On the morning of June 23, I met Sarit Michaeli, the spokesperson for B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, at a café in Jerusalem’s bustling Mahane Yehuda market (“Faces of Israel — 2013,” 7-5-13 AJW).
For about two hours, Michaeli told me about her work for B’Tselem — the group’s Hebrew name means “in the image of,” as in b’tselem Elohim, “in the image of God.” The Torah teaches that we are all created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). This religious concept of human dignity inspires the activities of B’Tselem, which monitors the state of human rights in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, and publishes regular reports about the beatings and abuse of Palestinians by the IDF and Border Police, settler violence, administrative detention, expropriation of land and discrimination in planning and building in East Jerusalem, and other depredations we would prefer not to associate with the government of Israel.
As B’Tselem, which was formed in 1989, says on its Web site, the group “endeavors to document and educate the Israeli public and policymakers about human rights violations in the Occupied Territories, combat the phenomenon of denial prevalent among the Israeli public, and help create a human rights culture in Israel.”
At the outset of our conversation, Michaeli, who has been with B’Tselem for more than eight years, mentioned that her organization and other Israeli civil society groups were coming under increasing attacks by right-wing members of the Knesset and others. Avigdor Lieberman, the former Israeli foreign minister now on trial for fraud, termed B’Tselem staffers as “people who assist terrorism,” according to Michaeli. There are legislative proposals under consideration to limit foreign contributions to B’Tselem, the New Israel Fund (NIF) and other groups campaigning for human rights in Israel.
On Friday, July 19, the attacks against human rights monitors turned from verbal to physical. While documenting a protest in a West Bank town near Ramallah, Michaeli was shot in the thigh by a member of the Israeli Border Police.
The following is her account of the incident:
On Friday I was shot with a rubber-coated steel bullet while documenting the demonstration in Nabi Saleh. The demonstration was dispersed by Border Police officers when the protesters were still on the main road that leads out of the village. After the Border Police began to disperse the crowds, some kids threw a few stones in their direction. About 20 minutes after the protest had begun, and after the procession had already been largely dispersed, a group of about nine Border Policemen and IDF soldiers stormed the main road of the village next to the gas station in the direction of a group of demonstrators, who were running away from them up the road.
I stood aside, close to the gas station. At a certain point one of the Border Policemen shot at me from what I estimate was a distance of no more than 15-20 meters. (The legal minimum range for a rubber-coated steel bullet is 50 meters).
I’m not really sure why I was shot at. I wasn’t in the path of the soldiers and I wasn’t doing anything that could be interpreted as a threat to them. They saw me beforehand with my camera filming, standing on the side, not in their way. In order to shoot at me, the Border Policeman had to knowingly point his weapon in my direction, or in the direction of a medic and two Palestinian female protesters who were close to me. No one standing in my vicinity threw any stones. The bullet penetrated my thigh and was removed at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv.
It was distressing to hear about Michaeli being shot. At first, the news was disseminated on Facebook and blogs, such as the alternative +972 Magazine Web site. Eventually, some Israeli mainstream press outlets reported the story. On July 22, JTA posted a news brief that quoted Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, which funds B’Tselem: “The military must investigate this incident immediately. Documenting the human rights environment in the Occupied Territories is absolutely necessary for a democracy that is legally and morally responsible for daily life on the West Bank.”
The Israeli occupation of the West Bank, now in its 47th year, is not the most brutal conflict on the planet, nor a benign affair. Palestinians, who exist in a stateless limbo, are humiliated and inconvenienced on a daily basis by Israeli forces. A violent faction of Jewish settlers occasionally goes on the rampage, vandalizing property, destroying olive trees and burning crops, and physically attacking their Palestinian neighbors.
At it happens, in January of this year, Michaeli wrote a report for B’Tselem titled “Israel’s Use of Crowd Control Weapons in the West Bank.” She noted, “Crowd control weapons are supposed to be non-lethal, enabling authorities to enforce the law without endangering human life. In fact, however, they are dangerous weapons that can cause death, severe injury and damage to property if used improperly.”
And here is a passage from Michaeli’s January report that now speaks directly to her unfortunate experience on July 19: “Soldiers and Border Police systematically violate standing orders, firing rubber-coated metal bullets even in circumstances clearly prohibited by the orders. B’Tselem has documented instances in which security forces have fired rubber-coated metal bullets at a closer range than that permitted by the regulations, making it potentially lethal. They have also fired at minors, at the upper torso and at passersby or demonstrators who had not been throwing stones and did not pose a danger to security forces or any other individual. In some cases, commanders, including high-ranking officers, knew of the unlawful firing and even ordered it.”
It is rare that Jewish Israelis are injured at West Bank demonstrations. Palestinians have been killed and maimed over the years by live fire from Israeli forces, as well as from “less lethal” weapons, such as tear gas canisters fired at people’s heads. You can see Web videos of these incidents on the B’Tselem Web site and elsewhere. There are many of them.
We would like to think well of Israel, a vibrant country that has so much to offer a visitor. I had a wonderful time during my 10-day visit in June; but I am not prepared to ignore the serious ongoing harm from the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
Generally, the dispossession of the Palestinians is bound up in the formation of the modern State of Israel. As many Israelis will tell you, the occupation poses a grave threat to Israel’s existence as a free and democratic nation. The Jewish state’s stock is plummeting around the world because of the repression of the Palestinians. As American Jews we can support those Israelis working for democracy and human rights, the real patriots of the Jewish people.
— Mordecai Specktor / editor [at] ajwnews [dot] com
(American Jewish World, 8.2.13)