Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert drink a toast to life at Passover celebration and Kadima farewell event for Olmert on 2 April 2009.(Flickr)
B’Tselem USA, the American arm of renowned Israeli human rights group B’Tselem is “proud” to sponsor the 26 March gala of pro-Israel lobby group J Street despite the fact that the keynote speaker is former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Olmert is responsible for extensive war crimes including during Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon and its 2008-2009 attack on the Gaza Strip.
Thousands of people were killed in the occupied Palestinian territories and Lebanon by Israeli forces during Olmert’s term of office.
Moreover, J Street itself has recently announced its “unequivocal” support for Israeli war crimes and human rights abuses – many of them condemned by B’Tselem – including the use of extrajudicial executions.
B’Tselem USA should withdraw its sponsorship of this politically biased conference whose goal is to whitewash Israeli war crimes, if it is to maintain any credibility as a human rights organization.
In a 15 March email to supporters soliciting donations for the organization, a copy of which was received by The Electronic Intifada, Rachel Sussman Associate Director of B’Tselem USA wrote:
B’Tselem USA is proud to be a sponsor of J Street’s third annual conference, Making History, in Washington later this month. J Street is the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans. The conference will feature former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Israeli writer Amos Oz, a member of B’Tselem’s Public Council, journalist Peter Beinart, a member of B’Tselem USA’s Advisory Council and Anat Hoffman, the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center.
As a sponsor of the gala B’Tselem may be contributing to Olmert’s honorarium and travel costs.
The email also announced that B’Tselem would hold a panel at the J Street conference titled “Holding Israel to a Universal Standard or to a Higher Standard on Human Rights?” from which Palestinian speakers – the main victims of Israeli human rights abuses – appear to be completely excluded.
B’Tselem on “war crimes” under Olmert in Lebanon
In a 23 July 2006 statement, B’Tselem said it was not documenting human rights violations during Israel’s massive attack on Lebanon because “B’Tselem’s mandate is limited to human rights in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”
However, the statement observed, “Over the past week, Israel has killed hundreds of Lebanese civilians in its attacks against targets in Lebanon. There is a concern that at least some of them were disproportionate attacks, which constitute war crimes.”
During that assault Israel tested its “Dahiya doctrine” of mass destruction of civilian neighborhoods and infrastructure including roads, bridges, electricity supply and fuel reservoirs and Beirut’s international airport.
Regarding such systematic destruction, B’Tselem stated:
There is a concern that such attacks are intended to put pressure on the Lebanese Government and not to obtain a specific military advantage. If this is the case, these attacks constitute collective punishment and a grave violation of IHL [International Humanitarian Law].
B’Tselem on “war crimes” under Olmert in Gaza
Israeli forces bombed a school run by the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) in Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip on 17 January 2009. At least two children were killed in the attack and another dozen wounded by the white phosphorus bombs fired at the school.(Iyad El-Baba)
Israel’s 21-day attack on Gaza beginning on 27 December 2008 did fall within B’Tselem’s mandate and the organization is unequivocal about the facts in its summary of its documentation:
Between 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009, the Israeli military carried out an attack on the Gaza Strip, which it called Operation Cast Lead. The magnitude of the harm to the local population was unprecedented: 1,389 Palestinians were killed, 759 of whom did not take part in the hostilities. Of these, 318 were minors under age 18. More than 5,300 Palestinians were wounded, 350 of them seriously. Israel also caused enormous damage to residential dwellings, industrial buildings, agriculture and infrastructure for electricity, sanitation, water, and health, which was already on the verge of collapse prior to the operation. According to UN figures, Israel destroyed more than 3,500 residential dwellings and 20,000 people were left homeless.
The summary adds:
The extensive harm to the civilian population and the enormous damage to property do not indicate, in and of themselves, that the military breached international humanitarian law. However, investigations B’Tselem made during and after the operation, and information from many other sources, raise doubts regarding the declarations of Israeli officials that the military acted lawfully. The suspicions regarding breach of international humanitarian law relate not only to the conduct of one soldier or another, but primarily to policy.
Who was responsible for that policy? Of course the prime minister at the time Ehud Olmert. B’Tselem called for credible investigations and accountability, yet, it notes on its website:
To date, no independent investigation apparatus, empowered also to investigate the responsibility of the political and military decision-makers, has been established.
On 31 December 2008, as the bombs were falling on Gaza, B’Tselem wrote to Israel’s attorney general, naming Olmert and other officials, to protest Israel’s widespread targeting of civilian infrastructure in Gaza. “An intentional attack on a civilian target is a war crime,” the letter concluded.
But it seems such concerns are now minor for B’Tselem which is “proud” to sponsor a political conference at which Olmert is the main draw and is undoubtedly receiving a large fee for speaking. Instead, B’Tselem USA should be calling for Olmert to be arrested and tried.
J Street’s own announcement that Olmert would address its “gala,” makes no mention of Gaza or Lebanon and speaks of Olmert in laudatory terms, whitewashing the crimes that B’Tselem’s mandate is to investigate and document.
J Street’s support for human rights abuses
Last Friday Israel carried out the extrajudicial execution of Zuhair al-Qaisi in Gaza, touching off days of violence that left 22 Palestinians dead and dozens, mostly civilians, injured.
B’Tselem, along with many other local and international human rights groups, has condemned Israel’s policy of extrajudicial execution of Palestinians Israel accuses of “masterminding” attacks.
In a 2001 position paper, B’Tselem detailed the criminality of this policy both in terms of Israeli and international law.
Yet J Street had no such concerns. In an 11 March statement, the group declared:
We condemn the rocket fire on Israel and unequivocally support Israel’s right to protect its citizens from attack.
The statement made no mention whatsoever of Israeli attacks on Palestinians, including the extrajudicial killing that set off the escalation.
A 12 March statement said “J Street staunchly supports Israel’s right to defend and protect its citizens, and this includes acting to thwart terrorists planning or executing attacks.”
In other words J Street doubled down on its support for the Israeli assault on Gaza, and apparently gave direct support to the policy of extrajudicial execution of Palestinians sentenced to death by Israel in secret and in absentia.
That B’Tselem could call itself a “human rights group” and sponsor a gala for Olmert but also with J Street and its effort to whitewash war criminals and their crimes should not be a cause for pride but for utter shame.