Although the peace process is valuable, there may be danger in focus too much on peace at the expense of human rights.
Jessica Montell, executive director of the Israeli human rights nongovernmental organization B’Tselem, spoke about her work during a brunch discussion Sunday. The talk was sponsored by the Franklin Humanities Institute, the Center for Jewish Studies and the Duke Islamic Studies Center.
“We need to be really smart about how we engage with the political process in order to ensure attention to these [human rights] issues,” Montell said.
She explained the work that B’Tselem does documenting human rights abuses by the Israeli military and government and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She also detailed the paradoxical nature of the peace process, which is necessary to solve the ultimate problems in the region but has the immediate effect of cementing the status quo and stifling awareness of human rights issues.
“The peace process is much more present in public conversations in Washington than it is in Jerusalem,” Montell said. “I was in Washington last in March. Probably the week I was in Washington I heard that phrase…‘peace-talks,’ ‘two-state solution,’ more than in the year I was in Jerusalem.”
Montell spoke about the overemphasis on the peace process as opposed to the human rights situation on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza. She noted that the last round of seemingly successful peace talks in 1993 left Israel in control of 60 percent of the West Bank and led to a tripling of illegal Israeli settlement presence, leading to a “swiss-cheese” map of the West Bank. At the same time, violations of human rights by both Israeli and Palestinian authorities have increased.
Montell also described the need to infuse human rights considerations into the peace process, expressing her fears that the new round of talks announced by Secretary of State John Kerry in July will serve only as a distraction from the reality of the human rights situation on the ground in the occupied territories. She pointed out that the peace process itself can have a dampening effect on human rights, as Palestinian voices who criticize or oppose the process are often silenced.
“The human rights issues are going to be central,” she said.
At the end of the day, however, Montell acknowledged that the peace process is the only way to bring about a lasting solution to human rights issues in Israel and Palestine.
In addition to giving her perspective on the new round of talks arranged by Kerry, Montell also described the work that B’Tselem does on a regular basis in the occupied territories researching and documenting violations of Palestinian rights.
After giving her presentation, Montell took questions from the audience on topics ranging from Palestinian cynicism regarding the peace process to the role of the Israeli Supreme Court in stemming human rights violations within the occupied territories.
Reactions to Montell’s talk were positive, both among members of the Duke community and among others who had come to listen.
Many in the room, including junior Eugenie Dubin, thought that Montell did a good job of illustrating the stark nature of human rights issues even in the context of the peace process.
Senior Prashanth Kamaakanthan, a columnist for The Chronicle, said he appreciated the non-political nature of the talk, which helped to illustrate the importance of the human rights issues.
The event was attended by people not only from the Duke community but from the Research Triangle area as well.
“The fact that she could [discuss the issues] from the top level down to the individual level—that gave me some valuable insight. Plus she’s very clear about what the legality and illegality of this is and very clear on what the human rights issues are,” said Jenny Ratcliffe, a Durham resident who attended the talk.