Hagai El-Ad is an Israeli human rights activist and currently serves as the director of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.
BPR: Have actions against your organization by the Israeli government and private groups been a tipping point for political discourse in Israel? How do you push back against that?
HEA: This is perhaps the peak so far of a process that began a number of years after Operation Cast Lead [the 2008-09 Gaza War]. It’s a process of delegitimizing human rights organizations, portraying them as enemies of the state, as terrorists, as agents of anti-Israeli foreign powers, and so on. Concurrent with this process is the wave of violence in recent months and the utter failure of the right, which has basically been a policy of “occupation status quo.” That policy isn’t working, and the government doesn’t seem to have any coherent constructive plan to address the situation. Instead, they have opted for a classic fascist move, which is to try and target imagined traitors from within society.
BPR: What is the perception in Israel of non-Israelis who oppose the occupation in the West Bank?
HEA: I’m not sure how aware people abroad are to the tale that government officials here are saying, which is that anyone who dares to comment from abroad about the situation in the West Bank is meddling in Israel’s internal affairs. That needs to be refuted in the most direct terms. Contrary to the way the government portrays the issue here — that the world is exerting all this pressure against Israel because of the occupation and so on — facts are very different. In reality, world governments and Jewry are, broadly speaking, very patient with the occupation. Sometimes statements are made, but anyone can see the difference between statements and action. And anyone who understands that the terribly symbolic moment — 50 years of occupation — is getting closer and closer needs to ask themselves: What can and should I do so that we don’t continue the same conversation and have another 50 years of occupation?
BPR: As Israel has tried to crackdown on terrorism against Palestinians, have you noticed a reduction in settler violence?
HEA: It’s still too early to draw conclusions, but at the same time I think it’s important to not let settler violence, which is unacceptable and a serious issue, distract us from the main source of oppression of Palestinians. Most of the violations are “legal” actions, taken by the state, justified by the courts in Israel, and considered acceptable, mainstream, and sensible. A lot of attention is given to settlers building illegally over Palestinian lands, and of course it’s terrible and unacceptable. But in reality, the main way Israel takes control over Palestinian lands is not by building illegal outposts, but instead in a way that is completely legal, which is [designating territory to be] “state lands,” and other similar mechanisms — firing zones, nature preserves, and such. I understand why the attention shifts when there are terrible and violent incidents, but we should not confuse ourselves, because this is something that becomes very convenient for the government.
BPR: Is Israeli occupation of the West Bank static, changing, or moving to some sort of climax?
HEA: Zooming out, what you see is a constant vector, moving in the same direction, sometimes picking up pace, sometimes slowing down but always progressing in the same general direction. That direction is the further solidification of Israeli control of different areas of the West Bank. This has been allowed to continue under the convenient backing of the “peace process” [which is] always process, never peace, as long as negotiations and no pressure are applied. Israel has used those 20 years very well to advance its interests in the West Bank. The other thing that has happened over time is growing despair…The occupation is here to stay: Israel is continuing to advance its interest in the West Bank and any hope for a different future is diminishing for more and more people. In Gaza, there are no settlements, and Israeli control over Gaza is external not internal, but there is the issue of despair, a lack of progress, and seeing in the future more of the same, more poverty, no rebuilding. The question is, will Gaza be livable in a few years? I’m talking about basic things like electricity and drinking water. The government presents human rights organizations to the public as if we are the source of all the problems. What is its plan? Let’s imagine [the Israeli government] would achieve everything it desires — close down every human rights organization in the country, manage to have a Knesset [parliament] with no Arab members. Get rid of all the excuses [the government] makes — and then what? How will children live [in Gaza], in what reality will they grow up with, in 5 years, 10 years? There is no answer.
BPR: How do you give Palestinians voice and agency in your work?
HEA: That’s a very important question, which we think about all of the time. One of the main ways is through our video project, which is a leading global example for self-empowered citizen journalism. Palestinian volunteers, more than 200 of them all over the West Bank, have video cameras, and are empowered to document life under the occupation. Of course, the footage later released is the original footage the way it was shot by Palestinians.
BPR: College campuses are a battleground of public opinion and activism on Israel-Palestine. What would you like to say to an audience of American college students?
HEA: It’s surprising to me that there can even be an argument about the justification of the occupation…Why should we all somehow argue about this when it’s a glaring injustice that has been tolerated by the world for 50 years? For Americans, I wish that people would really educate themselves about the reality in the occupied territories. Ask yourself, what ways are the US and the policies of consecutive US administrations responsible for this?…It is the stated policy of the US administration to support the “two-state solution.” But everyone sees that what Israel is doing is contrary to the viability of a two-state solution. B’Tselem doesn’t take a position with regard to a future mutually agreed upon political solution, but the same steps that negate a two-state solution are also responsible for the worst human rights violations in occupied territory. What is the connection or lack thereof between the stated policy of the US and complete lack of action by the US government?