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Little did Jessica Montell know in 1987 that spending a few months on a semester-abroad program in Jerusalem would change her life so radically.

Active in Zionist youth movements while growing up in Berkeley, California, Montell took off a semester from Oberlin College and came to study in Jerusalem. She lived in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, where she witnessed Israeli soldiers marching into hotels and dragging Palestinians out against their will. That experience, and many others involving violence against Palestinians during what were the early days of the first Intifada, horrified her.

Fourteen years later - about six weeks ago - Montell was appointed executive director of B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, which documents human rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza. The first executive director to come from an English-speaking country, Montell replaced Argentinian-born Eitan Felner, who spent nine years at the organization, the last four as director. "I don't define myself as a Zionist anymore," says Montell, 33. "I define myself as a human rights activist. My identity is almost wholly tied up with B'Tselem."

An independent and privately funded body, Jerusalem-based B'Tselem was founded in 1989 for the purpose of researching and informing the Israeli public, its policy-makers and the international community about human rights violations in the territories. The organization "combat[s] the phenomenon of denial prevalent among the Israeli public, and help[s] create a human rights culture in Israel," according to its Web site.

Montell previously worked for HaMoked, another human rights organization in Jerusalem, and completed her masters' degree in human rights and international law at Columbia University. She worked for B'Tselem in the area of international advocacy from 1995 until she assumed her new post in mid-May.

Fundamental change

Montell takes the reins at a time when B'Tselem's mission suddenly has become a whole lot tougher to fulfill. Felner dealt mostly with the negative repercussions of the Oslo process on the Palestinians, with land expropriations and demolitions of Palestinian homes due to Israeli settlement-building, and with other forms of discrimination. Montell is now primarily preoccupied with the suffering of Palestinians during the Al Asqa Intifada - and of Israeli settlers at the hands of Palestinians - and has had to set aside those cases not directly related to the current Intifada.

Montell: "There has been a big change. The Intifada has very fundamentally changed - worsened - the human rights situation in the territories, first in terms of the scope of the violations and also in terms of the complexity - both legal and [in regard to] fact-finding."

For example, before the Intifada, B'Tselem employed Israeli Arabs as field-workers in the West Bank and Gaza. They would gather data and return to the Jerusalem office to discuss what they had learned with those who compile the findings, release statements to the public, and interface with policy-makers and diplomats.

Since the uprising began and Israeli citizens have not been allowed into the Palestinian areas, B'Tselem has had to employ five Palestinian field-workers, none of whom previously worked for the organization although they had experience at a similar one. They must phone or fax their research results in to the office, and cope with problems of access to the territories, such as Israeli army roadblocks

"Worse still," Montell continues, "is the manipulation of information from both sides, Palestinian and Israeli," which makes fact-finding more difficult for field workers since they work "in an atmosphere in which information itself is highly contentious. Before the Intifada, we could rely on information put out by the IDF, and by the Palestinian sources, too, but now everyone is trying to manipulate the facts."

Delayed reaction

B'Tselem has thus been forced to collect information from a wider variety of sources, which delays the output of statistics. For example, it wasn't until December, 2000, when B'Tselem came out with a statement that Israel was using excessive, lethal force against the Palestinians, although members of the organization strongly believed that this was true long before.

"We knew large numbers of Palestinians were being killed and injured [at the beginning of the Intifada], but that doesn't mean that Israel was using excessive force. We had to go into the field and gather the hard facts," she says.

Meanwhile, stirring up interest in B'Tselem's mission among the Israeli public has become more challenging than ever, as even many left-wingers have lost their interest in the issue of Palestinian human rights.

Montell: "The Israeli public is more defensive and polarized," and fewer people are willing to speak out. While Felner initiated efforts to drum up popular support (and even succeeded to a limited extent), she must do the same with a less receptive audience. In addition, she says the organization must focus on the international community - a more critical target of activism than before because the abuses have worsened.

"I'm not optimistic that we can convince the Israeli public that they should support human rights in the territories," she says. "The most basic principle of human rights is that ... a person is responsible for his own actions. But we in Israel have lost sight of that."