Betselem (alternately “B'Tselem”), which dubs itself “The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories,” was established in February 1989 by a group of academics, attorneys, journalists, and Knesset members (mostly from the Meretz and Labor Parties). “Betselem” is a Hebrew word meaning “in the image of,” and is taken from Genesis 1:27, which reads: “And God created humans in His image.” In Betselem's view, the modern state of Israel egregiously violates the biblical injunction to treat people—in this case, the Palestinians—as though they were fashioned in the image of God. Therefore, the organization's mission is to “change Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories and ensure that its government ... protects the human rights of residents there and complies with its obligations under international law.”
Betselem's major charges against the Jewish state include the following:
“Israel has not fulfilled its responsibilities” to “investigate alleged violations of human rights committed in its jurisdiction by persons acting on its authority,” or to “prosecute the offenders and compensate the injured parties.”
In a large portion of the West Bank, “Israel practically bans Palestinian construction and development” while it “encourages the development of Israeli settlements through a parallel planning mechanism.”
Israeli “settlements in the West Bank” are situated mostly on “vast tracts of land taken from the Palestinians, in breach of international humanitarian law.”
After Israel completed its unilateral disengagement plan and withdrew from the Gaza Strip in September 2005, it “retained control of Gaza’s sea and air space, the crossings between Gaza and Israel, and Gaza’s registry of population.” Then, for three years it “imposed a siege ... prohibiting both Palestinian travel to or from Gaza as well as the import and export of goods,” thereby causing “a severe economic crisis” in the region.
“Violence by Israeli security forces toward Palestinians … has gradually become a part of everyday reality for Palestinians of the occupied territories.” Additional affronts include “pointless” delays at checkpoints and “humiliating” treatment by Israeli authorities that goes unpunished.
When the Separation Barrier in the West Bank is eventually completed, it will “cut off” and “isolate” about 9% of Palestinian lands on the Israeli side, “gravely violat[ing] the rights of Palestinians in the areas affected” and “prevent[ing] any possibility of economic development.”
“Since the annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967, Israeli authorities have promoted the twofold goal of expanding the city’s Jewish population and reducing its Palestinian population.”
Though “freedom of protest and assembly” in “nonviolent demonstrations” is “a fundamental human right,” the Israeli military “does not recognize this right in the occupied territories.”
While Betselem directs the vast majority of its criticisms squarely at Israel, the organization does occasionally speak out against Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians as “war crimes” that cannot be morally justified.
Over the years, Betselem has produced scores of reports, published in both Hebrew and English, accusing Israel of engaging in all manner of human-rights abuses, “apartheid,” “war crimes,” the unwarranted demolition of Palestinian homes, and forced “deportations” without cause. In virtually every case, Betselem's allegations ignore the context established by intransigent Palestinian terrorism. Moreover, when Betselem issues reports about Palestinian casualties incurred as a result of Israeli military actions, it generally makes no mention of the terrorist affiliations or activities of many of those victims, thereby conveying the false impression that they were innocent civilian bystanders. In January 2009—in the midst of Operation Cast Lead, an Israeli anti-terror initiative against Hamas—Betselem issued a press release accusing the Jewish state of “grave violations of international humanitarian law,” “wanton use of lethal force,” and “disproportionate harm to civilians.” But the organization said nothing about Hamas’s indiscriminate terror attacks against Israeli civilians, Israel's efforts to avoid inflicting civilian casualties, and Hamas's deliberate use of Palestinian civilians as human shields.
Betselem's reports are regularly cited by international NGOs such as Amnesty International, Christian Aid, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, Human Rights Watch, and MIFTAH, as well as by numerous Palestinian NGOs. The website NGO Monitoravers that almost all U.S. government agency studies on human rights in Israel are “heavily influenced” by one or more Betselem reports. The so-called Goldstone Report of September 2009, which famously declared that almost everything Israel had done during Operation Cast Lead had been a crime, cited Betselem research more often (in 56 footnotes) than any other source.
To further disseminate its message, Betselem works extensively with the media, issuing press releases, accompanying journalists into the field, and giving interviews on israel-related topics. The organization also provides periodic updates to local policymakers and diplomats “on human rights developments in the Occupied Territories,” and gives presentations to visiting foreign delegations from around the world.
In early 2010, Betselem hired Lizi Sagie—an activist/volunteer with the Coalition of Women for Peace, Machsom Watch, New Profile—as its new information director. Before long, Betselem became engulfed in controversy when news outlets reported that Sagie, shortly prior to joining the NGO, had administered an Internet blog wherein she:
characterizedIDF Memorial Day as “a pornographic circus of glorifying grief and silencing voices”;
accused Israel of “committing Humanity’s worst atrocities,” demonstrating “adherence to the values of Nazism,” and “exploit[ing] the Holocaust to reap international benefits”;
stated that “Israel has invented antisemitism in order to escape responsibility for its crimes”; and
accused her fellow Israelis of having: “stolen lands”; “murdered” innocent Arabs; “starved others and made them thirsty”; “lied to ourselves and the whole world”; and “created ghettos to all kinds” while “allow[ing] fascists to raise their heads.”