Jerusalem, Israel – If you are a reporter in Jerusalem who covers the sensitive matter of Palestinian human rights, a logical starting point would be Bitselem* – founded as a private Israeli human rights organization in February 1989 with one stated purpose: To monitor human rights in areas acquired by Israel after the nation was attacked by Jordan during the 1967 war.
Indeed, over the past decade, Bitselem has become the prime international media source for human rights indiscretions conducted by Israel.
Therefore, over the past several months, The Bulletin has gained an inside perspective on the Bitselem operation, with the full cooperation of the Bitselem spokesperson, to understand how they have achieved their unchallenged status as the leading source on Palestinian human rights abuse.
Speaking candidly with Bitselem, their spokesperson did not deny that Bitselem has its own political agenda, which opposes Israel’s continuing presence in territories taken by Israel in 1967.
At the same time, she claimed that Bitselem “has have never been proven wrong.”
It was surprising to learn from their investigations on Palestinian versus Israel issues that Bitselem did not “question both sides.”
Instead, their investigations have consistently concluded that Israel has been guilty of crimes based almost exclusively on what Bitselem describes as Palestinian “eyewitness testimony” of Palestinians and not based on solid evidence.
Bitselem does not require Palestinian eyewitnesses to sign any affidavit, meaning that they are not subject to any liability if their testimony is simply not true.
It is standard operating procedure in Israel to sign affidavits on sensitive matters in front of a lawyer, in which the person giving testimony is advised that his testimony may be used in a court of law, and that the consequences of a dishonest statement could be a jail sentence of 13 years.
In other words, while the testimony of Palestinian eyewitnesses may have an impact on the international press and may reach the highest realm of diplomatic consideration, these eyewitnesses to alleged human rights abuse face no legal recriminations should they be found to be lying.
Bitselem’ s major criticism of the Israeli army was that the army was not conducting thorough investigations and that the Israeli army was only concerned with its own military performance. It was evident, however, that their own investigations were not up to a high standard with a forensic expert and crime scene investigator only used occasionally.
The Bitselem spokesperson made it clear that almost all Palestinian casualties are defined as civilians, even if that civilian was armed at the time of his death.
Amazingly, the Bitselem spokesperson defined all members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad as civilians.
As is well known in the international realm, the term “civilian” connotes “innocent.”
Such a broad definition of a “civilian” is problematic for the Israeli army, which copes with accusations that it kills or injures civilians when, in fact, terrorists don civilian clothes and take refuge among civilians as a matter of policy.
Bitselem does say that Palestinians commit a war crime when they fire missiles from civilian neighborhoods, which target civilians. However, the Bitselem spokesperson made it clear that this did not justify Israeli attacks on the civilian safe havens that the terrorists use for cover. Bitselem also claims that the Israeli army breaches rules on proportionality when it does defend itself..
To whom is Bitselem accountable? Firstly, to their funders.
Bitselem acknowledges that it has been funded by predominantly Jewish donors of the New Israel Fund, which earmarks contributions to Bitselem from well-meaning contributors in the United States, Canada and Great Britain, most of whom have no idea that Bitselem demonizes Israel worldwide as an abuser of human rights, while relying on a tendentious and questionable investigation process. In addition, Bitselem is funded by the government of the United Kingdom and by the European Union. It will be instructive to see if these foreign governments show an interest in an examination of how the Bitselem organization conducts its research.
On Monday, Bitselem published a report which claimed that 50 percent of Palestinian detained by the Israeli security officials were tortured. This report, internationally publicized, relied on “eyewitness testimony.”
The response of the Israel Ministry of Justice was that “the report was based upon a nonrepresentative sample that seems to have been deliberately chosen which distorts the reality prevailing in the course of arrest and interrogation of security prisoners,” which presented a report “with no identifying details and without allowing the relevant authorities … to review those specific cases raised within, which effectively denies these authorities the opportunity to examine the claims raised in the report.”
* literal meaning: “in the image of,” derived from the verse in Genesis that man was created in the image of God.
David Bedein can be reached at Media@actcom.co.il. His Web site is www.IsraelBehindTheNews.com
©The Bulletin 2007