Palestinian farmers being denied access to their own lands, olive trees burned or poisoned, detentions under inhumane conditions, beatings and more…
How can Israeli citizens and policy makers and the international community be made aware that such human rights violations are occurring with regularity and with impunity in the Occupied Territories?
This was the charge taken on in 1989 by a group of prominent Israeli academicians, attorneys, journalists and Members of Knesset who founded the Israeli NGO B’Tselem. The Hebrew word “b’tselem” means “in the image of,” from Genesis 1:27: “And God created humans in his image.â€ Affirming the dignity of all human beings, B’Tselem works to hold Israel accountable for honoring the dignity of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories by documenting human rights violations. B’Tselem Executive Director Jessica Montell, accompanied by Uri Zaki, Director of B’Tselem USA, met with the Rabbis for Human Rights-North America (RHR-NA) 2010 Study Tour in Jerusalem on October 25th to discuss B’Tselem’s invaluable work.
Unlike many other human rights organizations, Ms. Montell spoke of the fact that B’Tselem is not engaged in political organizing, but rather is a research organization, often working in concert with other human rights groups including Rabbis for Human Rights. Because there are many who would seek to deny or discredit the evidence of abuse, B’Tselem gathers its information carefully and checks it meticulously before it is published. As a result, B’Tselem has gained a reputation among policy makers of all political persuasions for providing reliable information.
A primary focus of B’Tselem’s work has been documenting settler abuses in the West Bank. As part of that documentation, a video project was started, initially to document the situation in Hebron. At first, video crews were shooting footage of Palestinians. Eventually, video cameras were give to the Palestinians themselves to film their own daily life and to document the daily violence. When cameras were placed in the hands of Palestinians, what started out as an accountability tool unexpectedly turned into an empowerment tool. Many of the Palestinians provided with cameras live in very remote areas and are isolated. They include young women who might otherwise have little visibility, but their messages have spread. Some of them have been interviewed on Al Jazeera and the project has expanded to Gaza where the realities of daily life are even more unfamiliar to Israelis.
According to Ms. Montell: “The Israeli public has a simplistic approach to Gaza: Gaza equals Hamas equals terrorism. Video bloggers from Gaza show a Gaza that Israelis never think about.”
These videos, many of which have been posted to the B’Tselem YouTube channel, provide a window into the lives of ordinary men, women and children in Gaza, putting a human face on the situation there.
B’Tselem has also focused directly on the impact of the siege in Gaza on the lives of people living there:
“The siege is illegal and is causing severe harm and has no clear security benefit. It is strengthening Gaza. There is a tunnel economy. Everything comes in unlike before when Israel did have control over what was coming in,” Ms. Montell said.
There is some progress in Gaza, with Israelis letting in more products, but according to Ms. Montell, there needs to be more concern about what is allowed to come out of Gaza, which is nothing. Gazans are unable to export goods, to travel or to study abroad.
B’Tselem has targeted not just actual abuses, but the lack of accountability for these abuses, documenting the relative paucity of indictments and convictions for known offenses. An emerging area of concern for B’Tselem is maintaining the freedom to demonstrate/assembly. Recently, organizers of nonviolent protests have been convicted and sentenced to prison terms as long as 18 months on charges of incitement.
Ms. Montell said: “There are a lot of interests in Israel and on the Palestinian side for maintaining a violent Palestine. Therefore, we are trying to create space for nonviolent demonstrations, because if the peace process breaks down, we need to ensure that there are nonviolent means to protest.”
B’Tselem’s original belief was that just to have the information about injustices would be enough, however, over the course of twenty-one years of providing information, it has become apparent that information alone is not enough.
“The answer has to be a more successful dialogue with the Israeli public. The traditional view is to see the Israeli public as apathetic, but people are usually concerned…We now have a majority saying they want a two state solution. The Prime Minister is saying this,” Ms. Montell said. “We are not disheartened. We are Israelis fighting to make Israel the most moral place it can be.”