On 25 November the Stockholm Human Rights Award 2014, was presented to the Isreali Human Rights organisation B’Tselem. The award ceremony was held at Berwaldhallen i Stockholm in front of an audience of of some 600 Swedish and international participants from the judiciary, academic and political sector.
– It’s admirable that B’Tselem keeps up their work for human rights in an environment where this is not always welcomed and often criticised, said Anne Ramberg, Secretary General of the Swedish Bar Association, when delivering the award at the ceremony.
Visiting Stockholm to receive the award were the newly appointed director Hagai El-Ad and Salma a-Debʿi, field researcher, together with Jessica Montell, who led the organisation for twelve years. They all confirm that there is a lot of pressure and criticism on B’Tselem in Israel.
– B’Tselem and our work is being questioned and scrutinised like no other organisation, says Jessica Montell. But that is also to our benefit, because it forces us to have a very high quality in all of our work. We’ve never published a report that can’t be trusted.
Visit with the Swedish government
During their Stockholm visit, B’Tselem together with ILAC, also had a meeting with the Secretary of state Ulrika Modéer, with exchanging of ideas on future cooperation between Sweden and Israel, and now Palestine.
– Of course the Swedish recognition of Palestine has a great impact on our work, says Jessica Montell and we see a clear international movement in this direction, which is really good news. But the most important part is how Sweden will follow up its decision. What real effect will it have for the parties on the ground?
The Secretary of State Ulrika Modéer made clear that the recognition of Palestine definitely is meant to be more than a symbolic manifestation but that it’s to early at this stage to be more specific.
At the ceremony, Hagai El-Ad expressed his and B’Tselems’ great appreciation for the international support.
– On behalf of myself, our staff and our field researchers, I’m deeply greatful and moved over this award. It’s a powerful message in support for human rights in Israel and Palestine, and it strengthens our organisation in our work.
When asked about the current situation, both Hagai El-Ad and Jessica Montell paint a very gloomy picture. The fundamental problems are the same now as they were 25 years ago when the organisations was founded, namely an Israeli military occupation over another civilian population.
– The difference today is that the conflict is even more militarised than before, says Jessica Montell and Hagai El-Ad. Now we have well-armed Palestinian groups attacking Israel, which gives us a war-like situation.
This situation that also leads to more hatred between Israelis and Palestinians.
– In 1995, an Israeli could go by car to Ramallah or Gaza. That’s impossible today, says Jessica Montell.
– Almost everybody in our region divides the world into “Jews and Arabs” “, “we and them”. But within the Rule of Law community there is another “we and them”. “We” being people devoted to human rights and justice for all. And for us , there are no “we and them”, since we believe and work for basic human rights for everyone – even for those who are violating human rights, Montell continues.
Rule of law in Israel
In the Q&A session at the ceremony, Jessica Montell described the state of Israel as being highly legalistic. When Israel is being accused of using torture, they’ve always referred to the regulations on terror interrogations, and that everything is carried out according to the law. 15 years ago, the torture of captured Palestinians was almost routine.
– The fact that we’ve managed to stop the systematic use of torture is one of B’Tselems biggest successes, says Jessica Montell, and that has much to do with the fact that Israel changed their own regulations.
– This shows that the Rule of Law works in Israel, but also that the rule of the written law not always equals the kind of justice for all that we would like to see.
Social media impact
During the 51 day Israel offensive against Gaza in 2014, the image of what was happening in Gaza differed between Israel and the rest of the world. The image brought to the Israeli public by Israeli TV and newspapers, was biased and filtered, says Hagai El-Ad. And the filtering was made by choice by a free and independent media.
– This is why our footage and B’Tselems own Youtube channel is so important in order for the world – and people in Israel – to see what’s really happening.
– Since we started our work we have published hundred of pages in various reports, but when we started our video project the attention to our work has really hit it off.
Posting evidence of human rights violations is not only important during the immediate crisis, but equally important in order to get the image of every day life and the consequences of occupation out to a broader public outside of the occupied territories.
– We have a lot of followers on Twitter and Youtube in Israel and the US, who through our constant reporting in social media, will get a better view of the effects of the ongoing occupation.
The future is politically uncertain
Hagai El-Ad, almost the same age as the Israeli occupation itself, is of course aware of the possibility of him growing old along side with the occupation. But this is something he refuses to accept.
– I need to be optimistic, he says. Otherwise I wouldn’t work with human rights. History tells us that injustices like this can’t go on forever. Business as usual is not sustainable.
What happens in the future is very much up to “political mathematics” as Jessica Montell puts it. Israel is sensitive to criticism, and should be. What is needed is a fundamental shift of focus. From impunity to accountability.
– Up until now, Israeli strategy is usually to secure impunity for its various actions. What both Israelis and Palestinians need, are governments who can be held accountable for their actions.
This post is based on talks with B’Tselem and also various news articles during the B’Tselem visit to Stockholm:
Wolfgang Hansson, Editorial column in Aftonbladet: “Svårt att bli profet i sitt eget land”
Martin Klepke, Editorial column in Arbetet: “B’Tselem behövs i Israel”
Svenska Dagbladet (daily Swedish newspaper): “Valet av B’Tselem är inte kontroversiellt”
Swedish Radio on criticism on Israeli demolition of houses: “Kritik mot husrivning som straff för palestinska attacker”
Swedish Radio on B’Tselem work on location: “B’Tselem arbetar i motvind”
Svenska Dagbladet (daily Swedish newspaper) on B’Tselem receiving award