Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Shooting the Messenger

On a day when the Loonies of the Right (David Bernstein, Mark Regev, AIPAC) went after Human Rights Watch (for good rebuttals, see here and here and here), some of the same Loonies and others (like the NGOMonitor) went after Breaking the Silence for releasing the Soldier Testimonies from Gaza.

What were some of the criticisms? That the testimonies were not representative, that they were made anonymously, that some of the accusations were based on hearsay, and, finally, that if BtS had wanted to stop the practices, then it would have simply given the names, rank and serial numbers of each interviewee (including the ones who broke IDF policy by talking to BtS), to the IDF. And the most moral army in the world would have investigated each story.

All the above misses the point. BtS did not issue a human rights report. It issued a collection of testimonies. Are they representative? How the hell does anybody know? BtS certainly did not make that claim in the booklet. Did the interviewees include hearsay evidence? Of course, they did; they spoke honestly about what they knew, what they didn't knew, and what they heard. Clearly any intelligent reader will treat each claim with the respect and skepticism it deserves.

What the IDF apologists are doing is deliberately looking through the booklet and saying, "Ha! This is something that was not directly witnessed." They carefully omit anything that doesn't serve their cause.

That is the difference between them and BtS. I read the interviews, and the thing that struck me the most was – these were real soldiers talking about their experiences. Some of them defend what they did, and some of what they did was defensible. It's all in the booklet.

One of the testimonies, as I reported here yesterday, was about the use of white phosphorus. Remember, the IDF initially denied all use of white phosphorus. Then it retreated, when clear evidence was provided, to making two claims: a) all white phosphorus use was legal; b) any use that may not have been legal would be investigated.

Now, here is one testimony that nobody claims is "representative." We are not talking about defecating in the living room of Gazan houses. All you need is one soldier witnessing one use of white phosphorus in a inhabited area, and you have prima facie evidence of a serious war crime.

And this brings me to my final point. The little big brouhaha in Israel (actually, the big big brouhaha today was the haredim demonstrating in Jerusalem) was over BtS's going to the goyim outside Israel with its reports. If the ex-soldiers who head BtS were really interested in reforming the IDF, they would have gone to the IDF. Hence, all that interested them was blackening IDF's name.

Well, I am not a member of BtS, and I DO NOT SPEAK for the organization. But I do know something about its history.

BtS was founded about five years ago, during the Second Intifada. It started with a photo exhibition of IDF soldiers in Hebron. That exhibition made front page headlines. At one point, the IDF seized the pictures and said it would try the soldiers who had participated in illegal activities against the Hebronites. After the pictures were returned to the group by an embarrassed IDF, the group was invited to the Knesset to present the exhibition. They were invited to military preparatory programs to talk about their work. They were almost national heroes. And the group thought, naively, that things would change.

They didn't. The IDF's conduct only worsened.

I don't think that the IDF, under the present circumstances, can be seriously reformed. The problem is not with the IDF; it is with Israeli society that tolerates the IDF's "secrets and lies". The IDF will always find a way to make its war crimes kosher. They even have Asa Kasher as their in-house ethicist. Only when they are caught on tape do they change their story. On the other hand, I don't view the IDF folks as inherently evil. I think that they just don't get what it means for an army to act morally. As I said earlier today, if they simply dropped the "most moral army" claim, if they recognized the failings, that would be a first step. But they are in deep denial.

BtS's audience is the public and not even the entire public, but the moral public. Their real audience are the moral people, on the left and on the right, inside and outside Israel, who will begin the discussion about how to bring about change to Israeli society. That will not be easy.

Still, consider the following: the group collected more testimonies this time around than ever before. They may not have credibility with the Hasbarah types and the apologists for "the most moral army in the world."

But they clearly have credibility with a growing number of soldiers who were deeply troubled by what they witnessed and what they heard, including the IDF spokesperson's lies. (See Testimony 1). And these soldiers know that BtS will let them tell their story, in their words, and will present that story to Israel and to the world.




Mary-Lee said...

I believe the Breaking the Silence soldiers. After Vietnam, U.S. soldier said that it "felt as if someone else was doing those things."

Uri said...

On the criticism of Human Rights Watch: has anyone ever done a serious study of the large international human rights organizations, the powers, interests and ideologies they respond to? I haven't seen one, but it seems like a topic ripe for study. Certainly the accusations of bias fly every time a report is issued.

There's a good mini-study of the treatment of Israel vs. Iraq by these organizations in Norman Finkelstein's The Rise and Fall of Palestine. He finds that Iraq gets much harsher treatment, as you might expect given the Occidentalist orientation of these groups and their reliance on western funders.