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Published on August 24th, 2016 | by Guest1
For Israel’s military gov’t, PR trumps freedom of information
by Natasha Roth
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman this week announced his new “carrot and stick” plan for Palestinians living in the West Bank, which roughly works out as: if you behave, we will give your towns and communities economic benefits; if you don’t, there will be more demolitions, more arrests, more raids, more canceled permits.
Within Liberman’s plan is a proposal for an Arabic-language news website to be run by the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Ministry of Defense body that oversees Israel’s military government in the West Bank and its policies vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip. The website is scheduled to launch at the end of January 2017 at a cost of NIS 10 million and will, according to Liberman, tell the news “from our perspective.” Or in other words, it’s a ‘hasbara’ initiative.
This announcement followed a report in Walla! two weeks prior, according to which the Ministry of Defense has assigned a budget of millions of shekels to set up a “new media” unit within COGAT with the express purpose of increasing Israel’s influence on the Palestinian public in the West Bank and Gaza.
These sound like relatively straightforward, if cynical, proposals. Except that COGAT’s recent history with building websites and providing materials in Arabic has been a rather unhappy one, as +972 Magazine has previously reported on here, here, here and here.
COGAT — whose operating budget in 2015 was nearly half a billion shekels — has been without a fully-functioning official website since June 2015, apparently due to a technical problem. It currently has a “temporary” website hosted by Wix, which went online in December 2015 and has enjoyed sporadic updates since. The relaunch of the full website, meanwhile, is continually pushed back as the organization repeatedly misses its self-appointed deadlines.
COGAT has also, since May 2014, been locked in an ongoing court battle with Israeli civil rights NGO Gisha over its continuing failure to translate all of its policies and procedures into Arabic and publish them, despite its own promises and court orders compelling it to do so.
In not providing this information COGAT is knowingly breaking the law, not to mention preventing the 4.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza from fully knowing what their rights are and how they can access them. COGAT has yet to translate more than 30 of its 80 policies and procedures into Arabic, while the Civil Administration — Israel’s military government in the West Bank, which sits within COGAT — has around 10 policies out of about 80 that are still not available to the public in Arabic. This is the subject of a separate petition filed by Gisha.
At the beginning of this year, a spokesperson for COGAT told +972 over the phone that the organization lacked Arabic speakers who could translate its policies and procedures to the necessary standard. She added that COGAT, as a public body, does not enjoy the same ability as private companies to simply whip up cash when needed in order to be able to fix their website.
None of these stated shortages, however, stopped COGAT from launching an English-language Facebook page and Twitter feed at the beginning of June 2015, exactly two weeks before its official website allegedly broke down. Both feeds are updated several times daily and are primarily devoted to infographics featuring statistics devoid of context, posts about Palestinian incitement and support for terrorism and selfies of smiling soldiers.
Nor did these missing resources prevent COGAT from setting up an Arabic-language Facebook page at the end of March 2016. This page, while more substantive than the straight hasbara offered by its English counterpart, does not in any way constitute a sufficient replacement for making all the policies that Palestinians under occupation are subject to available in their own language.
+972 contacted COGAT again this week to inquire where the money and personnel for the Arabic news website and new media unit came from, when they hadn’t been made available for the official website nor the translation of procedures into Arabic, as well as to confirm whether its official website would be relaunched this month, as COGAT committed to in court.
COGAT provided the following written response: “In relation to the subject, advanced work is in progress and the data will be updated in due time.” Over the phone, COGAT’s spokesperson told +972 that the site is now due to be up and running by, hopefully, the end of the year — 18 months after its old website stopped working.
There seems to be a clear pattern here: when the issue at stake is fulfilling the legal (not to mention moral) obligation to keep Palestinians adequately informed of the rules and regulations that directly govern their lives, resources are scarce. When it’s a matter of painting the occupation in a positive light, the resources are suddenly made available.
It’s also worth nothing that both COGAT and the Civil Administration have resisted providing all of their policies and procedures in Arabic using reasoning that suggests they consider themselves above the law. COGAT initially held that it was not obligated to publish its policies and procedures under the Freedom of Information Act, a claim that the Ministry of Justice’s FOIA unit refuted back in 2013.
More recently, after the Civil Administration failed to meet a court-mandated deadline in May to finish translating and publishing its policies in Arabic, Gisha submitted a request to have the state held in contempt of court. The Civil Administration responded that as a governmental body, and not an individual, it cannot be held in contempt. The Israel Land Authority tried to use the same tactic in a 2008 court case, to which the presiding judge ruled in response that the state had no grounds on which to act according to the principle of “the king can do no wrong.”
We will continue to update on developments in the court cases involving COGAT and the Civil Administration, as well any progress — or lack thereof — with their website and meeting their obligations under the Freedom of Information Act.
Natasha Roth is writer, editor, and activist based in Jaffa. Her work has appeared in The London Review of Books Blog, Haaretz, The Daily Beast, and The Fair Observer. This article is reprinted, with permission, from +972 Magazine. Photo: Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman