‘Settlements ignite a chain reaction of human rights violations’

+972 speaks with Jessica Montell, of B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, about the settlements and occupation staring the Israeli public in the face, and communicating the human rights message effectively, at home and abroad.

‘Settlements ignite a chain reaction of human rights violations’
Jessica Montell, executive director of B’Tselem (Photo: Oren Ziv)

From her fourth floor office window in Jerusalem, Jessica Montell can see the red-tiled roofs of Israeli homes inside the settlement of Gilo, east of the Green Line, in annexed East Jerusalem. She can also see Givat HaMatos, another West Bank community, where Israel is planning a new settlement.

“It’s not an ivory tower,” she says of her office and the view it offers of the West Bank.

Montell, 45, has been the executive director of B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories for more than a decade. Originally from California, living in Jerusalem, Montell says B’Tselem plans to continue the public conversation about the IDF’s recent detention of a 5-year-old Palestinian boy in Hebron, which caused a stir in Israeli media after B’Tselem caught the incident on video.

Read +972′s full series: ‘Q&A: The state of human rights in Israel and Palestine’

Are human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) more or less protected today compared to 2001 when you became B’Tselem’s executive director?

In terms of the headline-catching issues, the situation is definitely better today. In 2001, you had very severe restrictions, people living under curfew and high numbers of people killed and injured. You don’t have that today. At the same time the entrenched issues of occupation, settlements and control of natural resources, those are continuing and are even becoming further entrenched.

What human rights violations in the OPT are least reported on, by NGOs and the media? Why do you think those issues get less attention?

Issues that are not readily captured by video or photo are often underemphasized. The whole issue of military courts: hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been detained, interrogated, tried in military courts, with extremely high rates of conviction. That’s something that is not accessible to most Israelis and very little attention is paid to it.

What human rights issues concern you most right now and why?

The main issue is settlements because they give rise to almost every other human rights problem in the West Bank today. Israel gives a lot of resources to settlements, but Palestinian development is restricted. More broadly, settlements dictated the route of the separation barrier, which gave rise to a series of other human rights violations, including access to resources, freedom of movement and infringements on the right to protest. So you see a chain reaction starting with settlements. For that reason it’s the priority issue for us in the West Bank.

Recently, more Israeli housing units in the West Bank were approved while U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attempts to restart peace talks. Your thoughts?

On the one hand you have the diplomatic process, or the process to restart the process, and on the other hand an Israeli government that is quite explicit about supporting and expanding settlements. It’s very unclear how to reconcile those two things. For me, it’s impossible to reconcile them.

Were you surprised when you heard about the 5-year-old Palestinian boy recently detained by the IDF in the West Bank?

Yes. To take a 5-year-old really is something we hadn’t seen before. [On June 17] the commander of forces in the West Bank [GOC Central Command Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon] acknowledged that it was wrong and that it was very important to reiterate to soldiers that they can’t be engaging in this type of behavior. So on that level it seems like we’ve succeeded.

What was your reaction when the IDF essentially called B’Tselem out in a press statement, and said, oh, they did it again, they released a video without talking to us?

It’s a classic example of blaming the messenger rather than engaging with the message. It’s clear now, a week later that the IDF acknowledges that what happened was wrong. The IDF spokesperson’s job is to make the military look good. But I would say, what makes the military look bad is not that B’Tselem captured the incident on video, but that the incident took place at all.

What strategies have been most effective in fighting to protect Palestinians’ human rights?

Video has certainly been extremely effective in getting people’s attention. When you have actual video evidence of crimes taking place it’s much more likely you’re going to get the investigation opened. You’re going to have people actually held accountable. In addition, video helps you get your foot in the door of opening up the conversation. Once people have seen a one-minute video then they want to know more, want to see the research and want to actually engage around these issues.

What aspects of your job motivate you day-to-day and in the long-term?

What motivates me is a belief in the importance of our work, a sense that we are both doing good work and having tangible effects on the ground and that we’re getting smarter and more creative. You see, both small cases, one person’s life that you have helped and made better, and changes in broader policies. That’s sort of the fuel that keeps us going.

What is the greatest challenge B’Tselem faces in promoting its mission today?

The apathy of the Israeli public. There is a disconnect between the Israeli public’s indifference and understanding the urgent, burning need to end military occupation of 2.5 million people. It’s urgent and burning both for the people living under occupation, whose rights are violated, and for Israeli democracy.

Is there room within the international human rights regime for some sort of international intervention in Israel/Palestine, legal or otherwise?

If you look broadly at what has been successful at changing the reality on the ground, every major human rights success is a combination of domestic and international advocacy. You can’t expect to ignore the Israeli public and hope that the world is going to save us from ourselves, and you can’t expect a domestic human rights constituency in isolation from the world to be effective either.

What has been the organization’s greatest accomplishment under your leadership?

I am proud of our accomplishments on two different levels. One in terms of policy changes: rerouting the separation barrier, stopping the policy of using Palestinians as human shields, changing the military’s accountability policies and ensuring that there are criminal investigations into the deaths of Palestinians. Those are concrete policies that have been changed for the better. But I would also say, more broadly, keeping issues of human rights and occupation on the public agenda and even expanding the reach of that message, both to the Israeli public and to important audiences internationally.

B’Tselem spokesperson: Israeli Border Policeman knowingly shot in my direction

11 responses to “Resource: Choosing annexation over development”

  1. itshak Gordine says:

    Review paid by the EU so trash

    • Ben says:

      This by you, is denialism of truly comic proportions. Of sublimely unintentional self-satirizing proportions.

      (In the psychology of human behavior, denialism is a person’s choice to deny reality as a way to avoid a psychologically uncomfortable truth. Denialism is an essentially irrational action that withholds the validation of a historical experience or event, when a person refuses to accept an empirically verifiable reality. -Wikipedia)

      And there is always this odd, Herr Sturmer video-style anti-Semitic smear clinging to these “paid by EU” slanders. And the right wing never tires of doing this. Are the hard core settlers ever capable of shame? I haven’t seen it.

      • itshak Gordine says:

        Bla blah: Like many Israelis, I am wary of studies and projects funded by Europe. Those who receive help from generally hostile entities have almost no public in Israel (Breaking the silence, BDS, etc.). Their “works” only serve to feed the speech of associations or people hostile to the State of Israel. But at least it occupies them .. Meanwhile we build everywhere in the Land of Israel.

        • Ben says:

          Note the absolute, pure disregard for whether the report is TRUE or not, in this as in any other report, it’s all about what can be gotten over on others.

          Note the absolute regard for whether the right wing public reads it or not, the degree to which the truth can be squelched or not, the absolute disdain for the truth.

          Note the equation of “hostility to Israel,” (aka “anti-Israel”) with any opposition to unrestrained settlements and their associated constant human rights violations.

          Note the “what can we get away with?” gangster mentality.

          One cannot argue with people like this, one has to bring principled state forces to bear on them from outside the cult. And this, by the EU is what Haley just loathes.

          At the same time that Halevy feels entitled to all sorts of massive EU subsidies and massive German funding for Israel’s defense and all sorts of things, he begrudges the EU sending school bake sale amounts to tiny shoe string human rights organizations or truth-telling newspapers and communities the Israeli behemoth treats with great brutality. And he ruthlessly smears the motives of the people doing it, even deploying anti-Semitic insinuations to do it.

          FYI, the person I am replying to here lives as a settler in the West Bank. He types his replies to me from a settlement in the West Bank. And yet he, like the Judge on the Israeli High Court (Noam Sohlberg) who is also a West Bank Settler, poses as some kind of neutral arbiter, some kind of unbiased arbiter, of what constitutes “hostility.” You can’t make this stuff up.

          • Lewis from Afula says:

            The EU is a joke and it is slowly coming apart.
            Most EU reports are nothing more than waffly irrelevant rubbish.
            Judea and Samaria will stay Israeli long after the EU is a forgotten memory.

          • Ben says:

            The Report, and Shenhav-Goldberg’s account of it, are anything but waffly and irrelevant. Remember, denialism is an essentially irrational action that withholds the validation of a historical experience or event, when a person refuses to accept an empirically verifiable reality.

          • itshak Gordine says:

            If you are not happy with Israeli politics, come to Israel, become a citizen and get into politics. Otherwise your abundant verbiage is useless. You are bleating in the desert.

          • Ben says:

            This is amusing coming from a settler who does not actually live in Israel but in illegally occupied territories outside Israel. Yet is accorded the right to vote inside Israel while people living for generations a half-kilometer down the road from him are not. Simply based on ethnicity. A settler who eagerly practices a form of apartheid. But this same settler living outside Israel gets steamed about anyone else from outside Israel having a say about it.

            As I said above, this is the mentality of gangsters everywhere. “Leave us alone, what business is it of yours, everything is fine here, we can handle it, this is ‘our thing.'”

          • Lewis from Afula says:

            Those people livimg half a km down the road NEED TO GO HOME.
            Their reletives in Amman are waiting for them !

          • Itshak Gordine says:

            You are definitely losing your nerves. someone who may never have set foot in Israel who allows himself to make false accusations. We are hundreds of thousands of Jews in Judea and Samaria. We have made it a developed, green region, with a high quality of life and a very high birth rate, with the blessing of the US government and most of the Jews around the world who are sending us their youth.

          • Ben says:

            Oh, I’ve set foot not just in Israel, I’ve set foot outside Israel, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Why don’t you tell me what settlement you’re sending these bouquets of propaganda from, settler, and I’ll tell you if I’ve been in your settlement. Or outpost.

            Is that you swimming in the Anar Springs here?

            It’s ridiculous to be having tit for tats here with brutal hard core ideological settlers spouting sugar-coated propaganda lies in the forum of a Magazine meant for much more intelligent purposes.