B'Tselem should hold the fort

B'Tselem should hold the fort

File photo: A Palestinian farmer shows the damage to his land, he said was caused by Israeli settlers' attack, to Iyad Hadad (L), a field researcher from B'Tselem, one of Israel's leading human rights groups, in the West Bank village of Turmus Aya near Ramallah June 8, 2015. — Reuters
File photo: A Palestinian farmer shows the damage to his land, he said was caused by Israeli settlers' attack, to Iyad Hadad (L), a field researcher from B'Tselem, one of Israel's leading human rights groups, in the West Bank village of Turmus Aya near Ramallah June 8, 2015. — Reuters

The decision by the human rights group B'Tselem to end its cooperation with Israel’s military law enforcement system is a blow to Palestinians living under the occupation. For nearly 30 years, B'Tselem, founded during the first Intifada, has published hundreds of reports on issues ranging from the torture of Palestinians, fatal shootings by security forces and restrictions on movement, to expropriation of land, discrimination in planning and building in East Jerusalem, administrative detention, house demolitions and violence by Israeli settlers. But because stalled and faulty investigations in more than 700 cases since 2000 resulted in just a three percent conviction rate, B'Tselem has in effect thrown in the towel, given up on believing in the system’s ability to correct itself or provide accountability.

There is no doubting the frustration that B’Tselem has had to endure. The Israeli military law enforcement system has handled 739 cases that B’Tselem was involved in over the years, in a quarter (182) no investigation was ever launched, in nearly half (343), the investigation was closed with no further action, and only in very rare instances (25), were charges brought against the implicated soldiers. Thirteen other cases were referred for disciplinary action. A total of 132 cases are still at various processing stages, and the Military Advocate General  was unable to locate 44 others.

Although bringing the Israeli military system to justice is not B’Tselem’s job but that of the Israeli military, it elected to perform it for a quarter of a century because it hoped or thought it was helping bring justice to Palestinian victims and to establish deterrence that would prevent future similar incidents. If that had been the outcome, B’Tselem might not have called it a day. But B’Tselem says its cooperation with the military investigation and enforcement systems has not achieved justice, instead lending legitimacy to the occupation and aiding to “whitewash it”.

B’Tselem will continue reporting violations but it should not end the other vital part of its work.  Soldier misconduct is prosecuted in special military tribunals. Palestinians cannot file complaints directly against the Israeli military, nor can they schedule times to give witness statements independently. They rely on groups like B’Tselem to advocate on their behalf.

The group initially operated with the understanding that complaints were a path to accountability. It hoped changes in army protocol to protect the lives of Palestinians would follow. They did not. But this is not the time to call it quits. There is no peace process, no peace negotiations. In their place is the shaping of a huge right-wing government in which one of Israel’s biggest hawks, Avigdor Lieberman, is the newly appointed defense minister who will now have free reign to kill and maim more Palestinians at a time when Palestinians are in the midst of a new rebellion.  Lieberman must be gleeful that B’Tselem is closing shop after charging the group with weakening Israel’s defense forces.

Even if B’Tselem’s cooperation with the military investigation and enforcement system has not achieved justice it must continue bringing cases to Israel’s military court and supporting investigations into the killings of Palestinians, even if in case after case the authorities are not providing accountability and justice. The fact that the system isn’t working and isn’t providing accountability is nothing new.

B’Tselem says it can no longer participate in a system which absolves senior military and government officials of responsibility for the policy they set out. However, the fight for Palestinian human rights is better served by exposing the Israeli military system for what it is.