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`Occupation will never be consistent with human rights`
Matt Surrusco

Hagai El-Adís change in career paths came from a self-realization that his destiny was not in some distant galaxy, but very much grounded on Earth, specifically, in Israelís civil rights arena.

The executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), El-Ad, 43, earned a masterís degree in astrophysics before moving to the nonprofit sector. In 2000, he became the first executive director of the Jerusalem Open House, the LGBT community and advocacy center, and later founder of the annual Jerusalem pride parade.

In the last five years, under his leadership, El-Ad said ACRI has recommitted itself to expanding and diversifying its base of public support. As Israelís oldest and largest human rights organization, strategic civil rights litigation, in addition to promoting social justice, the rights of the Arab minority in Israel and anti-racism education, remain ACRIís mainstays.

+972 Magazine: Are civil rights in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories more or less protected today compared to five years ago when you joined ACRI?

Hagai El-Ad: I think itís a mixed picture. Iím interested in thinking about the question, not only in the context of where we are, but whatís the likely trajectory of things. I think that weíre in an interesting junction where, on the one hand when we think, for instance about social rights and economic rights, then the reality to date doesnít support any estimate that the situation is better than what it was five years ago Ė although weíve had some achievements during these years. But when you think about the trajectory in that context, I think we have an incredible fighting chance for significant changes in those arenas of human rights.

The picture is very different when we look at other human rights aspects. In recent years, many of them have been framed in the context of anti-democratic legislation, where weíre really talking about the foundations of any functioning democracy, including respect for the rights of minorities, especially the Arab minority in Israel, freedom of speech issues, [and the] capacity of the High Court [of Justice] to continue functioning in an independent fashion. And there, the process that weíve witnessed is a very worrying process of gradual erosion of basic democratic principles.

I will look not only at the trajectory but also the gradient, the slope of the trajectory, where the process that we are facing is rather gradual.

Thereís something very sinister and very dangerous about that fact because basically every month the public gets used to the new normal, which is just slightly worse than where we were several weeks or several months ago. It doesnít look that bad, but thatís very different than a situation where something escalates, something snaps in a dramatic fashion. Everyone pays attention to it and perhaps mobilizes against it. Thatís not the process that weíre seeing in Israel.

But if we were to pause now Ė and I think itís not such a bad time to pause because weíre looking back at the work of the previous Knesset; the new Knesset hasnít been [in place] for such a long time Ė and [to] look at the results of that assortment of bills and eventually some laws, then again itís a complex answer.

There were dozens of bills, many of them did not become laws, and Iím very proud of the role that ACRI played in securing that achievement, which is nothing to sneeze at. In the face of such a crude majority, to be able to prevent so many bills from becoming laws, and diluting many of the others, thatís quite dramatic and tremendously important for this society.

At the same time, when I look at laws, even in the diluted versions that eventually passed, the Nakba law, the admissions to communities law, the anti-infiltration law and the anti-boycott law Ė were you to ask me four and half years ago if I ever thought that such bills would become laws in this country, and everything would just go on as normal, I would think that you were exaggerating by far. And yet all this has happened and as you notice, the sun keeps shining and life goes on. The public wasnít horrified. Itís the new normal. And when this new Knesset now considers various bills it begins those considerations after that chunk of the erosion process has already taken place.

Now itís not monotonically all going in a bad direction but it is doing that with ups and downs in that general direction. And that general direction is completely inconsistent with democratic principles.

What is the single greatest challenge your organization faces in promoting its mission?

Our vision, the kind of present and future that we wish for this society, is one of human rights, democracy, equality, social justice and an end for the occupation. Thatís our vision. Thatís what weíre working for. Weíre very good at that. But at the end of the day if the vast majority of Israelis want something very different, itís not going to matter how many cases weíve won or will win. Because if the vast majority of Israelis want something very different, theyíre going to get it, as undemocratic and unjust as it may be, because thatís the way things happen in real life.

So for us to win, we need the broadest and most diverse basis of support in this society that we can assemble. Thatís the key challenge. While ACRI I think is well supported and even more than that well-respected, even by many people that disagree with us and donít support us, thereís still a very long way to go to that kind of basis of support in this society that we must have.

I know often people have asked whether some of the anti-democratic initiatives or issues relating to human rights in the Occupied Territories that the government was advancing, the previous one, the current one, is in sync with the public. I think sometimes thereís a desire to portray the government here as extreme, ultranationalist, but also not in sync with the publicís desire. I wish that were the case but I think on many of these issues unfortunately the government is genuinely representing the positions of many of the people that supported it.

And in that we are in disagreement not only with the government Ė and ACRI is a government watchdog Ė but also in disagreement with many Israelis that want something different and we need to convince them. We need to interact with them directly because weíre not going to convince people and win hearts and minds only through strategic litigation and advocacy in the Knesset. Thatís much of the work that weíve been invested in, in recent years.

Is there room within the international human rights regime for some sort of international intervention in Israel/Palestine, legal or otherwise?

Part of what has become complex in that context is the fact that the Israeli public, generally speaking, is very suspicious toward almost any international criticism, not even intervention, criticism, unless it comes from the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development). Health rights, housing rights, economic disparities in society, broad issues of concern, and [the OECD is] quite critical with regard to Israeli policies in reality in that context.

Itís wonderful to be part of the club of 34 (nations in the OECD). Itís not so nice to be number 32 out of 34. On so many of these issues, the response that you get in the context of the OECD is different than the UN, different that the EU, even the U.S. government [in that it] is actually listened to.

But besides the OECD, itís really an exceptional example. The Israeli public is very suspicious and hostile toward criticism or beyond. That suspicion obviously is not just something that happens organically, just like that. Itís an issue that the government, in a very conscious way, post-Cast Lead and the Goldstone report, has been delighted to inflame. Through doing that to win what was Ė from [the governmentís] perspective Ė I think, not even collateral damage but a target itself: the trashing of the entire Israeli domestic human rights sector, organizations and activists. Thatís the reality in which weíre functioning.

That means that also such international actors that I think are sufficiently sophisticated and aware of this reality and want, not just to provide commentary on what is happening here, but to play an effective, significant role in making things better for Israelis and Palestinians, need to factor all this into their decision-making processes and whatever conclusions are made out of that, there are possibilities that go in a broad array of directions in that context.

So you see it as both the suspicion of the Israeli public and the government encouraging or inflaming that suspicion as leaving less room for international intervention?

Itís much more difficult for international voices to be effective in the context of the situation here, and in that sense the governmentís project in achieving that has been quite successful. But I think especially when we look at the situation in the Occupied Territories so often the claim is that these are foreign forces intervening in domestic Israeli issues. But with all due respect, that position doesnít make any sense. Iím trying to be polite. The Occupied Territories are not a domestic Israeli issue.

So the fact that being effective with regard to these issues and this society has become so much more difficult doesnít mean that anyone with international responsibility is exempt from finding effective ways of dealing with that challenge. Now Iím not sitting here as an advisor to international entities, and at ACRI we have our own headaches to deal with, but obviously this is very unfortunate that thatís the framework of things, in terms of the challenging set of cards that weíve all been dealt, well thatís another one of these. But, you know, thatís the situation and weíre here to deal with it, not to run away from it.

Do you ever wonder if your work legitimizes the occupation by working for change from the inside?

Yeah, we think about that every day, especially in the context of litigation. The question was asked specifically in that context some years ago in this organization, and also in others. Basically the framing of the question often is, the Israeli High Court of Justice is so respected internationally so certainly from the outside it looks as if there is proper legal oversight of the occupation. But we that litigate here and lose so many of these cases, [we] openly say that the decisions of the High Court have not delivered a protection for basic human rights of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. So thatís very different than having proper legal oversight of the occupation.

Certainly some of the decisions of the High Court have made a difference. Certainly things may have been much worse in a variety of ways without these cases. But again, in the big scheme of things the question is a very valid one. Weíre thinking about some aspects of what we do.

We have much less of an appetite for litigating such cases in the High Court as a result of that process. And weíve shifted a lot of our focus with regard to our work in the OPT to public advocacy and public education. So that doesnít mean that weíre not continuing to litigate some OPT cases. We are and whenever we think itís the right decision we will. But weíre much more careful about the cases that we pick in that regard because we donít want to blindly serve that process.

Itís also very important for us to speak openly about decisions of the High Court when we disagree. Often with regard to such cases in the OPT, we disagree. The picture becomes more complex with regard to the OPT because sometimes itís even more problematic with the cases that we win. That you win a case, and then you, Israel, the High Court get wonderful headlines, also internationally, but the reality doesnít change. So itís even worse.

The key example of that is the case of Highway 443, the segregated highway that connects Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It runs parallel to Highway 1, but unlike Highway 1, goes into the Occupied Territories and then back out of them and to Jerusalem, used for an easier commute for Israelis from here to there. But originally built on land confiscated from Palestinians living next to where that road was built.

When that confiscation was challenged, when it happened, the case that the state brought was that it is actually legal for the occupying power to develop the occupied land for the benefit of the occupied people. And the state said, well, itís actually going to be used mostly for Palestinians for an easier commute to Ramallah, and by chance Israelis will also use it and thatís how that became kosher. But then after the Second Intifada, and some terror attacks on Israelis on the road, the army completely banned Ė actually denied it and we were able to prove it Ė the road to Palestinian traffic to make it safe for Israelis. Although the only way to [really] make it safe for Israelis would be to completely ban the road to Israeli traffic because as you recall, the original reason that the road was built was for Palestinians, not the occasional Israeli commuters. But obviously the real idea was to ban the road completely to Palestinians

So we litigated that case in the High Court against a segregated road in the Occupied Territories. We won that case, but the decision that the justices made was only saying that the military commander doesnít have the authority to completely Ė highlight completely Ė ban the road to Palestinian traffic. So that was enough to win headlines in the New York Times and everywhere: ďIsraeli High Court of Justice Says ĎNoí to SegregatedÖĒ You know, wonderful case. Excellent victory. But obviously, the IDF read the decision of the High Court very carefully and said, ďSo okay, we donít have the authority to ban the road completely to Palestinian traffic so weíll almost ban it, almost completely to Palestinian traffic.Ē

If you go on Highway 443 now, you will see the situation has almost completely remained the same. But no one forgot the headlines that the High Court said no to segregated roads.

Obviously the High Court isnít going to end occupation for us. Weíre not a peace organization. Weíre a human rights organization so we donít have any position with regard to the specific political solution and what lines will be drawn on a map with regard to an end for the occupation. However, the occupation in and of itself is inconsistent, and will never be consistent with respect to human rights. Thatís why it has to end. Israel is the occupying power. Thatís why itís Israelís responsibility to end the occupation. How specifically it ends, as long as it ends in a way that respects human rights for all, thatís beyond ACRIís mandate. But to reach that obviously all of us need to do much more than litigation.

What has been your organizationís greatest accomplishment under your leadership?

When thinking about the last five years, itís really about continuing to maintain and develop that jewel in ACRIís crown, strategic litigation, and continuing to be the number one nonprofit, civil liberties law firm in Israel. And bundling it with public positioning and engagement that I believe is broader, more diverse and forward-looking with regard to our commitment to engage the Israeli public on our issues. You can see that in the Human Rights March. That is an initiative we began some years ago. You can see that in our membership. You can see that in the people who ďLikeĒ us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Weíre bringing human rights to the 21st century in Israel in an engaging, positive way and withstanding the current political circumstances that weíre facing in this society.

What has been your most humbling experience working in the human rights field?

[I would say Operation] Cast Lead. To see such violence and such horrible numbers of civilian causalities, and to feel almost completely paralyzed. Sometimes, especially those that criticize ACRI, and others in the sector, portray us as so powerful. We donít set policy in this country and weíre not the commanders of the IDF. This is a civil society, non-governmental organization with a modest budget and wonderful committed employees, nothing more, nothing less. I think weíre quite strong. I think weíre great, but thatís it. When you look at that [conflict] and you are so powerless in stopping that, itís a terrible feeling. The reality here keeps suggesting, time and again, such levels of violence.

There was also a frustration about just getting information out. Iím not saying anything new here. But the kind of media coverage that most of the Israeli public got was a very sanitized version of reality and thatís an understatement. So if you are a human rights organization that had the actual facts Ė not different facts, but just the facts about what was really taking place Ė itís a level of frustration even beyond the level [resulting from] people disagreeing with you. But you know, let it be known that this is whatís happening. And then maybe we can disagree on the facts. But letís have the data out there.

Not to be able to have that space in the media was Ė again extremely troubling is an understatement. One of the things that ACRI did eventually was to take out a full-page ad. You just canít get [the facts] out so youíll buy [an advertisement] to have your message there. Again whatever resources you actually have are not that much. So we did something very irregular for us and we took out a full-page ad in Haaretz with basically just one word in it, saying ďenough.Ē And the graphic was tombstones of children because there were so many children who died in Gaza.

What do you hope ACRI will accomplish next? Whatís the goal on the horizon?

Exactly continuing in that path. But that path is not just about Ė as if thatís an easy go Ė expanding the base of support in terms of sheer numbers, but also diversifying it. There are a lot of voices in Israeli society that are very suspicious of human rights, for a variety of reasons. Some of that criticism and suspicion is unfair. But some are questions that we need to listen to and also think about the ways in which we need to change so that we are heard, relevant and more effective in this society.

When we think about Israel, coming from abroad often thereís a fantasy of Israel as a future or current liberal democracy in the shape of other liberal democracies. For a moment Iíll put aside the questions, and I have many criticisms, and I have much with regard to other liberal democracies as if they are so liberal or so democratic. We can talk about France, and we can talk about the U.S. and we can talk about other countries. [But] my responsibility is Israel and not any of these other countries.

This country too is less liberal and less democratic and less secular than that fantasy of this place, of this society. Thatís the way it is and we need to think about how we can make human rights relevant to people that are less secular, less liberal and have a different set of values than that liberal, secular set of values, and to do that from a place that genuinely acknowledges and generally respects the true diversity that exists in Israeli society.

The word I often like using in that context is ďglocalization.Ē Human rights on the one hand, you know, are local, but global. So human rights is a global concept, a universal [set of] values. But if we are unsuccessful in ďglocalizingĒ universal human rights to this society, then we will lose. Thatís the challenge. And weíre here not to lose. Weíre here to win.

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