NGO Monitor Analysis (Vol. 2 No. 3) 23 October 2003
Adalah and the Impact of Legal-based NGOs in the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Many advocacy groups and NGOs that are active in the Arab-Israeli conflict have adopted a strategy of framing their arguments using the terminology of international law and human rights. International law is a poorly defined concept, based on custom, international treaties and charters and the wide diversity of its sources and the lack of a centralized legal enforcement mechanism leave room for subjective interpretations.
Certain highly political NGOs 'dedicated to legal human rights' have been exploiting this ambiguity and produce a continuous output of publications and legal opinions. One of the most active of the legal-based NGOs in the Arab-Israeli conflict is Adalah (Justice in Arabic), an Arab-run NGO based in Israel and heavily supported by the New Israel Fund. Adalah's success, alongside other groups including Law and Al-Haq, in exploiting concepts such as 'war crimes…illegal occupation…crimes against humanity' in order to pursue their own political agendas, is considerable. As has been discussed in previous analyses published by NGO Monitor, NGOs feed off each other for information and Adalah's reports are regularly picked up by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Christian Aid. Adalah has formal alliances with EMHRN and the International Commission of Jurists. Because Adalah is located in the Middle East, international human rights NGOs find place particular value in its reports.
Adalah defines itself an "independent human rights organization…non-partisan legal center that exists to protect human rights in general, and the rights of the Arab minority (in Israel) in particular." Although in certain cases Adalah has made a positive contribution to the mandate it set itself in its mission statement, for example winning a more equitable distribution of funds in the budget of the Ministry of Religious Affairs
its international advocacy work betrays a consistent focus on highly politicised issues rather than the legal aspects of human rights.
This following analysis focuses on the problematic techniques that Adalah uses in its international advocacy, in contradiction to its mission statement, including: 1) Narrow and therefore misleading coverage of human rights issues. 2) Deliberately obfuscating the distinction between Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel and the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
1) Narrow and therefore misleading coverage of human rights issues
Adalah has devoted considerable energies to international lobbying. It issues publications in English, Hebrew and Arabic and its tactics have proven particularly effective in the UN and EU. For example, in July 2003, Adalah's reports were presented to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights 78th session in Geneva and in May to the United Nations Commission on Education, Social and Cultural Rights See report. In late November 2002 Adalah sent a delegation to Brussels "to build a strategic EU lobby agenda focused on Palestinian rights in Israel." This builds on several years of close contacts between the EU and Adalah. The organization was also prominent in drafting many of the accusations of 'apartheid' and 'institutional racism' in Israel for the NGO Declaration that was issued in parallel to the World Conference against Racism in Durban in September 2001.
The topics it chooses for these international presentations always reflect a narrow ideological agenda. The Palestinian campaign of violence has affected all Israeli citizens, Jewish and Arab, and this is an obvious issue for a law-based human rights organization to pursue. Palestinian terrorism, however, does not fit Adalah's covert aim of delegitimizing Israel through legal arguments and the organization barely touches this issue. Adalah prefers to focus on politicised anti-Israel campaigns, while ignoring any issue that does not contribute to this objective.
This is also apparent when Adalah prepares material for use by Israeli Arab politicians and assists them in shaping ideological arguments into the language of human rights issues. The most obvious instance was the recent move to ban the Knesset members Azmi Bishara and Ahmad Tibi from the Knesset elections of 2003. Adalah presented the cases as one of "freedom of representation and expression", but there was no mention of the parallel move to ban one of the Jewish candidates, Baruch Marzel, on the same grounds; extremism and the threat to public order. Adalah introduced an irrelevant racial dimension to the debate on the right of representation of political extremists. Bishara, Tibi and Marzel all represent extreme factions and the Knesset elections committee decided to question the candidature of all three, as is common practise throughout Europe. Ultimately, the Supreme Court upheld their right to stand for election and Bishara and Tibi were elected, but Adalah did not issue an updated report. (Marzel did not pass the threshold.) This omission of the wider context in Adalah's international advocacy campaign for "freedom of representation and expression" and Adalah's haste at jumping to grandiose conclusions is a clear manifestation of selective morality in its reporting.
2) Confusing the situation of the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel and those of the West Bank and Gaza Strip
In many of its activities, Adalah also blurs the distinction between the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with that of that of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. For example, a report issued in August 2003, focused on the use by the Israeli army of human shields in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Adalah's mission statement and website primarily focuses on the Arab citizens of Israel and the report on human shields is placed next to a different report on the Orr commission, which reported on the violence that took place in October 2000. An uninformed reader could easily assume, based on Adalah's presentation, that the issue of human shields relates to the Arab citizens of Israel. Moreover, in publishing the recommendations of the United Nations Commission of Human Rights, Adalah gave prominence to the situation in the West Bank after stripping the context of Palestinian violence and suicide bombings to which Israel is responding;
"Stop the practices of "targeted killings," the use of Palestinian civilians as 'human shields' or 'volunteers' during military operations, and property and home demolitions in the Occupied Territories."
One could argue that such issues were part of Adalah's general mandate of advocating "human rights in general" if it took a balanced and universal approach. Adalah, however, only takes politicised cases that undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel. Many Arab citizens of Israel have been killed in suicide bombings, including six Arab citizens in the restaurant in Haifa on October 4, but Adalah makes no mention of this attack in its international advocacy.
Adalah has been particularly successful in pushing its political agenda because of the appearance of 'firm' evidence presented in its legal arguments. However, the NGO is clearly part of a widespread phenomenon of the distortion of human rights for political agendas.
Governmental declarations and statements are an important element in the fierce media battle that has become an integral part of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Adalah has clearly influenced certain UN committees and certain sections of the EU. Yet its arguments are largely based on exploitations of ambiguities in international law. Legal-based NGOs have to be held to more scrutiny and their exemption from scrutiny needs to end. As an organization, Adalah has immense potential to do much good, however, its international advocacy work undermines its own stated objectives and serves only to justify self-serving political arguments rather than working to improve human rights in the Middle East.