NGO Monitor Analysis (Vol. 2 No. 2) 4 October 2003
Betselem: The Ambiguous Boundary between Public Education and Political Activism
Introductory Note: Although Betselem is technically outside the NGO Monitor mission statement, as discussed below, there are two reasons for examining this organization:
1. To illustrate how prone the 'information chain' of NGOs is to exploitation in the pursuit of narrow political aims. Betselem is a very large and influential organization, whose activities and reports span many complex issues.
2. To illustrate the gravity of the lack of transparency and accountability in official government funding of political NGOs, particularly in the case of the EU.
The following preliminary analysis is designed to provide an overview of the organization and its activities, and does not claim to be a detailed investigation of Betselem's reports, credibility, and other important dimensions, which will be examined in subsequent issues. We do not question Betselem's right to choose its political orientation, which is clearly defined and not hidden from public view. In Israel's democratic and pluralistic political system, organizations have a right to express and lobby for a political view and to oppose the government's position.
In most areas of conflict, and in the Middle East, in particular, the boundary between 'public education' and 'political activism' is often blurred. In an environment characterized by high tension and frequent violence, news reports are instantaneously seized by the respective parties and shaped to advance political arguments. In such a climate, Betselem has chosen a very complex and difficult task, as stated in its mission statement,
to document and educate the Israeli public and policymakers about human rights violations in the Occupied Territories, combat the phenomenon of denial prevalent among the Israeli public, and help create a human rights culture in Israel.
However, Betselem's agenda is also blatantly political (although not party affiliated) and to its credit, unlike many other non-governmental organizations, makes no attempt to hide this;
B'Tselem acts primarily to change Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories and ensure that its government, which rules the Occupied Territories, protects the human rights of residents there and complies with its obligations under international law.
B'Tselem unashamedly takes part in campaigns against settlement policy, controversial security fence, and The Occupation. There is no pretense at universality, in contrast to self-proclaimed human rights NGOs such as Amnesty, HRW, or Oxfam, and no claim to influence Palestinian leaders or society. This is very clear when reading the testimonials section on their website. The accounts are openly designed to shock liberal Israelis to adopt a political stance against settlements and Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At the same time, Betselem omits general informational background on the conflict.
Within the Israeli context, Betselem is viewed with admiration from some, and anger from others. The praise comes from those who see Betselem as an important element in maintaining open debate on human rights practices in Israel despite the environment of terrorism and violent conflict. In addition, Betselem's supporters view it as a professional organization, which is generally reliable in its documentation, particularly with respect to actions and practices of the Israeli army. In contrast to other human rights NGOs that are based outside of Israel, and have little knowledge or understanding of the situation the ground, Betselem is based in Israel and its researchers speak Hebrew and Arabic. As a result, there is often cooperation between the IDF and Betselem, and on occasion, Israeli army commanders cite Betselem reports in bringing soldiers to trial for human rights violations. (This relationship is inconsistent with the anti-Israel media stereotypes, and is generally ignored by the international press.)
In contrast, the anger and hostility towards Betselem among Israelis stems from rejection of its blatantly political agenda, and the exploitation of human rights issues in advocating this agenda, as well as contributing to the demonization of Israel in the world. Betselem has chosen the route of international advocacy and alliances with other politicized groups, most of whom are not open about their political and ideological objectives.
The problem lies in the fact that as an Israeli organization, run from Israel and staffed by Jews and Arabs, Betselem's report are regularly quoted and cited by a host of other, far less candid and professional organizations, such as EMHRN, HRW, Amnesty International, Miftah and Christian Aid. Add links. These stories usually appear without context and background information, and are presented as apolitical and unbiased human rights reporting, which is clearly not the case for Betselem. Alongside these politicized NGOs, the critical international press also often highlights and even exploits the fact that Betselem is an Israeli organization that deals with human rights issues.
As a result, this organization has become a convenient tool to paint an inaccurate and sensationalized picture of popular dissent within Israel against the government, and to distort Israel's human rights record as part of the campaign of demonization and delegitimation associated with the Durban process and politicized resolutions of the UNCHR.
The attention Betselem receives from other human rights NGOs along with governmental organizations and the international media, and well as the large donations, should therefore be seen, in large part, as a political statement regarding opposition to Israel's policies, rather than an exclusive interest in human rights activism.
Betselem has an impressive range of funders but is cautious to release the exact amounts. Major funders include Christian Aid (UK), the Commission of the European Communities, DanChurchAid (Denmark), EED (Germany), Ford Foundation (USA), ICCO (Netherlands), International Commission of Jurists-Swedish Section Mertz Gilmore Foundation (USA), New Israel Fund (Israel), Norwegian Foreign Ministry, Novib (Netherlands) and the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland.
The fact that foreign governments provide funding to this blatantly political organization is particularly disturbing. As noted, Betselem does not claim to be a universal human rights organization, as revealed in quick look at its website in English, Arabic or Hebrew. Its advocacy work, even if removed from any specific political party, is blatantly ideological, and as such, the backing provided by foreign governments to influence public opinion in Israel is subversive.
Betselem has almost unparalleled access to major participants in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict including the Israeli army, Palestinian refugees and aid agencies. For this reason, its material is highly valued by news agencies and almost every NGO dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict.
However, Betselem's leaders also believe that in order to advance their goal of changing the Israeli public's attitude regarding settlements and territory, they need to shock. To Betselem's credit, and in stark contrast to many other humanitarian organizations, this NGO is honest about its political aims. However, their activities point a clear trail of aims beyond that of acting as a human rights voice from within Israeli society. Betselem also acts, knowingly, as a prime source in the campaign for the de-legitimization of Israel internationally.
In contrast, Betselem's credibility is decreased firstly by its active alliances with sensationalist organizations such as PCHR, Miftah and Christian Aid, which cite its material as primary evidence as do the major human rights NGOs HRW and Amnesty. The frequency and tone of the press releases of these organizations, ostensibly promoting human rights agendas, reveals they are intended to promote a narrow anti-Israel ideological agenda by exploiting human rights sensitivities. Secondly, if Betselem exists to change Israeli public opinion, as is claimed, its international campaigns in English make no sense. Furhter, its cooperation with organizations such as Miftah, PCHR, HRW and Amnesty - all of which have clearly overstepped their human rights mandate - as well as the conspicuous absence of honest and balanced background information regarding the overall conflict does disservice to Betselem's aims.
Finally, and very importantly, the massive support received from several governments to Betselem does grave damage to this organization's potential impact. As a self-declared political organization, this is clear evidence that Betselem is being used to intervene in the domestic politics of a sovereign and democratic state, which is entirely unethical.
The Israeli audience is educated about the true complexity of the conflict, and is capable of sorting out and interpreting Betselem's different objectives and activities. However, this is clearly not the case with the audience of international NGOs such as Amnesty and HRW. This raises fundamental questions regarding Betselem and its official sources of support.