B’Tselem role in J Street’s gala featuring Olmert “incredibly damaging” says Palestinian rights group PCHR

The decision of Israeli human rights group B’Tselem to participate in J Street’s upcoming conference featuring former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is “incredibly damaging” to the effort to achieve justice and accountability for victims of war crimes.

This sharp criticism came in a letter to B’Tselem’s Executive Director Jessica Montell from Raji Sourani, the Director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR).

Meanwhile, several more Palestinian human rights organizations, including the Palestinian NGO Network which represents 132 member organizations, joined the call on B’Tselem to “withdraw” from the J Street conference.

Along with partners, PCHR has taken a lead in legal efforts to prosecute Israeli war crimes suspects and seek justice for victims, especially of Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” assault on Gaza in December 2008 - January 2009 which killed 1,400 people and injured thousands more in indiscriminate attacks.

Sourani’s letter adds:

As you are aware, Olmert is accused of numerous international crimes for his role in the planning and execution of Operation Cast Lead. These crimes are among the most serious known to the international community (to the extent that they give rise to the universality principle), and have caused horrific death, injury, and suffering here in the Gaza Strip.  Indeed, an arrest warrant has previously been issued for a member of his cabinet in relation to events in which Olmert is also implicated.

The quest for accountability in the context of Cast Lead has received significant international attention, and Olmert is intimately associated with these issues, not just amongst the legal community, but amongst the population at large. For a human rights organization to proudly co-sponsor this event sends an incredibly devastating message, not only to the victims in Gaza but regarding the rule of international law more generally.

Last week B’Tselem USA announced in an email that it is “proud” to sponsor the 26 March gala of US pro-Israel lobby group J Street despite the fact Olmert is a featured speaker.

However in a 19 March response to a protest letter from Uri Horesh over B’Tselem’s support for the Olmert event, Montell claimed that the email announcing the sponsorship was a “mistake.”

Montell wrote that B’Tselem was merely “a participating organization, and are very glad to be part of a long list of Israeli and American groups participating in J Street.” She also criticized J Street for inviting Olmert, stating, “If asked, we would not have advised featuring Olmert as a speaker.”

But other than this response to an individual, B’Tselem has apparently done nothing to correct the record publicly regarding its original “sponsor” announcement, or to address the broader issue of the appropriateness of lending its name and logo to an event in which Olmert is being advertised as a major draw.

Sourani’s letter concludes, “As an organisation we get our mandate from the law, and the victims we represent. I strongly urge you to reconsider this event. The message B’Tselem is sending out is incredibly damaging.”

Full text of PCHR statement regarding B’Tselem

The text of the letter sent by Mr. Raji Sourani, Director of PCHR, to Ms. Jessica Montell, Executive Director of B’Tselem

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

We are attaching herewith the text of the letter sent by Mr. Raji Sourani, Director of PCHR, to Ms. Jessica Montell, Executive Director of B’Tselem.

The letter condemns B’Tselem’s contribution to sponsoring a fundraising event in New York, in which Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli Prime Minister during the offensive on the Gaza Strip in winter 2008-2009 (Operation Cast Lead), will participate.  Olmert is responsible for systematic war crimes committed by Israeli occupation forces against Palestinian civilians.

19 March 2012

Dear Jessica,

I am writing to express my extreme shock and disappointment regarding B’Tselem’s announcement as a ‘proud sponsor’ of an event in the US with Ehud Olmert.

As you are aware, Olmert is accused of numerous international crimes for his role in the planning and execution of Operation Cast Lead. These crimes are among the most serious known to the international community (to the extent that they give rise to the universality principle), and have caused horrific death, injury, and suffering here in the Gaza Strip.  Indeed, an arrest warrant has previously been issued for a member of his cabinet in relation to events in which Olmert is also implicated.

The quest for accountability in the context of Cast Lead has received significant international attention, and Olmert is intimately associated with these issues, not just amongst the legal community, but amongst the population at large. For a human rights organization to proudly co-sponsor this event sends an incredibly devastating message, not only to the victims in Gaza but regarding the rule of international law more generally.

I write this letter with a heavy heart. Our relationship with our Israeli counterparts is hugely important to us. These relationships are built on years of professional and personal cooperation and friendship, and have achieved some significant results. With the closure, you are our last links to Israeli society, and this is a relationship we wish only to nurture and further develop.

But we must also stand on principle. As an organisation we get our mandate from the law, and the victims we represent. I strongly urge you to reconsider this event. The message B’Tselem is sending out is incredibly damaging.

Yours,

Raji Sourani

Human rights organizations join call on B’Tselem to withdraw

In addition to the letter of Raji Sourani above, several more Palestinian human rights organizations issued this statement:

Human Rights Organisations Call on B’Tselem to Withdraw from Conference Featuring Alleged War Criminal Ehud Olmert

20 March 2012

As organisations dedicated to the protection and promotion of human rights—including those acting as legal representatives for war crimes victims—we are disappointed by B’Tselem’s active participation in an upcoming event at which former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will be fêted as a keynote speaker.   Olmert has been implicated in the commission of war crimes and other serious violations of international law for his role in Operation ‘Cast Lead’, Israel’s winter 2008-2009 onslaught on the Gaza Strip. A court in the U.K. has already issued an arrest warrant for one of Olmert’s alleged co-conspirators in these acts, former foreign minister Tzipi Livni.

Olmert will speak at a gala dinner on Monday hosted by J Street, a self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby group in Washington, DC.  Olmert’s speech will be the keynote for J Street’s annual conference.  Last week, B’Tselem sent an email to its supporters announcing that it was “proud” of its role in the conference, explicitly mentioning Olmert as a featured speaker.

B’Tselem’s active participation in this event sends a dangerous message. It undermines the fundamental importance of accountability for international crimes, disregards victims’ right to dignity and justice, and implies that political processes may override human rights standards.  B’Tselem should be protesting, not celebrating, an event welcoming Olmert.

The decision to release this statement was not taken lightly. We highly value the relationship between Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organisations, and can look back on many years of successful professional cooperation. For some Palestinian organisations – particularly those from the Gaza Strip – the relationship with Israeli counterparts is often the last remaining link with Israeli society. This is a link which we all wish to see strengthened and developed.

However, as human rights defenders, we are united by our standards: by our belief in the universality of human rights and the rule of international law. Our legitimacy derives from our unwavering commitment to these principles, and our obligations to act in the best interests of the victims we represent.

We call upon B’Tselem to withdraw from this event, and to use this opportunity to highlight the need for accountability, justice, and the enforcement of the rule of law.

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights
Al Dameer Association for Human Rights
The Palestinian NGO Network (representative of 132 Palestinian NGOs)

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Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.