Why B’Tselem Is Disengaging From the Israeli Military

The army has used the organization as part of its whitewashing of injustices in the occupied territories.

David Zonsheine
David Zonsheine
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A tour held by the B'tselem human rights group in the West Bank.
A tour held by the B'tselem human rights group in the West Bank in 2012.Credit: Michal Fattal
David Zonsheine
David Zonsheine

Most of B’Tselem’s criticism is directed at Israel’s government, not at the Israel Defense Forces. The group doesn’t regard the army as the main organization responsible for what’s happening in the West Bank. The decision to impose military rule there is not the army’s but the government’s. IDF soldiers, their loyalty and spirit of volunteerism are only tools in the hands of politicians for ruling over the Palestinians while depriving them of basic rights.

For years, B’Tselem and other similar groups such as Yesh Din demanded that the army investigate alleged cases of wrongful killing, injury, acts of violence or property damage committed by security forces against Palestinians. This was done in an attempt to try and impose some standards within the context of an occupation that is labeled temporary by international law, even though almost half a century has passed since it began. Last week the group announced that it has made a strategic change in its mode of operation – it will no longer appeal to military law enforcement agencies and demand the launching of investigations.

Israel – through the IDF – is sovereign in the occupied territories and bears the responsibility of ensuring that its conduct with regard to the population is seemly. In fact, the IDF as occupier has an obligation to protect the rights of the occupied population. However, even though the occupation is approaching its 50th anniversary, a Palestinian cannot file a complaint regarding a wrongdoing committed against him or a family member by security forces unless he is assisted by an Israeli human rights group that files the complaint in his name.

Twenty-five years ago, when B’Tselem embarked on such activities, which relieved Israeli authorities of their obligations, there was some logic to this. The assumption was that the occupation was temporary and until it ends everything possible must be done to help the population. However, many years have passed since then and military law enforcement authorities have done little to seriously investigate incidents.

Looking at hundreds of cases handled by B’Tselem and other related groups, it turns out that there was a higher chance of military prosecutors losing a file than of an investigation leading to an indictment. Thus, B’Tselem’s demand to open investigations, and the assistance it provided the army, consisting of tools for pursuing the truth in every single case, did not lead to the pursuit of truth and certainly not to action that would prevent the recurrence of such cases of injustice in the future.

Nevertheless, the tight cooperation with B’Tselem over the years provided the army, as an occupying force, with some substantial benefits: The army, realizing full well the damage to its image while it is an occupying force, employs a large international department at the advocate general’s division. It understands that working tightly with a high-profile human rights group that is highly regarded by political and legal circles overseas will grant it legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. Thus, it is precisely the collaboration with B’Tselem that helped maintain a situation replete with human rights violations, ones which the army is familiar with more than B’Tselem is. This was convenient for Israel since it reduced international criticism, a situation which continued for a long time.

Ostensibly, B’Tselem was a nuisance to the government and the IDF, but military law enforcement agencies realized that interacting with B’Tselem could serve as an effective tool in creating the illusion that they treat complaints seriously, addressing them in collaboration with a human rights group. In retrospect, we cannot but conclude that the army used B’Tselem as a cover for its actions against the Palestinian population in the occupied territories.

Moreover, in contrast to what the government and its appendages try to portray, B’Tselem is not in possession of abundant resources. Therefore, the time it devoted to locating witnesses, translation, collection of evidence, correspondence and meetings with military prosecutors was wasted time. It contributed nothing to stopping the injustice, but did bring about the accumulation of much organizational knowledge regarding the huge gaps between serious incidents and their whitewashing.

The reason for the ostensibly real investigation of incidents has probably been the wish to avoid international legal proceedings at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, based on the principle of complementarity. The army understands the legal advantages of a high-quality internal investigation. It was happy to accept the tight cooperation with B’Tselem for so many years.

The defense establishment’s budget is roughly 10,000 times higher than that of B’Tselem. If it really wanted to, the army could easily dispense with this collaboration and investigate on its own, using the resources at its disposal, its control of the area and its close collaboration with the Shin Bet security service. But the army had a much simpler solution. Working with B’Tselem allowed the government to create a false impression of an effective and independent investigation. This was an illusion of an external investigation, with paltry results over so many years testifying to evasion and disdain on the army’s part.

Thus, B’Tselem has no intention of continuing to be part of this system. The group will continue to gather data, investigate, photograph, crosscheck information for its verification, analyze, publish and disseminate. It will also continue to monitor the relation between the number of incidents it knows about and the number of incidents investigated, in which those responsible are prosecuted. Our data will remain open, as it always has been and if the army decides to open an investigation all it will have to do is examine our documentation. The problem is that the army well knows that ruling over millions of people by necessity engenders endless serious human rights violations. When it is instructed to manage this domination by force, whitewashing mechanisms inevitably become an integral part of the system.

B’Tselem will no longer ask military authorities to investigate. The damage caused to human rights by these fruitless appeals overrides the benefits.

The writer is the executive director of B’Tselem.

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