It is too early to know where Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat’s departure will lead, but for the first time in many years, there is some reason for optimism. Many obstacles must be overcome, but Arafat’s successors have a chance to move away from “armed struggle,” incitement, and efforts to erase Israel from the map. To foster this process, they must first end Palestinian chaos and use massive aid for economic development instead of channelling funds to private accounts and illegal arms.
But even with the best of intentions, it will take a much wider effort to reverse generations of hatred and terrorism. The culture of compromise must be anchored in broad public support.
Third parties can play a role in this immense task – particularly the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are active in human rights and humanitarian issues.
But these groups have an abysmal track record. With their multi-million-dollar budgets, global superpowers such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, Christian Aid, Oxfam and dozens of smaller allied groups have contributed to the hatred, rather than supporting peace. Their activities amplify the rhetoric that labels Israel as an “apartheid regime” and Jews as “imperialists” and “colonialists,” while whitewashing terror and condemning Israeli defensive actions.
In contrast to their PR images as peacemakers, the one-sided approach of the NGOs boosts radical Palestinians voices. HRW and Amnesty use terms such as “war crimes” to condemn Israeli defensive actions while closing their eyes to terror. And by ignoring Palestinian corruption, these groups have helped to keep the PA elite in power.
Similarly, NGOs based in Canada, and financed in part by the Canadian government, contribute to the demonization process. For example, KAIROS, which calls itself “a coalition of churches… devoted to justice,” is funded by the Canadian International Development Agency and members churches. As documented by www.ngo-monitor.org, KAIROS is also active in selling Palestinian distortions of history (while claiming that “Israeli occupation is the root cause of the violence”), as well as denouncing Israeli “war crimes” and exploiting the vocabulary of human rights. Similarly, the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), “Rights & Democracy,” and Montreal-based Alternatives use government humanitarian funds to wage political war against Israel.
Thus, rather than fostering support for fundamental reform, these human rights and aid groups help to legitimize the culture of hatred and ideology of murder. The NGO community has lost direction, destroying the human rights norms that it claims to support.
This was highlighted in September 2001 at the UN-sponsored World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, where HRW and Amnesty joined hundreds of NGOs to promote the equating of Zionism with racism. This process continued with the orchestrated condemnation of Israel’s separation barrier as an “apartheid wall,” while referring to antiterror actions in Jenin and elsewhere as “war crimes.”
The political obsession with Israel has also led to the neglect of mass killings in areas such as Central Africa or Sudan, where there is less media coverage and political mileage. After years of relative silence, HRW only put Sudan on the top of its agenda after media and U.S. government reports of mass brutality.
Despite these failures, a “halo effect” protects the NGOs from the accountability they demand from others. Kenneth Roth, who has headed New York-based HRW for decades, recently used part of his $22-million (US) war chest to hold a press conference at Jerusalem’s American Colony Hotel (the main Palestinian public relations hub). He was publicizing a 135-page report condemning Israeli military actions in Gaza. Few noticed that the claims were based on unverified evidence from Palestinian “eyewitnesses.”
A few days later, London-based Christian Aid denounced Israel’s “land grab policy” and unveiled its Christmas campaign about Palestinian suffering that features posters of a “child from Bethlehem” – a thinly disguised anti-Semitic image. In this biased environment, pretensions that human rights and humanitarian groups promote peace have no credibility.
As a result, the NGO community is, tragically, in no position to help end the violence and promote understanding. Before they can preach to others, they will have to drop their ideological agendas and demonstrate a credible commitment to the universal human rights values that they claim to advance
Gerald Steinberg directs the Program on Conflict Management at Bar Ilan University and is the editor of the on-line ngo-monitor. He is a member of the Board of Directors of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East www.spme.net