One on One: Occupational hazards

Jessica Montell says because Israel is a liberal democracy it should hold itself to a higher human rights standard.

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Jessica Montell says that it wasn't until she was a college student that she removed the "rose-colored glasses" through which she had viewed Israel during her youth. The 39-year-old executive director of B'Tselem - the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories - nevertheless made aliya in 1991 from the United States. "I grew up in a Zionist household and was active in Young Judaea," explains Montell. "I had that indoctrination that Jews are responsible for Israel and vice versa." This led to her spending a summer, a year after high school and a college semester here. "So I had the bug," she says, shrugging and smiling - one veteran immigrant to another. The "bug," in Montell's case, became more of a bee in her bonnet, however, when she "realized Israel, like any other place, wasn't perfect" - particularly, she says, where the IDF's treatment of Palestinians was concerned. Spending a few months in east Jerusalem in 1987, during the outbreak of what came to be known as the first intifada, will do that - if you're someone who grew up in northern California, "a liberal, progressive, social justice kind of place." Montell describes the "rude awakening" she experienced as a result of a rock-throwing incident from the roof of the hotel where she was staying. "Seeing the way Israeli soldiers treated both the non-Jews on our program and Palestinians was a big shock to me," she says, recounting the collective round-up of suspects and hours-long detention of a "decent, non-violent" desk clerk. A mere few years later, Montell - now married to an Israeli, and the mother of an eight-year-old girl and four-year-old twin boys - was back in the holy land, where she began working as a fund-raiser for Hamoked Lehaganat Haprat (The Center for the Defense of the Individual) - a legal aid office assisting Palestinians. The job, she says, was her "introduction to human rights as a discipline." This sparked a two-year stint back to the US, where she did a master's degree in human rights at Columbia University in New York. In 1995, she got on the board of B'Tselem - Hebrew for "in the image of [God]" - established in 1989 by Bat Shalom founding director Daphna Golan, civil liberties lawyer Avigdor Feldman, Mapam MK Haim Oron, MK Zehava Gal-On (at the time a Ratz party activist) and academic and civil liberties activist Edy Kaufman. The controversial non-governmental organization, frequently criticized by groups such as NGO Monitor and CAMERA for distorting the data in its reports by clouding the distinction between combatants and civilians in the Palestinian Authority, receives financial backing from numerous left-wing bodies and individuals, among them the New Israel Fund and the Ford Foundation. Still, says Montell, "though B'Tselem is considered political, we're not a political organization and don't have a position on all sorts of political questions." She also insists that "it's been years since the military has claimed our facts are inaccurate. They would say that maybe we don't put things in the proper context, or that we don't give enough weight to security concerns, but they don't question our research." In an hour-long interview in her office at B'Tselem headquarters in Jerusalem, Montell discusses the challenges involved in "drawing the line" between Israel's genuine security concerns and those that unnecessarily infringe upon the rights of Palestinians "under Israeli occupation." Was it always your sense that Israel was violating the human rights of the Palestinians? No. In my youth, Israel was making the desert bloom - a place where women enjoyed full equality, served in the army, had Golda Meir as a prime minister. It wasn't until I came on a college program here that I began looking at the conflict. But I grew up in a family that was concerned about social-justice issues in general. Northern California is a liberal, progressive, social justice kind of place. So, I had been involved in all sorts of causes, from Soviet Jewry to nuclear disarmament. What happened to make you look at Israel differently? In the fall of 1987, I spent three months in the Christian quarter of the Old City [of Jerusalem] as part of a college program.The [first] intifada broke out in December, while I was here. And seeing the way Israeli soldiers treated both the non-Jews on our program and Palestinians was a big shock to me. How did they treat them? Well, once maybe somebody had thrown rocks from the roof of the hotel where we were staying, so the soldiers burst in and rounded up everybody, among them the clerk at the front desk. He was a middle-aged man whom I had gotten to know quite well by that point. He was a decent, non-violent person, yet he was taken to the police station near Jaffa Gate and detained. I went there to try and get him released. The police were not especially impressed that I was Jewish and a Zionist and spoke Hebrew. In the end, nothing happened to him. He was held for a few hours and then released. But for me, it was a rude awakening. More of a rude awakening than the rock-throwing from the roof? Well, I didn't know about it at the time. What drew you to B'Tselem? Hamoked, where I had previously worked, was geared toward more individual [human rights] assistance. B'Tselem was an opportunity to deal with the full range of human rights issues in the West Bank on the policy level. The idea of trying to actually change policy was attractive. What would you say has been B'Tselem's greatest challenge or battle over the last few years? The biggest battle has been defending human rights in the context of security - or lack thereof - which, though not new, has intensified over the past six years. The idea that almost everything we're dealing with is justified in the name of security makes it more difficult. Many procedures may actually have some security benefit. Check points, for example. And security is also a human right. But it's a balancing act, because it's sometimes hard to know where to draw the line. It's very easy to say something is necessary for security purposes, when in fact it has nothing to do with security. Denying Palestinians family unification, for example, or the route of the separation barrier. The barrier itself may have been motivated by genuine security concerns, but its route clearly has nothing to do with security. If it were built on the Green Line, we as an organization wouldn't be taking a position on it. Inside the West Bank, it's not a legitimate security measure. It's there in order to perpetuate settlements and leave room for settlement expansion. One of B'Tselem's main accomplishments is documenting and putting that on the table. Anyone who knows the facts can't deny that the route of the barrier is more about settlement expansion than security. But this doesn't mean that the public, which is naturally very concerned about their security, is willing to learn all the details. So much for the fence part of disengagement. But as a human rights organization, what was your position on the evacuation of the settlers of Gaza and northern Samaria? Our position is that all settlements are illegal and therefore should be removed. But, though B'Tselem is considered political, we're not a political organization and don't have a position on all sorts of political questions. You're saying your position on settlements is not a political one? Right, we see them as a violation of international law - the International Humanitarian Law, which is the law of armed conflict, and human rights law. So, there are some issues where we take a position that seems very political, but it comes from a completely different place. On other issues, such as the two-state solution, the future of Jerusalem, whether Israel should negotiate with Hamas, we don't have a position. But our position on settlements is that they all should be dismantled. What do you call a settlement - Ma'aleh Adumim, for example? Yes. Israelis should not live in territory taken by Israel in 1967. I would like there to be a diplomatic agreement over this territory, so that it would no longer be occupied. Then it could be part of Israel; it could be part of Palestine; it could be part of Jordan - and Jews would be allowed to live there. Hebron is a holy city for Jews. Jews who want to live there on that basis - not as Israelis claiming sovereignty over it without any sort of agreement - should be able to. I mean, there could be an agreement according to which Hebron would be part of Israel or part of Jordan or the European Union or part of the state of Palestine. There are all sorts of diplomatic options. And Jews should be allowed to live in places that are holy to Jews, but that's completely different from saying that citizens of the State of Israel should be transferred to occupied territory. That's a violation of humanitarian law. Well, among the Gush Katif settlers, there were those who said they, as Jews, would rather remain, even if they would no longer be under Israeli sovereignty. This is outside B'Tselem's mandate, but I will answer simply as a sensible person. It's true that some of them said they wanted to stay in Gush Katif, no matter what flag was flying over them. But that wasn't feasible under the circumstances, in the absence of negotiations with the Palestinians. You couldn't just leave those people there when the Palestinian population in Gaza saw them as a source for so many of their grievances: land taken away from them; the demolition of houses all around the settlements; severe restrictions on movement. In any case, their saying they wanted to stay there was partly a gimmick. But I would agree that people should be allowed to live wherever they want - as long as everyone living in a certain territory is an equal citizen. You oppose unilateralism. But what do you do when the other side refuses to make an agreement? From B'Tselem's perspective, the disengagement from Gaza involves three issues: One is the removal of the settlements; another is the withdrawal of the military; the third is the claim that we no longer have any control over or responsibility for Gaza. B'Tselem is in favor of removing all the settlers - who shouldn't have been there to begin with. The withdrawal of the military is a different story. We're the occupying power. As such, we're responsible for security in the West Bank and Gaza. It's appropriate for the occupying power to have military forces in that territory. If somebody is suspected of planning illegal actions, Israel should arrest him. That's what it's doing in the West Bank. The problem with Gaza is that it's a case of having your cake and eating it too. It's a fiction to say that Israel has no control over Gaza now. We've sealed it off - certainly since Hamas took over - but even before that, we were in control of all the borders around it, including the airspace, the water and the crossing with Egypt, which Israel has shut down. So, to say we have no responsibility for what goes on there is disingenuous. It's a terrible situation for Palestinians living there, 80 percent of whom are extremely poor. It's also a dire situation for the residents of southern Israel, who are being barraged with Kassam rockets. The chaos there is growing as a result of the way disengagement took place. From our perspective, you can't end an occupation unilaterally without there being chaos. Think about the US military occupation of Iraq. If the troops packed up and left one day, with no coordination, of course chaos would result. How does your concern over Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights jibe with your lack thereof against Palestinian violations of human rights within the PA? This is one dilemma of an Israeli organization like ours. You have an organization like Human Rights Watch, which is similar to us in terms of its ideology, but as an international organization, it deals with human rights issues everywhere. It did a report last year on Israel's treatment of Palestinians and a report on violence against women in the PA. This is problematic for me personally, because our focus is human rights in the West Bank and Gaza, and the rights of the Palestinians are being violated both by Israelis and by Palestinians. Indeed, it's problematic for a human rights organization to say it's going to deal with this and not with that. On the other hand, we have to focus our resources on where we can be effective. I can't be effective in the realm of Palestinian women's rights vis-a-vis the PA, for example. On the declarative level, however, we do make statements about these issues, as well as on issues such as the abduction of Gilad Schalit. Speaking of which, in the Hamas-Fatah conflict, is it not confusing for you to make sense of whose rights are being violated by whom? Just as we don't say that the Labor Party or the Likud violate human rights, we don't make such a distinction between Fatah and Hamas. But when human rights are violated in the PA - such as when someone is thrown from a building or shot in the kneecaps - we demand that these incidents be investigated to find out who's responsible, and that the guilty parties be held accountable, put on trial and punished. Investigated by whom? Punished by whom? It's a confusing situation, in the sense that you have an emergency government set up by Abu Mazen [PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas], but it is not recognized by the people who are actually committing the killings. From our perspective, the question is who is legally responsible for investigating and then, de facto, who has the power to do it. We would recommend to both the PA Justice Ministry and Hamas, which controls Gaza, to initiate investigations. Do you have contacts in the PA with whom you communicate on issues of human rights? Very few. We have much better contacts - and are in daily touch with - the Judge Advocate-General's Office of the military (JAG), members of Knesset and the IDF Spokesman's Office. How do you respond to critics, such as NGO Monitor and CAMERA, who accuse you of taking the word of individual Palestinians without checking the facts? It's clear to us that we're working in a very contentious environment and that people would like to claim our facts are not accurate. So we are extremely careful - some would say overly so. In fact, it's been years since the military has claimed our facts are inaccurate. They would say that maybe we don't put things in the proper context, or that we don't give enough weight to security concerns. But they don't question our research. What we do is take testimonies from victims and as many eyewitnesses as we can find, with the help of Palestinian field workers. We take testimonies separately, so that witnesses can't coordinate their stories, and we do this as close to an incident as possible, to prevent rumors from getting started. Then we ask the IDF spokesperson if there has been an official statement about or investigation into the incident. In cases where there's a suspicion of criminal activity on the part of soldiers, we send our material to the JAG's office, and ask that a military police investigation be opened. We work very closely with the military when investigations are opened, and they ask us to bring the witnesses. In many cases, the Palestinians are not willing to testify, because they're either afraid or cynical. In such cases, it's sort of us and the JAG's office on one side, and the Palestinians on the other, with us trying to convince them that they should cooperate with these processes. How receptive is the IDF to your investigations? Is it generally hostile or cooperative? Where individual cases are concerned, the army is very glad for our assistance. The JAG's office told me recently: "We need you to do our job." The IDF Spokesman's Office may be a slightly different story, because it's more concerned with the IDF's reputation - the PR perspective as opposed to the legal one. B'Tselem prevents them from whitewashing the less flattering side. But that's my job. Anyway, I'm opposed to whitewashing, because I don't think it's in anybody's interest. To that end, we utilize the press a lot. In a democracy, the press has an important role to play in generating public discussion. But again, it's very easy for the military to say that its behavior is connected to security concerns. And then the tendency of most of the public is to accept that without learning all the details. The public doesn't want to make it hard for the military which is protecting them. How much should facts on the ground determine policy? You say that there should be no settlements in territory acquired in the Six Day War. In the meantime, those settlements are there. Similarly, many argue that the fact that the Palestinian people didn't exist before then doesn't mean they don't exist now and therefore should be given a state. There could have been a situation in 1968 in which Israel negotiated a peace treaty with Jordan. And then, anything could have happened to the West Bank, theoretically. It could have become part of Israel; it could have become part of Jordan again; it could have become a third state. But from a human rights perspective, as long as all citizens of any given state have equal rights, we would have no critique of any treaty that was signed. Now it doesn't seem feasible that Israel and Jordan will be negotiating. But if Israel negotiated with the Palestinians about the future of the West Bank, a situation could arise in which settlements that were established illegally become recognized in the peace treaty. Do you agree that Israel receives a disproportionate amount of focus and criticism from human rights organizations all over the world - and is held to a higher standard than countries in which there is state-sanctioned abuse of women, for example? Yes and no. Human rights standards are universal. And if you look at, say, the new Human Rights Council, which should be applying the same standards to every country in the world, Israel should be criticized proportionately to its human rights record. And it's clear that it is not doing that - that it is disproportionately singling Israel out for criticism. On the other hand, there is the UN's Human Rights Committee or Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which is dealing with each country appropriately. So, Saudi Arabia is getting much more criticism than Israel. But Israel is a democracy that holds itself to a higher standard. And I think that's appropriate. We enjoy benefits from our relations with Europe and America precisely because we're a liberal democracy. This is inevitable. When England was in conflict with Northern Ireland, for example, of course it was held to a higher standard than, say, Algeria. But is Israel held to a higher standard than other liberal democracies? If you're asking about the governments of other liberal democracies [holding Israel to a higher standard], I'd say yes. And is Israel held to a higher standard than other liberal democracies by international human rights organizations? In some ways Israel is discriminated against and disproportionately criticized, and in some ways Israel enjoys disproportionate benefits from Europe and the United States. If you went to a conference at which there were representatives of human rights groups from around the world, and you were comparing the success of each group's efforts in its own country, how would you rate your work in Israel? That's an excellent question, because since I've been with B'Tselem, on the one hand the situation has severely deteriorated both for Israelis and for Palestinians, and on the other, our work is very well-regarded. When we write a report, the Law Committee of the Knesset convenes to discuss it, for example. And changing the route of the separation barrier so that it harms Palestinians less and stopping punitive house demolitions are successes of the human rights community. I'm convinced that if it weren't for Israeli human rights organizations serving as a watchdog, the situation would be much worse. This may be small consolation, but I think that though we still have a lot of work to do, there are also a lot of accomplishments we can be proud of.