Thursday, March 12, 2015

Eve Fairbanks - The battle to be Israel’s conscience

For 25 years, the human-rights group B’Tselem has diligently catalogued the violations of its own government. Can it convince Israelis to listen?

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. At a press conference, El-Ad emphasised the report’s conclusion that the Israeli military violated international humanitarian law. In keeping with Ronen Shoval’s fears about B’Tselem’s impact on the narrative coming out of the Middle East, the assertion was reported by al-Jazeera and the BBC. “Israeli Group Says Military Attacks on Palestinian Homes Appeared to Violate Law” was the headline in the New York Times. What the Israelis behind the shutters took from the report, we have yet to see.

On 15 August last year, five weeks into the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Hagai El-Ad, the director of B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation, appeared on a morning radio show to discuss the conflict. Throughout the fighting, B’Tselem did what it has done for 25 years since it was founded during the first Palestinian intifada: document human rights violations by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza. It compiled film and testimony gathered by volunteer field researchers on the ground, tallied daily casualty figures that were used by the local and international press, and released names of individual Palestinians killed by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).

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. But by last summer, this stance had become a source of controversy. 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. A group called Mothers of Soldiers Against B’Tselem was formed; Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister, endorsed one of their protests.

That morning on the radio, the host, 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. Gal responded that Israel was locked in a battle for its survival; at such a moment, he argued, refusing to call Hamas a terrorist group was a political – and disloyal – act. Newspaper columnists were still talking about it a month later. “Hagai El-Ad has essentially become a Hamas apologist,” one declared.

Three and a half months after the end of the Gaza war, in early December, I met El-Ad at Talbia, a wine bar beneath the Jerusalem Theatre. Forty-five years old, he looks barely over 30. He has a soft, almost hushed voice, glasses that press down on the tops of his ears, making them flop over like wings, and a frequent, mirthful smile. “Don’t sneeze,” he laughed, as a waitress propped a cork under a wobbly leg of our table, creating a fragile balance. El-Ad arrived at B’Tselem last May after spells as the director of Jerusalem Open House, Jerusalem’s premier gay-advocacy group, and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

B’Tselem, in Hebrew, means “in His image,” from the line in the Book of Genesis: “And God made man in His image.” El-Ad possesses a fierce belief in Israelis’ ability – and duty – to live up to their human godliness by being just and manifesting an expansive empathy. “I self-identify as a Jew who cares deeply about the Jewish future and the Jewish identity,” he told me. “To be Jewish is to treat people with dignity.” He grew up in Haifa, on the Israeli coast, and takes as the basis for his personal creed an anecdote from a visit Golda Meir paid to the city during the 1948 Israeli war for independence, when she noted that scenes of Palestinians fleeing their homes reminded her of images of Jews fleeing Poland before the second world war. “If Golda Meir could notice the similarities,” he said, smiling, “then anybody can recognise Palestinians as human beings who ought to be treated with equal rights.”

For someone who holds these views in a society that does not, legally, extend legal rights to all Palestinians under its rule, El-Ad is also strikingly unemotional. He lays out his moral reasoning in proofs. Before he made a career change to work for the Jerusalem Open House, he was on track to become one of Israel’s leading scientists, accepted into an exclusive honours programme at Hebrew University called the Amirim. His subject was astrophysics: in the late 1990s, he spent several years on a fellowship at Harvard, studying parts of space void of galaxies. He left with impeccable English and the eyes-on-the-stars, even-keeled nature to appear on another radio show the morning after the Sharon Gal showdown and say the same thing, in the same neutral tone: “We criticise Hamas’s activities when they are illegal.”  Read more: