B’Tselem Was Right to Turn to the UN

Throughout all its years of existence, the human rights NGO has tried to create a dialogue with Israeli society and the Israeli media, but has suffered from jaded reactions, alienation and incitement.

B'Tselem director Hagai El-Ad addressing UN Security Council session on settlements.

Since the 1990s, thousands of women from the former Soviet Union were smuggled through deception and coercion into Israel to work in brothels as prostitutes. Traffickers in women forced them to do so under shameful subjugation, imprisonment, exploitation, violence and rape after their passports were taken from them and their freedom of movement limited. Until 2000, the authorities in Israel ignored the trafficking of women that flourished here.

Damning reports from organizations such as The Israel Women’s Network and the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, which documented what was going on, did not break through the Israeli wall of apathy. The turning point in the authorities’ attitude to the phenomenon began as a result of a hair-raising report on trafficking in women published by Amnesty International in 2000, based partially on reports from the organizations in Israel. In addition, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants gave a report on hundreds of women, victims of trafficking, who were imprisoned in the Neveh Tirza Prison, to the U.S. State Department.

The results did not take long to arrive: The State Department report on human trafficking for 2001 ranked Israel at the third level, the lowest one, alongside backwards countries. This ranking included a real threat against Israel, because American law stated that starting in 2003 countries ranked in the lowest group would not be granted any U.S. aid that was not for humanitarian purposes. This ramped up the pressure on Israel and only then did it begin to act to eradicate the phenomenon. A parliamentary investigative commission was established in the Knesset, a law against human trafficking was passed, and the authorities began to take real steps to enforce it: to arrest and put the traffickers in women on trial. A rehabilitation shelter was established for the victims of trafficking and a special police unit was also founded to fight human trafficking.

If not for the pressure from the Americans, it is almost certain that Israel’s disregard – both legally and societally – of the entire phenomenon of human trafficking would have continued. It is likely that without this pressure it would never have been treated at a level required of a nation that has signed international agreements on protecting human rights.

The recent speech by Hagai El-Ad, director of B’Tselem, before the United Nations Security Council on the settlements was brave, painful and moral. For 49 years Israeli society has lived as a conquering society, and has shut its eyes to seeing the violent oppression it applies every day.

In his book “Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape,” Raja Shehadeh, a lawyer and human rights activist, describes the absurdity of Israeli abuse. The Gaza Strip is closed off to Palestinians from the West Bank, he says. A businessman from Ramallah can supply chairs to customers in Guinea and travel to China and import from there more easily that he can enter Gaza, a 40-minute drive away, writes Shehadeh.

Throughout all its years of existence, B’Tselem has tried to create a dialogue with Israeli society and the Israeli media, but has suffered from jaded reactions, alienation and incitement.

During the latest program of Channel 2’s “Meet the Press” on the subject, the Israeli media’s failure to pay attention to B’Tselem stood out. Moderator Rina Matzliach conducted a dialogue of the deaf with El-Ad, and in the end made such patronizing claims against him, such as: “I think you caused harm to the peace camp in Israel because you express an extreme position, which turns to the UN, which is not considered an institution that supports Israel,” along with questions that seemed to have been formulated to please Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “Because you are funded by the UN, could it be that they also tell you what to say?”

B’Tselem has taken upon itself the role of documenting the occupation. It has shown time after time the scenes that Israeli society is not interested in seeing, and that the Israeli media, which collaborates with the rewriting of the truth and blurring it, is not eager to expose.

El-Ad’s speech is a moral call to the UN to take a stand. The uproar it caused just illustrates the incitement that Israel unleashes against human rights organizations and the erosion of democracy that is worsening under Netanyahu.

David Grossman closed his book “The Yellow Wind” by writing: “Albert Camus said that this passage from speech to moral action has a name. ‘To become human.’” El-Ad is worthy of that name because of the work of B’Tselem and his speech in the UN.