Who's really damaging Israel's image?

Whitewashing human rights problems does no one any favors.

violin 88 (photo credit: )
violin 88
(photo credit: )
Last week, Nira Mashriki, an attorney in the State Prosecutor's Office, submitted a brief that accused two prominent human rights organizations - HaMoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual and B'Tselem: Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories - of undermining "the existence of the State of Israel" and causing the state "damage in the world." The brief further stated that the NGOs are funded by "outsiders whose interests differ from those of the State of Israel and sometimes contradict them." Of course, Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor leapt to agree with Mashriki in these pages ("Challenging the NGO mythology", March 11). For several years now, Steinberg has been the foremost critic of NGOs that point out flaws in Israeli society and work to ameliorate them. His article repeated the calumnies against HaMoked and B'Tselem, and added Machsom Watch and "their exaggerated allegations" to his list of those who unfairly blacken Israel's name. And, of course, he sought to taunt those who fund these organizations, including the New Israel Fund, Ford Foundation and European governments, and those who rely on their reports, including the United States government in its recently released Human Rights reports for 2005. As a proud supporter of all three Israeli organizations, we were relieved by the quick response by State Prosecutor Eran Shendar, who stated that "the comments of [Masriki] reflect neither the prosecution's position, nor the position of the state, and were not authorized." Anyone who supports democracy recognizes that government officials should not accuse human rights groups that are performing their professional duties of actions that are tantamount to treason. Whether they are monitoring and reporting human rights abuses, or are litigating on behalf of those whose human rights have been abused, human rights groups only thrive in vibrant, healthy societies that allow dissent and understand that even unpopular citizens have rights. WHAT DO Steinberg and Mashriki expect of human rights organizations? Of course, these groups monitor and report on abuses committed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). That is their job; their fact-finding methodology and the credibility of what they report to the Israeli public and the international community are their currency. Rather than condemning the messengers, these critics would do well to examine personally the abuses that occur at checkpoints and elsewhere in the West Bank. Let us be clear: Most soldiers are not guilty of wrongdoings in their daily interactions with Palestinians. However, throughout this intifada the IDF has been derelict in not prosecuting, or even seriously investigating, the killings of Palestinian civilians and other serious incidents involving human rights abuses that have been well-documented. And, in so doing, they have allowed a culture to develop whereby a minority of soldiers whose behavior does not conform with the IDF's code of ethics can act with impunity. It would be more appropriate if Steinberg followed the example of IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, who met with representatives of Machsom Watch on March 5. Halutz's explanation of how the military seeks to address the admittedly difficult dilemmas posed by ensuring security for Israeli citizens, while also acting with dignity toward the Palestinian population, deserves the attention of human rights groups, but also their scrutiny. Dialogue between the IDF and human rights groups (and humanitarian organizations) is important, but for such discussions to serve constructive purposes neither side should demonize the other. IN THE LONG run, the most important point is that friends of Israel around the world are able to point with pride to a lively democracy with an energetic civil society that examines and even quarrels over the means and ends of government decisions. At times, this requires bringing unpopular truths to public attention. However, if Israel accepts the premises of Mashriki and Steinberg and seeks to discredit unfairly the activities of human rights groups, Israel's credibility - and, more important, the nation's morality - will suffer. We are all saddened by evidence that Israel is not perfect, and that the government and the military make mistakes, and we are uncomfortable knowing that this evidence is used by those who are anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. But we must muster support for the Israelis who, like Mazuz and Halutz, understand social realities, morality and human rights better than those who claim to monitor the activities of civil society while turning their backs on the basic values of freedom, human dignity and democracy. Larry Garber is the Executive Director of the New Israel Fund, headquartered in Washington, DC. Eliezer Ya'ari is NIF's Israel Director in Jerusalem.