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'We became subcontractors to the occupation': B'Tselem ends work with Israeli army

May 25, 2016 10:06 A.M. (Updated: May 28, 2016 7:22 P.M.)
Israeli soldiers arrest a Palestinian youth following clashes on Nov. 11, 2008 (AFP/Hazem Bader, File)
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- After 25 years of accountability work in the occupied West Bank, Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem announced on Wednesday its decision to discontinue their strategy of holding Israeli forces accountable for their crimes against Palestinians through internal military mechanisms.

Representatives of the organization, which focuses on collecting information and documenting Israeli human rights violations against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, called their complicity in Israel’s military mechanisms “morally unacceptable,” in a press briefing on Tuesday.

According to a new report released by the organization, the inefficiency of Israeli military mechanisms to provide justice for Palestinian victims led the organization to label their accountability activities as a “whitewash machine” for the continuation of the nearly 50-year Israeli military occupation of the West Bank.

“B’Tselem has gradually come to the realization that the way in which the military law enforcement system functions precludes it from the very outset from achieving justice for the victims. Nonetheless, the very fact that the system exists serves to convey a semblance of law enforcement and justice,” the report stated.

The report argued that the veneer of legal legitimacy “makes it easier to reject criticism about the injustices of the occupation, thanks to the military’s outward pretense that even it considers some acts unacceptable, and backs up this claim by saying that it is already investigating these actions.”

“In so doing, not only does the state manage to uphold the perception of a decent, moral law enforcement system, but also maintains the military’s image as an ethical military that takes action against these acts,” the report added.

Since the start of the second intifada in late 2000, of the 739 complaints filed by B’Tselem of Palestinians being killed, injured, used as human shields, or having their property damaged by Israeli forces, roughly 70 percent resulted in an investigation where no action was taken, or in an investigation never being opened.

Only three percent of cases resulted in charges being brought against the soldiers, according to the report.

Field Researcher for B’Tselem Iyad Haddad told Ma’an on Tuesday that Israeli and Palestinian NGOs worked for many years to create a “culture” of accountability in Palestinian communities plagued with deeply-rooted mistrust for Israeli military bodies, convincing Palestinians to submit complaints to the Israeli military when faced with human rights violations.

However, the organization became complicit in the violations by reinforcing the credibility of a system incapable of providing results or any semblance of justice for individuals or their families, Haddad said.

Kareem Jubran, field research director of B’Tselem, said he was “ashamed” of B’Tselem’s engagement with the military occupation during the press briefing, adding that the process forced victims to become victims a second time, as Palestinians are commonly mistreated by military investigators while their cases rarely result in accountability or justice.

“We became subcontractors to the occupation,” Yael Stein, a research director of B’Tselem, said in the conference, adding that the organization’s accountability work served to “legitimize the whole occupation.”

The decision has led the group to redesign its strategy from direct accountability to working in the “public arena” through a launch of a public awareness campaign that can “rob the system of its credibility,” Executive Director Hagai Elad said.

B’Tselem’s disengagement with internal mechanisms of the Israeli military occupation comes in the midst of an increasingly right-wing government and renewed attacks on Israeli human rights organizations.

Newly appointed ultra-right Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman accused B'Tselem earlier this year of being funded by the same groups financing Hamas -- the Palestinian movement leading the besieged Gaza Strip's de facto government, which has been designated a “terrorist” organization by the Israeli government -- while calling B’Tselem “traitors” to the Israeli public.

In December, Ayelet Shaked, leader of the ultranationalist Israeli Home Party, pushed for a so-called “transparency” bill that would compel NGOs to reveal their sources of funding if more than 50 percent of their funding came from foreign entities, in a push to crack down on groups who receive foreign funding in order to criticize Israel.

Critics have slammed the bill, which passed its first reading in the Knesset in February, with the chairwoman of the left-leaning Meretz party Zehara Galon calling it a “continuation of the witch hunt, political persecution, and censorship of human rights groups and left-wing organizations that criticize the government’s conduct.”

Since organizations in Israel which rely on foreign funding also tend to oppose the government’s right-wing policies against Palestinians, the potential legislation is widely considered discriminatory and an attempt to weed out human rights groups working to end the large-scale human rights violations that occur in the occupied territory.

B'Tselem's recent decision to focus on public awareness in Israeli society marks a unique shift in Israeli human rights approaches to violations against Palestinians, in a political climate where far-right views are increasingly becoming mainstream, and concerted attacks on human rights groups could be considered government policy.

Jaclynn Ashly contributed reporting from Jerusalem.
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