By doing the army’s job for it, Israeli human rights organizations enable the IDF’s ongoing dereliction of its obligation to protect the occupied Palestinian population.
By Noam Rotem
The Israeli human rights organizations operating in the West Bank are doing noble work. There should be no argument about that. They are on the front lines of injustice every single day. With varying levels of success, they attempt to deliver a modicum of justice to the robbed and beaten Palestinian population.
These organizations invest massive resources into representing and advocating for Palestinians as they face Israeli authorities. From field workers who meet with victims, to research divisions that sort through and make sense of mountains of data and injustices, to attorneys who search for the clauses and sub-sections of the laws that were violated, to media departments that disseminate that information in Israel and across the globe, and countless departments, regiments and brigades in the crumbling army of human rights.
The humanitarian arm of the IDF
The military comparison is intentional. To a certain degree, these organizations serve as the humanitarian arm of the IDF. They give the Palestinian population assurances, or hope, of a non-violent, bureaucratic resolution — in the name of the occupier. To the Palestinians and the rest of the world, these organizations are the “good guys” in the struggle, somebody to turn to for redress about injustice or the violation of the law. But should NGOs really be responsible for upholding the rule of law, or are they just filling a vacuum created by the negligence of the sovereign — the IDF?
One thing needs to be made crystal clear: as an army occupying a civilian population, the IDF’s fundamental obligation is to protect that population. In reality, the IDF does everything in its power to not fulfill that role; in many ways, the IDF relies on Israeli human rights organizations to fill that role for it. But if occupying a civilian population obligates Israel to protect that population, as is required by international conventions Israel has signed and ratified, then the IDF has outsourced that obligation.
The occupation’s ombudsman
As an organization, the IDF is very good at protecting itself: that can be seen in the astoundingly low rate of indictments and convictions in cases when the army harms the civilian population in the West Bank or Gaza. There isn’t really any redress for Palestinians harmed by the army to seek. There is no office he can go to and file a complaint over the killing of his son, for example, or about the theft of his agricultural land. That is where the human rights organizations come in.
In reality, the human rights organizations represent the state. Of course they do their work in good faith, as much as possible, but they still represent the state, receiving complaints on its behalf — the occupation’s ombudsman. If they didn’t exist, there wouldn’t be any direct option for an injured Palestinian to demand justice from the state; he or she would be forced to seek it elsewhere.
And of course we can’t ignore the question of money. Paradoxically, the state doesn’t fund these organizations despite the fact that they are doing its job for it. Neither do they receive indirect funding in the form of tax credits, the likes of which are given to most other NGOs in Israel, including those advocating ethnic cleansing or advancing fascist agendas.
With no other alternative, most of the human rights organizations get their funding overseas. In the resultant reality, the international community thereby gives the IDF a rubber stamp — in the form of funding for Israeli human rights organizations, which in turn allows it to continue being derelict in its obligations toward the Palestinian population. The international community is actually helping perpetuate the occupation by funding its humanitarian branch.
What would happen?
Let’s conduct a thought experiment for a moment. Let’s imagine that the Israeli human rights organizations operating in the West Bank just disappeared one day. Daily human rights violations would go on; the people, as is human nature, would continue to seek justice. If there were no Israeli organizations to turn to, maybe stronger Palestinian organizations and bodies would be established, maybe international bodies would establish a stronger presence, maybe the IDF would start taking such matters just a little more seriously — or maybe none of that would happen.
As far as the IDF is concerned, as long as there is a remedy there is no problem — and Israeli human rights organizations supply that remedy. The appearance of justice — and if we’re honest with ourselves, it is indeed only the appearance of justice — is preserved, and as far as Israel and the rest of the world is concerned, everything is kosher.
As I said, I have nothing but appreciation for the people working in Israeli human rights organizations. Most of them are people with a real sense of mission, Sisyphean tenacity, and genuinely good, large hearts. Every once in a while their work even leads to success, whether by returning plots of land to their owners or getting closed investigations into the killing of a relative re-opened. These are small victories in small battles, but to the people involved it’s their whole world. And for that, we should tip our hats to them.
On a strategic level, however, their very existence enables the occupation to continue in its current form.
Everything said, this is not a diatribe about things having to get worse before they get better. Not at all. There must be solutions for the civilian population — it’s just that those solutions shouldn’t come from Israeli organizations as a part of Israeli colonialism. The occupier “solving problems” for the occupied people is not healthy, and it even helps perpetuate dependance on systems of oppression.
All of the resources invested in the Israeli human rights Band-Aid could be invested in building up Palestinian, or even international infrastructure that can provide the same solutions, or come up with new ones.
Despite all of the inherent complexities of long-term processes and the short-term harm that can result, the human rights organizations must make a brave choice and decide not to participate any longer. Not to be a part of the system. Not to collaborate with the IDF and its commanders in Israel’s continued control over an occupied population.
It’s a painful but necessary decision, to break out of a situation that has gone on for nearly half a century, a situation which we cannot allow to persist.
Noam Rotem is an Israeli activist, high-tech executive and author of the blog o139.org, subtitled “Godwin was right,” where this post was first published in Hebrew.