did essentially reproduce, in spoken form, B’Tselem’s very first press releases in the late 1980s, which listed the names of Palestinians killed in the first intifada – publications for which the group won plaudits. But in the contemporary moment it was banned as an act of incitement.”
Response: The ads that B’Tselem sought to place on public radio were not banned as “incitement.” They were banned for violating regulations prohibiting “politically controversial” content. In its ads, B’Tselem hoped to sway the Israeli public away from supporting the military operation in Gaza. While some may view this as a noble goal, and others would disagree, it remains a political question.
Claim: “In the coming months, B’Tselem will be ‘making a shift from ‘just facts’ to a place that also speaks a language which is more emotional.’ This January, B’Tselem released its final report on the recent Gaza war. Instead of legalese, it began with a beautifully written, heart-wrenching personal story of one Palestinian family’s experience at the hands of the IDF. ‘I lost my whole family, and my home. I have nothing left,’ the segment began. The report concluded that the killing of civilians became ‘one of the appalling hallmarks’ of the Israeli military campaign in Gaza and that the military appeared to have targeted residential homes on purpose.”
Response: Emotive testimonies from Palestinian (and Israeli) victims (in some cases, supposed victims), in contrast to legal analysis that objectively and credibly deals with incidents of armed conflict, have long been a central facet of B’Tselem’s publications. For instance, during the 2014 Gaza war, B’Tselem repeatedly attempted to use the emotional weight of civilian deaths and personal testimonies in place of legal or human rights analysis to determine responsibility and alternative policies.
Furthermore, in a detailed report, NGO Monitor demonstrated that the conclusions in B’Tselem’s report on the Gaza war were not based on facts, evidence, or serious legal analysis. In addition, its numerous statements, media appearances, and campaigns featuring slick graphics during the war were characterized by repeated false or distorted factual and legal allegations and blatant political bias.
B’Tselem’s acknowledgement of its use of emotional tactics is a sign of desperation and an admission that it has completely lost the Israeli public. In particular following the mass terror campaigns of the early 2000s, and as articulated by Einat Wilf in The Guardian piece, B’Tselem’s arguments and simplistic approaches are no longer valid.
In B’Tselem’s “final report on the recent Gaza war,” it concluded by saying that “B’Tselem does not purport to offer the Israeli government or the military any operative plans for conducting armed conflict in Gaza: that is not the role of a human rights organization.” However, given that the Israeli army’s actions were consistent with international legal standards, and B’Tselem failed to demonstrate otherwise, the burden is on B’Tselem and El-Ad to provide realistic and effective alternatives if they expect the IDF and elected government to pursue different policies and tactics.
Otherwise, the Israeli public will continue to reject B’Tselem as political and irrelevant.