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Rights groups spar over J Street conference

March 22, 2012 11:17 P.M. (Updated: March 27, 2012 4:16 P.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Palestinian human rights groups are calling on Israeli organization B'Tselem to withdraw from an event hosting former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, officials on both sides say.

Olmert will deliver the keynote speech at the annual conference of the Washington-based pro-Israel US lobby group J Street on Monday. He was prime minister of Israel during its devastating 2008 war on the Gaza Strip.

"Olmert has been implicated in the commission of war crimes and other serious violations of international law for his role in Operation 'Cast Lead,'" said a joint statement by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, Al Dameer Association for Human Rights and the Palestinian NGO Network, which represents 132 groups.

"B’Tselem’s active participation in this event sends a dangerous message," the groups said. The Israeli human rights group "should be protesting, not celebrating, an event welcoming Olmert."

They added: "It undermines the fundamental importance of accountability for international crimes, disregards victims’ right to dignity and justice, and implies that political processes may override human rights standards."

B'Tselem director 'dismayed'

Jessica Montell, the executive director of B'Tselem, wrote in response that "I appreciate your concerns. ... "If asked, we would certainly not have advised featuring Olmert as a speaker" due to the allegations.

She said the goal of B'Tselem's participation at J Street and in the US was to expose people to its human rights message and encourage greater accountability and greater respect for human rights.

"This is also the goal of our participation at J Street and we are glad that we convinced the organizers to let us organize a panel devoted to human rights in the Occupied Territories and the way the international community addresses Israel's human rights record."

Montell also said she was "dismayed" that the rights groups would issue a public statement without discussing the issue with the group first.

Despite the tensions, the Palestinian organizations highlighted the many years of successful professional cooperation between them and Israeli and international human rights groups.

"However, as human rights defenders, we are united by our standards: by our belief in the universality of human rights and the rule of international law.

"Our legitimacy derives from our unwavering commitment to these principles, and our obligations to act in the best interests of the victims we represent," they wrote.
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