Recently, Eyal Danieli, a Brooklyn-based artist, spoke to Anat Biletzki, who teaches philosophy at Tel Aviv University and is Chairperson of the board of B’Tselem, a human rights organization in the occupied territories. The interview took place at the Rail’s office in Greenpoint.
Rail: What is B’Tselem’s position on the occupation?
Biletzki: That it’s an extreme violation of human rights in any sense of the word. Whether it’s freedom of movement, freedom to eat, freedom to live, these rights are all defined in the universal document of human rights. There is nothing that Israel hasn’t violated at this point. It’s now a routine way of life. For a Palestinian living in the occupied territories, it’s routine to be imprisoned, encamped, and incarcerated. As we try to get this information out, one of the complaints that people have of human rights organizations like ours is that we become political. Like all the other human rights organizations, B’Tselem tries to avoid being political. We say "we’re universalistic; we’re talking about human rights."
In April of 2003, we issued a report called Landgrab, which is the most comprehensive report ever on the settlements. It showed how the whole settlement project is a violation of human rights according to international law and the Geneva Convention. Everyone in the world is now using our map of the settlements. We keep updating it, because the settlements keep changing. It’s amazing because I think that conceptually it’s very creative to think of settlements as being a violation of human rights. Preparing that report took nine months. If we ever do get to negotiate something with the Palestinians, that will be the data used to determine negotiations. And if we don’t, that will be the evidence that will go down in history as to why we failed.
Rail: Tell us about B’Tselem’s founding, as well as your involvement with it.
Biletzki: There are three different avenues of activity in leftist Israeli politics. One is the political parties. Then there are peace movements, the most known being Peace Now. And then there are human rights organizations. Human rights organizations have become the "in" thing all over the world and are referred to as the third sector, the NGO sector. Ten years ago, things were different. Human rights organizations were rare and in that sense B’Tselem was not the first human rights organization in Israel but it was the first one that was formed in Israel to address the human rights of the Palestinians.
I was always active in the peace movements and on board to help the leftist parties, usually left of Labor. There are the leftist Zionist parties and the non-Zionist parties—the non-Zionist parties basically being the Israeli-Arab parties. The Communist party was not Zionist; it was Jewish and Arab. That was its main plank, which was very important to me. I worked for those parties during elections, no more than that. I always worked very intensely with peace movements and then during the first Intifada, new movements were formed. The most important one, I believe, was The 21st Year, founded when it was twenty-one years of occupation. It’s almost double that now. These were movements coming out against the occupation. Some of them were refusal movements. But in 1988, a bunch of people decided to put together a human rights organization. It was a new idea then. I wasn’t at all involved, but many of my friends were. It quickly became a legal-minded organization drawing on international law and the whole idea of human rights as a universal conflict. This continued for the whole first Intifada. You have to remember that these were the years when there was no Internet, and CNN didn’t exist, so information was not easy to come by.
Rail: How has B’Tselem’s work changed since its founding?
Biletzki: During the ’90s, we did a lot of investigative and research work on the water situation, the road situation, on agriculture, on citizenship, on passports, etc. It was routine work, but it was still about human rights violations. The big trauma in those years was the closure. Israel closed the border and the Palestinians couldn’t come into Israel so they didn’t have any work. It was a gentler picture than today—if you can talk about anything of this occupation of 38 years as being gentle.
As soon as the second Intifada broke out—and this is why I think B’Tselem is so important today— it became clear that an information center is no big deal. Everybody is on email, everybody is on the Internet. There is a lot of information. The point now is to research the information, to see how much is true. B’Tselem is trusted by all sides. The Europeans of course. If the American Embassy wants information, they come to us. If Tom Friedman wants information, he comes to us. We correlate all the different sources to get all the information, and write these big reports. I joke with the staff that "today you have to do a report on how many people did or didn’t cross a certain checkpoint." The staff will work at it day and night because they think if they write 2,500 instead of 2,501 it will be a tragedy. I keep telling them that in such critical times, the kind of work that you’re famous for is not what you need to do now. The point is to get the information out, to get the message out.
Rail: Is B’Tselem affiliated with any other human rights organizations? And where does its funding come from?
Biletzki: It’s completely independent. It’s considered the third most important human rights organization in the world. The first two are Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. It’s considered a most trustworthy organization. Not a word that B’Tselem publicizes hasn’t been corroborated. Its claim to fame is its trustworthy information. Its funding comes mainly from Europe—European governments and the EU.
Rail: When did you become chair of the organization?
Biletzki: In 1999, I was at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, where the universalism of human rights was the theme. I applied saying that I don’t do human rights academically, that I’m a philosopher, but I’d love to be on the team that is doing human rights academically and they accepted me. That year in Princeton, I became a professional human rightist in academia. I came back to Israel in August 2000 and in ‘02 became chair of the board. My whole life has always been philosophy as a profession and politics as a way of life.
Rail: Israelis in Israel are in a certain form of denial, ignorance by choice. Definitely here in America that’s the situation. What are the violations? Tell us just off the top of your head what’s going on there.
Biletzki: Things change from day to day. But mainly, the life of the Palestinians is unbearable. They can’t move. They cannot go from their home to school without going through checkpoints. Schools and universities can hardly open. They can’t get to work. I think there’s 60% unemployment. They don’t have food, but there’s no starvation there. Israel is very smart. The UN is very smart. They test the children all the time. The moment a child’s iron readings come down, they give him iron pills. They are constantly undernourished, but they are not starved. There are convoys bringing in rice and flour and the like, so that they don’t starve. It’s a society dependent on the United Nations relief to subsist.
The routine is something that I do not hesitate to call a concentration camp. I know that when you talk about concentration camps, Jews all jump up in horror. I’m not talking about gassing and I’m not talking about extermination camps. Concentration camps were camps where people were forcibly placed and had to live their lives. The situation varies from place to place. Ramalla is better than Nablus. Hebron is terrible. Some of the villages are literally incarcerated. Down the line people do not have work, and they cannot move. They are stuck in these villages, towns or cities, under curfew, closure. The point is that their lives are at the lowest level of functioning and subsistence. In one way or another this has been happening for 38 years. In these last three years it’s been deteriorating so fast that we worry about people dying.
Now I’m not one of the people talking about extermination or genocide. Those are not my words. We have the rubber bullets, and the live bullets, and the last three-and-a-half years have created thousands of people who have lost limbs, or who would be in wheelchairs if there were wheelchairs to be had. So when you ride around the West Bank you see invalids, people who are terribly hurt physically, who are not getting any professional help. There is internal support, however. They are a very cohesive society; because there’s nothing you can do in this situation except develop mutual support systems. And that is very different from the stories you hear about the different political groups, whether Hamas or Jihad. They’re political. On the social/family level, there’s supreme support. People have been dying from kidney failure because they cannot get to the dialysis unit. 80 or 90% of woman give birth at home because they can’t get to the hospital.
People come to the checkpoint if they want to go to school. The soldier there says, "Show me your cards; sit there under the tree for the next three hours. Dry under the sun for the next three hours." So you get up and you go home and you don’t go to school. These are things that don’t make the headlines. Routine occurrences. There’s no way to make people understand how terrible that is. I tell people to come to B’Tselem; we have an armored car. We’ll take you on a tour of the West Bank. Just around the roads, around the checkpoints, around the villages. People go for one day and see. You don’t have to go for a week or a month. Go there for one day. You realize that this is an apartheid state. The whole population there lives in sub-human conditions.
Rail: How do you make people understand that their side is the one committing the violations? Some people survive mentally by avoiding such issues. At the same time, how do you deal with attacks on Israelis?
Biletzki: There are many violations of the rights of Jews or Israelis. When a suicide bomber goes to Israel and blows him or herself up and kills Israelis, that’s a violation of those Israelis’ rights. B’Tselem doesn’t have to deal with these issues directly because our mandate is to deal with human rights in the occupied territories. But what about a Palestinian who attacks a settlement and kills a settler, not the soldiers guarding the settlement? According to the Geneva Convention, the soldiers guarding the settlements are legitimate targets. But what about the women and children sleeping in the settlements? Their rights have been violated. They are non-combatants.
We’ve had an internal argument for many years whether we should speak out for innocent Israelis on the West Bank—innocent in terms of being non-combatants. It’s been very difficult deciding whether we should do this or not. The people on our board and staff who have prevailed are the people who say that we should. The rights of non-combatant settlers have to be protected. At the same time, the Israeli authorities put them there and exposed them to these attacks.
Ultimately, the point is that their human rights have been violated. The settlements are not legal by international law, even though Israel has some highfalutin way of showing that they are, because these territories are not under any sovereignty anymore. But in this case it doesn’t matter that the settlements are not legal. The settlers are human individuals, and human rights address individuals. And that’s why B’Tselem comes out with a statement condemning anybody who harms a settler.
In my view, the main question involves how we got embroiled in this. Now this is a political question. Some people say: "Why should we worry about the settlers?" Meanwhile, one of the main things that the Israelis tell us is: "Why are you so worried about the Palestinians? Why don’t you worry about the Israelis?" When they say this we show them that we have come out with statements condemning attacks on Israelis. I can show them all the reports, the ads, all the press releases we’ve sent out ever since the second Intifada has broken out. I give them the information, but it doesn’t work. Your question is how do you make people understand that their side is the one who is committing most of the violations? That’s a very different question. It’s a deep problem.
Rail: You said that when someone is inundated with information, he or she will become political. Has anybody joined B’Tselem that was not political to begin with? Has there been anybody from the Right that’s joined?
Biletzki: We had recruited members of the Knesset (Israeli parliament) from the Left and the Right, who made it a point that they were for us. When everything is going well, everyone thinks that human rights are this wonderful thing to hang a banner on. The minute the Intifada broke out, these three avenues—leftist parties, peace movements, human rights organizations—became one sticky gooey goop for anybody on the Right, and in Israel today most everyone is on the Right. No one differentiates anymore. Even though we as an organization insist on saying that "we’re a human rights organization, not a political movement," that doesn’t change the general impression that we’re on the Left. Being for peace, for human rights, is all the same thing in Israel today. You’re not going to get anybody on the Right for human rights.
The staff is nineteen kids. I call them my kids, but they’re professionals, they’re legal workers, they know how to do investigative work. They work as human rights workers and they keep telling me that they’re not political. If you ask any one of them how they vote, they all voted Left, far Left. If you go to a demo of a peace movement, you will see staff of B’Tselem, but they won’t be there as B’Tselem staff, they’ll be there as citizens demonstrating for peace. When they’re in B’Tselem they insist on doing their work as non-political work.
Personally, as a philosopher I think that human rights and being of a certain mindset go together. I’m referring to a temperament, not mindset as a psychology; in other words, I’m talking about your view of the world, what makes you a humanist. But there’s no way I can get that position through to the organization. So within the organization I do collaborative work that organizations have to do. I don’t mix it up with politics, because human rights organizations have forever insisted on not being political. When I meet Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch members, I argue deeply about human rights being political. But that’s just my personal view.
Rail: What are your relations with the Israeli government and the army?
Biletzki: When he was Minister of Defense Itzsak Rabin said, "Let us work without the Supreme Court and the Knesset." It’s become a slogan. In other words, if the government wants to do the job, if the army wants to do the job, you’ve got to do it without the Supreme Court and the Knesset breathing down your neck and not letting you "work." The government thinks that we are a pain in the neck, that we are traitors. For the present government we are on the enemy’s side. Anybody from Israel who speaks for Palestinian rights is automatically seen as a traitor. So for the government we just don’t exist. The army is not like that, though. I’m not saying they want to be moral, but they pretend to be moral. We have a very good working relationship with the army because we need them and they need us. Every time there is an event, we get all the eyewitness accounts from people who were there. We will then go to the army, present the case, and get the army’s side, and our reports will always have both sides.
Rail: How much information do you acquire directly from Palestinian sources in the occupied territories?
Biletzki: We used to do all our own field work but realized we couldn’t get what we needed, so we looked for Palestinians who work in the occupied territories. It’s very difficult to find people who know Hebrew and English and have access to the Internet. We have seven such workers, in each of the big cities in Palestine. Haidar Ghanen was from Rafiah, in Gaza, which is the worst place on earth. He was a perfect field worker. He got us very good information, but suddenly in June 2002 we got word that he had been arrested by the Palestinian authorities, by a certain police force there. He was arrested for being a collaborator, for having collaborated with the Israeli security services.
At first we insisted on guarding his human rights, just to make sure that he wouldn’t be executed or lynched in jail. There is nothing more dangerous than being labeled a collaborator in Palestine. At first we said he was innocent, that an investigation and legal procedure should all be thoroughly done. I’m not here to judge the Palestinian Authority, but if the Israeli legal system is not clean, there’s not much I can say about the Palestinian legal authorities. If I talk about torture by the Israeli secret services, there’s no doubt that the Palestinian secret services have learned well from their teachers. Anyway, this went on for about a month. Then one of our board members, a Palestinian lawyer, went to visit him and Haidar admitted that he had worked for the Shabak. He pointed to people who were later assassinated. So when he confessed to things, all we could insist on was fair play, legal procedure, and so on.
At that point, we wanted to know whether our other field workers were in danger. Had there been some sort of anti-B’Tselem wave out of this in the territories, we would’ve been done for. The other field workers were pretty tense for a while and then after a few weeks they started reporting that things were o.k. The funny thing is, Haidar has yet to have a trial. There was a beginning of some trial at which he admitted his guilt, but the trial never ended. There has been no sentencing; he’s in jail in Gaza and a few months ago somebody said that during the day he walks the streets and at night he comes home to sleep in jail. I had assumed that the second he walked out of jail somebody would shoot him. Turns out, after 9/11 there was a rumor going around that Al Qaeda had an operative in Gaza. Apparently Haidar put out word, whether this is true or not, that he was the Al Qaeda operative. Now he’s a local hero.
B’Tselem is working on a report on the question of collaborators. Again, we’re blaming the Israeli authority for having devastated, demolished basically, the civil society in Palestine and one of the ways they’ve done it is by turning so many people into collaborators. As a good friend of mine said: "Any one of us would be a collaborator. If you’re at a check point and your child has to get to a hospital and they tell you: ‘Ok, we’ll let you through but from now on, once a month, you’ll call up and you’ll tell us about someone’s movements,’ aren’t you going to do it?" And that’s what the Shabak does. They’ve turned the Palestinians into a society riddled with collaborators. Again, Israel has done this with the occupation for 38 years.
Rail: Tell us about B’Tselem’s position on the wall being built, as well as the opposition to it.
Biletzki: In September of 2002, we took a bunch of journalists from all over the world to see the wall. There was no wall, but everybody knew that they were going to build it there. The government would not give out the information about the wall layout. We got the Palestinians to give us the orders that they had gotten to vacate land, and we put up a simulation of where the wall would be. We took all these journalists and we put together the report and we started going to embassies and to consulates and to the United Nations. Well you know now where the wall has gotten to. I go out to the wall every two weeks or so. I keep thinking, two thousand years from now, the archeologists who will dig up that land, they are going to think that some people came from Mars and built this thing. It’s grotesque. The wall in Berlin looks like a tiny little hedge compared to this thing.
Since last year, there have been many non-violent demonstrations by the Palestinians over the wall. They have adopted a modus operandi of getting all the villagers to stand in front of the bulldozers building the wall. Sometimes international volunteers and some Israelis come in with them. One of the mantras that we have been spouting forever is that when the Israelis are there the army isn’t as quick with the triggers. In the past two months the army has started shooting, though. The people are just sitting there and the army shoots. Here and there a kid will throw a stone and the army shoots. Our current project right now is to watch over these demonstrations—we don’t go into the demonstration, we sit a little further up and just watch what’s going on. They sit there, mainly kids, with many villagers behind them. They go up near the bulldozers and they never make it near them.
The army starts tear-gassing and then they start shooting. That’s what we’re reporting on. The next day, there will be an article in the newspaper saying, "There were stones being thrown and the army was in danger," and so we come out with our press release reporting our point of view. This happens every single day, from noon to five. You look at the kids throwing stones at the tanks and you don’t believe it. I think about the 18- or 19-year-old who’s in that tank, and what goes through his mind about the kids throwing stones. The stones can’t touch that tank. What makes him think that he should shoot them? I don’t have an answer.