‘Come and see reality of the occupation’

Interview with Hagai El-Ad, chief executive of B’Tselem


The head of a leading Israeli human rights organisation has defended his decision to address the UN Security Council over Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, saying peace can only be achieved within an “international framework”. 

Hagai El-Ad, chief executive of B’Tselem, was criticised for speaking out against Israel’s settlement policy at the international gathering in October. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slated Mr El-Ad for joining the “chorus of mudslinging” against Israel. His criticism was fiercely backed by many others, including at least one left-wing member of Knesset. 

But on a visit to London last week, Mr El-Ad stood by his actions, saying: “The presentation I gave was very factual. I would have expected a government rebuttal, but the only thing we saw was smear campaigns and an attempt to shoot the messenger.” 

In Britain to address several organisations including the New Israel Fund (NIF), Mr El-Ad told the JC: “It was an attempt by government to present my speech as anti-Israel. It was obviously anti-occupation but that doesn’t equate with anti-Israel. The government’s attempt to make the two the same is both factually wrong and dangerous.” Mr El-Ad and his colleagues at B’Tselem, which describes itself as “the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories”, were criticised for airing dirty laundry on an international stage. 

“It’s a pathetic argument in the 21st century. Does anyone seriously think that even if B’Tselem closed yesterday that the world would stop noticing? 

“We have been called traitors, terrorism collaborators, the fifth column and David Bitan [senior Likud MK] promised to pass legislation to strip away my citizenship. 

“But this isn’t a Jewish question or a Palestinian question. The occupation is an issue of major international concern, so it’s absolutely appropriate for the world to discuss it and hopefully act in that context.”

B’Tselem means “in the image of” and is also used as a synonym for human dignity. The organisation has been operating for almost 30 years and employs 40 staff in Jerusalem, a quarter of whom are Palestinian field researchers. 

Mr El-Ad said: “We provide them with cameras and train them to provide footage from their life under occupation. It’s the biggest citizen journalism project in the region.”

B’Tselem has published scores of reports on human rights violations in the territories, but in recent months adopted a more pro-active stance, such as the UN address. 
International law defines an occupation as “temporary and belligerent”, according to Mr El-Ad. 

“That makes sense for six months or a year, but at what point between zero and 50 years did ‘temporary’ lose its meaning? There is nothing temporary about Israel’s policy and intent regarding the territories.” 

Over the last two decades, B’Tselem has recorded around 700 Palestinian fatalities. 

“We have given the authorities hundreds of opportunities to show they are serious and that people will be held to account. After a generation of doing this work and hundreds of cases we came to the conclusion that it’s an organised whitewash and these are not credible investigations but an organised charade. Investigations are botched, cases are closed. Responsibility is always pushed down to very low rank soldiers. 

“Of about 700 cases about only three per cent actually went to trial. I’m not even talking about convictions or meaningful sentences.”

Issuing an invitation to the public to visit the occupied territories and reach their own conclusion, Mr El-Ad concluded: “There is so much propaganda and lies, but the reality on the ground is self-evident.”

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