Aims and Means. No. 1
The documents presented here reveal an important, and, until now, unknown aspect of the efforts the Israeli government made to deflect criticism over human rights violations which were part of the occupation since the very beginning. The documents describe events that took place during the first decade of the occupation, but they echo a practice that is still in existence today – manipulative efforts to undermine the work of human rights organizations.
The Ministry of foreign affairs was involved in the operation of the Israeli section of Amnesty beginning in the late 1960s, not long after the time the section was first established. Similarly, the ministry funded activities and directed some of the actions of the Israel Association for Human Rights in an effort to influence the agenda of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), with which the Israeli association was affiliated. The foreign affairs ministry also discussed the future of a third Israeli organization – the Israeli League for Human Rights – and ministry officials considered staging a putsch to alter the organization’s membership.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs directly operated inside Amnesty Israel and in the Israeli Association for Human Rights in a conscious effort to block criticism of Israel’s human rights record in the OPT using various manipulations. In Amnesty, operations included using the section to gather intelligence on upcoming Amnesty International activities and influence them, as well as using the reputation of the Israeli section’s chair to deflect grievances about torture, administrative detentions and house demolitions in the OPT. The ministry’s public diplomacy messages were camouflaged as independent claims made by Amnesty Israel in a cynical use of the legitimacy enjoyed by Amnesty as a human rights organization. The documents expose an Israeli government policy in the 1970s of infiltrating and manipulating civil society organizations operating in the field of human rights: whether by blocking their activities or by operating them either covertly or overtly.
Israel’s current Amnesty section was registered as a non-profit in 1988 and has nothing to do with the individuals whose actions are recorded in these documents. Together with other organizations working to defend human rights in the OPT, both Amnesty Israel and the international movement are now under an attack designed to undercut public legitimacy for civil society human rights organizations – an attack led by other alleged civil society organizations, whose sources of funding are not entirely clear. As they did then, these manipulations undermine the very existence of a free civil society.
1. The Government of Israel and Amnesty: the early years
In 1964, three years after Amnesty International was founded in London, its Israeli section began its activities. Small groups of volunteers in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa adopted prisoners of conscience from various places around the world, and their members sent letters to the authorities holding them, demanding their release. (1) Membership of Amnesty’s Israeli groups dwindled, perhaps in connection to the rift that erupted in 1969 between Israel and the international organization. That year saw a bitter dispute arise between Israel and Amnesty over a report the organization published on the conditions under which Palestinian detainees were held and interrogated in Israel. Israel allowed Amnesty researchers to visit the country, but was displeased with the report’s findings. Amnesty, for its part, deemed Israel’s responses unsatisfactory, demanded a commission of inquiry and threatened it would submit its report to a UN committee. (2)
In 1970, Amnesty’s Israeli section had a single member: Bella Ravdin, from Haifa. She had been one of the leading members of Amnesty Israel ever since it was established. She later wrote in a letter to the editor that she had left Amnesty back in 1968 in protest that in its criticism of Israel’s policies, the organization was “lending legitimacy to terrorism”. However, between 1969 and 1971, she did act as Amnesty’s Israeli section, with funding and direction from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, even if its officials were not always pleased with her work. The ministry provided the money for the section’s membership fees in the international movement – a condition for voting rights in its international council. It also subsidized Ravdin’s trip to the Amnesty International council in Geneva (1969). Ministry officials told Ravdin to bring up the issue of Jewish communities in Arab countries and guided her on how to respond should the issue of “Arab detainees in the territories” comes up. In November 1971, Nathan Bar Yaakov, the director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ UN A Department, which dealt with international organizations and UN bodies headquartered in Geneva, asked for 300 Israeli pounds for Amnesty Israel, explaining that: “The Amnesty section of Israel is, in fact, one person, Ms. Bella Ravdin, from Haifa. She is cooperating with us in the dispute we are having with the organization”. Bar Yaakov added: “She has now asked for assistance with the payment of membership fees, as she lacks the means to do so herself, and, as stated, there are no other members in the Israeli organization. It is desirable for us to have her continue her contacts with the organization in London in future, and therefore, it is advisable to pay the membership fee. We approved this sum last year for the same purpose”. The request was approved. Shortly after that, Bar Yaakov wrote the ministry’s deputy director general a more detailed letter about the relationship with Ravdin: “We keep in touch with her, but she cannot be trusted with everything. The important thing is that we get information about internal discussions within the organizations from her”. Bar Yaakov concludes his letter with a proposition: “This may be an opportunity to consider establishing a section of Amnesty in Israel that is made up of people who have a little more clout and are better able to perform”.
2. 1971-1975: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Israeli human rights organizations
Amnesty’s Israeli section was not the only human rights organization foreign ministry officials meddled in at the time in an effort to manipulate it to advance the Israeli government’s political and public diplomacy goals.
In the early 1970s, the Israeli League for Human Rights, established back in 1937, was led by radical left-wing figures. In internal correspondence, foreign ministry officials described the league as troublesome, and stated “action is required in Israel to change its composition”. The foreign ministry took steps to reduce the organization’s influence within the International League for Human Rights, headquartered in New York, with which the Israeli league was affiliated, including in consultation with John Carey, the chair of the international league at the time. Top ministry officials discussed the possibility of staging a “putsch” inside the league, but on January 3, 1971, the UN department director expressed his belief that the league was a lost cause and that it “should, in fact, be isolated outside the Israeli public sphere”.
In 1971, the foreign ministry described the Israeli Association for Human Rights, (3) headed by Adv. Yeshayahu Pevzner as lacking “momentum”, and considered fortifying it with more dynamic actors . Pevzner would “occasionally” update foreign ministry officials on what the association was doing, and ask for their guidance on issues the ministry would like to be brought up in conferences held by the International Federation for Human Rights . The foreign ministry funded, at least from 1969/70 to 1974/75, the association’s federation membership fees, and association leaders’ trips to its annual conference in Paris . Sinai Rom, UN A Department Deputy Director, explained why the funding was given: “We use the help of the Israeli Association for Human Rights to address the many Arab plots against us, both in the area of human rights in particular and in the UN in general”.
3. “It is particularly on this issue that government tools are insufficient”
One avenue the foreign ministry considered for inserting itself into the field of human rights was the establishment of an academic human rights institute headed by Prof. Yoram Dinstein, already an establishment senior academic in the field of international law. In 1971-1972, Prof. Dinstein wanted to found an academic human rights institute, affiliated with the Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law, and asked the foreign ministry for funding. Mordechai Kidron, a political advisor to the minister of foreign affairs recommended the ministry allocate 50,000 Israeli pounds – half the required sum – if possible, from the ministry’s public diplomacy budget, explaining: “So far, as is known, we have not found tools for building a positive image for Israel externally, with respect to human rights in Israel and the administered territories, and it is particularly on this issue that government tools are insufficient. Establishing a responsible non-governmental body […], which would be actively involved with institutions and figures abroad would be very beneficial to us”.
After budgetary constraints prevented the allocation of the funds needed to set up the institute, Prof. Dinstein detailed the public relations damage he believed could have been averted had the institute been established. Dinsetin explained that his earlier project (publication of the Israel Yearbook on Human Rights) was already being “used as an important weapon in Israel’s increasingly difficult war on the human rights front”.
4. 1974-1976: Control of Amnesty’s Israeli section and exploitation for foreign ministry purposes
In July 1972, the Israeli section of Amnesty reorganized, and four lawyers were appointed to act as its temporary executive committee. On January 27, 1974, Prof. Yoram Dinstein was elected chair of the Israeli section. Prof. Dinstein, formerly a foreign ministry official, served as Israeli Consul to New York and as a member of Israel’s UN delegation until 1970. During his tenure in New York, he was in touch with Gidon Gottlieb, an Israeli who served as Amnesty’s UN delegate, and clandestinely provided him with inside information about the organization. Sinai Rom, deputy director of the foreign ministry’s UN A Department, attended the meeting in which Dinstein was elected chair. It was only after Dinstein’s election that the section took some necessary steps: lawfully registering as an association and adopting a protocol. In an internal foreign ministry document, Rom noted: “we initiated the section’s establishment”.
At that point in time, the Israeli section’s activities were funded by the foreign ministry: routine expenses, membership fees in the international organization, and trips to the Amnesty International annual council. Amnesty International had yet to formally ban government funding, but a decision to that effect was already in the making. The section involved the ministry in its internal decisions as well. When a resident of Jerusalem (who had, in the past, coordinated the actions of the local Amnesty group) asked o join the section, the executive asked for the ministry’s opinion. Rom recommended she be accepted.
In 1974-1976, under Prof. Dinstein as chair, the Israeli section of Amnesty was used for furthering the foreign ministry’s public diplomacy goals. On several occasions, foreign ministry messaging was passed off as independent claims made by Amnesty Israel, in a cynical use of the legitimacy enjoyed by Amnesty as a human rights organization. So, for instance, Dinstein referred communications the section received for handling by the foreign ministry, and consulted with it regarding the responses that should be given to other communications. In another case, the foreign ministry’s public diplomacy department provided the Israeli embassy in London with a draft of an op-ed penned by Prof. Dinstein in response to one published by Adv. Felicia Langer in the London Times. “It is important the paper publish the story as quickly as possible without significant edits”, the department instructed the embassy. Dinstein’s piece, denouncing Adv. Langer’s claims about Israel’s demolition of Palestinians’ homes, torture and administrative detention, was published in the Times the next day. Dinstein was credited as editor of the Israel Yearbook on Human Rights and chair of Amensty’s Israeli section. In another incident, Prof. Dinsten met with three Dutch Amnesty groups who were making inquiries about Arab detainees in Israel. “I explained, at length, the entire issue of military courts, administrative detention etc., and I believe I have solved more than a few potential problems”, he wrote in a report to Rom. Prof. Dinstein spoke in his report about his own actions intended to block Amnesty initiatives he thought could be harmful to Israeli interests and conversations he had had with the leaders of the international movement, in a bid to get them to tone down human rights criticism of Israel.
We have little archival material on foreign ministry activities in relation to Amnesty Israel past 1976. It seems that in 1977, ahead of Sinai Rom’s departure for a mission in Quito, foreign ministry activity in this area waned. In response to Rom’s request for funding for Amnesty, Mordechai Kidron replied: “You will have to convince me that the allocation [to Amnesty] is justified […] this initiative has been of very small benefit to the country”. Kidron ultimately agreed to provide half the sum requested.
Statement from Amnesty International’s International Secretariat:
These documents present serious allegations suggesting that the leadership of our former Israel section acted in a manner that was blatantly at odds with Amnesty International’s principles.
Impartiality and independence have been the core tenets of our organization from the very start. That is why we have in place a policy against accepting or seeking funding from governments for our human rights research and campaigning. Our records show this principle was first formally agreed by the movement in 1975. No government should feel it is beyond our scrutiny.
Amnesty International maintained rules at the time prohibiting sections from working on cases of human rights violations in their own country. Our work on Israel was therefore determined by the International Secretariat, not the former Israel section. Throughout this time Amnesty International highlighted human rights abuses being committed by the Israeli authorities, including calling for the suspension of Israel’s use of administrative detention.
During the period in question we were a movement that was still in its infancy. As we grew to become the truly global movement we are today, we have continued to develop robust governance policies and procedures to ensure stringent impartiality and accountability.
Statement from AI Israel
The documents we received show that the Israeli government stops at nothing to avoid accountability for human rights abuses it commits – in the ’70s and today alike. The documents also show that the conduct of individuals in what was then the Israeli section of Amnesty blatantly violated the principals of the Amnesty movement. It’s important to emphasize, that the section in question, registered as an Ottoman society in 1974, is not the section that exists today, which was registered as an association in 1988.
The current Israeli section is a vibrant and inseparable part of the global Amnesty movement. The section conducts campaigns against human rights abuses that the government of Israel commits in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, against the discrimination of Palestinian Citizens of Israel, and for the rights of the refugees and asylum-seekers community in Israel, as well as takes part in the movement’s international campaigns. To avoid any doubt, in accordance with Amnesty International’s policy to not accept funds from governments (except for Human Rights Education activities), the Israeli section does not receive any government funding, including from the government of Israel.