Human rights’ organisations – two perspectives
After coming to the realization that Israel’s enemies are not delegitimizing our nation’s existence fast enough, our government has decided, once again, to go after human rights organizations.
By Don Futterman, 1 January 2011
Don Futterman is the Israel program director of the Moriah Fund, a private American foundation that supports strengthening civil society, immigrant absorption and empowerment of disadvantaged minorities in Israel.
[but see Yagil Levey, Israeli NGOs are entrenching the occupation]
After coming to the realization that Israel’s enemies are not delegitimizing our nation’s existence fast enough, our government has decided, once again, to go after human rights organizations. This time it is playing the patriotism card, in a bill that would establish a Knesset committee to investigate organizations that dare to criticize Israel Defense Forces behavior.
In fact, the IDF already has investigated claims raised by some of the NGOs now under attack by our right-wing leaders. And it is the IDF itself that should − and sometimes does − take the lead in addressing internal criticism: whether investigating why so many protesters have been killed during legal demonstrations against the security barrier, or looking into alleged misdeeds in Operation Cast Lead. The IDF’s own military advocate general, Avichai Mendelblit, praised B’Tselem, one of the NGOs now slated for investigation, for its contribution to uncovering military misdeeds.
Last year, Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the IDF the most moral armed forces on earth. The NGOs that Yisrael Beitenu wants to undermine through the new parliamentary committee are the very organizations that are fighting to make sure that the IDF lives up to its own standards.
Breaking the Silence (BTS), for example, is not an advocacy organization. Its idealistic members are IDF veterans and reservists committed to Israel’s future who have served in the territories from 2000 until today. Many continue to serve in the reserves and fulfill their missions faithfully, including by protecting settlers.
BTS has two main concerns: to expose the harm we are doing to our soldiers serving in the occupied territories who are asked to engage in acts of questionable morality or legality; and to expose the damage we are doing to the Palestinians, whom we will be living next to for the rest of our lives. BTS gives voice to soldiers who might otherwise succumb to social and political pressures to hide what they have done instead of questioning their actions and thus trying to raise the moral standards of the IDF.
The organization gathers testimonies from former soldiers, but only publishes a fraction of what it collects because, like competent journalists, its members only publicize claims that have been verified by at least one additional source. The testimonies are published anonymously to allow the soldiers to testify as openly as possible, and to protect them from possible retribution from the IDF or other government agencies. BTS publications are intended to bring the truth to the Israeli public, and to pressure the IDF to determine, and enforce, clear boundaries of acceptable military behavior.
In any democracy, the greatest patriots are the few who dare speak truth to power. For more than 20 years, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) has dared to expose the inequities of Israeli society, and advocate for change to redress those wrongs. Perhaps, more than any other single NGO, ACRI has helped establish a civil society that can protect the rights of Israel’s disadvantaged and disenfranchised populations − from the poor to new immigrants to foreign workers to our own Arab citizens − and of our Palestinian neighbors. It has done more to improve Israeli society and its international legitimacy than a hundred Yisrael Beiteinu bills.
While Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman works to silence dissent, rights organizations fight to create a serious and open discourse about the future of this country. The organizations under attack welcome investigation, because they have nothing to hide. But our resources would be better used investigating the injustices they have exposed − particularly the daily abuse of Palestinians tolerated in the occupation − instead of trying to silence the messengers.
The extremists directing our government’s course believe that power gives you the right to abuse whomever you want. Power can be used to bully your critics into silence, to vilify them, to turn them into enemies of the state.
Moshe Katsav believed something similar. In a rare moment of sanity, and thanks to some fearless victims who were willing to blow the whistle despite the additional pain it would cause them, our justice system said “No.”
Lieberman has power now, but he will not always have power. If he succeeds in creating a society that punishes dissent, the time may come when his views will be the dissenting ones, and the legislative instruments his party is busy creating now will be turned against those who espouse them.
But that is not how we want the wheel of history to turn. We want an open democracy, in which freedom of speech and dissent is protected at all costs, protected first and foremost by our politicians, our leaders and our defense forces.
We must also say “No.” We won’t allow our civil society organizations to be bullied, threatened or harassed into silence. We should instead be debating our competing visions for Israel’s future. Our democracy cannot afford to be victimized any further.
One may have expected Yisrael Beiteinu and parts of the Likud to offer human rights groups state funding instead of threatening their existence.
Yagil Levy, 11 January 2011
The Knesset’s decision to probe the human rights’ groups funding sources, a move motivated by the right’s desire to clamp down on the organizations’ activity, should be denounced on several accounts.
However, the right-wing parties should be interested in continuing these organizations’ activity, for the simple reason that they – albeit unintentionally – are advancing those parties’ long-term interest: entrenching the occupation.
In the past decade organizations such as B’Tselem, Machsom Watch and even Breaking the Silence have entered the vacuum in the government’s control over the army and in the senior command’s control over the field units. The center of gravity of conducting the warfare in the midst of the Palestinian population has been diverted, as is characteristic of this kind of policing-warfare, from the high command to the lower field command, which frequently exercises unbridled force on the population.
The army has difficulty effectively controlling the units, and so the task taken up by the human rights’ organizations.
It suffices to read military advocate general Avichai Mendelblit’s statements about those organizations in an interview with Haaretz in 2009: “The organizations are a channel for passing on information about very important things, to make the IDF’s activity normative…I strive to reach the truth and they are really helping us with this.”
In other the words, the organizations whose activity the Knesset wants to restrict are part of the army’s control system over its forces. Machsom Watch supervises the roadblocks and B’Tselem documents, thus monitoring soldiers’ aberrant conduct while on duty. As for Breaking the Silence, it has recently proved its documentation system is better than the army’s, whose first reaction to accusations of illegal conduct in Operation Cast Lead was sweeping denial.
The army has good reason to cooperate and exchange information with some of the organizations, as the MAG conceded.
Even if the leftist groups’ intention is to ensure upholding Palestinian rights, though, the unintentional result of their activity is preserving the occupation. Moderating and restraining the army’s activity gives it a more human and legal facade. Reducing the pressure of international organizations, alongside moderating the Palestinian population’s resistance potential, enable the army to continue to maintain this control model over a prolonged period of time.
No wonder Machsom Watch activists have commented critically that the group’s activity is “improving the roadblocks” rather than helping to remove them. Rather than acting against the IDF’s presence in the midst of dense Palestinian population, B’Tselem tries to make this presence more moral.
In this spirit, Breaking the Silence opposes disobedience and does not act against the occupation. Its documentation helps the army clean its ranks, thus reducing the “moral price of dominating a civilian population,” as the organization puts it.
So one may have expected Yisrael Beiteinu and parts of the Likud to offer human rights groups state funding instead of threatening their existence. In the absence of these groups, the basis of Israel’s domination – whose legitimacy is unraveling – of the Palestinian population will be further undermined, contrary to the Israeli right’s agenda.
The writer is a professor at the Open University and is author of the book “Who Governs the Military,” published by Magnes Press.