Translating Human Rights of the "Enemy": The Case of Israeli NGOs Defending Palestinian Rights

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This article explores the practices, discourses and dilemmas of the Israeli human rights NGOs that are working to protect and promote the human rights of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. This case can shed light on the complex process of "triangular translation" of human rights, which is distinct from other forms of human rights localization studied thus far. In this process, human rights NGOs translate international human rights norms on the one hand, and the suffering of the victims on the other, into the conceptions and legal language commonly employed by the state that violates these rights. We analyze the dialectics of change and reproduction embedded in the efforts of Israeli activists to defend Palestinian human rights while at the same time depoliticizing their work and adopting discriminatory premises and conceptions hegemonic in Israeli society. The recent and alarming legislative proposals in Israel aimed at curtailing the work of human rights NGOs reinforce the need to reconsider the role of human rights NGOs in society, including their depoliticized strategies, their use of legal language and their relations with the diminishing peace movement.

In June 2007, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) invited representatives of Israeli human rights organizations that defend Palestinian rights to a closed conference titled "Forty years of occupation: what have we done, what have we achieved and what next?" The meeting opened with the directors of six human rights organizations discussing their main strategies and achievements. Though small successes were highlighted, the prevailing feeling was one of despair. The discussion revolved around the question of whether the organizations had chosen the correct approach, and whether they were not, in fact, merely fig leaves covering the ongoing Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian territories. The images used by leading activists were colorful. For example, Hadas Ziv, director of Physicians for Human Rights, described her organization that documents and fights against health rights violations as "a fly on the emperor's nose." Rabbi Arik Ascherman, director of Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization working against demolitions of Palestinian homes, suggested that the human rights organizations were arranging the seats on the Titanic. Dalia Kerstein, director of Hamoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual, admitted that her organization, which assists Palestinians in housing, detainee rights and freedom of movement, "sticks lots of notes in the [Wailing] Wall and hopes for the best." Attorney Michael Sfard, legal counsel for Yesh Din, an organization that files legal actions against settlers and soldiers who have committed offenses against Palestinians, asked bluntly whether the organizations were not in fact helping the occupation persist.

Israeli nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that defend the rights of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of association, along with financial and moral support from the international community. They operate at a time when human rights discourse has gained a more central place in international relations, as well as in Israel (Gordon and Berkovitch 2007). These organizations can be proud of their impressive work and achievements, but their influence on the reality of four million Palestinians living under oppressive military occupation is negligible. They clearly represent the potential of universal human rights discourse in their effective and credible use of that international language, and they have undoubtedly grown and gained strength over the last twenty years.Yet they confront a deteriorating situation.

This article explores the practices, discourse and dilemmas of Israeli human rights NGOs working to protect and promote the human rights of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. We examined ten major human rights organizations, all of which participated in the above mentioned meeting. …