Q&A with B'Tselem: Does the human rights group recognize Hamas as terrorist?

Spokesperson of Israeli human rights organization responds to criticism leveled at the group on the heels of Operation Protective Edge.

Hamas militants bury a slain comrade in Gaza (photo credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA / REUTERS)
Hamas militants bury a slain comrade in Gaza
Left-wing Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem often finds itself at the center of controversy and criticism in the Israeli public, particularly during times of conflict. During and on the heels of Operation Protective Edge, the NGO found itself under fire on several fronts: being banned from national-civilian service; spatting with IBA over an advert it wanted to run; and being slammed after its executive-director Hagai El-Ad refused to state that Hamas was a terror organization. On the other hand, the group received this year's Stockholm Human Rights Award, awarded to an individual or an institution for outstanding contributions to the rule of law and the promotion and protection of human rights. The International Legal Assistance Consortium, the Swedish Bar Association, and the International Bar Association commended the organization for "tirelessly fighting to uphold human rights in an environment where its criticism has not always been welcome." In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, B'Tselem spokesperson Sarit Michaeli answers to some of the main charges leveled against the organization.
What was B'Tselem's reaction to the recent decision to ban the NGO from national-civilian service?
We explained that it was a case of exploitation of an administrative position to attack a human rights organization for political reasons.  B'Tselem's executive director, Hagai El-Ad, wrote to Minister Uri Orbach, who oversees the ANCS, demanding that the boundaries of National Civilian Service Authority director-general Sar-Shalom Djerbi's position be made clear to him, or alternatively, that Djerbi be replaced with someone who has not forgotten that, in a democracy, disagreements over public issues are resolved through open debate rather than silenced through bureaucracy.
The decision has been suspended.
What's your response to the National-Civilian Service Authority's claim that “the data and positions the organization disseminates... encourage our enemies and lead to extreme anti-Semitic expressions against the State of Israel, as well as violent acts of anti-Semitism against Jews around the world.” Do you think that the information B'Tselem disseminates plays a part in already virulent anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism around the world?
Well, obviously we reject the accusation flatly. B'Tselem provides accurate, verified data, and our positions and analysis are extremely careful.
This kind of accusation completely ignores the impact of the reality of occupation and dispossession  on the ground have on Israel's international standing, and blames it on the messenger. The problem isn't those who expose wrongs, but the wrongs themselves. This needs to be separated from the issue of anti-Semitism, both generally in the world and specifically in the anti-occupation movement, which is a serious issue that needs to be addressed on an ongoing basis, and obviously exceeds the scope of this interview. However, not all criticism of Israeli government policy is anti-Semitism, and these accusations serve to cheapen the issue. We do our part to make sure that our legitimate criticism of our government will not be abused by people interested only in Israel bashing, not in universal human rights. We do not pass our material to people and groups we fear will abuse it. We vet media and interviewers for the same reason. When we see misrepresentations, we challenge them. We also apply a zero tolerance policy against racism and anti-Semitism on our Facebook and YouTube Channels.
Hagai El-Ad recently came under fire for refusing to categorically state that Hamas is a terror group in a radio interview. Is this B'Tselem's official position and if so, why?
This is a mischaracterization of our position.
Michaeli referred the Post to B'Tslem's official statement on the matter:
"Any action by Hamas that deliberately targets civilians is unquestionably unlawful and morally unacceptable. B’Tselem unequivocally rejects such actions. We have made this clear on many occasions, including condemning the firing of rockets at Israel and attacks on Israeli civilians. This has been our principled position in the past, and we will of course continue to voice it in the future as well. Deliberate targeting of civilians is completely and utterly unjustifiable."
In order to avoid lengthy discussions of the loaded and controversial term “terrorism”, B’Tselem strives to employ objective wording. Any interpretation of such neutral language as a reflection of a neutral position with regard to harming civilians could not be further from the truth. Rather than entering into a dispute over how to define various entities, we focus on expressing strong, clear-cut condemnation of actions that harm civilians, be they carried out by a state, army, armed group or an individual. This moral and legal position enables the factual examination of actions by various bodies as well as the clear and decisive criticism of said actions.
Another battle that B'Tselem fought during the latest Gaza operation was with IBA over an ad it wanted to run that would include names of Gazan civilians killed in the war. IBA refused to run the ad on grounds that it would not be balanced. Did the ad also include names of Israelis killed during the war?
The ad included the names of children killed up to the date it was made, who were all Palestinian. So at the time of making it, thankfully there were no Israeli names to include. Tragically, towards the end of the hostilities, an Israeli four-year-old, Daniel Tragerman, was killed by Palestinian fire, an act we condemned.
Do you feel that B'Tselem's position in Israeli society has been shaken?
I think that the position of B'Tselem and other self-critical human rights groups has always been complicated, and we've never been particularly popular with the majority of the Israeli-Jewish public. This is naturally magnified during periods of violence and strife, when Israelis are threatened and exposed to Palestinian violence. Additionally, for the past few years we've witnessed a steep increase in the level of attacks and smear campaigns against us, the result of a concerted assault by a broad coalition of organizations and politicians that is clearly linked to other anti-democratic initiatives. This is clearly intended to discredit us. Will it stop us from making our voice heard? Absolutely not.
B'Tselem has said that Israel's current investigation mechanisms are not appropriate for conducting independent investigations of suspected violations of international humanitarian law, thus it will not  assist military police investigations into Gaza hostilities like it did in the past. Is there an international official body that you believe could conduct a fair investigation of this kind?
B’Tselem does not intend to demand that these suspicions be investigated by Israel’s current investigation mechanisms. This is due to the experience that B’Tselem gained following past military offensives in the Gaza Strip, which shows that there is currently no official body in Israel capable of conducting independent investigations of suspected violations of international humanitarian law.
We will, of course, be glad to be proven wrong. Should the government decide to establish an independent investigation apparatus to seriously and objectively examine suspected violations of international humanitarian law by Israel during Operation Protective Edge, or should the Chechanover Commission decide to introduce a procedure that would automatically establish such a mechanism following every major military offensive in the Gaza Strip, we will be the first in line to welcome such a decision. A sufficient mechanism would be professional, viewed by the public as credible, and independent – both of the military system and of the political establishment. Involving independent international observers in the investigation may greatly enhance its credibility. However, as long as establishing such a mechanism has not been suggested, let alone implemented, we can only go by past experience and explicitly state that Israel's law enforcement system, in its present form, cannot investigate alleged violations of international law by Israel in its recent operation in Gaza.
We are not promoting an international investigation. As an Israeli organization, we think justice should be done at home, not abroad. We called the attorney general, in a joint statement with the other relevant Israeli HR organizations to establish an external, independent and effective investigatory mechanism to examine the decision making of the political and operational establishment as required by international law and supported by the rulings of the High Court of Justice.
A charge often heard in the Israeli public against B'Tselem is that it is disproportionate in its criticism of Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza, next to its criticism of Palestinian actions. What is your response to this?
Human rights are universal, and therefore we raise our voice against Palestinian violations, as well as Israeli violations. Both in terms of making principled statements (like condemning Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians), but also by collecting data (like Israeli casualties of Palestinian violence) and testimonies of Israelis living under Palestinian rocket fire in the south. However, B'Tselem is an Israeli organization, formed to look at the responsibility of our own government for safeguarding the rights of Palestinians under our control, and this is why we focus most of our work to try to change our own government's policy.
I have to say that from my experience, it seems that often, the purveyors of this argument will view virtually any amount of criticism of the Israeli government as excessive, and would be happy to hear us criticize only the Palestinian side (with maybe a token admission that "Israel isn't perfect"). This is simply unacceptable in a democracy. I don't doubt most Israelis accept our government's position that the huge civilian losses in Gaza result purely from the actions of Hamas, but we do not accept this. As B'Tselem explained here, Hamas' violations do not absolve Israel of all responsibility.
There is also the issue of what is proportionate. Some would say (and many Palestinians do) that we focus excessively on Palestinian violations in the face of, for example, over 2100 Gazans killed versus only around 70 Israelis, especially considering that we are quick to accuse Hamas of grave violations of IHL and rarely use such unequivocal language regarding Israeli authorities. I do not accept this premise, but it is quite commonly leveled at us.