Not so fast: On dismantling Israel’s human rights NGOs

Small battles can be waged against the injustices of occupation while simultaneously fighting the bigger war against the occupation itself. A response to ‘The case for dismantling Israel’s human rights organizations.’

By Noam Rabinovich

Palestinians from the West Bank with permits to enter Israel wait at the Israeli military checkpoint in the separation wall controlling movement between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, June 12, 2014. (Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/
Palestinians from the West Bank wait at an Israeli military checkpoint in the separation wall controlling movement between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, June 12, 2014. (Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/

If I had a Euro for every time I was privy to a conversation about whether Israeli human rights organizations do more harm than good, I would have been able to single-handedly fund the entire Israeli human rights community, much to the chagrin of Israel’s current government.

Snark aside, this question is one of the most poignant and loaded questions faced by human rights organizations in Israel. The concern that these organizations are making the occupation more humane, thus contributing to Israel’s ability to maintain and entrench it, echoes in many staff meetings and lunch conversations at these NGOs (at least the two I worked at). I recall that in several such conversations, I posited that the value of Israeli human rights NGOs can be defined negatively rather than positively; that is, not by what they actually do or contribute, but by what they prevent from happening by virtue of their existence.

In “The case for dismantling Israel’s human rights organizations,” Noam Rotem argues against this point, asserting that the mere existence of these organizations, irrespective of their achievements and whatever small degree of justice they manage to secure for some (very few), allows the IDF to continue its negligence and non-compliance, alleviating it from its duty to protect Palestinians living under its rule, as it is obligated to do by law. These organizations, Rotem argues, unburden the IDF and the Israeli government from the need to provide recourse for wronged or harmed Palestinians, both in terms of allocating resources (funds and personnel) and in terms of assuming responsibility and acknowledging its legal and moral obligation to the well-being of the occupied population.

This argument is compelling. It is hard to reject the idea that human rights NGOs are shielding Israel from the costs of its policies and actions, and that by providing the appearance of justice and accountability, they often benefit Israel more than they benefit the population they aim to serve. A similar argument is often presented with respect to international humanitarian aid, which serves to provide for the Palestinian population the goods and services that Israel, as the occupying power, is obligated to afford them.

The solution Rotem floats is for human rights organizations to call it quits, to withdraw, to send back the checks to the European Union, suspend their programs and dismantle their operations. Let the IDF fend for itself, let Israel face the consequences of its actions or face the repercussions of failing to do so. While this indeed serves as an interesting thought experiment – will the IDF step up to the challenge and fill the vacuum created, where will Palestinians turn in their quest for justice — it is a situation that can be viewed favorably only by those at a very privileged position. After all, those who would most acutely feel the absence of these organizations (paid staff aside; we’ll manage) are those who rely on them for whatever recourse they are able to provide. In the midst of a theoretical discussion about the risks of making the occupation more humane, it is easy to forget those who actually live under occupation and personally endure its inhumanity, humiliations and injustices.

Palestinian laborers at the Sha’ar Ephraim checkpoint separating the West Bank and Israel, December 22, 2014. (Oren Ziv/
Palestinian laborers at the Sha’ar Ephraim checkpoint separating the West Bank and Israel, December 22, 2014. (Oren Ziv/

I will concede it’s a trite argument, one that is too often unleashed in order to close the conversation to those who participate in it from a place of privilege. Rotem does acknowledge some people are indeed helped by the work of human rights organizations — he even commends the work itself and the people who do it. But his call to dismantle these organizations seems too far removed from the immediate consequences such a move would entail.

So yes, it’s a trite argument, but I am going to make it anyway: to the student wishing to travel out of Gaza to reach her studies abroad or the farmer who wishes to work his land, these organizations constitute the only possibility for a solution or remedy, limited and transient as it may be. Certainly, one could discuss ad infinitum the long-term implications of the dependence on these organizations, and about the harm of addressing these small injustices while leaving the systemic injustice of the occupation itself untouched (although most organizations work both to alleviate and address immediate needs, and to combat the more systemic and entrenched elements of Israel’s policies, to varying degrees of success), but these discussions are too often carried out by those in a position of privilege, by those who can argue about these issues theoretically.

To dismantle human rights organizations is to deprive millions of people of any options, meagre as they may be. I am not convinced that the absence of these organizations would create much of an impetus for the IDF to develop and allocate resources to instituting its own mechanisms for accountability and redress. This is a high-stakes gamble, which could leave Palestinians seeking redress for injustices with absolutely no recourse and no prospects for future solutions. The assertion that nothing at all is better than whatever minute degree of justice is currently available cannot be made by those who are unaffected by the injustice.

Indeed, as Rotem warns, this may mean that the occupation will continue in its current form. However, it is not imperatively true that resistance to the occupation cannot exist in various forms, some tactical and some strategic. I remain hopeful that small battles can be waged against the injustices of the occupation, while the bigger war against the occupation itself is being fought. These small battles are not without significance; they shed light on the intricate bureaucracy of occupation and its many incarnations, and they provide ammunition with which to attack the beast. Significantly, in their all-too-frequent failures to achieve justice or accountability, human rights organizations also expose the injustices of the occupation and hold the Israeli government to account for its policies.

Noam Rabinovich works in the international relations department of Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, and previously worked for B’Tselem. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and not those of her employer.

Newsletter banner