Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Israel vs. Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law

Remember the time when Israel was praised as a beacon of democracy in an undemocratic region, when the world cheered tiny Israel fighting a sea of hostile Arabs? Now that the Goldstone Report has come out – the last in a series of reports criticizing Israel's Gaza Operation -- Israel is supported by all the usual suspects – rightwing Jews, rightwing Israelis (Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres on the moderate nationalist right to hyper-fascists like Ayalon and Lieberman), and, I suppose, Christian evangelicals and some conservative goyyim. Not a single liberal or progressive will rise to Israel's defense, because let's face it – when Israelis, Jews, and the rest of the world rise to criticize the bully's actions, when the person accused by the prime minister of Israel as conducting a "kangaroo court" is one of the most respected judges and scholars of international law (and a Jew and a Zionist to boot), when all the evidence against the Goldstone report is linked to research done by the rightwing Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, or the rightwing NGO Monitor (which itself does not do fact-checking but instead a lot of googling to dig up dirt on its opponents), then you know that Israel has already lost.

The real issue is not whether the human rights NGOs or whether the Goldstone Commission made this or that mistake, or relied erroneously on this or that testimony, or had biased members.

No, Israel's battle is not against the human rights NGOs but rather against the whole concept of human rights and international law. If Israel could point to a single human rights NGO that supported Israel's claim, or, for that matter, a single, unbiased expert in international human right law – this rules out strident Israel-apologists such as Irwin Cotler – then its defense would have some credibility. But because this is not possible, Israel's only recourse, after it violates the rights of Palestinians, is to deny that such rights exist.

Now, it Is not self-evident that there are human rights. Philosophers have debated the question. And international law does indeed restrict the unrestrained power of states to as they see fit. That is why conservative legal authorities in the US (and nationalists everywhere) do not like international law. They deem the use of international law against its violators "lawfare". They have no problem when lawfare is used against their enemies. I didn't hear any complaints against Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International in the Israeli media when the published reports critical of Hizbollah and Fatah (except, perhaps, that they were too little, too late.)

When Israel is accused in report after report of gross violations of human rights, and now, war crimes and perhaps crimes against humanity, its knee-jerk reaction is to accuse the organizations of bias, anti-semitism, holding kangaroo court. And this is precisely the response of rogue states like Mugabe's Zimbabwe, or Bashir's Sudan to critical reports by the same human rights NGOs against them.

And why? Because Israel – at least its government –simply doesn't get human rights or just war doctrine. It assumes that it discharges its duty to minimize civilian casualties by dropping leaflets and telling civilians to leave areas. By that reasoning, Hamas could blow up civilians legitimately if they simply warned them (like the IRA) to leave areas where they have planted bombs.

I don't want to minimize the complexity some of the issues. Just war theory, for example, is notoriously tricky when dealing with unlawful combatants. And, as I have written here before, it Is not without its detractors, and not necessarily on the right.

Let me take one example: the bombing of the police graduation that started the Gaza War. A report prepared by the rightwing Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs argued that there were not innocent traffic cops but members of militant organizations.

Granted – but so what? Under the Geneva Conventions, one cannot kill even soldiers when they are not engaged in hostile activity, or supporting it. If Hamas were to bomb an IDF graduation ceremony, that would be a violation of military convention. Now, it may be true that this is a protection only extended to regular armies. But from an ethical standpoint there is no difference. Every state sees its own army as just and peaceful and the enemy's army as barbaric and unjust. The point of conventions is to limit military action to the battle-field as much as possible. Even if military forces are located in civilian areas, such as the location of the IDF Kirya in the heart of Tel-Aviv, that does not give carte blanche, to an attacking army to wreak havoc on a civilian population.

In short, can anybody take Israel seriously when the evidence collected by Goldstone, and by NGOs – many of them Israeli -- is so overwhelming that the Gaza Op violated international humanitarian law? To argue otherwise is to accept the testimony of the IDF as infallible and to dismiss the testimony of eyewitnesses – Israeli and Palestinian – as inherently biased.

Israelis congratulate themselves that they did not nuke Gaza. After all, if they really wanted to, they could have killed hundreds of thousands, and not 1,400.

The world doesn't buy it. And Israel's isolation is growing. When an Israel's deputy foreign minister can compare the Goldstone Report to the Zionism = Racism UN, you know that Israel is grasping for straws.


Shmuel said...

Find the flaws in the following argument:
A. The IDF is the most moral army in the world.
B. The most moral army in the world doesn't commit war crimes.
C. The IDF doesn't commit war crimes.
D. Anyone who claims the IDF commits war crimes is a liar.

Michael W. said...

"Israel's battle is not against the human rights NGOs but rather against the whole concept of human rights and international law."

I disagree. Israel's battle is against the selective and abusive application of international law by an international body which is used as an arm by a bloc of undemocratic and oppressive governments who gang-up on Israel for political reasons.

The Goldstone Commission was created by the infamous UN Human Rights Council. Judge Goldstone is an intelligent and great at in field (actually knows what the principle of proportionality means), but he shouldn't expect respect when he's working for a body that consists of well recognized human rights abusers.

Michael W. said...

A law is not a law unless it is applied to everyone.

Tamar Orvell said...

Where are we headed? Down to the very bottom from where, like a phoenix (I wish), we might emerge cleaner and clearer on who we can become?

Anonymous said...

"A law is not a law unless it is applied to everyone."

So if a single murderer goes unpunished, there's no law against murder.

Anyway, leaving aside the slogans, your complaint is that Israel is criticized excessively by the UN. I'd feel more concerned about that if it meant Israel was subjected to sanctions as severe as the blockade on Gaza. Otherwise not so much. Besides, they get too little criticism from the chief ally, the US.


KFK said...

It may well be that Israel -- or its government -- doesn't "get" human rights. But I can't help think that Israel is forced to double down in its aggressive and offensive pattern of denial. What would happen if Israel admitted to human rights violations? It would just open the floodgates: What about the 400 Palestinian villages that were leveled in 1948 to ensure that Israel would be a Jewish state? And what about the 700,000 Palestinian refugees who were made homeless as a result and forced into Gaza and the West Bank? These questions go to the very legitimacy of the Zionist program. Better to go on the offensive and hope no one will dare ask questions.

It reminds me of a family I know well in which the father's fortune was based on a truly dreadful action. He and his wife enforced silence on an increasing number of topics that might in some way touch on the close relatives who had been harmed. The kids knew that something was wrong, but couldn't tell what it was. Eventually it came out. It wasn't pretty.

Michael W. said...


What if no "murderer" is punished?

Anonymous said...

"What if no "murderer" is punished?"

An interesting question for an alternate universe. In this universe some high-ranking war criminals do get punished, or at least come to trial. (Milosevic died.) Israel has this habit of arresting Palestinians they say are involved in terrorism, and probably some fraction of them actually are. They also drop bombs on alleged terrorists (and innocent bystanders).

So I don't see the real world relevance of your question.


Devir said...

Great and honest ( like always ) article, Jerry !
The arguments of Israel policies supporters sound like a déja vu ( or déja heard ) to me.
From 1961 to 1974 they ( the portuguese fascist/colonialist régime ) attacked the guerrilla movements in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau, commited war attrocities on the population ) and came up with all sorts of arguments to justify their actions !
And the portuguese that sided with the independence movements were treated as "traitors" and persecuted.
Jews everywhere like you are to be apraised and israli-jews even more so. And they deserve the solidarity of the rest of the world,because the siege is tightening around them.

Anonymous said...

Not only JCPA but many others compiled their list of inaccuracies in Goldstone's report. Shoher, for example:

Jerry Haber said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for proving my point. Shoher is an extreme rightwing Kahanist whose "response" to Goldstone is embarrassing to Israeli spin. I mean, Netanyahu in his sleep could do better.

Shoher hasn't a clue what Goldstone does or who he is (he calls him a human rights activist, as if he were last seen at the weekly demonstrations of Bil'in.) He hasn't a clue about international humanitarian law or the laws of war or the Geneva Conventions. He claims that the West Bank has no natural resources, as if Israel pumps water in there from the Dead Sea...really, I can't even begin to list the inaaccuracies and howlers that he writes.

Reading Soher is like reading any Serb defending his war crimes or any Sudanese defending his war crimes or Cheny defending his war crimes. They always talk about "context" and "self-defense" and "the war on terrorism". What they don't get is that since World War II, and especially since the fall of apartheid and the Bosnian crisis, there is a new game in town, and that is called international human rights. And Israel is right up with all the other offenders.

If Shoher had the beizim, he would just stand up and say, "the hell with international human rights and the hell with the Palestinian arabs." Instead, he uses the tired argument that Israel is moral because if it wanted to,it could have killed a lot more. Well, hey, that means Hamas is moral because it hasn't killed as many Jews as it could.

fiddler said...

I don't know if it was intentional to post this on this date, but on the 27th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre there's a sense of deja-vu indeed, and one can only wonder if the Goldstone report won't suffer the same fate as the Kahan commission's recommendations. Back then at least the Israeli public had the spine to stand up for what was right. Today, sadly they've rather got the government they deserve.

David L. said...

I think Judge Goldstone raised many valid points. It's very sad to see him condemned by much of his own Jewish community.

Ibrahamav said...

Israel has the same spine it had 27 years ago. It knew then that allowing Arabs to murder Arabs was wrong. It still believes that. It also still believes that allowing Arabs to launch rockets into Israel is wrong.

pabelmont said...

Question: Is there such a thing as international humanitarian law?

Answer: Well * * *. The answer to "what is the law?" used to be "the law is what the courts say it is" (and, here, one could notice what the International Court of Justice said in its 9 July 2004 advisory opinion -- settlements and wall illegal). However, that idea grew up in times and places where "what the courts said" was translated into enforcement action. Today, one may fairly say, "How many divisions does the ICJ have?" and the answer very often is "NONE."