'NGO Monitor is not a propaganda organization," says Sarah Mandel, an immigrant from England, who has been working for a year and a half as the project's associate editor. "We provide raw facts about what the non-governmental organizations are doing."
And what many of them are doing, according to Mandel, is using the mandate of their funding - championing international human rights - to pursue political agendas that seek to delegitimize Israel. Which is why NGO Monitor was established in the first place five years ago, she explains, following the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. The Durban Conference, as it came to be called, exposed an alarming degree of Israel-bashing and underlying anti-Semitism among groups whose aim was to counteract the very kind of racism they were themselves exhibiting.
Funded primarily by the Wechsler Family Foundation (and a number of private donors), NGO Monitor (currently under the umbrella of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs) devotes its resources to researching NGO output and monitoring its impact in the media and diplomatic circles. Its aim is to expose the kind of double standard that came out in full force at Durban, in order to "feed the debate" and to promote NGO "accountability."
Says Mandel, a 25-year-old mother of two who lives in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut: "If human rights standards are applied non-universally, they cease to mean anything. This is not only applicable to Israel; it's applicable to other crises in the world which are neglected because international human rights NGOs are not interested in those crises, or because those crises don't suit their agenda."
Whether Wednesday's IDF misfire in Gaza - that resulted in the deaths of 19 Palestinians - will become another example of misapplication of standards remains to be seen. However, Mandel assures, "With incidents like this, we are always ready for the barrage of NGO statements condemning Israel - usually for the use of "disproportionate force" and "violations of international law."
NGO Monitor has been accused by its critics of being merely another NGO with a political agenda. Are you different from the organizations whose activities you follow and report on? If so, in what way?
We are different from most of the human rights NGOs we monitor in that our mandate and aims are clearly stated, and the sources for our reports transparent. So it is true that we are "another NGO," but we provide a service which, if we do it well, means we're fulfilling our mandate.
You are an Orthodox Jew living in a settlement. [NGO Monitor Editor] Gerald Steinberg [the director of the program on conflict management and negotiation at Bar Ilan University], wears a kippa. Does this not affect the way others view your neutrality, or your ability to be neutral?
Ours is an issue that interests people from across the spectrum. Nor is everybody in our office Orthodox. I would hope that when you read our material and Web site, that you're not going to get the impression of some nutty, right-wing group, but rather of a serious organization, whose research can be verified.
Yet it is the conservative op-ed writers who use your material to prove their arguments.
Yes, because we provide core research which promotes accuracy. The ideal situation would be for this to cause the NGOs to change. But if that can't happen, at least journalists can be shown the need to be more critical when they read an NGO's report on poverty or violence. If reporters read our stuff, and realize that the statistics they've been fed are not all exactly as they seem, then we've done our job as well.
How are NGOs responding to Wednesday's events in Gaza [in which the IDF shelled a missile launcher and missed the target, killing 19 Palestinian civilians]? When such incidents occur, does your organization gear up for a barrage of anti-Israel vitriol?
With incidents like this we are always ready for the barrage of NGO statements condemning Israel - usually for the use of "disproportionate force" and "violations of international law."
After the June 9th Gaza Beach incident [in which seven members of a Palestinian family were killed by a missile], it took just 24 hours for major Palestinian NGOs Mifath, Al Mezan and PCHR to condemn Israel. After the July 30 Kana bombing [in Lebanon, when the IDF inadvertently killed several civilians in a building], Human Rights Watch immediately came out with a statement labeling the action as a "war crime."
Our job is to check that such NGO accounts are accurate - not merely a reflection of their political agenda - and to pressure media outlets to confirm NGO claims before re-publishing them. HRW later corrected their Kana statement when accurate casualty figures published by the Red Cross turned out to be half of what was initially claimed. And the subsequent investigation into the explosion on the Gaza Beach showed that many NGOs relied on discredited video evidence from the Palestinian Authority.
Unsurprisingly, many NGOs were silent after the incident in Beit Hanun last week, when Hamas used women as human shields. PCHR and Al Mezan condemned Israel for "state-sponsored terrorism" and "violations of international law," but neither they, nor any international NGO has acknowledged the illegal use of the women to protect terrorists.
Can you provide an example of slanted reports that were retracted as a result of your findings?
No, but I can give you a different kind of example. [The NGO] Physicians for Human Rights put out a press release describing a certain conflict situation between the Palestinians and the IDF. This was repeated verbatim by The Washington Post [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/02/23/AR2006022301569.html?sub=new], yet there was no evidence to support its claims, which were strongly refuted by the IDF. I don't know whether our pointing this out led to any retractions, but you know, it's a process of gaining momentum - of achieving a higher public profile - so that more and more people are made to understand the problematic and complex nature of these issues.
Isn't it true, though, that ultimately, the only people really using your material are those who are already pro-Israel. Are you not merely knocking on an open door?
I think that the more our material gets used, the more it becomes part of the general human rights agenda. We are feeding the debate. Just last week the UK parliamentary committee on development aid to the Palestinians discussed NGO Monitor's research on the UK's funding of Christian Aid, War on Want and other NGOs with a radical political agenda. The committee used our material to pose some challenging questions to the NGO reps at the meeting - this is hardly knocking on an open door! It's becoming more and more clear, especially since [the second war in] Lebanon, that human rights organizations are taking a very powerful role in deciding how Israel is seen in the world, and NGO Monitor's holding of these organizations to account is increasingly valued.
At your conference in June ["Ethical Norms in a Political World: NGOs, Human Rights and the Arab-Israeli Conflict"], the head of Amnesty International Israel was scheduled to participate and didn't show up. Why?
Apparently, the head branch of Amnesty International nixed the participation of the Israel branch.
So as not to give NGO Monitor legitimacy?
They didn't give a reason. But we really wanted them and other NGOs to attend, to promote debate.
Is that really the reason you wanted them? Or was it an attempt on your part to show balance and prove to your critics that you're "good guys?" Were Amnesty and other NGOs who target Israel to have a conference, your organization wouldn't be invited, I assume.
First of all, we're not just trying to monitor NGOs for attacks against Israel; we're trying to preserve the meaning of human rights. If human rights standards are applied non-universally, they cease to mean anything.
This is not only applicable to Israel; it's applicable to other crises in the world which are neglected because international human rights NGOs are not interested in those crises, or because those crises don't suit their agenda. In this respect, NGO Monitor is not a propaganda organization. We conduct very academic, source- and fact-based research. We let the NGOs speak for themselves. We don't provide a lot of commentary in our reports. In our op-eds or our letters to the editor, we might do so, but in the reports, we provide raw facts - numbers percentages, etc. - about what the NGOs are doing. We did a very detailed study on Human Rights Watch's reports on Israel. We showed quantifiably that they devote a disproportionate amount of their resources to attacking Israel. We had graphs, and it was clear.
Other NGOs, which may be harder to monitor in terms of number, can be quoted, to show that the language that they use indicates a disparity between their treatment of Israel and other conflicts in the world.
As far as showing the appearance of balance, as opposed to real balance, is concerned: We promote genuine critical debate and accountability. We've met with some [representatives of] NGOs. Gerald Steinberg debated the head of Amnesty International Israel at Bar Ilan University, and that was very successful. Last year, we met with the mission head of M decins Sans Fronti res (Doctors without Borders), with whom we've been trying to engage in a dialogue. We're actually trying to accomplish something concrete. But it's very difficult when there's a defensive or aggressive reaction to our reports.
We do allocate some of our resources to giving NGOs that do well pats on the back, but it's not a good use of our resources to do many reports on positive NGOs. If an NGO's doing its job, it doesn't need so much attention from us.
Give an example of a human rights NGO that's doing its job.
CARE USA. Another one is ANERA (American Near East Refugee Aid). But what's interesting about ANERA - which is a humanitarian, as opposed to human rights, organization - is that the US government funds it, and the Americans are very careful about whom they fund. ANERA does projects, such as providing milk to school children. But we found that nearly $300,000 a year of its PR budget was being put towards publicity that demonized Israel, promoted the Palestinian narrative and erased the context of terrorism. Nevertheless, we acknowledge that there's a lot of positive humanitarian work going on there. We weren't trying to shut it down, but rather apply pressure to show it that its PR is problematic.
Can you give an example of an NGO that does not use either its facts or its PR to show Israel in a bad light? Is there such a thing?
[She laughs] There is definitely such a thing; we just don't spend a lot of time writing about those particular NGOs. But CARE is an example of a 100% good NGO.
Isn't your goal of making headway with groups who have an anti-Israel agenda a little na ve? And aren't you - like the NGOs you monitor - promoting an agenda of your own?
If you're asking whether it's na ve to think that they'd be interested in what we have to say: Well, when we met with Doctors without Borders, they were very interested in what we had to say. People like that often don't see the bigger picture, as they only work with the Palestinians, and see the conflict through their lens. It's mutually enlightening to meet people like that, even if it's just to show them how we perceive their reports on, and stories about, their experiences in their work.
At the conference, Orli Gil [the head of the NGO unit in the Division of International Organizations at the Foreign Ministry] said that ministry policy is to befriend, rather than alienate, both foreign and local NGOs. Yet, when asked to provide an example of this policy's paying off, the only one she could come up with was an NGO which expressed verbal enthusiasm for Israel's treatment, while coming out with a very negative report.
I think that just shows the need for NGO Monitor, an organization that works outside the government. Though we seek cooperation with the government, our attitude is quite different. We want constructive engagement for the purpose of pointing out problems, not merely to "make friends."
Let's talk about funding. Many human rights organizations receive money indirectly from the Saudis. If so, why would they have an interest in being "enlightened" by fact-checking? In such an "information war," why would you assume that accuracy makes a dent in the opponent's "army?"
I wouldn't, if these NGOs weren't being funded extensively by European governments. The EU is a major funder of extremist Palestinian and Israeli NGOs, including groups such as the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions that campaigns against EU and Quartet policies.
Individual governments in Europe are also very active in this area. These countries are interested in human rights, which they believe are being promoted by the NGOs they fund. So they are interested in having a high level of accountability where the projects they fund are concerned.
Interested to the extent that they might withdraw funding from certain projects?
Definitely. The EU has special criteria for NGO funding. And if it is demonstrated that an NGO is not only not meeting these criteria but acting contrary to them, the EU has no choice but to stop funding it. Of course, the EU is not as accountable as it should be, but if a case is made very strongly, action has to be taken.
It's very important for people to be aware of the fact that NGO reports on Israel's "violations" of international law and "disproportionate" use of force can be using such terms without a set legal definition, and making political or military calculations that they're not equipped to make. If you completely underestimate the threat Israel is under, every response [on Israel's part] is "disproportionate."
You don't need to be an expert in international law to see how these terms are being manipulated. A journalist should also be able to see that. People who take Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as the guardians of human rights should also be able to see that.
At Durban, anti-Semitic literature was distributed. What good does it do to show how terms are being manipulated, when the purpose of misrepresenting "facts" has nothing to do with the facts themselves?
What we're facing now is the campaign that originated at Durban, to delegitimize Israel as a state - to undermine it internationally, by equating it with Apartheid South Africa. This campaign is being aimed at the mainstream, which is not necessarily anti-Semitic. You cannot dismiss everyone who's anti-Israel as anti-Semitic.
Well, in any case, that's a different argument.
If someone gives you what appears to be a water-tight case for why Israel is the new Apartheid South Africa, then, of course, you should use boycotts and sanctions and beat Israel like you beat South Africa.
We are dealing with facts and information right now, because the extreme is challenging the middle. We're not just dealing with extreme anti-Semites who are going to hate Israel no matter what happens. We're dealing with members of governments, members of the UN and members of the media, who are seeking to portray some balance and find out what's really going on.