Human Rights Watch founder Robert L. Bernstein has been roundly criticized for arguing that his own organization, which by its repeated reports suggests that Israel’s human rights record is so reprehensible as to warrant heightened condemnation, has unfairly demonized Israel. To get a first-hand account of this ongoing argument, I arranged to accompany my son, a documentary filmmaker in Israel, on a recent appointment to tape an interview with Bassem Eid, the general director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.
Apprehensively, we drive north out of West Jerusalem into the East Jerusalem neighborhood known as Beit Hanina. Israel’s reviled security barrier, a concrete scar rising into the sky, dominates the landscape. The streets, crowded with top-of-the-line Mercedes, VW’s and BMW’s, as well as vehicular detritus that would easily qualify for America’s cash-for-clunkers program, teem with Arabs, mostly young, but some bent with age. Other than a singled parked Israeli police car with two bored (and when we ask for directions, unhelpful) police officers, there are no Jews to be seen. Up a narrow, unevenly paved street, in a non-descript building, is the neat office of the Monitoring Group, staffed, in addition to Eid, by three Palestinian women – one Muslim, one Christian and one unidentifiable.
Bassem Eid is a short, dark-complexioned Muslim with a quick smile and a vibrant energy who lives in a refugee camp. My son and I are late for the interview, having gotten lost in the unfamiliar streets of East Jerusalem, but Eid’s hospitality predominates over his impatience. As he sits in front of the camera and my son begins to ask questions, Eid quickly warms to his subject.
Eid spent many years working with B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group that focuses on Israeli abuses in the territories. My son and I were pretty sure what we would hear: the usual catalogue of complaints about Israel’s barriers to travel, humiliating searches and police harassment. But although Eid is critical of Israel, and in particular its West Bank settlements, this is not at all his focus. It turns out that he formed the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group when he concluded that a major element in the abuse of Palestinians – the abuse of Palestinians by the Palestinian Authority – was being overlooked. And on this subject, he is an expert.
The human rights situation in the PA is “very disturbing,” and marked by “illegal detention ... political arrests, [and] torture inside the PA detention centers.”
To Eid, Palestinians’ self-inflicted abuses are more serious that any by Israelis. He describes the human rights situation in the Palestinian Authority as “very disturbing,” and marked by “illegal detention ... political arrests, [and] torture inside the PA detention centers.” Eid, who himself has been arrested by the PA, says he has seen the signs of torture on the bodies of Palestinians held by the PA. He notes that the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza present an “equal picture,” and that there is “no difference” between them. Each uses imprisonment for years, without trial and without charges, and torture against opponents. Each is deeply corrupt, looking after personal interests “to build themselves rather than to build the society itself.”
Nor can the West have a clear picture of these abuses. “I do not think,” Eid says, “that there is any kind of open media anywhere in the Palestinian territories, neither in Gaza nor the West Bank.” Journalists continue to be confined in West Bank prisons, and critical media, he says, has been closed down. “Mr. Abbas,” says Eid, “may talk about free media where he is ruling but in my opinion, as a human rights organization, we are receiving a lot of reports how the right of free expression is being completely violated by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and by the Hamas in the Gaza strip.” Moreover, according to Eid, these government abuses result in self-censorship, since journalists, once imprisoned and sometimes tortured in both the West Bank and Gaza, prefer to avoid a return visit.
Eid notes that Western reporters are largely shielded from what is actually occurring in Gaza and the West Bank. “Foreign journalists are based more in Jerusalem rather than in Gaza or the West Bank. For their safety, they prefer Jerusalem.” So, says Eid, they rely on local journalists, who lack the objectivity that is expected from Western media.
In America and in Europe, reports emphasizing Israeli abuses (like those of Hamas Rights Watch) are widely publicized, creating an image of downtrodden Palestinians thirsting to be free of the Israeli boot while anxious to exercise a right of return. Eid rejects this picture. He has visited refugee camps in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, and says that 70 percent of the refuges would prefer compensation over the right of return, because they understand the political reality that “return” means they would have to live within the borders of a Palestinian state and not inside Israel. Palestinians, whether they reside in Lebanon, or Jordan, or in East Jerusalem, cautions Eid, “can see what is going on in Ramallah, what is going on in Nablus, [and] what is going on in Gaza. And nobody wants to be part of such a troubled life.”
Focusing on his neighbors in East Jerusalem, Eid concludes that they much prefer life in Israel.
Focusing on his neighbors in East Jerusalem, Eid concludes that they much prefer life in Israel, with its health benefits and, even for Palestinians, relatively open society, to life under the Palestinian Authority. “These people,” he says, “don’t want to become a part of the Palestinian Authority.... [They] are happy where they are right now.”
Critics in the West, and enemies in the Arab world, may suggest a moral equivalency between Israel, Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, but Palestinians, says Eid, know better. It is time for Western critics of Israel to know better as well. .
This article originally appeared in The Jewish Journal