The world of human rights activist Bassem Eid
“Similar to a class traitor,” is how one BDS (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions) activist struggled to explain to another on Twitter the words of Bassem Eid, the Palestinian human rights advocate who has become a forceful voice against the BDS movement. It was not the first time that Eid has been called a traitor or worse, but his history, which is far better known to his Palestinian countrymen than to Westerners, gives the lie to such epithets.
It was Eid who put the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem on the map. Most famous for its denunciations of excessive Israeli military actions, B’Tselem was founded in 1988 during the first Palestinian intifada by prominent left-wing Israelis, aiming to combat abuses of Palestinians by Israeli forces. But how many Palestinians would open up to Israelis knocking at their doors, claiming to want to help them, even if the Israelis spoke Arabic?
B’Tselem’s search led them to Eid, who was then a 30-year-old Palestinian journalist working mostly as a freelancer or stringer. He wrote sometimes in Arabic for Palestinian papers, but he was fluent in Hebrew. B’Tselem’s founders knew his byline from Kol Ha’ir, a Jerusalem weekly published by Haaretz. Over five years, Eid had established a reputation for gritty and careful investigative journalism.
For example, there was the ugly incident in the village of Salem, near Nablus, in early 1988, where residents alleged that Israeli soldiers had buried some youngsters up to their chests in sand with a bulldozer to punish them for throwing stones. By the time Eid reached the scene, the youths had been extricated. All that he could see was a mound of sand. Eid demanded stronger proof of the villagers’ tale. When one of the alleged victims claimed he had lost a shoe under the sand as he was pulled free, Eid urged the people to take shovels and dig for it. Lo and behold, the sand yielded a shoe, and, like Cinderella’s glass slipper, it matched the one that the young man produced. On the strength of this evidence, the army investigated and confirmed the incident. When Eid wrote it up for Kol Ha’ir, it raised a small scandal.
Unlike most other liberal thinkers in the Middle East, Bassem Eid did not come from the educated middle class. His father, Mohammed, eked out a living as a tailor in a tiny stall in the shouk in the old city of Jerusalem. In 1951, Mohammed Eid married Mahdiyah, the daughter of a poor cobbler-turned-imam in Lod, who bore four sons in rapid succession, Bassem being the fourth, and then a daughter.
Early in the marriage, the young family had moved from a home in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City to one in the Jewish Quarter. The flat consisted of just a single room plus a small kitchen and a toilet. When the crush of living seven in a room bothered him, Bassem found refuge with his mother’s sister, a spinster who lived alone in the Cardo, the remains of the central street of the city in the Byzantine era.
In 1966, the Jordanian Government decided to empty that part of the Jewish Quarter of its inhabitants. No force was used, simply an enticement. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency had just built a new refugee camp, called Shuafat, now a no-man’s land between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that has become the epicentre of the current wave of knife attacks, on the northern edge of Jerusalem. Each family that moved there was offered a home and plot of land free of charge.
In consequence of the move, the Eids were not displaced by the war of 1967 as were many other residents of east Jerusalem. They were not, however, spared all trauma. Bassem, who was then 9, had gone to visit his aunt in her one-room apartment in the Cardo the day that the battle for Jerusalem began. He recalls:
When the war started there was a small radio at my aunt’s. And they started saying “Yahud, Yahud, Yahud” [Jew, in Arabic.] I had no idea what it meant. So I asked my aunt, “What does it mean, Yahud? Are they human beings like us?”
And she said, “No, they eat human beings.”
“Oh, goodness! They might come here and eat us.”
“No, do not worry. I locked the outside door.”
For five days they lived on whatever provisions were on hand. The radio gave them some news, of dubious reliability, but it was their only link to the outside. The home had no phone; nor did that of Eid’s parents. On the sixth day, Eid recalls:
Somebody knocked at the door, and immediately I ran towards my aunt and I said, “The Jews have come to eat us.”
She said, “No, no, it is not the Jews. Go and open the door.”
I said, “No, you are older than I am. You have to open it.”
Then she said, “Do not worry. This may be your uncle.”
Then I went and I opened it. And I saw soldiers, and immediately I ran inside the house. Then they entered. They spoke Arabic well. They asked if there were men in the home, and my aunt she said, “No one, except me and this child.”
And then one soldier said, “If you need some food you can go outside. There is a point here which is distributing food-some tomatoes, some bread and milk.”
And then my aunt looked at me and she said, “Do you want to bring some?”
And I said, “No.”
Then the soldier looked at me, saying, “Why not?” in Arabic. “You can go. It is safe. Nobody will bother you.”
And I said, “No.”
When the soldiers had left, Bassem asked his aunt: “Do you believe him that they are distributing bread and tomatoes and milk?” And she said, “Yes.” Bassem challenged her: “You told me the Jews eat human beings. Why should they feed us?” Then she said, “This is what your grandfather told me,” but she confessed she did not know the truth of it herself. So, Bassem ventured out, and he found “all of the neighbourhood people were there, bringing tomatoes, bread and milk. They gave it to everybody.”
That the Jewish soldiers were so much kinder than he had been led to expect may have contributed to Eid’s attitude toward Israel, which, even when he was acting as its most irritating hair-shirt, never was marked by hatred. Even more, discovering in such vivid fashion the falsehood of the tale of Jewish cannibalism that his aunt passed down to him from his grandfather seems to have imprinted young Eid with the strong sense of the difference between fact and rumour that was to become the trademark of his career.
After high school, while waiting tables to save for college, he stumbled into an activity that influenced his development. With no definite purpose, he had picked up a used Hebrew typewriter. He had mastered the language in the streets, hawking newspapers to Jewish Israelis. Then one day, walking through a section of the shouk in the old city where butcher shops were concentrated, he was offended by what he saw and smelled. The butchers in the shouk had no refrigeration. “The streets smelled so bad and were so dirty,” Eid recalls. He went home and typed a letter in Hebrew to the Mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kolek, complaining of the conditions.
Two weeks later, the post brought a reply. Kolek thanked him for bringing the problem to his attention, praised him as a good citizen, and promised to clean up the butchers’ row. That was exciting; so next, he sent a letter to Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Eid can no longer remember the subject, just that once again he got a reply – signed by the Prime Minister. Eid told others of his correspondence and word began to circulate that he had the power to communicate with the Israeli authorities. Eid recalls:
Then people started coming to me, saying things like, “Listen, I have problem with the national insurance. Can you write me a letter to explain to them that in this year I never worked, I was sick? I have the medical reports here with me.”
After about a year, Eid made a small business of writing proxy letters. The residents of Shuafat would bring him their disputes with various government offices or utility companies, and Eid would type letters in Hebrew, pleading their cases. They would pay him a few shekels.
He developed confidence in his own talents as an advocate. He also learned something about the nature of democracy. “For each letter I sent, I received a response in a written letter,” he says. “This is not common in the Arab world, at all. In Israel it is.”
After four years of working restaurants by day and writing advocacy letters by night – or vice versa – Eid had saved enough money to enroll in Hebrew University to study journalism. But after two years his funds ran out, and he was forced to abandon his studies. He resumed working in restaurants and writing letters, but he also began to write as a freelancer for Arab and Hebrew papers, and soon he caught on with Kol Ha’ir.
As a result of his growing reputation in that role, he was discovered and recruited by the founders of B’Tselem. Initially, the organisation had a staff of six, of which Eid was the only Arab and the only full-time field worker. He was the heart of the operation.
Each time the Israeli army was accused of misbehaviour, B’Tselem would send it a report based on the testimony Eid had taken. The army would then investigate and either deny or admit the accusation.
Sometimes Israeli soldiers troubled by the misbehaviour of their fellows made use of Eid. In 1990 a reservist contacted him to report that his unit had rounded up a bunch of youths in the village of Aboud, near Ramallah, who were suspected of having thrown stones at some Jewish settlers. The soldiers beat them and humiliated them. It happened to be the Jewish holiday of Purim when costumes are donned, and some soldiers forced the boys to put paint on their faces and repeat a Purim song. Eid gathered corroborating testimony, and several other soldiers eventually confessed and were punished.
Eid often drove Israeli military officials crazy. Once, for example, the army arrested a 16-year-old resident of a West Bank village, Beir Nabala, who confessed to blocking a road overnight with stones. When asked how he had travelled the considerable distance from his home to the spot of the blockage, the lad said he had taken his father’s donkey. The next day, soldiers arrived with a truck and confiscated the donkey. When the family told Eid what had happened, he dashed off a letter to the legal adviser to the military. He inquired about the whereabouts of the donkey, asking: “I want to know if you have a prison for donkeys. I want to know how you are treating the donkeys. And I want to know if the owners have a right to visit their donkeys.” The legal adviser replied in humourless bureaucratese. Eid released the exchange to the press, which he knew would appreciate its drollness. When it made the front pages of three Israeli papers, the donkey was returned.
Although he was a thorn in its side, the army came grudgingly to respect Eid. It recognised that his reports were free from the fancy and exaggeration that is all too common in Palestinian discourse. “Why exaggerate?” asks Eid. “For example, if 2,000 houses have been demolished, why make it 10,000? If the Israelis killed four, why say it was 40?” He did not take complaints from fellow Palestinians at face value. On the contrary, he made it a practice to probe the accuracy of the testimony he received before telling his colleagues in the B’Tselem headquarters to send a formal letter to the army asking for its version of the events.
1994 was a pivotal year for Eid, as it was for all Palestinians and Israelis. In July, 10 months after the awkward handshake between Rabin and Arafat on the White House lawn, the PLO leadership made its triumphant return to the West Bank to set up a government. Nearly all Palestinians longed for a state of their own, but Eid, like others, had reservations about the long-exiled PLO leadership.
Eid had already had run-ins with some of the Fatah toughs within the territories because he had denounced some of the brutal street “justice” they dispensed, especially in the refugee camps. He also had been instrumental in a B’Tselem report issued early in 1994 on the subject of the killing by Palestinians of other Palestinians suspected of “collaborating” with Israel. Its findings were stark:
The broad definition placed on the term “collaborator” by Palestinian organisations and their activists and their modus operandi led to the killing of hundreds of Palestinians who did not operate in the service of the security authorities. Many were killed because their behavior was perceived as immoral or because they were considered “negative elements” in the society, or for other reasons. Some killings were carried out within the framework of internal disputes, or to settle personal rivalries, and were then portrayed as punishment for collaboration.
Would Arafat and his well-armed crew tamp down this violence, wondered Eid, or add to it? It was not long before his apprehensions were confirmed. Arafat created a variety of armed agencies of which the best known was the Preventive Security Service (PSS) commanded by one of his close deputies, Jibril Rajoub. Soon Palestinians began to come to Eid with stories of abuse at the hands of Rajoub’s minions. “I started receiving telephone calls from people who had been arrested and tortured and then released,” recalls Eid. “Some of them were really afraid.”
Eid urged his superiors at B’Tselem to open an investigation into abuses by the new Palestinian National Authority, but they said that as an Israeli organisation, it was their mission to criticise misdeeds by Israel, not by the nascent Palestinian government. So, Eid began to keep his own records. As these files thickened, Eid appealed to B’Tselem to reverse its policy and allow him to prepare an official report on the abuses. It was published in August 1995, and it cited cases of:
extra-judicial punishment, abduction of residents, illegal arrests, prolonged detention without any judicial scrutiny, refusal to allow legal representation, refusal to allow regular family visits, and use of torture techniques such as beatings, painful tying-up, threats, humiliation, sleep deprivation, and withholding of medical treatment.
In response, Rajoub denounced Eid as a “collaborator” and an “Israeli police agent.”
In January 1996, the Palestinians held elections for a president and a legislative council. In a public statement, Eid criticised Arafat for the failure of Palestinian TV to give coverage to other candidates. That same night, as Eid arrived home in Shuafat about 11pm, a man got out of a parked car and approached him. He identified himself as Abu Fuad Jneidi, an officer of Force Seventeen, a security service tasked with protecting Arafat among other special duties. He asked if Eid would accompany him to his office in Ramallah for “a cup of coffee.” Eid laughed and said: “I know of many people invited to drink coffee with you who never returned.”
Jneidi acted offended, acknowledging Eid’s eminence and assuring him that he would be treated as a guest. Eid calculated that if he refused, this would be put into the rumour mill as proof he was a “collaborator,” so he assented. Jneidi asked him to come in his car, but Eid said he would follow in his own. En route, Eid called some journalists from Reporters Sans Frontières to tell them his situation. Apparently they started at once making calls on his behalf.
At the office in Ramallah, Eid asked, “Is this going to take long?”
“Probably until tomorrow,” Jneidi answered.
“Am I under arrest?” asked Eid.
“No,” insisted Jneidi, “please do not misunderstand us.”
“So what am I?” asked Eid.
“You are a guest.”
“May I leave?” said Eid, making as if to rise.
“No,” said Jneidi placing his hand on Eid’s to restrain him.
The next day, Israel Radio broadcasted a report about Eid’s disappearance. It quoted a Palestinian commander claiming to have scoured Palestinian detention facilities for Eid and arguing that it must be the Israelis who were holding him. But then Ahmed Tibi, an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset who was also a close adviser to Arafat, appeared at the police station where Eid was being held and ordered his release. Direct appeals to Arafat by US Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and widespread news coverage had saved him.
This experience strengthened Eid’s resolve to monitor abuses by the Palestinian authorities. But the leadership of B’Tselem was divided about whether the group should make itself the watchdog of Palestinian authorities as well as Israeli. In July 1996, Eid announced his resignation from B’Tselem and set about creating his own organisation.
Eid’s Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG) kept a critical eye on Israel’s actions, publishing reports on home demolitions, detention of Palestinian prisoners, violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians, and the like. But this time, Eid focused primarily on Palestinian authorities. “I feel I must protect my nation from any kind of authority, even its own authority,” he explained. “I want the Palestinians to build a democratic state.”
Its first comprehensive report was issued in May 1997, six months after its founding. Its description of “torture on a large scale” and “norms of illegal behaviour” by the Palestinian Authority “def[ied] a taboo,” in the words of the Washington Post. “In a political culture that has silenced many critics, the boldness of the organisers, who called a news conference at an Arab-owned hotel in East Jerusalem, stood out as much as their measured and critical report,” said the paper.
The Post also noted that no mention of the PHRMG appeared in the Palestinian media.
In September 2000, the second, or “Al Aqsa,” intifada created a new context for Eid’s work. Initially Eid’s criticisms targeted the Israelis. “What has pushed the Palestinians toward violence is frustration,” he told an American reporter. “The Israelis are still bulldozing Palestinian homes, still building settlements, still killing Palestinians.”
While attacking the Israeli press for its lack of objectivity, he also accused Palestinian news organisations of spreading “disinformation,” and he was particularly tough on other Palestinian human rights groups that he thought were exploiting the events. He wrote:
Are these organisations really serving the cause of human rights, or are they trying to gain publicity at the expense of human rights? Do we, as Palestinians, really need to exaggerate matters at this time when the Palestinian people are bleeding? The facts speak for themselves. The Palestinians are victims; overstatements and inaccurate reporting will only damage our credibility.
As the violence grew even more intense, Eid became increasingly critical of the Palestinian side. In February, he publicly called upon Arafat to “shift the focus of the uprising from armed resistance to unarmed, civil protest.”
His words fell on deaf ears, and the next years, his criticisms grew more acerbic. In a 2003 newspaper essay, he went after Arafat personally:
The Palestinian president is still talking about shaheeds [martyrs] and he encouraged children to become martyrs…
It seems Arafat is still encouraging Palestinians to victimise themselves, an attitude that is without logic or ethics. Instead of talking about peace and life, instead of supporting coexistence, instead of fulfilling the consciousness of human beings, Arafat is calling for death. It appears the nearly 2,500 Palestinians and more than 700 Israelis who were killed during this intifada are not enough to fulfill Arafat’s political interests.
Eid’s own organisation, and his even-handed approach to injustice, would be another casualty of the heightened state of conflict and the accompanying lack of regard for truth that continues to characterise the failure of the Oslo peace process. In 2011, Eid’s PHRMG ran out of funds and closed its doors. All Palestinian human rights groups depend on European funding, and the funders turn out to be more concerned with abuses by Israel than by the PA. Since then he has made a living as a commentator and lecturer. He denounces Fatah for corruption, but reserves his sharpest words for Hamas:
I am trying to be the spokesperson for those who have died. I think the people who have died left a message. I want the world to hear their voices. “We died for no reason.” The people who died in Gaza were sacrificed by their own leadership: Hamas. The one who imposed three wars on Gaza was Hamas. In every country the governments use their missiles and rockets to protect its people but Hamas was doing the opposite, using its people to protect its missiles and rockets.
Such words bring predictable denunciations down on Eid’s head, as do his denunciations of the BDS movement for impoverishing the lives of ordinary Palestinians. “Take Soda Stream,” he says. “As a result of moving [its operations] from the West Bank to southern Israel, 2,500 Palestinians lost their jobs.”
Predictably, Eid is denounced as a traitor, especially by BDS activists outside Palestine. Within the territories, where he continues to make his home, his defence of Palestinians against abuses from any corner is often recalled with appreciation. But among foreign champions of the Palestinian cause, few know or remember his record. “I don’t care if I’m called a traitor,” says Eid. “Any Arab who stands up and criticizes his own leadership is called a traitor for Israel. I am trying to find ways to improve daily life for my people and to ensure a better future.”
Joshua Muravchik is the author of Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel. This article is reprinted from Tablet Magazine, at tabletmag.com, the online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture. © Tablet Magazine, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.
This article is featured in this month’s Australia/Israel Review, which can be downloaded as a free App: see here for more details.