Last week, B’Tselem caused quite a stir when it released a video showing an attack by four masked men on Palestinian farmers in the South Hebron hills. The attack was recorded by a Palestinian woman who was later injured in the attack herself.
The farmers near the settlement of Susya live an extremely meager existence. I visited that area myself just six weeks ago. These are very simple people, not connected to much beyond the next village. They live in a tent city and subsist, barely, off farming a very small plot of land not far from the settlement, though well beyond the range where anyone could possibly pose a threat to the inhabitants of Susya.
The response to the release of the video shows the grave disconnect between reality and the perceptions of people around the world.
In various “talkback” sections in online newspapers, the comments were replete with accusations, egged on by comments from Israeli police, that the incident had been “staged.” Although very few such incidents have ever been corroborated in the slightest, a conspiracy theory, entitled “Pallywood” which purports a vast operation by Palestinians to drum up false charges against Israel and Israelis is flourishing.
Of course, false charges occur. In a recent appeal over the issue of the shooting of young Muhammad al-Dura, a boy killed in crossfire at the beginning of the second intifada who became a symbol for Israeli brutality and murderousness, a French court found that there was sufficient evidence to call into question the veracity of a French report of that incident.
We will likely never know for certain whose bullet killed young Muhammad. All we know for certain is that he died in the crossfire in a pitched gun battle between Israeli and Palestinian forces; that the evidence needed to establish whose bullet killed him is irretrievably lost; and that the report which claimed that it was certainly Israelis that killed him and that, in fact, they were intentionally targeting the boy and his unarmed father has inconsistencies and cannot either be substantiated nor conclusively disproven.
The al-Dura controversy gives enormous energy to the “Pallywood” conspiracy theory. But, although there are certainly other instances of false accusations, exceedingly few pass any investigation.
B’Tselem is well aware of the phenomenon, and that’s why they’re so careful about investigating each and every claim that comes their way. Their trained researchers are extremely well-placed in Palestinian communities, and they have the extensive networks so they know who reliable witnesses are. They also confirm testimonies with multiple witnesses, the same method police and other investigators all over the world employ in order to make sure that stories match. B’Tselem is so reliable that the Israeli authorities frequently come to them to confirm stories and even aid in investigations of human rights abuses.
Police spokesman, Inspector Mickey Rosenfeld, was quickly undermined in his idle speculation that the attack near Susya was staged by the arrest soon after of two residents of that settlement in connection with the attack. Again, the comments were interesting. Many took this as somehow contradicting B’Tselem’s goals, as proof that the police act the same when perpetrators are Israeli citizens as they do with Palestinians.
The arrest of the two Susya residents demonstrates the crucial importance of civil society groups like B’Tselem, and the efficacy of the Shooting Back project. It is precisely the result (or at least the beginning of the result) B’Tselem is after—getting the authorities to bring law and order to all the people it has under its control, Palestinian and Israeli.
Some have said that this sort of thing is an isolated incident. One need only walk through the market in the Arab sector of Hebron to see this is not the case. Bottles, debris, even bricks sit atop the wire mesh screen suspended above the market, hurled there by the settlers living above. Harassment and assault by some of the settlers is a commonplace fact of life, but because of a combination of the difficulty in identifying specific suspects, lack of evidence in some instances, fear of retribution from the settlers and simple disinclination, few of these instances are investigated, recorded or, in many cases, even reported.
Here are the words of Issa Amro, B’Tselem’s key reporter in Hebron: “We know from experience what happens as soon as settlers move into the heart of Palestinian areas. They [the settlers] make the life of the Palestinians impossible. But if their neighbors film them, they think twice before harassing them.”
The police took the video shot near Susya, investigated it and proceeded to arrest two Susya settlers. Where the investigation and prosecution goes from here remains to be seen. But this is precisely what is supposed to happen and precisely what B’Tselem is trying to make happen.
This is not about making Israel look bad—the attackers are the ones who did that. On the contrary, it is B’Tselem that is demonstrating that Israelis are committed to law and order and to as much fairness as can be obtained under the circumstances where Israelis with full rights as citizens are living amidst Palestinians who have no such rights.
No doubt, many of the settlers in and around Hebron are frightened and angry about attacks against them over the years. And, whatever one thinks about their very presence in the West Bank, Israel’s police and army do have the responsibility to protect them. But, as long as Israel is the ultimate power in the West Bank, it has the very same responsibility to protect the rights of Palestinians under their control, no less than Israelis. That’s a role that is never easy to play, and motivation for it on the part of the police and military is understandably not the same. That’s why civil society groups like B’Tselem, Gisha, Yesh Din, HaMoked and other Israeli groups are so crucial. In any democratic society, it is such groups who ensure that governments live up to their less comfortable responsibilities like protecting the people under occupation that they are legally obliged to protect but who are part of a community with which they are in conflict.
As Oren Yakabovitch, the man leading B’Tselem’s Shooting Back project says, “The cameras have above all a deterrent effect; they protect Palestinians. They also enable the public to see incidents which otherwise are invisible and whose veracity can always be challenged.”