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

Published date01 December 2012
Date01 December 2012
Translating Human Rights of the “Enemy”: The
Case of Israeli NGOs Defending Palestinian Rights
Daphna Golan Zvika Orr
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 concep-
tions 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
We are grateful to all the interviewees for their honesty and courage to share and reflect
on their dilemmas. Limor Yehuda and Amany Khalefa contributed many insights to this
research. Special thanks to Stanley Cohen for valuable comments on an earlier draft. We
thank the editors and three anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments and
suggestions. Please direct all correspondence to Daphna Golan, Faculty of Law, The
Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Mount Scopus, Jerusalem 91905, Israel; e-mail:
Law & Society Review, Volume 46, Number 4 (2012)
© 2012 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
organization that documents and fights against health rights viola-
tions 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 Palestin-
ians 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 organiza-
tions 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 negli-
gible. 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.1We suggest that the
1The organizations are:
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (est. 1972),
Bimkom—Planners for Planning Rights (est. 1999),
B’Tselem—The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories
(est. 1989),
Gisha—Legal Center for Freedom of Movement (est. 2005),
Hamoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual (est. 1998),
Machsomwatch—Women against the Occupation and for Human Rights (est. 2001), http://
Physicians for Human Rights—Israel (est. 1988),
Public Committee against Torture in Israel (est. 1990),
Rabbis for Human Rights (est. 1988),
Yesh Din—Volunteers for Human Rights (est. 2005),
All these organizations are lead by Jewish Israelis and have a minority of Palestinians
(mostly with Isareli citizenship) on their staff and board. Wedid not include Adalah and the
Israeli Committee Against House Demolition. Adalah did not participate in the meeting,
782 Translating Human Rights of the “Enemy”
limitations of human rights referred to by the NGO directors are to
a large extent embedded in the complex process of translation and
localization of transnational human rights norms on the one hand,
and the suffering of the Palestinians whose rights have been vio-
lated by Israel on the other, into discourses and practices that are
more acceptable in Israel. We discuss this translation into legal
language and into the values and common conceptions of Jewish
Israelis, who are the primary target audience for the human rights
NGOs. This target audience comprises Israeli public opinion, the
Israeli legal system, the Knesset (Israeli parliament), the govern-
ment, and governmental and military agencies, although these
NGOs also draw on the international community to put pressure
on the state of Israel. We believe this discussion can shed light on
this “triangular translation” of human rights, a process distinct
from other forms of translation studied thus far.
In the article, we examine various aspects of this translation
process, including the role of activists as semi-official intermediaries
between the Palestinians and the Israeli occupation rule, and the
dilemmas raised by this role; the messages lost in translation, and,
no less important, found in translation (Geertz 1983); and in par-
ticular the motivations for and ramifications of translation into
Israeli legal language. We propose that the practices of Israeli
human rights NGOs should be understood as “democratic itera-
tions” (Benhabib 2004). To challenge underlying discriminatory
and racial notions and produce more fundamental social and politi-
cal change, particularly an end to the Israeli occupation in the
Palestinian Territories, we call for a reconsideration of the role of
human rights NGOs in society, as well as of their depoliticized
strategies and their relations with the peace movement.
This research is based on in-depth, semi-structured interviews
with directors and leading activists in Israeli NGOs that defend
Palestinian human rights, as well as on participant observations and
more informal conversations and on content analysis of documents.
To this end, we examined all publications issued by the human
rights organizations between 2007–2011, including periodical and
annual reports and websites. We analyzed all their petitions to the
Israeli High Court of Justice (hereinafter: High Court or HCJ) and
their objections to existing laws and proposed legislation during
those years. We focused on this time frame because in 2007, when
the above-mentioned conference took place, there was a shift in the
and both Fatma El Ajou, a leading lawyer at the organization, and Hassan Jabareen, the
founding director,explained to us that as a Palestinian organization based in Israel they join
other Israeli human rights organizations in some coalitions but their concerns, strategies
and loyalties are somewhat different than those of Jewish organizations. The Israeli Com-
mittee Against House Demolition is not a human rights organization according to the
director of the organization, Jeff Halper.
Golan & Orr 783

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