Tuesday, November 17, 2009

David Shulman on Moshe Halbertal on the Goldstone Report on the NYRB Blog

One of Moshe Halbertal's criticisms in the Goldstone Illusion was that the report brought in extraneous material about Israeli's Occupation of the West Bank. "Why should a committee with a mandate to inquire into the operation in Gaza deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at large?

The question was anticipated and answered already in the Goldstone Report, and I cite it in my post below. Another answer has now been provided by Prof. David Shulman, Halbertal's Hebrew University colleague. Shulman, whose book Dark Hope was reported on in this blog, has long been an activist on the West Bank with the Jewish-Arab group Ta'ayush.

Shulman's piece, "Israel Without Illusions: What the Goldstone Report Got Right" starts off with partial agreement with Halbertal on some points.

There are, in my view, problems, distortions, and lacunae in the Goldstone report—some of them resulting from the fact that the Israeli government refused to cooperate with the UN commission. At the very least, Israeli testimony, both by ordinary soldiers and higher-ranking officers, might have modulated the sweeping conclusions in three of the most damning chapters of the report: "Chapter X. Indiscriminate Attacks by Israeli Armed Forces Resulting in the Loss of Life and Injury to Civilians"; "Chapter XI. Deliberate Attacks Against the Civilian Population"; and "Chapter XIII. Attacks on the Foundations of Civilian Life in Gaza."

Shulman doesn't say what these "problems, distortions, and lacunae" are, but when he writes that "at the very least," more interviews with the IDF "might have modulated the sweeping conclusions in the three of the most damning chapters of the report," you know how fundamentally he disagrees with Halbertal's moral outrage over the report.

So where does he agree? On the "eerily neutral tone" taken by the report towards Hamas. C'est tout.

But after the perfunctory attempt at sounding conciliatory, Shulman gets down to business.

But the report's attempt to link whatever happened in Gaza with what has been going on in the West Bank for the last forty-two years is wholly justified. The political background to the report is, before all else, a cultural and moral one. I do not believe that a society can disenfranchise, dispossess, and effectively dehumanize large numbers of people living between Jenin and Hebron without this process influencing the way it conducts a war in Gaza. No one who regularly visits the Palestinian territories controlled by Israel has to speculate about whether or not Israel is engaged in the routine abuse of human rights.

And further

But at heart the problem is not, after all, a legal one: rather, it reflects our deeper vision of ourselves in the world and our ability to see, to imagine, and to acknowledge the suffering of other human beings, including those aspects of their suffering for which we are directly responsible. It is also important to note that the public debate itself has its limits, as you can see by the recent attempts to silence Dr. Neve Gordon of Ben-Gurion University or the no less invidious government campaign to dry up international funding for Shovrim Shtika ("Breaking the Silence"), the remarkably courageous group of ex-soldiers who have exposed recurrent acts of army violence against Palestinian civilians that they witnessed in Hebron and elsewhere in the territories. Shovrim Shtika has also meticulously collected soldiers' testimony about what they saw or did during the Gaza campaign last December and January.

Shulman ends with saying what many have said – that the Gaza Op was different from previous operations in terms of dealing with civilians -- that with each operation the IDF sinks to a new low. Those of us who have been around for a while remember when Israelis had at least a modicum of outrage over civilian deaths. A whole commission was set up to probe Israeli responsibility for a massacre in which the IDF did not even take part! Sorry to wax nostalgiac, but those were the days!

As prophesied long ago by the late philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz and others, the occupation—and above all the settlement project—have profoundly eroded the moral fiber of Israel, corroded central institutions of the society, and undermined our integrity as a political community. None of this happened in a vacuum; the "other side" has much to atone for as well. But even I can remember a time when charges of war crimes were not simply sloughed off by Israel's leaders, when military mistakes that cost innocent civilian lives were acknowledged as such and elicited expressions of sorrow, and when Israeli courts clearly articulated the principle that a soldier has not only the right but indeed the duty not to carry out an order that is at odds with his conscience as a human being or with basic human values.

I remember vividly an eloquent apology offered on national television by then Chief of Staff Mota Gur for accidental civilian casualties caused by shelling during Operation Litani in Lebanon in the spring of 1978. One might also recall the time in late 1982 when some 300,000 ordinary Israelis came out to demonstrate in Tel Aviv because of Israel's indirect responsibility, as occupying power, for the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut. Times have changed.


(h/t to ibn ezra)


Anonymous said...

I don't know. Maybe Israeli moral feelings have coarsened in recent years, but some of this sounds like people remembering the good old days as being better than they were. For instance, in the 1982 Lebanon War I've read the accounts of Robert Fisk and Jonathan Randal and others, and Israel apparently killed many more civilians with aerial bombing and shelling (possibly in the 10-20 thousand range) than died in Gaza and also far more than died at Sabra and Shatila (even if you accept the 2000 dead figure that some say is the true figure for the massacres).

I'm a little cynical about the emphasis on Sabra and Shatila--I think it's a little easier to confess to the crimes of one's allies than to one's own crimes. Did 300,000 Israelis protest the bombing of civilians in Beirut?

Americans are the same way, for the most part. Actually, if anything we're worse. Our public intellectuals and pundits (in the mainstream at least) are always bemoaning the fact that we didn't intervene to stop this or that massacre committed by our enemies. We don't hear nearly as much about the massacres committed by the people we support.


Abu Pessoptimist said...

While it might be true that the perfomanc of the IDF in Gaza has sunk to a new moal low, I must at the same time say that Lebanon 1982 was a turning point. I have been following this war, first at the desk of my newspaper of the time, Het Parool in Amsterdam, and vividly remember Sharons bombardments of Beirut with which he tried to get the PLO on its knees or to kill Arafat. Whole flatblocs perished in the process, most of the times together with their inhabitants. I also remember one of Sharon's jokes: a sequence of bombing raids at 2.42 and 3.38 hours respectively in honor of the UN Security Council resolutions of the same numbers.
Somewhat later, in early September, I visited Lebanon itself and saw some of the things that enraged colonel Dov Yermya so much that he quit. One of these things was the camp Ein al Helweh near Sidon: there were no stuctures left, only walls to a maximum height of some 45 cm.
I returned to Beirut on September 19th, that was som two days after the Sabra & Chatila massacre stopped. One of the things I'll remember till I die is the moment I was standing on the roof of thye Kuwaiti embassay, just South of the camps. It had been a lookout of the IDF during the operation of Hobeika's Lebanese Forces. From were I stood I counted the bodies of at least 30 elderly people who were lying in their blood in the corridors of their little houses, three dead horses, one dead donkey and a few dead chickens. Let nobody think that the IDF was INDIRECTLY responsible. It was completely impossible to be indirectly responsible under such circumstances. (And by the way, A.B. Yehoshua made this remark at the time that described the situation very well as far as I am concerned: 'It was us who opened the door of the cage and we blamed the lion.')
Which is not to say that in Gaza sme aspects of the conduct of the IDF were worse than in 1982. I just wanted to point out that it might be just one more step in a gradual process of decline (to which, by the way, Ariel Sharon may have contributed more than anybody else). What is happening on the West Bank has also contributed to this process. As a journalist I can tell you that in the 80's it used to be news when a Palestinian was killed in the territories, nowadays it has to be death in greater numbers before it will be printed. But I'm convinced that also this is only a part of an - alarming - step by step development.

Grif said...

I'm with Donald, but I have further troubles with the characterization of Israel's responsibility for Sabra and Shatila as being "indirect" or as Jerry put it, "a massacre in which the IDF did not even take part!"

Israel most assuredly took part. The Phalangist units that did the actual killing were operating under the direct command and control of Ariel Sharon and the IDF, no different than any other IDF unit. That such an act could have been committed without direct orders or the full knowledge of the IDF is inconceivable, not solely because the IDF itself stood guard around the camps as the slaughter occurred, providing illumination, turning back those attempting to escape, and ensuring no outside force would interfere, but, as leaked IDF documents revealed years ago to the tribunal in Belgium, Sharon gave the orders directly himself. I believe the phrase he used was "turn it into a parking lot. You understand me?"

Far from a bystander the IDF was instrumental to the act. One should also note that the Commission's report has still not been entirely declassified. Fully half is still under wraps.

Elliot said...

Donald's comment that it is easier to confess another man's sins is well taken. While the biggest demos were in response to Sabra and Shatilla rather than the shellinng of Beirut, the mass protest movement in Israel began with Israel's invasion of Lebanon.
I think there is another distinction. In the past a fair minded Israeli could come out strongly against certain excesses by Israel and still retain the belief that our boys are doing a fine job. Now, with the internet and cellphones, it's impossible to hold that line. Israelis are blocking out Gaza because they haven't got a way of accepting some responsibility without their national identity crumbling, or so they feel. Similar problem for American Jews vis-a-vis the Gaza war.

Joachim Martillo said...

After talking with Yeshayahu Leibowitz at Harvard, I developed a much lower opinion of him than progressive Jewish Zionists typically have.

Anyway, I put up related videoclips of Leibowitz and Talal Asad: Yeshayahu Leibowitz versus Talal Asad.

In a weird way they may represent a Litvak-Galitsianer divide.

I am quite serious about this observation.

Jerry Haber said...

Joachim, not this progressive "Zionist". I am perfectly aware of Leibowitz's flaws. He had virtually no concern for the Palestinians; he certainly didn't demand withdrawal to the 67 border lines because he thought that this was a way to peace and justice. He didn't want Israel to become an occupier but he didn't really care much about the occupied, and he made condescending remarks about them. H

All that having been said, he was a moral voice that bugged the hell out of different groups of Israelis. So yet, feet of clay, but a lot more than the feet.

He also had negative feeligns towards Christians and Christianity.

Ibrahim Ibn Yusuf said...

I object to Israel's responsibility in Sabra and Shatila being described as "indirect." Calling it so requires granting the Jewish state a huge benefit of the doubt that goes beyond reasonable levels.

It's like saying that the Russian government had "indirect responsibility" for the pogroms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Political correctness should be dropped once and for all in addressing the issue.

Joachim Martillo said...

Dear Ibrahim Ibn Yusuf,

Czarist government responsibility in pogroms is far less clear than you apparently believe.

I recommend that you read

1. Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews, The Transformation of Jewish Society in Russia, 1823-1855: Drone Attacks, Buenos Aires JCC

2. Zionism and the Fin de Si├Ęcle, Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism from Nordau to Jabotinsky: Followup (II): Origins of Modern Jewry

You seem to be indoctrinated in a possibly Zionized pogrom and persecution version of Jewish history.