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Interview: Ronit Sela, Israeli human-rights activist in Palestine

June marked 50 years since the Six Day War between Israel and the neighboring states of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Since then the region has been in turmoil. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) is the oldest civil society organisations in the region. Its work is to promote human rights in both Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories.

Ronit Sela is the Director for The Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories Unit with ACRI. She was in Ireland recently on a trip sponsored by Christian Aid Ireland.

When you meet Ronit the first thing you notice is how measured and calm she is, presumably a prerequisite for this job. When we meet she is dealing with the loss of her phone with superhuman serenity. It’s no surprise to learn from her that for a long time she thought about a career in diplomacy.

She tells me about ACRI: “It was set up to protect and promote Human Rights in Israel and the Occupied Territories in 1972. We feel it’s our mandate to protect and to promote the rights of everyone one who is affected by the Israeli government. A lot of the work we do is with Israeli citizens, the largest group of people who are affected by Israeli policies, but we also work with communities who are not citizens, so in the Occupied Territories we protect the rights of Palestinians who are under military occupation”.

She’s the head of the department that deals with the Occupied Territories and she works in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. “We don’t work in the Gaza strip, we only get involved with Gaza issues when there is a war and unfortunately there were three. There we look at any action taken by the Israeli military and determine whether it’s in breach of international law”.

East Jerusalem has been annexed and even though ACRI’s official stance is that its occupation is illegal and Israeli law shouldn’t be applied there, it’s a reality that has to be dealt with. She notes that, “if people don’t have access to health services in the region we’re going to go to the Health Ministry and say according to Israeli law, they should have access to these services and we demand it. It’s the part of the occupation that we have to play along with”.

East Jerusalem suffers from extreme discrimination, the infrastructure is very poor on every level, especially when you compare it to West Jerusalem, which has become more western. There are parks, the streets are clean and everything is nice. But in the East of the city, it’s a world apart. Sela says, “East Jerusalem is full of border police. We always joke that they need to have so many border police because they need to figure out where the border is, everyone is still looking for the border, especially in Jerusalem, where the border is so unclear!”.

Her work in the West Bank focuses in part on Area C – a district that’s under full military control, where all the settlers live, with some Palestinians who are the hardest hit: “Especially the people who are living in places that Israel would like to annex in the future. Israel is applying very harsh measures to limit or diminish the Palestinian presence here and Palestinians are not allowed to develop the land. The longest-standing case in ACRI is 17 years. We submitted a petition on behalf of Palestinians living in a location that Israel strategically wants in the south Hebron hills. People were put on trucks and were forced to flee – they were herding communities out, because Israel declared it a firing zone for military training”. ACRI have been petitioning on this since 2000.

“We’ve had success but my overall sense after having worked in ACRI for eight years, is that for now the door is open but it may not be in the future. We go to committee meetings at parliament, we sit down with their officials. We are invited to very high-profile meetings, we go to the high court, but at the end of the day none of our victories are complete”, she declares sadly. “For 17 years people have continued to live in a firing zone under horrendous conditions. Detention periods were shortened but they are still too long. Our principal position is that if there are Israelis and Palestinians living in the same territory, they need to have the same detention periods: you can’t have two systems! At this point I don’t know what it feels like to be working on something where you have clear victories. We have moments, but in the West Bank and East Jerusalem all our victories, all our positive verdicts and all the advocacy success is only partial. You go to sleep happy and you wake up in the morning and there’s another thing”.

I ask her about the pressures faced by organisations like Acri. “One of the things that has characterised the three Netanyahu governments is that they have been gradually cracking down on civil society and on anyone who has been a critic of Israeli policy that relates to the conflict, so not just what we do in the West Bank specifically, but also on the Netanyahu approach to negotiation or to peace deals. One of the strategic things that they have done which I think they have succeeded in, is that they have equated any anti-government policies in the West Bank with being anti-Israel and anti-Semitic”.

In the case of an organisation like Christian Aid Ireland it’s hardly surprising that it might say Israeli policies in Area C are harming Palestinians and are in violation of Human Rights. But, she notes, “That’s not just a criticism of the current government; according to the Netanyahu government that’s being anti-Israel and anti-Semitic; and people buy it. Jewish people have endured such a hard history of anti-Semitism that it’s easy to convince us that things are bad. Organisations that support anti-occupation work have been heavily targeted. The ones at the front like ‘Breaking the Silence’ have been assailed, individuals have been directly attacked and there has been a lot of very negative rhetoric by members of parliament and by ministers. ACRI in that sense, is more in the background because we are an organisation that deals also with Israel but also, we are vocal in a more diplomatic way”.

How then does she deal, personally, with the central truth that ACRI’s successes are only partial? “I grew up outside of Tel Aviv and went to Tel Aviv University. I hadn’t met any Arabs at all whether they were Israeli citizens or other. And when I was at Uni there was a project to bring together Jewish and Arab students, so citizens of Israel. The idea was to have a meeting every other week to get to know each other’s narrative and understand each other and that was quite powerful for me. I recognised that their narrative was so different and to hear from them about their relatives in Gaza and the West bank and to recognise the gap between how I see the world and how they see the world. That sparked my curiosity. When I finished school, I moved to Jerusalem during the second intifada in 2002. Israel had started building the separation barrier in East Jerusalem and I just found this fascinating – it’s such a different part of the city that had this almost Kafka situation. Half of the city had a wall and soldiers are checking every person, but you could just walk to another part where there’s no wall and pass through”.

She retains a compelling optimism. “I joined ACRI 8 Years ago, and what gets me down is the situation itself. I make a real effort to not do any work on Friday or Saturday because I think after 5 days of doing the work, I need those 48 hours of separation. Also, it helps that a lot of people at ACRI have been here for a long time: our legal adviser has been there for 25 years and the head of the legal department has been there for 15. To be in an environment with people who have fought the battle, and get their perspective is good. I’m an optimist by nature, I see how the world and life can be so unexpected. Sometimes, you make momentous changes without knowing it. Something that you invested 17 years of your working life in, you might fail at and then sometimes you wake up on Tuesday morning and think ‘hey I’ll call that person’ and suddenly problems are solved”.

She was in Dublin for Gay Pride:  “We saw the Gay Pride flags here in Dublin. A year ago, a group in Beersheba wanted to have the first Pride parade. After the organisers had interactions with the police, the local municipality and the religious figures, they were asked to march only on the side streets. They were asked ‘to be considerate of other people’s feelings’! We challenged this – we took it to the high court. I was optimistic – we’ve won such petitions before – but we lost and so the organisers of the parade decided to cancel the march. They said they were not going to be diverted down back streets and instead they demonstrated outside city hall on that day, instead. But, in the year since there have been ongoing conversations between the people of Beersheba and the gay community and ACRI was advising along the way. And, last week they marched on the main street. There was no need for a legal petition – instead an agreement was reached!”.

She is steely and relentless though, as well as good-humoured. “Someone who did my job before me said that sometimes that you bang your head on the wall and then you wake up and you do it again and again, and that’s what we do… professional headbanging!”.

Tess Purcell is Communications Officer, Christian Aid Ireland, christianaid.ie, @christianaidir 

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