Palestinians crossing through the barrier from one side of Abu Dis to the other.

The possibilities of human rights as a discipline intrigued Montell, and she returned to the States to earn a master’s degree with a concentration in human rights at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. In 1995, merging her love of Israel with her passion for human rights work, she took a position as development director for B’Tselem. Founded in 1989 by a group of Israeli public figures, B’Tselem takes its name from Genesis 1:27, meaning “in the image of” God. Montell, at the age of 33, was named the organization’s executive director in 2001, the first in the position to have been born in the U.S.

An early battle fought by B’Tselem under Montell’s leadership was the campaign to end the Israeli government’s policy of demolishing the homes of Palestinian suicide bombers. Since the terrorists themselves were already dead, B’Tselem argued that destruction of their families’ homes constituted collective punishment, which is counter to human rights accords to which Israel is a signatory.

“Even if it was effective, you can’t punish innocent people to try to deter crime,” Montell explains. In addition to the principled legal argument, B’Tselem also tried to make people realize the intuitive: the demolition policy was failing. Rather than deterring terrorist bombings, destroying homes in the Occupied Territories was fueling the fire of Palestinian hatred. In what Montell calls a “happy ending,” the government suspended the practice after five years.

While segments of this complex and often fractious society, including the respected Israeli daily newspaper HaAretz, deem human rights organizations such as B’Tselem as “the state’s pride, not a threat that must be liquidated or minimized,” not everyone in Israel is quick to praise Montell or her organization.

“They’re completely out of touch with mainstream Israeli society,” says Marc Luria, whose group Security Fence for Israel supported swift construction of the separation barrier. Luria, whose Jerusalem apartment was shaken by the 2003 explosion at the Café Hillel in which a suicide bomber killed seven people and wounded more than 50, blames B’Tselem and other human rights organizations for delaying the construction of what he sees as a lifesaving necessity. “We initially thought the whole process would take a year,” says Luria. “[Petitions to] the Supreme Court over and over again slowed things down.”

Montell helping a family carry their bags after crossing a gate in the barrier.

Comments like this anger Montell, who knows of myriad Palestinian farmers whose access to their own fields has been made nearly impossible by the barrier. “If they want a fence along the border, fine—use the Green Line,” she says. Montell has argued that the barrier’s original route was drawn not only to include a large number of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but also to enlarge the territory available for their expansion.

“If they had chosen a route that was genuinely for security and not for political reasons, the fence would have been built by now.”

Rabbi Ari Chwat, a West Bank settler who counts no fewer than 10 personal friends among those killed by Palestinian terrorists, goes even further in his criticism by decrying what he calls the “selective humanism” of B’Tselem’s activism.

“B’Tselem condemns the Israeli army on just about every incident of accidental casualties in the fight against terror, while barely sympathizing half-heartedly with the thousands of totally innocent Israeli citizens,” Chwat argues. “This is especially disturbing being that B’Tselem is an Israeli organization. It is like a mother running into an inferno and caring for her neighbor’s child before her own. Not only is it not helpful, but this misplaced and selective humanism of B’Tselem actually harms the cause of peace by confusing the world to mistake the victim as the aggressor and the ideological terrorist as the unfortunate victim.”

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