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Human Rights vs. Politics: B'tselem Goes to Washington

August 9, 2007 By:
Gerald M. Steinberg
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B'tselem is one of the most powerful and controversial lobbies in Israel, and plans to open an office in Washington to increase the debate on this NGO's activities. While using human-rights rhetoric and couching its statements in moral tones, B'tselem has a focus that is primarily political. It was founded "to change Israeli policy in the occupied territories," and is similar to Peace Now, which, not coincidently, also has a large U.S. branch dedicated to increasing pressure on Israel.

B'tselem's human-rights dimension (the name refers to the biblical passage in which man was formed "in the image of God") adds to the impact of its activities as part of the Durban strategy (based on the infamous conference run by the United Nations in 2001, which adopted a declaration declaring Israel to be racist and calling for boycotts and sanctions).

Given the export of demonization and delegitimization from Europe and the Arab Middle East to America, as seen in Jimmy Carter's use of the term "apartheid," and other examples, critics assume that B'tselem's U.S. office will add fuel to the fire.

For many years, NGOs have used double standards to condemn Israel for alleged human-rights violations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, often quoting B'tselem. Similarly, anti-Israel U.N. agencies, such as OCHA (the Office for the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs) and Relief Web, rely heavily on B'tselem.

These reports include many claims whose accuracy and reliability are intensely disputed. As in the case of other politicized "human rights" NGOs, statements are based on Palestinian sources and "eyewitnesses," whose credibility is questionable, to understate the situation.

In May 2007, B'tselem (with another NGO known as Hamoked) publicized a report claiming to document torture of terror suspects by the Israeli Security Agency. The Israeli Ministry of Justice issued a nine-page rebuttal detailing the questionable methodology and lack of verifiable sources used by B'tselem.

The response includes numerous examples in which the report is "fraught with mistakes, groundless claims and inaccuracies." Similarly, in a detailed analysis of B'Tselem's numerous publications related to Palestinian casualties in the terror war, CAMERA documented the use of inflated and unreliable information from Palestinian sources.

Critics also voice concerns regarding the export of B'tselem's political lobbying to the United States, circumventing Israeli democracy. In many election campaigns, Israelis have had opportunities to hear the arguments and weigh the options -- B'tselem is closely affiliated with the Meretz Party, whose fortunes and popularity have been in a nose dive since the terror campaign that resulted from the failure of the Oslo process.

Arrogantly rejecting the clear verdict of the voters, European governments and the Ford Foundation -- whose officials cannot be said to have Israel's interests at heart -- have invested much money into shadow groups, such as Peace Now, the so-called Geneva Initiative and B'tselem.

Additional support for B'tselem comes from the New Israel Fund.

To their credit, B'tselem officials have showed some openness to serious criticism. Some of the radical members have departed, and reports include the human rights of Israelis for the first time. B'tselem has also been more careful (in some cases) in checking the validity of Palestinian claims before publishing them.

They were the only NGO in this network to condemn the Palestinian suicide bombing in Eilat, and other violations of Israeli human rights. This NGO was also the first to call for the release of the kidnapped Israelis soldiers, noting that the holding of hostages is a "war crime," and acknowledged that the Palestinian refusal to allow the International Red Cross access to the soldiers constitutes "a blatant violation of international law."

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty followed B'tselem's lead, but their statements on these issues were weaker.

Given this background and the centrality of the NGOs in the political war against Israel, the opening of a Washington branch has focused more attention on factors such as credibility and objectives. The "halo effect" that once protected "human rights" groups is eroding, and whatever they do, B'tselem's activities will remain under close scrutiny.

Professor Gerald Steinberg heads NGO Monitor and teaches political studies at Bar-Ilan University.


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