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Israeli group monitors rights violations


While Israeli opposition forced the United Nations to disband a fact-finding mission to Jenin to investigate Palestinian allegations of civilian massacres by Israeli troops, other human rights groups have been conducting their own investigations. Jessica Montell, executive director of B’Tselem, an Israeli information and advocacy center for human rights in the occupied territories, said preliminary findings indicate human rights abuses took place at Jenin but not a massacre.

“There is no evidence of mass willful killings if that is what is meant by massacres,” Montell said. “There is fairly strong evidence suggesting human rights violations and violations of humanitarian law, particularly in the failure to allow access to humanitarian workers -- by which I mean ambulances to attend to the injured or the sick as well as access to aid workers providing food and water to the population under curfew.”

Other human rights abuses B’Tselem is investigating before issuing its report include the vandalization of civil society structures by Israeli soldiers, who destroyed offices, computers and databases during their recent sweep through West Bank towns and villages, as well as soldiers’ use of Palestinian civilians as human shields. It’s clear that both abuses occurred, said Montell. What is still unclear is whether these abuses occurred at the initiative of individual soldiers or reflected military policy, she said.

B’Tselem’s findings are in line with a May 3 report by the international group Human Rights Watch, which found evidence of Israeli war crimes in Jenin but not evidence to support claims that the Israeli Defense Force massacred hundreds of Palestinians in the refugee camp.

Since its founding in 1989 by a group of academics, attorneys, journalists and Knesset members, B’Tselem has reported to an often unresponsive Israeli public on human rights violations in the occupied territories ruled by Israel. One of the organization’s stated aims is to “combat the phenomenon of denial prevalent among the Israeli public and help create a human rights culture in Israel.”

According to some, that culture is still far in the distance. Though human rights groups like B’Tselem, Rabbis for Human Rights, the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions and others exist in Israel, even their sympathizers and supporters say they are bucking a strong national consensus that supports harsh measures against Palestinians as necessary and justifiable.

“There’s no concept in Israeli society that Palestinians have a legitimate case, that they have human rights, that there is international law that applies here,” said one journalist for a well-known U.S. newspaper who has covered Israel for several years.

Over the years B’Tselem has published reports on torture -- standard operating procedure for Israeli military forces interrogating Palestinian suspects up until 1999, when the Israeli Supreme Court disallowed the practice -- house demolitions by Israeli forces in the occupied territory, assassinations of Palestinian activists and leaders, beatings and physical abuse of Palestinians, unjustified shootings of Palestinians, the water crisis in Palestinian villages, and the sealing of Palestinian towns and villages. Even as it has earned the respect of other human rights activists around the world for its careful documentation of Israeli violations of humanitarian law, B’Tselem has not become beloved by Israelis.

“Most of the public feels that B’Tselem is a traitor,” said Montell, a 34-year-old native of Northern California who grew up in a liberal Jewish home and first visited Israel during high school. Montell moved to Israel after college, along the way shedding what she said were “Zionist myths” about her adopted country.

Since the onset of the second intifada almost 20 months ago, Montell said Palestinian human rights in the occupied territories have deteriorated seriously. Particularly dramatic has been the disruption of medical care, with ambulances carrying patients to hospitals often stopped at checkpoints and roadblocks and prevented from continuing their journey. Though Israeli officials have repeatedly stated that emergency medical cases are allowed to cross at checkpoints, the procedures for allowing the ill to cross are not implemented, according to B’Tselem and other sources. As of March, B’Tselem reported that 24 Palestinians have died since the start of the second intifada because they were unable to reach a medical center.

While Palestinians are seeing their human rights and living standards deteriorate, Montell said concern about human rights has declined among the Israeli public as the threat posed by suicide bombers has grown. “The feeling is that human rights are a luxury we can’t afford,” she said.

Some Israelis complain that journalistic objectivity has become another casualty of the escalating conflict.

“There are very few reporters in the Israeli press who say what is going on, and the ones who do are discredited in the eyes of the public. Their sources are Palestinian, and they’re considered to have a political mission,” said Ronit Chachan, an Israeli writer who is researching a book on the “refuseniks,” the Israeli soldiers who are refusing to serve in the occupied territories.

Chachan’s comments were echoed by Karen Akoka, a French Jew who has lived in Israel for many years. Akoka said Israeli radio gives the number of Israelis killed but seldom cites Palestinian casualties on the other side.

“The media is reflective of the Israeli public, which is mostly supportive of the Israeli Defense Force [IDF] and believes that in this time of hardship we should all stand together. Most journalists are part of that consensus,” Montell said. “Almost all of the military correspondents report what the IDF tells them as God’s truth. They don’t even say, ‘The IDF said this.’ ”

While the Israeli Defense Force’s targeting of doctors and ambulances during recent incursions triggered worldwide outrage, Montell said she remains just as concerned about restrictions on freedom of movement in the occupied territories, which is a less serious abuse but affects far more people. The policy of closing off Palestinian towns and villages first began during the Gulf War 11 years ago, Montell said, but has become much more severe during the past 18 months, affecting the daily lives of 3 million Palestinians and inhibiting their ability to move freely from one town to another and to earn a living.

“You’re talking about 18 months of people not getting to work or not having work. It’s been a complete collapse of the Palestinian economy. The unemployment rate is three times what it was at the beginning of the intifada. Estimates of the poverty rate are that 60 percent of the population is living on $2 per person a day,” Montell said.

Montell called the May 7 suicide bombing of a pool hall near Tel Aviv “horrific.” At least 15 Israelis were killed in the attack, and 58 persons were wounded. “The worst human rights violation is the intentional targeting of innocent civilians to be killed,” said Montell. “It only reinforces the need for human rights as a universal value applicable to all human beings.

“It’s clear that Israeli incursions into the West Bank have not at all diminished the motivation for Palestinians to attack Israelis,” Montell said. “The military solutions do not appear to be bringing us security.”

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, May 17, 2002