Hagai El-Ad believes that if he hadn’t appeared before the United Nations Security Council to speak about the occupation last fall, he would have had to resign from B’Tselem. After all, he was appointed director of the organization – whose full name is the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories – on the basis of a promise to spearhead strategic change. In a 2013 letter to B’Tselem’s board when he was vying for the position, he described what he saw as the NGO’s existential dilemma: “On the one hand, [B’Tselem] can point to great assets and achievements that were gained through much toil, thanks to the organization’s dedicated workers and management. But on the other hand, the occupation continues, as it becomes ever more institutionalized and removed from the center of Israeli public discourse. In other words: B’Tselem is doing excellent work, but at the same time, the end of the occupation seems possibly more distant than ever.” Change is crucial, he wrote them.
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- B'Tselem head: Why I spoke against the occupation at the UN
There’s no question that the gifted 47-year-old physicist, who has headed B’Tselem since 2014, has kept his word. B’Tselem has been associated with two of the most significant political events of the past year, which put the occupation back at the center of the public debate – the trial of the so-called Hebron shooter, soldier Elor Azaria, and UN Security Council Resolution 2334, of December 23, against Israeli settlements in the territories. Could the end of the occupation be nearer now?
On October 14, El-Ad stood before the members of the UN Security Council and declared that, “After so many years, one has to draw certain conclusions Israel will not cease being an oppressor simply by waking up one morning and realizing the brutality of its policies,” he told the Security Council. “So far the world refuses to take effective action We need your help. The rights of the Palestinians must be realized; the occupation must end.” And then he told the world what he told B’Tselem when he took over the job: “The time has come to act.”
The world listened to you.
“No country in the world sets its foreign policy in accordance with B’Tselem. But there are many countries that determine their foreign policy in accordance with the facts. And we are ambassadors of facts. So in that sense I feel that we’ve done our job. How does it specifically relate to the Security Council resolution? That’s not something I could ever presume to gauge. In any case, what matters is that the action resonates here. Because the ones who will end the occupation are the Israelis and the Palestinians.”
What actions would you like to see the world take?
“There was no talk about any concrete mechanisms.”
El-Ad explains that the occupation is not democratic because decisions about it are made by only 8 million of the 13 million people who live under Israeli rule.
On television I saw a Palestinian lawyer say that they have lists of army people and all they need is to have one case make it to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Would you like to see Israel Defense Forces reservists on vacation abroad arrested by Interpol with international warrants and charged with war crimes?
“The short answer to that is, no.”
No it won’t happen, or no you don’t want that to happen?
“Both. What interests us is the responsibility of the top brass. One technique used by the system is to divert responsibility downward, to the very junior ranks, and then to accuse B’Tselem of going after sergeants and corporals. We always say, time after time, that our demand for accountability starts with the senior ranks. Of course, every individual soldier is responsible for his own behavior, but it’s the senior officers who let this reality become entrenched and allowed it to flourish for so many years.”
Whom do you mean?
“The chief military prosecutor – who is well aware of what he is authorizing and permitting.”
“The chief of staff, the defense minister, the prime minister.”
You’d like to see them tried for war crimes in the International Court?
“We don’t use such wording. But these things are already happening. They started to develop before the Security Council resolution and my speech at the UN – ever since Palestine joined the ICC and in the wake of requests that Palestinians have already submitted to that court. From past experience, based on other cases around the world, it takes the ICC a great many years for it to happen.”
But that’s what you’re hoping for?
“Not necessarily. There is a lot of attention right now to legal aspects.”
“We’ve said it before, unrelated to the thing with the UN – that by not conducting genuine investigations here and not doing a meaningful reckoning – Israel is exposing itself to international legal instruments.”
By international standards, the people in the positions you cited are war criminals?
“They are the people who will bear responsibility.”
‘Semantics are important’
Do you think that Benjamin Netanyahu is a war criminal?
“I think that Benjamin Netanyahu bears responsibility. The semantics are important here.”
“Because I think the phrase ‘war crime’ has many connotations that for Israelis in particular are not the best. Why evoke these connotations?”
But what they talk about in The Hague is “war crimes,” not “responsibility.”
“If Israel doesn’t want to be exposed to legal proceedings, it would do better not to break the law.”
Are you considering filing complaints yourselves?
“No. The Palestinians have already filed complaints. Our reports are accessible to all and provide testimonies, and our descriptions present facts.”
It can also spill over beyond the people you think are the ones who should bear responsibility. There are many ranks between the chief of staff at the top and the soldiers on the bottom.
“You are describing a picture of some random Israeli. That won’t happen. As for the higher ranks, there isn’t even a question [that they should bear responsibility].”
So this goes beyond the chief of staff, defense minister, prime minister and chief military prosecutor?
“All of these questions are essentially theoretical, due to the pace at which things happen.”
UN Resolution 2334 is giving it a push.
“We’re at the stage where the prosecutor of the ICC is doing a preliminary examination of two main matters: The accusations that Israel committed war crimes during Operation Protective Edge, and complaints regarding the settlements.”
You’ve been pursuing this direction for a long time.
“It’s not we who are going in this direction, it’s the reality that’s going in this direction. The facts are there for all to see. They are public, because we make them public.”
Okay. What else do you hope to achieve?
“There are a million options that right now seem more or less distant. And I’m not sure it’s our job to say.
'Action to end the occupation is in essence pro-Israel action, just as is it a pro-Palestinian action.'
Canceling economic, military and diplomatic dealings between countries; having Israelis not be able to fly to Europe because they can’t get visas; revoking business deals; international firms leaving the country
"You yourself just mentioned a lot of possibilities.”
You tell me. You, B’Tselem: What chain of events have you envisioned?
“I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
I can’t believe you didn’t take into account what could happen as a result of your call for international intervention.
“We took into account a whole spectrum of things. It includes a reduction in the excellent economic, diplomatic and academic relations that exist between Israel and the West.”
What could happen? Give me some examples.
“No, that’s all I have to say about it. If I wanted to do that, I would have done so at the Security Council. This is what we said there. No more and no less.”
But did you take into account that you are setting in motion a sequence of events that could be disastrous for the Israeli economy, for Israel’s security, for Israelis’ freedom of movement?
“I think that anyone with eyes in his head, who’s aware of the existing spectrum of realistic possibilities in this regard, would not think there’s cause to be concerned about the extreme possibilities raised in this sort of irresponsible warning.”
Why not? In whose hands are you placing Israel’s future?
“Israel’s future is first of all in our own hands. Just like your question about the ICC and everything else: All of these things are ultimately in our hands. If we choose not to violate the law, then we will not be put on trial.”
Yes, but what about the rest of the world?
“If we choose not to break the law, then we won’t be tried.”
Model of opposition
El-Ad’s appearance at the UN in October won the admiration of a leftist minority in Israel. El-Ad’s courage, and the remarkable dedication of B’Tselem, stirred hope that there is something that can be done, and someone who is doing it. A model of active opposition to the occupation. B’Tselem’s imprint certainly hovers over UN Resolution 2334, which called settlement activity a “flagrant violation” of international law and demanded its “cessation by Israel.” But its cooperation with the Security Council has evoked harsh responses in Israel, from right-wing and centrist political circles both, and from the public at large. B’Tselem and its suppoters have been called traitors. Coalition chairman MK David Bitan even proposed revoking Hagai El-Ad’s citizenship. That of course has not happened.
Benjamin Netanyahu called B’Tselem a “fleeting and bizarre” organization and sought to have its allotment of National Service volunteers canceled. (It was eligible for one volunteer, but the slot was not filled). “What these organizations cannot achieve through democratic elections in Israel, they try to achieve by international coercion,” the prime minister wrote on his Facebook page following El-Ad’s speech to the Security Council.
In his pleasant Jerusalem apartment, El-Ad calmly explains that the occupation is not democratic because decisions about it are made by only 8 million of the 13 million people who live under Israeli rule. “We live in a single, undemocratic state. There is no avoiding this fact. I am counting all the people who live under Israeli control but not Israeli law.”
What exactly do you mean by “Israeli rule”?
“Everything – Gaza, Areas A, B and C [of the West Bank], East Jerusalem, and of course all the area inside the Green Line. We run the whole area, and that includes the lives of all the people between the Jordan River and the sea.”
'One arm of the army is busy with the bombardments, and the army’s whitewashing department already springs into action.'
We left the Gaza Strip. And the Palestinian Authority controls parts of the West Bank.
“Israel controls and dictates what life is like. Israel divided the territories into separate and disconnected units, with different definitions. Splitting up Palestinian territory and its residents and establishing the PA, and the military withdrawal from Gaza, create an appearance of an absence of control, when Israel really continues to control the lives of all the Palestinians who live in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. In Gaza, Israel controls the border crossings, the maritime and air space, the movement of people and goods.
“In the West Bank, the division was supposed to be in force for five years, and it still is 20 years later. Most of the Palestinian population lives in Areas A and B, which make up 40 percent of the territories and are not contiguous but rather divided into 165 ‘islands’ scattered through the West Bank. The separation of Area C from the territories transferred to the PA does not reflect geographic reality nor Palestinian needs. Area C is the one that surrounds the islands. Almost all the land reserves necessary for development, for industry, for agriculture, for water infrastructure, and for paving roads are located there – under Israeli control.”
So what you see is a model of one state, in which there were elections and only half the people were invited to take part, and whose decision, therefore, are not legitimate?
“That’s the way we’re living here.”
You don’t describe the situation in terms of occupation, but rather as apartheid. Is that because you envision a one-state and not a two-state solution?
“For 50 years, there has been a single geographical and territorial entity between the Jordan River and the sea, which Israeli controls and runs. This is not the position of B’Tselem; this is reality. Israel controls all the territory and all the people that live there. This is reality and the implications of this must be understood – in terms of questions of freedom, equality and justice – basic values. What are the political solutions? That’s not a question for a human-rights organization, and B’Tselem has no position on the issue. The land could be divided, there could be one state, there could be seven states, you could do all kinds of things. That’s not something we’re going to get into."
The Israeli voter thinks that elections make decisions only regarding his state. In this sense, he preserves, at least in his imagination, the possibility that the Palestinians are ultimately supposed to decide via their own mechanism what will be. That is, he’s still living within the logic of a two-state solution.
“We’re living a lie. We’re 8 million out of 13 million.”
You consider the Israeli political structure illegitimate because it doesn’t take into account the entire 13 million?
“You’ve taken me a few steps ahead of what I said. I was talking about the root of the non-democracy, by virtue of our making decisions about them. I wasn’t talking about decisions that we make about ourselves. It’s not the same thing. Some of the decisions made by Israeli voters do pertain to Israelis within the Green Line.”
But how do you make this distinction?
“I think that in 1967, when the stopwatch started working, it was easy to make this distinction, and that as time has passed, the harder it has become to make it. And from this perspective, the insistence of government spokespeople in portraying the UN Security Council Resolution as anti-Israeli and not as anti-occupation, as anti-settlements, as anti our control – it was an amazing piece of spin.”
If it’s hard to distinguish between Israel and the settlements, how can you say the resolution is not anti-Israeli?
“It’s not against Israel. It’s against the settlements. Ending the occupation is something that will ultimately be to our benefit. To the Palestinians’ benefit and to our benefit. I don’t see a contradiction between these things. Perpetuating the occupation is a catastrophe. I think it’s a disaster. Action to end the occupation is in essence pro-Israel action, just as is it a pro-Palestinian action. There isn’t a single word in the UN resolution against the legitimacy of the State of Israel within the Green Line.”
A lot of people thought what your organization did was wrong. That turning to an outside entity crossed a line.
“Because it clashes with the lie that all the people who live here have been fed for decades – that the occupation is an internal Israeli matter; that we’ll settle it somehow; that we’ll decide about it just among ourselves. That the only way to determine the fate of the country is by means of its internal political system. We’ll decide the fate of our state, not the fate of their state.”
But from the point of view of many people in Israel, the conflict isn’t propelled by Jewish imperialism. In other words, most Israelis see it as a historic conflict that has become hopelessly tangled, and they feel helpless to change it.
“I think Israelis want the land without the people. That’s the story that has guided Israeli policy since 1967.”
But in terms of the land, too, the majority of Israelis haven’t assimilated the settlements into their concept of Israel’s territory in their everyday lives. They don’t go there. They don’t go there for fun, they don’t go hiking there, they don’t go there to restaurants or for cultural events. Things haven’t gone that far.
'The Supreme Court lets the government do practically anything it wants with the Palestinians.'
“What would your watershed be? A hundred years? A million settlers? When will the moment come that you’ll take what you just said right now and think the opposite? I don’t buy your premise. This process we’re in is an incremental one. Everyone’s waiting for this moment when something dramatic will happen and then we’ll suddenly realize that the watershed moment has occurred and then there will be an uprising. But it’s happening gradually. Tomorrow doesn’t look all that different from two days ago. Everyone’s waiting for that moment to come, but it never comes. You’re describing this situation almost as if we just happened to get caught up in this thing. If a historian were sitting here, he would say something else. And if a political philosopher were sitting here, he would say something else. I’m a much simpler kind of person. Today, 49 years after we conquered the territories, this is the reality: 400,000 settlers plus 200,000 in East Jerusalem.”
Do you agree with A. B. Yehoshua’s recent suggestion? That from a human-rights point of view, the situation requires that residency be granted to the Palestinians in Area C?
“No. First of all, the presumption in going over the heads of the Palestinians who live there to make such a decision is unacceptable – on the deepest level. Second, a movement of a few inches this way or that way, within the reality of Israelis’ control over the Palestinians, with all due respect, does more to serve the perpetuation of the current situation. It’s just some other version of control, and doesn’t offer any kind of end to this situation.”
What about annexation? From the civil-rights point of view, wouldn’t that improve the situation, if Israel were responsible for them?
“In all the talk about one state, I don’t recall ever hearing anyone from the right-wing side who believes in one state and thinks that everyone will be Israeli citizens and will have equal voting rights. It’s clear that the intention [of such a move would be] to exchange the current version of Israel’s control over the Palestinians for another one. By the way, this is not just a theoretical question. There is one place within the area under our control where this has already been done: We annexed East Jerusalem in its expanded version, post-1967. We’ve already done it. And the results in terms of the rights of Palestinians who get to live in this expanded – or united – or annexed – Jerusalem, whatever you want to call it, have not been a great success. I mean, you can clearly see how this sort of thing is used and how we’ve handled it. And what the lives of the Palestinians in East Jerusalem are like.”
Can you envision a situation of full, equal rights for all 13 million people?
“I think we’re currently at a serious low point. But there have been times in history when things suddenly changed, even though a minute before that no one thought that things were about to take a 180-degree turn. I’m not saying that’s what’s going to happen here, and I wouldn’t plan for the future, or for B’Tselem’s work, on that basis, but people should remember that the option of being pleasantly surprised does exist.”
Proud Arabic speaker
El-Ad must have learned his optimism from home. He was born in Haifa, the son of a journalist (at Haaretz) and of a social-work lecturer at the University of Haifa. As a child he learned Arabic, and he was inducted into the IDF Intelligence Corps’ Unit 504, which is responsible for recruiting agents in neighboring countries. The only time during our conversation when El-Ad lost his cool was when I asked about his military service. He seemed to pull out a ready answer – that he refused to go along with the premise that only “significant” army service gives one the right to take part in the debate over Israel’s image. When I said I was actually curious about the recurrent motif of the “collaborator” in his life – in the army, his job was to recruit them, and now he himself is sometimes denounced as one – and the possible connection between the military chapter of his life and the current one – he was taken aback. He said he’d never thought about it that way, and preferred not to get into it.
He is a graduate of the interdisciplinary Amirim program for gifted students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he earned both his bachelor and master’s degrees in physics, going on to be a pre-doctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Astrophysics. El-Ad has also long been involved in civil rights activities as well: He headed the LGBT student group at Hebrew University, and was the first director of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance. In 2000, he was appointed director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and then six years later, took the helm at B’Tselem.
Openly gay, he likens what B’Tselem is asking of the Israeli public to what his coming out of the closet asked of his parents. Coming out is the endpoint of a long, internal process, he explains, and one has to remember that the people in one’s life also need time to adjust to the change. He says he understands those who have difficulty accepting B’Tselem’s activities. They need time to internalize what it took people at the organization a long time to understand, too.
The change that El-Ad has introduced in B’Tselem, which has been gradual, can be described as a transition from basing its work on the logic of righting wrongs to the logic of revolution. After Operation Protective Edge, in 2014, the organization ceased cooperating with the military legal system in regard to human rights violations in Gaza. And about six months ago, it also severed ties with the same authorities in regard to violations in the West Bank. That is, B’Tselem decided to stop addressing complaints to the army, out of the belief that the military law-enforcement system is inherently limited – because it is designed to deal with complaints against individual soldiers for specific offenses perpetrated against West Bank Palestinians rather than with the orders themselves or those who determine policy. There are also organizational problems that hinder the army’s legal system from being able to deal with a heavy volume of cases. B’Tselem felt that while there was an outward appearance of improvement in the functioning of the legal apparatus, the problems were not really being addressed. Also, the NGO believes that cooperation with the IDF contributes to the latter’s effort to present itself as a “moral” army. Instead, it decided to continue only with documenting human rights violations in the territories and denunciation of the military legal system. It is no longer cooperating with that system.
B’Tselem is just as critical of the High Court, however. El-Ad says that Israel does as it pleases in the West Bank, with the High Court’s seal of approval, and describes the court as cowardly, short-sighted and lacking in legal integrity. The debate about evacuating the illegal settler outpost of Amona, for example, is “an argument between thieves who can’t agree on how much Palestinian land they should steal,” he wrote in an article published before Amona’s evacuation last week. “The High Court is not promoting justice. In the face of the settlement enterprise, the court has preferred to evade making a decision, but when it comes to sanctioning and facilitating the occupation, the High Court has over the years drifted far away from the basic principles of justice and fairness, and become an organ of the occupation.”
Why did you decide that you’re finished cooperating with Israel’s official institutions?
“After 20 years of work, we came to the conclusion that our way wasn’t working. Not only was it not useful, it was also damaging – because it was serving the system and giving it credibility it doesn’t deserve.”
What was the watershed moment? What exactly happened two years ago? What happened six months ago?
“The truth is that nothing dramatic happened. I mean, the same decision could have been made three years ago, or it could have been made two months from now. Seven hundred cases with hardly any at all going to trial was enough for us. Why not 612 cases? Why not 2,000? Everyone has his own red line. One of the toughest things about the dynamic of the way Israel controls the Palestinians is that it’s done incrementally. And I think that from this perspective, B’Tselem’s ability to say, ‘Yes, this is as far as we can go with this’ – I think this is quite impressive and noteworthy. I hope that more people and more organizations will reach this point. I also think there’s no question that this symbolic moment, of the 50th anniversary of the occupation, is certainly helping this to happen. We’ve come to the understanding that we cannot continue with more of the same. That we did things that seemed logical as long as the reality was really temporary, but that one can no longer ignore that a new reality has meanwhile arisen.”
You’re not holding back.
“This balance of things needs a good kick. The status quo needs to be broken. I remember a letter we received from the military prosecutor’s office about the bombardments of Gaza during Operation Protective Edge. They wrote us that they thought there were human rights violations and violations of international law, and they were inviting us to file complaints. When I read it I couldn’t believe it. One arm of the army is busy with the bombardments, and the army’s whitewashing department already springs into action. This is a very skilled system that knows how to do every part of its work, and as part of that, it also invites us to play our role.”
In other words, you’d been swallowed up by the status quo – that was your feeling. That you’d become part of the system.
“Yes. It was like, keep on being the useful idiots. The complaints lead to proceedings that go nowhere.”
The case of Elor Azaria [the IDF soldier who was convicted of manslaughter after shooting an incapacitated Palestinian terrorist last year] went nowhere?
'It’s a bit infantile to link the occupation to Netanyahu and an end of the occupation to replacing Netanyahu. Netanyahu didn’t start the settlements.'
“In the Azaria case, we did not file a complaint. And it wasn’t a pointless process, but only because the state always makes sure to apply the full extent of the law in about 3 percent of cases. These examples are very, very important. Why? Because the system later uses them to sanction the other 97 percent. In regard to Azaria, the question should be: What was he doing in Hebron in the first place? The question cannot start from the moment the incident began.”
But this 3 percent does have importance.
“We’re struggling with ourselves over this. Every time we focus on a concrete situation, it serves to reduce the whole vast thing to one lone case of improper, or proper, conduct. We end up arguing about an individual sergeant. What we do at B’Tselem is to take on the [individual] incident but also a thousand others, for there to be a zoom-out. To say, it’s not about this one particular person. That isn’t the real issue. The issue is all the other cases, and where is the military prosecutor, and where is the attorney general, and the system that is the reason that Israeli soldiers are in these places and getting caught up in these kinds of situations.”
So you’re saying that Azaria’s behavior is not unusual.
“No. Some people asked, rightly, why his lawyers didn’t raise the argument of unequal justice: that is, there have been dozens of cases like this, and now you decide to put him on trial? It’s unequal enforcement of the law and I think this argument carries a lot of weight. I was shocked by the indifference in the reactions [of others present] to Azaria’s conduct on the scene. Why did they react impassively? Because they’d seen this happen before? Or because they think it’s okay? The focus on Elor Azaria is part of the reduction of the responsibility to the junior ranks, to individual soldiers, to specific exceptions, in a way that exempts the prime minister from responsibility, and exempts you and me as well. So we’ve stopped focusing on these kinds of cases.
“We decided to zoom out. To say: Look what’s happening in Hebron generally, and also think about what responsibility the military prosecutor bears for this whole situation, and let’s think about what responsibility we all bear for this situation.”
Do you no longer believe in the importance of ‘saving a single life?’
“I wouldn’t put it that way. I’m just saying that’ that’s not enough.”
When I went on one of your tours of Palestinian villages in the West Bank, and we talked with people there, I saw that some of the complaints and anger were directed at B’Tselem, because for them you’re the “address” for despair, for expectations, for requests for help. And now you’ve stopped doing that in regard to the Palestinians.
“No, that’s not true.”
What B’Tselem used to do – who will do it now? For that 3 percent?
“We are still doing it, we’re just not submitting the complaints to the Military Police, that’s the difference. We are still investigating. To me, this is going up a notch when it comes to honesty and integrity and a respectful attitude toward the Palestinians. We have to be very careful not to become peddlers of illusions. And we have to tell people the truth, as we see it. At B’Tselem, we have always made a point of saying that if a B’Tselem investigator spoke with a Palestinian who filed a complaint, telling him that we’ll record the testimony, we’ll submit the complaint – but he has to know that it probably won’t lead to anything. That this has been our experience.”
So you’re severing contact with official Israel?
“We’re not severing contact. We’re having a real, straightforward, factual conversation with Israelis about the reality here. To me, this conversation is much more meaningful and hopeful and important than merely continuing empty, despondent, routine humanist activism in a way that hasn’t proven itself over a period of many years. I think that it would be detached from reality to just keep on submitting complaints to the Military Police. I think that telling Israelis that the Military Police is a whitewashing mechanism is precisely the way to start the conversation that needs to be had about the reality in which we are living.”
That’s a revolutionary change.
“We’re very proud of it. It’s not a consequence of despair or fatigue. It’s a consequence of realism and of listening to the Palestinians.”
Is there any part of the state that you feel has no complicity in the occupation?
“No. And that includes the Supreme Court.”
As you see it, the High Court is a lost cause.
“Worse than that. The Supreme Court lets the government do practically anything it wants with the Palestinians, and just once in a blue moon, there will be a case where it makes some kind of [reasonable] decision. For example, with the private Palestinian lands: The main method for dispossessing Palestinians of their land is using the ‘state lands’ move – and different variations on it – either with the court’s approval or with the court turning a blind eye. So now there’s another 1 percent of private land that they want to grab too. And maybe the court will intervene this time. Fine, but what about the other 99 percent? It’s the same technique, whether it’s the Military Police, the High Court or the Civil Administration.”
In other words, you don’t have faith in anything the State of Israel does.
“No, I totally believe what I see the state doing. I see exactly what it means.”
You don’t believe in the court’s commitment to certain values, i.e., all the words behind the idea of the separation of authorities, the idea of the court, of justice – you think that in Israel, it’s all just for show.
“Sit in on one High Court hearing on punitive demolition, or on what constitutes a firing zone. There is no legal question. Look at all the maneuvers the justices use, the sort of rulings they make, the kinds of texts that are written, the mountains upon mountains of words – all to whitewash injustice and give the seal of approval of the highest court in the land, which enjoys international prestige. I think that when all is said and done and the history of this place is written, the justices of the Supreme Court will occupy a central place.”
Do you think a change of government in Israel is a necessary stage on the way to a solution?
“No. I think it’s a bit infantile to link the occupation to Netanyahu and an end of the occupation to replacing Netanyahu. Netanyahu didn’t start the settlements, I don’t know if he’ll be the one to end them or not. We have plenty of criticism about those who aren’t in government too.”
Can you really see Netanyahu being pressed by the world to get to the point of ending the occupation?
“Can I picture [Isaac] Herzog doing it? Can I picture [Yair] Lapid doing it? Do I think that the world is really starting to push Israel, or the Israelis and Palestinians into some kind of corner? I think that maybe, just maybe, we’re at the start of this road.”
Do you see anyone on the political map who is capable of doing it?
“We’re not a political party, we don’t support any specific candidate. To me, it’s not so much a question of specific political leadership. Perhaps the political leadership could emerge if the circumstances became ripe, I hope, to end the occupation.”
I’m pressing you here because of the matter of democracy, because this is where B’Tselem is creating antagonism among opponents of the occupation as well.
“I haven’t seen that we’re creating antagonism in this context. From the response that we’ve received over the past months, the impression that my colleagues and I in B’Tselem have received is of a lot more interest and support. Because I think that more and more people among the large minority in Israel that is opposed to the occupation are realizing that more of the same is just untenable. In terms of the activity of human-rights organizations, too. That the only thing this promises is another 50 years of the same thing. That anyone with eyes in his head who looks at this reality, at how stuck and entrenched it’s become, and how it’s just getting worse and escalating, and becoming normalized, and all the other aspects of it, must understand that the passage of time has to have meaning and that things have to be done differently. Ultimately, B’Tselem has standing. The public trusts us – that if we’re cooperating with the authorities, it means they can be trusted.”
Don’t you think there’s a problematic dynamic here: That as B’Tselem gets stronger, the leftist camp shrinks? That the turn outward weakens the internal political system? You yourself said that the international processes should resonate here.
“I’m somewhat amused by the question. We don’t dictate the foreign policy of any country, and we don’t decide the outcome of elections in Israel.”
No, but maybe the antagonism that you’re triggering is having the effect of pushing people away from the parties associated with the left, leading them to distance themselves from the parties that oppose the occupation.
“The previous version of the struggle against the occupation was in effect for very many years. When that was the case, I didn’t notice any fantastic achievements among the political powers of the kind you describe, what we like to call the extreme center. The attempt to frighten ourselves into thinking that by directly speaking the truth about the situation we end up hurting it – is a problem. It’s a wrong way of thinking. I’m a physicist by training, I know that it’s not possible to take the current set of facts, to take B’Tselem out of the picture, and then see what would happen. The reality we have is the only one we have and within it each person has the responsibility to act in accordance with his best understanding and judgment.”