Tuesday is International Human Rights Day, and at the Einav Culture Center in Tel Aviv there will be an evening marking the 30th anniversary of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. The idea for the organization came from former lawmaker David “Dedi” Zucker and lawyer Avigdor Feldman, who recognized the need for a center that would provide information about human rights violations in the territories.
Yossi Sarid came up with the name, in a typical flash of inspiration. Professor Uriel Procaccia was the first chairman of the board, and I was one of the founders and the first executive director. We weren’t thinking 30 years ahead. We believed that the Israeli public just had to know what was being done in its name.
How wrong we were. B’Tselem was established as a response to a question that is still tearing the Israeli public apart: What should you do when your country commits an injustice. Not a random injustice, not a mistake, not a blind bureaucratic decision, but an ongoing, deliberate policy that treats human beings like something to be trampled. The answer that people give to this question shows a lot about them. There are some who remain silent, there are some who convince themselves that everything is all right, there are some who explain that we have to fight, but not now and certainly not abroad. And then there is B’Tselem.
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Human rights activists tend to find consolation in history: History will prove them right. The future is comforting when the present is impossible, and for the past 30 years B’Tselem has been doing one of the exhausting and unremunerative jobs. Its members are the ones who go to the relatives of the dead we prefer to forget, to the wounded we prefer not to see, to the policy we prefer to deny. They speak to the people who are erased by our policy so that they can tell it to the public that has become indifferent.
It’s thankless work, because many Israelis believe that their security comes before the human rights of the Palestinians. But most Israelis also know that security doesn’t justify everything, because otherwise they wouldn’t make such an effort to deny the facts that B’Tselem exposes. War does not justify blind shooting or airstrikes against communities and homes without checking whether civilians are present. Combat does not justify torture, abuse, looting and killing captives.
B’Tselem demands that we remain human beings, even during combat. That’s a difficult demand, but far preferable to the demand to wallow in blind violence and remain silent about it forever, out of the fear that someone abroad will hear it.
After all, it’s not security that is behind construction in the settlements and bringing citizens into hostile territory. It’s not security that prevents the Palestinians from receiving building permits. It’s not security that is behind the systematic dispossession in the West Bank’s Area C. That’s how far we’ve come: They’ve taken our dead children, our disabled, our greatest traumas, and used even them to justify tyranny and theft.
Every anniversary of B’Tselem is a year of missed opportunities, of an objective that was not attained. The organization realized that revealing human rights violations is far from sufficient, and that when there is an occupation, they can’t have the attitude of “business as usual.” That’s why they have made several courageous decisions to take exceptional steps, and have turned their own activities into acts of disruption and internal resistance: For example, Hagai El-Ad’s trip to the UN Security Council; the decision to stop working with the military advocate general; and the call to refuse a clearly illegal order to shoot at unarmed demonstrators with live fire.
Right-wing politicians don’t like these decisions. So what? Only surrender will satisfy them. Every year B’Tselem works so that it will be their last year – the last year of the occupation. That’s why several policymakers are so afraid of them. And that’s why they’re also the most important organization in Israel.