By Gideon Levy
If not for B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, the State of Israel would look different today. The occupation might have been even crueler, or just as cruel, but we certainly would look different. In its 20 years of existence, this important human-rights organization may not have succeeded in changing reality, but at least it has made it possible for us to know what that reality was. Without B’Tselem, it might have been easier for us to say we did not know that this is what we were like, or that such shameful things were being done in our name.
In terms of results on the ground, B’Tselem has failed miserably: The parade of occupation and settlements still races ahead, the dogs of B’tselem are barking, but Israelis care less than ever before. When it comes to history, however, this will be an organization that left its mark. At the very least, it held up a mirror to a society that did not want to see its own reflection. That may not sound like much, but it’s also not so little, in light of our current dismal state of affairs.
Yitzhak Rabin was once famously quoted as saying that, unlike Israel, the Palestinian Authority would quell Palestinian resistance “without the High Court of Justice, and without B’Tselem.” Now we find ourselves practically bereft of both: The Supreme Court is battered, beaten and cowardly, and the organization is losing its relevance. But both are still here. Without them, not much would remain of Israel’s democracy.
It was B’Tselem that brought me to the occupied territories. A good boy from Tel Aviv, a graduate of Israel’s school system and a consumer of its propagandist media, I began to travel to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in large part thanks to the organization’s excellent field researchers. From working with the legendary Bassem Eid, who was my mouth, eyes and heart for many years, and with Musa Abu Hashhash and the other B’Tselem researchers today; and from that first naive journey with Dedi Zucker and Eid, way back at the end of the 1980s, to see a few uprooted olive trees, up to the most recent trip to document a horrific incident a few weeks ago, in which Israel Defense Forces soldiers badly abused Palestinian workers – B’Tselem has been a highly reliable and professional source of information for me.
The organization has changed much since its early days. It has become less political, abrasive and subversive, and now strives, albeit in vain, to be politically correct, aiming for the center of Israel’s political map. It has become restrained, at times overly cautious. Too much time passed before it reported on the last two wars and, together with the occupation, it has begun to fade gradually from Israel’s public agenda.
These are all reasons to be critical of B’Tselem, yet its overall contribution cannot be ignored. Do you want to know what is being done in your name a mere 30-minute drive from your home? Ask B’Tselem. Do you want to know how many people we’ve killed, who they were, and why? Go check its Web site.
Endless piles of scathing reports have gathered dust; countless complaints to the IDF, the Shin Bet security services, the police and the other mechanisms of occupation have gone unaddressed. And still we must salute this determined group, which may not cry out as loudly as it could, and may not be as radical as it should be, but does its work faithfully nonetheless. You will never catch B’Tselem in a lie, which may be why the security services have in recent months tried to malign the organization as never before.
A thoroughly patriotic organization, it has improved Israelis’ image around the world. At least, people say, they have B’Tselem. They’re not all Shaul Mofaz, Avigdor Lieberman or Moshe Ya’alon.
Who knows? Another day may come. A day when B’Tselem will win the Israel Prize for its work, an honor that it deserves. Perhaps someday the organization will even close its doors for lack of work.
In the meantime, let us light 20 candles on B’Tselem’s birthday cake, and one for the coming year, which will probably be as cruel and violent in the territories as the one before it, and as cruel and violent as the 19 years that preceded that. B’Tselem will let us know.