UN speech angers Israeli human rights activists

Criticism of the controversial speech by B’Tselem director Hagai El-Ad at the UN Security Council cut across the political divide to include some of his colleagues at other Israeli human rights organizations.

al-monitor A still from a video shows Hagai El-Ad's speech at the UN Security Council in New York, Oct. 18, 2018. Photo by YouTube/btselem.

Oct 23, 2018

On Oct. 18, B’Tselem director Hagai El-Ad addressed the UN Security Council about the situation of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

“You are a citizen of the State of Israel who is serving our enemies,” Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon lashed out at El-Ad after his UN speech. “They are using you against us. IDF soldiers guard you, and you came here to defame them. Shame on you.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the speech by the director of El-Ad as a “disgrace.” Opposition Knesset member Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party, tweeted, “B’Tselem’s speech at the UNSC was a predictable mix of lies, distortions and propaganda.” 

El-Ad responded to the condemnations with an op-ed in Haaretz, writing that the real disgrace was “continuing to oppress and kill the Palestinians. And it’s disgrace to lead Israelis farther and farther down this slope.”

Israeli human rights organizations, B’Tselem among them, are used to almost daily attacks against them. Their leaders, activists and researchers devote themselves to the important tasks they undertake despite the personal toll it often exacts. They are dubbed “radical left” — with “left” having long ago become a dirty word in Israel — traitors, collaborators with the enemy and Israel haters. Some suffer physical violence; others face calls for their citizenship to be revoked. Still, they keep going despite the burning hatred they experience, believing it their duty to show Israelis what they would rather not see — the injustice of 51 years of Israeli occupation.

This time, however, El-Ad’s Security Council speech came in for criticism from several different directions, some of his colleagues included. Quite a few Israeli human rights groups are unhappy with his decision to accept an invitation by Bolivia, a non-permanent Security Council member, and deliver his controversial speech to the international body.

“El-Ad caused damage to all the human rights organizations, not just to B’Tselem,” a top activist in one of the largest organizations told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. El-Ad’s speech has no historical value, according to this activist, and would certainly not promote any peace process or bring about an end to the occupation. “But everyone is suffering and will suffer the shock wave of hatred (from the Israeli public),” he added with concern.

No member of the human rights groups has publicly attacked El-Ad over his speech, and the criticism is only heard behind closed doors so as not to exacerbate the damage. “Speaking out against B’Tselem is like shooting inside an armored personnel carrier,” another human rights activist told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, explaining that the anger stems from the content of El-Ad’s speech in which he appeared to be calling on members of the Security Council to impose sanctions on Israel. El-Ad’s critics are also angry that he failed to consult with other organizations before accepting the Bolivian invitation. “Ambassador Danon was right to attack him, reminding him that Bolivia itself tramples human rights while he had come at its invitation to criticize Israeli democracy,” the activist said.

“He did not consult anyone, even though all the organizations usually cooperate and often act under the same umbrella,” another senior official at one of the organizations told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “Now we have to take the flak.” His organization, he added, would not have picked this timing and this venue to deliver a speech against the occupation. Even had it chosen to do so, it would have used a “different tone. The tone of the things El-Ad said did not convey the sense that he was motivated by worry about his homeland and his love for it, although there is no doubt of his sincere concern. For example, he accused Israel of killing Palestinians on the Gaza border without directing any responsibility toward other players in the arena, such as (Palestinian President Mahmoud) Abbas and Hamas.”

Israeli human rights organizations have long debated whether they should focus their activity inside Israel or take it abroad, wondering whether the task of convincing the Israeli public is doomed to failure and that therefore the brunt of the activity should be directed at the international community in order for it to force Israel into reaching an agreement with the Palestinians.

For now, many organizations have decided to act in tandem domestically and abroad to present to the world the injustices of the occupation being led by the right-wing government, but to do so judiciously and responsibly so as not to alienate the Israeli public. After all, these organizations aim to show Israelis the implications and threat of the occupation to Israel’s future.

No one in the human rights organizations seems as presumptuous as to think they can change the ideological perceptions of right-wing activists and settlers. Nonetheless, B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, Yesh Din, Physicians for Human Rights and other groups believe a broad segment of the public can still be shocked and influenced by video clips, photographs, data and stories documenting the evils of the occupation.

They point to exposure of the Elor Azaria incident (where an IDF soldier shot a wounded Palestinian assailant), the evacuation of the illegal settlement of Amona and destruction of illegally built housing for seminary students in the settlement of Beit-El as cases in point. Had it not been for the organizations’ activities in highlighting the theft of Palestinian lands and the humiliation of Palestinians at army roadblocks, the Israeli public would have treated the complex reality spawned by the military occupation the way successive Israeli governments portrayed it.

For example, the B’Tselem documentation project of recent years through cameras handed out to Palestinians under occupation is one of the most important it has conducted, because one can hardly argue with photographs and video footage. One video showing a terrified Palestinian family as Israeli soldiers carry out a search of its home in the middle of the night is far more effective than El-Ad’s “J’accuse” at the UN. A B’Tselem volunteer was the one who filmed Elor Azaria shooting the terrorist as he lay unmoving on a street in the town of Hebron. When the video went online it generated an international storm and no one doubted that B’Tselem had done its job faithfully.

B’Tselem is a uniquely important organization, and it would be regrettable if the next clip filmed in the occupied territories by one of its volunteers or by any other human rights activists fails to stir up shock and anger because of one unimportant speech at the UN Security Council.

B’Tselem spokesperson Amit Gilutz told Al-Monitor in response: “The occupation is being conducted above the heads of the Palestinians. After all, they do not take part in the democratic process in Israel. The very thought that Israeli politicians can keep making decisions for them is distorted. B’Tselem is committed to continue acting against the occupation both in Israel and abroad, and certainly at the UN Security Council, the most important international forum.”

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