Friday, September 26, 2014

Israel’s very own history of eugenics

This hour-long documentary, the Ringworm Children, raises so many disturbing questions about Israel and its relationship with the US that one hardly knows where to begin.

In the 1950s, waves of new immigrants swept into Israel. To the dismay of the country’s Ashkenazi leaders (those originating from Europe and the US), the great majority were from Arab countries. Levi Eshkol, a later prime minister, expressed a common sentiment when he called them “human rubbish”. Israel, deprived of “good-quality” Jews, was being forced to bring to its shores Arab Jews, seen as just as primitive and dirty as the Palestinians whom Israel had recently succeeded in ethnically cleansing.

Into this deeply racist atmosphere stepped Dr Chaim Sheba, a eugenicist, who believed that the Arabs Jews were bringing along with them diseases that threatened the Ashkenazi Jews. His obsession was ringworm, an innocuous childhood disease that affects the scalp. He went to the US, collected old military X-ray equipment and zapped tens of thousands of these children’s heads with potentially lethal doses of radiation. The survivors tell of their horrifying experiences during and after the treatment, and of the brothers and sisters they lost at a young age.

But this isn’t just a history lesson exploring an unusual aspect of Israel’s racist underpinnings. The documentary exposes a massive cover-up by the state: many of the children’s medical files – long thought to have been lost – were actually held by one of the doctors involved. Even after this disclosure, the state has continued to refuse the victims access to the files, despite the fact that such access may be vital in helping them receive the correct life-saving treatment, as well as proper compensation.

The final shocking twist is the discovery that all these experiments cost the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars in today’s terms – in fact, more than Israel’s entire annual budget at the time. How could Israel have afforded it?

The documentary suggests persuasively that the US, with its own long fascination with eugenics, most likely sub-contracted these experiments to Israel as a way to bypass the increasing domestic legal impediments it faced. The US presumably footed the huge bill.

There are a couple of troubling omissions in the documentary itself. The first is that Dr Sheba did not carry out these experiments on Arab Jews only. He also exposed many Palestinian children in Israel to the same huge doses, for the same racist reasons.

The other is that Dr Sheba is still venerated to this day in Israel and has one of the country’s most famous hospitals, the Chaim Sheba Medical Center, named after him. As the documentary makes clear, there was plenty of evidence by the 1950s of the extremely dangerous effects of radiation on humans. What Dr Sheba did was a form of genocide. That he is still honoured in Israel is, to my mind, no different from Germany naming a hospital in Berlin the Josef Mengele Medical Center.

But keeping Dr Sheba’s reputation unblemished is, I suspect, important to those who wish to prevent other, even more unseemly skeletons being unearthed over this affair.


The documentary, from 2003, is in five 10-min parts: More


I often talk about “hasbara” (what Israelis translate as “explanation” but really means “propaganda”) but rarely have I found an example of it quite as blatant as the entry on the Ringworm Affair on Wikipedia. By the look of it, this entry has been written by an Israeli government hasbara team. One can almost hear the indignation in the text dismissing the documentary’s claims. But interestingly there is no attempt to refute the two accusations at the heart of the film: that the medical files are still being withheld from the victims, and that the sum needed for the experiments was astronomical and way beyond Israel’s means. So who paid for them and why?


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Perpetual War, Indefinite Detention, And Torture: The U.S. And Israel’s Shared Values

The United States and Israel have "shared values" but not when it comes to upholding democracy and the rule of law. Their shared values are perpetual war, torture, indefinite detention, and military courts.

Israeli soldiers arrest Palestinian
minors in the West Bank city of Jenin

Guantanamo is a perfect example of this. Both states have been in a state of perpetual war for quite some time with Israel against the Palestinians since its founding in 1948 while the U.S. can trace back its war to its founding in 1776 and the colonization of Native American lands. Today’s global war on terror is the latest chapter in that saga. Under perpetual war, the United States and Israel can justify a litany of draconian policies, such as indefinite detention, torture, and extrajudicial killing.

International human rights law prohibits torture and detention without charge or trial. The UN Convention Against Torture strictly forbids torture, even in "exceptional circumstances" like "a state of war or threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency." Meanwhile, article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states, "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention." The rights to a fair trial, due process, and to be free from torture and inhumane treatment are basic human rights that governments are obliged to uphold. Yet, both the United States and Israel practice indefinite detention – also known as "administrative detention" in Israel – and torture.

Administrative detention and torture in Israel

Israel has detained thousands of Palestinians in the occupied territories without charge or trial over the years "for periods ranging from several months to several years," according to Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. B’Tselem figures also report that, "At the end of May 2014, 196 Palestinian administrative detainees were held in facilities run by the Israel Prison Service (IPS)." Israel recently locked up over 250 Palestinians in administrative detention as part of its operation to find the three missing but killed Israeli settlers, putting the current population at around 450.

Three Israeli laws allow and regulate Israel’s administrative detention powers – the Administrative Detention Order, theEmergency Powers (Detention) Law, and the Internment of Unlawful Combatants Law.

The Administrative Detention Order, which applies to the West Bank except East Jerusalem, allows military commanders to detain a person for a maximum of six months "for reasons to do with regional security or public security." Commanders can repeatedly add six months of administrative detention, since there is no limit on extensions. The 1979 Emergency Powers Law allows the defense minister to detain a person for up to six months, like the Order, and extend the detention repeatedly six months at a time. It applies to Israeli residents, residents living in Israeli occupied territories, and residents of other countries, such as Lebanon. However, this law grants detainees more protections than the Order does. The 2002 Internment of Unlawful Combatants Law allows for the administrative detention of a civilian who directly or indirectly participates in hostilities against Israel or is a member of a force that does so. Under this law, persons can be detained for an unlimited period of time. This law is used to detain Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip.

While the occupation is illegal and unjust, Israel, as an occupying power, has an international legal responsibility to uphold the welfare of Palestinians living under its control. International humanitarian law permitssome internment (or detention without charge or trial) in wartime but only "for imperative reasons of security," according to Article 78 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Internment [detention] also has to be done on a case-by-case basis rather than implemented widely.

B’Tselem names the numerous ways in which Israel’s use of administrative detention violates its international legal responsibilities as an occupying power. One is its "[e]xtremely extensive use" in contravention of international law. "Administrative detention has become routine practice, rather than an exceptional measure," according to B’Tselem. Relatedly, administrative detention is used as "an alternative to criminal proceedings" with authorities using it "as a quick and efficient alternative to criminal trial, primarily when they do not have sufficient evidence to charge the individual, or when they do not want to reveal their evidence." Administrative detention also lacks due process as detainees "are not provided meaningful information on the reasons for their detention and are not given an opportunity to refute the suspicions against them." Additionally, detention periods are repeatedly extended, which leaves Palestinians detained for several months to years without charge or trial. Israel has also used administrative detention against political opponents, including non-violent political activists. Finally, many Palestinian administrative detainees are held inside Israel.

In 1999, Israel’s High Court of Justice issued a ruling that prohibited interrogators from using methods of torture as a means of interrogation. Before that ruling, Israeli security forces regularly "tortured thousands of Palestinian detainees each year," according to the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. In 1987, an Israeli government commission, headed by former Supreme Court President Moshe Landau, issued a report that provided a framework for Israel’s torture regime. The Landau Commission recommended Shin Bet interrogators utilize torture methods, namely "psychological pressure" and a "moderate degree of physical pressure," against people suspected of "hostile terrorist activity." It argued that "an effective interrogation is impossible" without some physical force.

Despite the High Court’s 1999 ban on torture, rights groups like the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) point out that the Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet and other law enforcement agencies still commit acts of torture. The PCATI largely relied on testimonies from Palestinian prisoners and forensic evaluations. In response, the Shin Bet denies it commits torture and argues that its interrogation methods are not only lawful but save lives.

Methods of torture and ill treatment of Palestinian prisoners since 1999, according to the PCATI, include "sleep deprivation, binding to a chair in painful positions, beatings, slapping, kicking, threats, verbal abuse and degradation," special methods like "bending the body into painful positions," "forcing the interrogee to crouch in a frog-like position (‘kambaz’), choking, shaking and other violent and degrading acts (hair-pulling, spitting, etc.)," and psychological torture. Prisoners, some of whom are children, in solitary confinement often face "sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme heat and cold, permanent exposure to artificial light, detention in sub-standard conditions."

The High Court’s ruling has loopholes for Israeli intelligence to circumvent the torture ban. One is the "necessity defense", which, according to PCATI, "under certain circumstances, exempts interrogators who employ illegal interrogation techniques, including physical violence, from criminal responsibility." Another is well-known the "ticking bomb" scenario, where torture is allowed to prevent an imminent threat, such as a bomb about to explode. PCATI argues that the government exploited this loophole to declare more detainees ticking time bombs and overstepping the court’s intended scope. PCATI also accused the Shin Bet "taking advantage of the fact that only sleep deprivation for the sake of deprivation is illegal, not sleep deprivation indirectly caused from an extended interrogation," according to the Jerusalem Post.

Guantanamo, U.S. global war on terror

The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed shortly after 9/11, authorizes the President of the United States "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons" who "planned, authorized, committed, or aided" the 9/11 terrorist attacks "or harbored such organizations or persons." This bill gives the United States wide power to wage perpetual war around the world against alleged terrorist groups.

When the Obama administration entered office, it not only kept the AUMF in place, but expanded the bill’s scope to continue the global war on terror. The Obama administration interprets the AUMF to include "associated forces" – essentially co-belligerents – of al-Qaeda, even though the bill does not include those words. Last year, the Washington Post reportedthat Obama administration officials were debating whether the AUMF could be stretched to include "associates of associates" of al-Qaeda, including groups like al-Nusra Front in Syria or Ansar al-Sharia in North Africa. Thus, Obama has shifted the war on terror’s goalposts and continued its perpetuity.

The AUMF is the legal linchpin for the United States’ global war on terror. It justifies the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, indefinite detention, kill-or-capture raids, extraordinary rendition, and drone strikes. But it is not the only legal measure for doing so. Last year, a week before President Obama’s national security speech, Obama administration officials told the Senate that even without AUMF, the government could use other laws to continue lethal operations against suspected terrorists, such as self-defense under international law. While both states engage in perpetual war under the language of "fighting terror," Israel’s battlefield mostly extends to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while the United States’ is the entire world.

The Guantanamo Bay detention facility was opened in 2002, as the global war on terror began. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, it provided bounties to tribal allies and Pakistani security forces to capture anyone believed to be connected with al-Qaeda or the Taliban and send them to American forces. This led to large swaths of low-level fightersand guys at the wrong place at the wrong timegetting snatched up thanks to informants looking for money or scores to settle with their enemies. ASeton Hall study pointed out that only 5 percent of Guantanamo detainees were captured by U.S. forces, while 86 percent were captured by Pakistan or the Northern Alliance and handed to the United States.

Presently, there are 149 men detained in Guantanamo. Of those, 79 are cleared for release, 37 are designated for indefinite detention without charge or trial, 6 currently being tried in military commissions, and 36 who could go to trial. However, Guantanamo chief prosecutor Brig. Gen. Mark Martins told reporters last summer that 20 could be "realistically prosecuted."

Recently, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress that the military intends to release six Guantanamo detainees to Uruguay – four of whom are Syrian, one is Palestinian, and the other is Tunisian. All six have been cleared for release for over four years. This would bring the number of detainees cleared for release down to 73 and total Guantanamo inmate population to 143. Meanwhile, the U.S. government deems the indefinite detainees too difficult to prosecute, as there is little to no admissible evidence against them (some was obtained through torture), but too dangerous to release. According to Martins, these indefinite detainees will remain in Guantanamo "until the end of hostilities" against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and "associated forces." Thus making them prisoners of war in an endless war.

In 2012, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), sections of which allow the military to indefinitely detain American citizens on US soil who allegedly "substantially supported al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces." When Obama stepped into office, he pledged to close the U.S. prison in Guantanamo. But the other half of his plan was less advertised. In order to close Guantanamo, Obama’s original plan was to to move some Guantanamo detainees to an Illinois prison. Moreover, his administration decided, early on, to continue utilizing indefinite detention, much to the chagrin of civil liberties groups. However, Congress, particularly members of the Republican Party, fought against this plan not out of opposition to indefinite detention but because they did not want "terrorists" on American soil. This past May, the Obama administration’s legal team told Congress that if Guantanamo detainees "were relocated to a prison inside the United States, it is unlikely that a court would order their release onto domestic soil," reported The New York Times.

Despite the fear-mongering of releasing "terrorist" from Guantanamo, according to a New America Foundation study, only 4 percent of released Guantanamo detainees engage in "militant activities against U.S. targets."

Abuses in Guantanamo, according to a 2006 Center for Constitutional Rights report, include beatings, shackling, solitary confinement, sexual harassment and rape, sleep deprivation, medical abuse, and religious and cultural humiliation. Some Guantanamo detainees were detained in secret CIA prisons before arriving at the U.S. military prison in Cuba. An ICRC report on the treatment of 14 "high value" detainees held in CIA black sites revealed that torture techniques in the secret prisons included sleep and food deprivation, playing of loud music, waterboarding, beatings, stress positions, cold temperatures and water, prolonged shackling, threats, and forced shaving. Around 100 detainees were held in CIA black sites and themajority of them were tortured. More




Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Israeli officer admits ordering lethal strike on own soldier during Gaza massacre

The civilian population in Gaza is “a partner of terror” that “gets what they choose,” the top commander of the Israeli army’s Givati Brigade told the Israeli press recently, after orchestrating some of the deadliest episodes of butchery visited upon the Gaza Strip this summer.

Colonel Ofer Winter

Colonel Ofer Winter also admitted to ordering the mass-bombardment of an area where an Israeli soldier was know to be in order to prevent his capture alive by Palestinian resistance fighters — an army policy known as the Hannibal Directive.

These are just two of the many incriminating comments made by Winter in a lengthy and candid interview published in a paper-only edition of the Hebrew-language Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot on 15 August.

The interview took place near the end of Israel’s 51-day bombing campaign which killed more than 2,100 people in Gaza, the vast majority of them civilians — including more than 500 children. Israel expert Dena Shunra translated the interview for The Electronic Intifada.

In addition to justifying the mass killing of civilians in Gaza, Winter applauded the carpet bombing he ordered in Rafah as a necessary punishment and repeatedly invoked religious supremacy as a leading factor in what he views as a Jewish victory in Gaza.

Rafah massacre

Just as a temporary three-day humanitarian ceasefire negotiated by Egypt and the United States went into effect on the morning of Friday 1 August, a unit of soldiers from the Israeli army’s Givati Brigade conducted a tunnel incursion in Rafah, provoking fire from Palestinian resistance fighters.

Two Israeli soldiers were killed in the ensuing firefight and another, Hadar Goldin, went missing. It was later determined that Goldin died in the battle, but in the immediate aftermath the Israeli army operated under the assumption that he had been captured.

Ofer Winter was napping when he woke up to news of Goldin’s possible capture. He told Yediot Ahronot’sYossi Yehoshua:

At 9 am, half an hour after I put my head down, the Deputy Brigade Commander woke me up: “come quickly, it’s best you be here.” We asked for a snapshot, we wanted information. We didn’t think there was an abduction yet. While inquiring if everyone was there, I commanded Sagiv, the Armored Forces Commander operating under my orders, to start moving from Hirbat Hiza’a, which was where he was, toward Rafah. Just then I got the message “it’s not green in our eyes” – in other words, not everyone had been found. We were missing a soldier. At 9:36, after inquiries with the battalion commander on site, I announced on the communication system the word that no one wants to say – “Hannibal.” In other words, there had been an abduction. I instructed all the forces to move forward, to occupy space, so the abductors would not be able to move.

The Hannibal Directive is an unwritten Israeli military protocol for executing captured Israeli soldiers to avoid politically painful prisoner swaps. Although its existence has been reported in the Israeli press since the 1980s, this interview with Winter appears to be the most frank acknowledgement of its use.

The idea is to prevent the captors from taking the soldier alive, effectively denying Palestinian or other Arab resistance groups a bargaining chip down the line and relieving Israeli leaders of the political fallout from having to make concessions (such as prisoner swaps) to secure the soldier’s release.

Executing their own

According to blogger Richard Silverstein, the Israeli army has implemented the Hannibal Directive on at least three occasions during this latest war on Gaza, deploying massive firepower with the intention of executing three of their own.

For the following several hours, residents of Rafah, many having just returned to their homes for what they were told would be a three-day ceasefire, were subjected to a carpet bombing campaign that left the town in ruins and 190 people dead.

An Israeli army officer told the Associated Press that soldiers pounded Rafah with 500 artillery shells in just eight hours and launched an estimated 100 airstrikes within two days.

Acting on Winter’s “Hannibal” order, the Israeli army sealed off Rafah to prevent the alleged captors from escaping with Goldin alive. Homes were flattened on top of families sheltering inside. Civilians who attempted to flee the inferno were torn to shreds by artillery. Vehicles trying desperately to evacuate the wounded were fired upon.

By 2 August, the Israeli army had killed 190 Palestinians in Rafah, including 55 children. With the morgues full to capacity, medical workers were forced to store corpses in vegetable refrigerators to accommodate the high volume of dead bodies.

As Israel laid waste to Rafah, the Obama administration called the alleged capture of Goldin, an invading Israeli soldier engaged in armed hostilities against Gaza, a “barbaric” and “outrageous” act.

“They messed with the wrong brigade”

“A lot of criticism was heard about the force you employed in Rafah, directly after the abduction,” said interviewer Yossi Yehoshua to Winter.

“Everything we did was from the understanding that we could return Hadar Goldin alive,” responded Winter. “Stop the abduction event. Come from above to the places he could come out of. That’s what we employed all the force for,” he insisted.

These claims are totally inconsistent with the reality on the ground, where the only possible intended outcome of bombing everything was to kill Goldin and his captors while collectively punishing the surrounding population in the process.

Winter continued with an even more contradictory remark, hinting that the response in Rafah was partly an act of retribution. “Anyone who abducts should know that he will pay a price. This was not revenge. They simply messed with the wrong brigade,” he said.

Then, in a stunning display of hypocrisy, Winter (who relies on airstrikes and indiscriminate artillery fire to avoid face to face confrontations with the supposed enemy and who had to be woken up from a nap to be informed that his soldiers were killed in Rafah) tried to portray Palestinian resistance fighters as cowards.

“We fought against two Hamas brigades. Where were their brigade commanders?” he asked indignantly. “I hoped they would come face to face with us, but they chickened out. They sent their men forward, causing more evil and killing. That’s not combat. There were very few places where there were fighting retreats. They left everything and escaped.”

Divine intervention

As an orthodox Jew firmly in Israel’s religious nationalist camp, Winter is making a career of mixing his brand of messianic Zionism with military aggression.

As a graduate of Bnei David, a religious pre-military academy located in Eli, an illegal Jewish-only settlement in the occupied West Bank, Winter epitomizes the mainstreaming of religiously motivated brutalityin the Israeli army. Bnei David’s goal is to replace Israel’s largely secular military elite with religious Zionists, like Winter.

On the eve of Israel’s ground invasion, Winter declared in a letter to his troops that they were fighting a Jewish holy war to punish the blasphemous Palestinians of Gaza.

Responding to criticism of the letter, Winter doubled down, telling Yediot Ahronot, “if I had to do so, I would write the same letter again, without batting an eyelid.”

The impact of Winter’s fanaticism on Palestinians in Gaza was nothing short of catastrophic.

Soldiers from the Givati Brigade under Winter’s command made up the majority of ground troops that thundered into Khuzaa, a farming community near the Israeli boundary line. With massive artillery shelling accompanied by airstrikes, the Israeli army reduced all of Khuzaa to rubble to secure a path for columns of invading tanks, jeeps and soldiers.

Cut off from the outside world for days, the residents of Khuzaa were at the mercy of Winter’s religiously-guided soldiers who carried out summary executions of both fighters and civilians and mowed down anyone trying to flee, including a wheelchair-using 16-year-old girl with epilepsy and a wounded elderly women crawling on the ground desperate for help.

Speaking about his brigade’s reign of terror in Khuzaa, Winter is cited by Yediot Ahronot as telling the ultra-Orthodox weekly newspaper Mishpacha that as the sun rose during the ground invasion, the movement of his troops remained hidden by “clouds of divine honor.”

“It was only when the homes that were supposed to be exploded were exploded and there was no longer any danger to our lives, the fog suddenly dispersed,” said Winter, insisting that the clouds were a direct intervention from God to protect the Jewish people.

Winter offered further religious explanations for his “victory” in Gaza to Yediot Ahronot.

Noting that the ground invasion coincided with “The Between the Straits Days” — a three-week mourning period observed by orthodox Jews to commemorate the ancient siege on Jerusalem and the loss of Jewish statehood — Winter opined that the overlap “was not just a coincidence.”

The Between the Straits Days end on the 9th of Av, also known as Tisha B’Av [observed on 5 August of this year], the very day that the fighting ended. It was especially on this day, a day of national mourning, that the decision was made: the IDF [Israeli military], the Nation of Israel – they won. We proved that we are a unified, determined nation and that we will not be beaten. Unitedness won. No ill words were spoken. Even the ultra-orthodox public – which cannot be taken for granted – fought with all its might from the place where it stands [meaning they prayed very hard]. I received lots of messages during the war. This is a tikun - repair - for what our ancestors have hurt. It enhanced the victory.

“The terrorists are the children” of Gaza

Despite the Palestinian blood on his hands, or more likely because of it, Winter has emerged as a hero in Israel, completely revered within the military and adored by the public.

Asked about his earlier complaints that the political and military establishment was holding him back from finishing the job in Gaza, Winter told Yediot Ahronot that he is ultimately satisfied with the outcome of the onslaught and then proceeded to brag about the carnage.

“There are hundreds of terrorists who were killed,” he boasted. “That is the message – no matter what we do, we’ll go in wherever we want to go. It is important that the enemy know this.”

“We shredded them. We can do it much worse, and it’s best for them that we not do it,” added Winter. “We gave them a much stronger beating than in Cast Lead.”

“When the Palestinians return to their home they will understand the scope of the damage Hamas has inflicted on them. Hamas used them,” he said.

Winter clarified that the enemy is not just Hamas but all of Gaza.

“This population is a hostage, but I think it is also a partner. I don’t exonerate them of responsibility so quickly,” said Winter of the 1.8 million Palestinians who inhabit the besieged coastal enclave, half of whom are children.

“True, there are some pitiable people there, but in many cases the terrorists are the children or relatives of the people who live there. In almost every home there is a son or other relative that is a partner in terror. How do you raise children in a home with explosives? In the end, everyone gets what they choose.”

“Forces of darkness”

He went on to call the Israeli assault “A just war against a cruel enemy. We, who sanctify life, fought against an enemy who sanctifies death. The forces of light against the forces of darkness.”

“This is an important statement due to the absolutism of it,” explains Israel expert Dena Shunra, who translated the article for The Electronic Intifada. “If Hamas (or Gaza as a whole) are the forces of darkness, any action is absolved. It is a Manichean sentiment similar to what we hear from the US military, and does not leave any room for ending hostilities – a war to the death.”

Winter’s warped vision of a civilian population in Gaza complicit in the “forces of darkness” essentially justifies killing them en masse, which is exactly what he did in Rafah and Khuzaa.

As a result, “[Winter] cannot walk around today without being halted, hugged, asked for a photo opportunity,” according to Yediot.

In a final address to his troops following the Gaza slaughter, Winter alluded to the next round of massacres.

“I am proud of you for everything that you have done. It is all thanks to you,” he told the soldiers. “I cannot promise you, like the song does, that this will be the last war, but I promise that this war, which is so just, will push the next war a good few years away.” More


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Replacing the peace process with a civil rights struggle

What would happen if Israeli progressives and their supporters demanded an end to the military court system, or called for freedom of movement for Palestinians? The answer: a lot.

The two-state solution has long become a means (to solving the problem of the occupation) to an end. As I wrote here in the past, this change has had severe consequences as far as the Israeli political opposition is concerned. Those range from a de-facto acceptance of the status quo to a political alliance with the Right and support for all the latest rounds of violence. The excuses are always the same – that we are on the road to the two-state solution and “this is the only game in town.”

The truth is that we aren’t on the road to two states or to one state. We are deep in the status-quo solution. Israel directly controls the lives of some 4 million Palestinians (and indirectly almost two more million in Gaza), and only a minority of them have the rights of full citizens, and even then only formally. The debate over the correct term for this state of affairs (‘occupation’ or ‘apartheid’ or ‘status quo’) is not half as important as recognizing this reality itself, which is stable, institutionalized and not going to change in the foreseeable future.

As a matter of fact, a final status agreement seems as far off as I can remember. The two-state solution is highly unlikely to take place in the coming years, and there is no way of knowing what the more distant future holds. Regional events along with internal developments in Israeli society serve those who oppose an agreement. The occupation empowers those who support it.

The common wisdom in Israel today is that every territory that is evacuated will eventually become another hub for Middle Eastern anarchy. The security establishment believes that only the IDF can prevent forces such as Islamic State from crossing the Jordan River. Israel would also like to make sure that Hamas doesn’t take over the West Bank. In other words, even if a Palestinian “state” is formed, it won’t have even the minimal degree of independence. No credible Palestinian leadership can be expected to agree to that.

I also don’t see any form of international pressure that would force the two-state solution on Israel. Much of the international community is clearly unhappy with Israel’s policies of the last decade, but this is nowhere near the mobilization against South Africa in the 1980s or, more recently, Iran. In both cases the tipping point was the U.S. decision to support and impose sanctions. And while the U.S. might end up distancing itself from Jerusalem, it will continue to use its power to prevent sanctions against it. The EU is also unlikely to expend its measures beyond some steps against the settlements. So there is truly no end in sight.

Facing this new reality, Israeli progressives that supported the peace process are turning to one of a few options: There are those who join the Right in maintaining the status quo; those who continue to believe that some recent events – the war, the ceasefire, American elections, the lack of American elections, etc. – opened a “window of opportunity for peace;” while in fact there is no window, not even a crack. And there are also those who are crying, not without some perverse pleasure, that “all is lost.”

On a more positive note, I believe there is renewed recognition in Israel of the dominance of the occupation on all other political problems, in the long-term threat it presents before Israeli society. I used to hear people say that the Left should focus on social issues and leave the Palestinian problem aside, but not anymore. You even see conservatives voicing some concern over the failure to solve the Palestinian issue. In other words, there is some new recognition of the problem, but there is no political strategy to accompany it among progressives, except for continuing to bang one’s head against the peace process wall.


The solution is to replace the diplomatic process with a civil rights struggle, to break the occupation into pieces, and deal with each one of them: The fact that Palestinians do not enjoy freedom of movement. The fact that they have been tried in military courts for almost half a century. The limits on their freedom of speech and their right to freely assemble. The lack of proper detainee rights (including minors). The disrespect for their property rights, and, of course, their lack of political rights.

A civil rights struggle doesn’t necessarily mean a single-state solution, nor two states. Civilian rights for Palestinians can lead to any final status agreement. As I wrote here last week, there is little point in debating solutions right now.

A civil rights struggle is not a new idea, and many Palestinians have been engaging in it for a long time. But Israeli progressives and peaceniks have always placed it second only to the diplomatic process. In other words, instead of the Palestinian state becoming a means for the fulfillment of Palestinian rights, it was made the only desired political object; those rights no longer bared value once they were separated from the idea of statehood – as if because the Palestinians have no state they don’t deserve freedom of movement or a fair trial. Thus, progressives find themselves justifying an authoritarian regime in Ramallah in the name of Palestinians rights, and many other absurdities.

On a tactical level, a civil rights struggle opens the door for Arab-Jewish cooperation on both sides of the Green Line, and leaves aside the questions of statehood and historical narratives that people love to debate. Instead, it focuses on the lives of real people under occupation.

The equal rights of all men and women is such a simple and broadly accepted notion that it’s easy to explain and for everyone to understand. Israelis have adopted all sorts of revisionist readings of the conflict in recent years; for example the idea that the territories aren’t occupied because they were never claimed by any other state. But the most important problem with the occupation is the millions of people held under a military regime for decades, and not just the legal status of the land.

The target of a civil rights struggle is not the settlers, or any other Israeli community, but the state and its practices. It might not make progressives more popular with the Israeli public, but it could make their work more effective.

What could such a struggle look like? It should raise specific political demands that touch the basic liberties and rights of human beings; such as the right to a fair trial, to equality before the law, and to political representation.

The military court system is a good place to start. Military tribunals could be accepted in very specific contexts and for a limited period of time. They aren’t meant – nor could they be used – to run the lives of a civilian population for decades, as Israel does.

There is no way to justify military commanders ruling over civilian issues for half a century, the way they do in the West Bank. There is no way to justify administrative detentions. What prevents a “pro-peace” party or organization – say, Meretz or Labor or J Street – from right now demanding an end to the military court system, regardless of diplomatic developments? The fact that such an idea is not even debated demonstrates the degree to which even the “pro-peace” camp has adopted the mentality of the occupation.

What about freedom of movement? The Palestinians are held like Israel’s prisoners, not only in the West Bank but also in Gaza. It takes a permit from a military commander to allow a Palestinian to visit his or her family in Jordan. Why not demand turning this policy on its head, right now, and have the security authorities state who they forbid from traveling, and allow everybody else free passage? Surely this is a reasonable enough request?

Human rights groups have been monitoring and discussing these issues for decades, but they have yet to enter progressive politics, which is still chained to the endless peace process. Imagine what would happen if mobilization by the international community around Israeli relations with the PA or its settlement policies was directed at the rights of Palestinians.

To some this might seem like back-door annexation by Israel – an idea that most Israelis and Palestinians still oppose. But the fact of the matter is that de-facto annexation has already taken place, only without allowing the civilian population their basic human and civil rights. Recent cries over the appropriation of some 1,000 acres of land by Israel sound hollow compared to the massive human rights violations that have been taking place for decades. I actually believe that even if Israel was to hand the Palestinians full voting rights in the Knesset tomorrow we could end up with some version of a two-state solution or a confederative model, because both people here are interested in national sovereignty.

Make no mistake: Keeping the Palestinians without rights is not some temporary holding pattern on the way to a final status solution (or peace). For Israel, this is the solution. And giving Palestinians their rights will not postpone an agreement – quite the opposite. It would force Israelis to really think about the kind of future they want, alongside the Palestinians. More


Hamas does not equal ISIL, no matter what Israel says

An image speaks a thousand words – and that is presumably what Israel’s supporters hoped for with their latest ad in the New York Times.

Two photographs are presented side by side. One, titled ISIL, is the now-iconic image of a kneeling James Foley, guarded by a black-hooded executioner, awaiting his terrible fate. The other, titled Hamas, is a scene from Gaza, where a similarly masked killer stands over two victims, who cower in fear.

A headline stating “This is the face of radical Islam” tries, like the images, to equate the two organisations.

We have heard this line before from Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who tweeted “Hamas is ISIL” after the video of Foley’s beheading aired. In a recent speech he called Hamas and ISIL, “tentacles of a violent Islamist terrorism”.

Mr Netanyahu’s depiction of Hamas and ISIL as “branches of the same poisonous tree” is a travesty of the truth. The two have entirely different – in fact, opposed – political projects.

Members of Hamas may disagree on that state’s territorial limits but even the most ambitious expect no more than the historic borders of a Palestine that existed decades ago. ISIL, by contrast, aims to sweep away Palestine and every other Arab state.

That is the key to interpreting the very different, if equally brutal, events depicted in the two images.

ISIL killed Foley, dressed in Guantanamo-style orange jumpsuit, purely as spectacle – a graphic message to the world of its menacing intent. Hamas’s cruelty was directed at those in Gaza who collaborate with Israel, undermining hope of liberation from Israel’s occupation.

ISIL’s 20,000 foot soldiers have taken over large chunks of Iraq and Syria in a murderous and uncompromising campaign against anyone who rejects not only Islam but their specific interpretation of it.

According to reports last week, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal joined Mr Abbas in demanding the most diminutive Palestinian state possible, inside the 1967 borders.

Mr Netanyahu, meanwhile, refuses to negotiate with either Hamas or the Palestinian Authority (PA) of Mahmoud Abbas.

In casting Hamas as ISIL, Mr Netanyahu has tarred all Palestinians as bloodthirsty Islamic extremists. And here we reach Israel’s true goal in equating the two groups.

Mr Netanyahu’s comparison has a recent parallel. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks on the US, Ariel Sharon made a similar equivalence between Al Qaeda and the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Israel’s intelligence officials even called the destruction of the Twin Towers a “Hanukkah miracle”, a view echoed by Mr Netanyahu years later. All understood that 9/11 reframed the Oslo-inspired debate about the Palestinians needing statehood to one about an evil axis of Middle East terror.

Sharon revelled in calling Arafat the head of an “infrastructure of terror”, justifying Israel’s crushing the uprising of the second intifada.

Similarly, Mr Netanyahu’s efforts are designed to discredit all – not just the Islamic variety of – Palestinian resistance to Israel’s occupation. He hopes to be the silent partner to Barack Obama’s new coalition against ISIL.

Aaron David Miller, an adviser to several US administrations on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, warned in Foreign Policy last week that the rise of ISIL would pose a serious setback to Palestinian hopes of statehood – a point underscored by the far greater concerns about ISIL than the Palestinians’ plight expressed by Arab League delegates at this week’s meeting in Cairo.

How Mr Netanyahu plans to follow Sharon in exploiting this opportunity was demonstrated last week, when Israeli intelligence revealed a supposed Hamas plot to launch a coup against the PA.

The interrogation of Hamas officials, however, showed only that they had prepared for the possibility of the PA’s rule ending in the West Bank, either through its collapse under Israeli pressure or through a disillusioned Mr Abbas handing over the keys to Israel.

But talk of Hamas coups has melded with other, even wilder stories, such as the claims last week from foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman that ISIL cells had formed in the West Bank and inside Israel. Defence minister Moshe Yaalon underscored this narrative by hurriedly classifying ISIL as a “proscribed” organisation.

All this fear-mongering is designed both to undermine the Palestinian unity government between Hamas and Fatah, and to sanction Israel’s behaviours by painting a picture, as after 9/11, of an Israel on the front line of a war against global terror.

“Israel’s demands for a continued Israeli presence [in the West Bank] and a lengthy withdrawal period will only harden further,” wrote Mr Miller.

In reality, Israel should share common cause with Palestinian leaders, from Fatah and Hamas, against ISIL. But, as ever, Mr Netanyahu will forgo his country’s long-term interests for a short-term gain in his relentless war to keep the Palestinians stateless. More

Jonathan Cook is an independent journalist based in Nazareth


Shock and awe in Gaza

How the media and human rights groups cover for Israeli war crimes

Counterpunch magazine – Vol 21, No 7, August 2014

Jonathan Cook

On July 8, as Israel officially launched its most recent attack on Gaza, the BBC published an online report noting that some of the graphic images trending on social media were not in fact the result of the latest air and sea strikes battering the Palestinians’ besieged coastal enclave. Its analysis “found that some [images] date as far back as 2009 and others are from conflicts in Syria and Iraq.”

The implication, amplified by pro-Israeli websites, was that social media activists were trying to deceive the watching world into believing that Gaza was suffering a greater onslaught than was really the case. This was more “Pallywood”, as Israel’s supporters like to deride the increasing visual documentation of Israeli war crimes in an age of smartphone cameras.

Probably unthinkingly, the Huffington Post echoed these sentiments, arguing that the BBC report suggested “images shared across social media purportedly showing death and destruction caused by Israel in Gaza were fake.” But in truth, the images covered in the report were not “fake” in any meaningful sense of the word.

The misattributed explosions and crushed bodies showed the real suffering of Palestinians in Gaza during earlier Israeli attacks—Operations Cast Lead of winter 2008-09 and Pillar of Defence four years later—or of victims caught in recent fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Nor were the solidarity activists who shared these images resorting to them because there was a dearth of horrifying visual evidence from Israel’s latest bombardment of Gaza.

It was simply that Gaza’s “shock and awe” destruction by an almost invisible Israeli aerial presence, and the effects on Palestinian bodies of missile blasts and collapsing homes, looked much as it did in 2008 and 2012. The names of the operations may change—Israel dubbed this latest one “Protective Edge” in English, avoiding a literal translation of the more menacing Hebrew title “Solid Cliff”—but the toll on civilian lives were inevitably the same.

The images, however misattributed, were a far more honest record of Israel’s latest orgiastic bout of slaughter in Gaza than the media’s obfuscatory references to an ongoing “cycle of violence”.

Israel’s missing arsenal

There was a rich irony to the BBC, which has done so much to veil the realities of Israel’s ritual war-making, criticising social media users. To take just one example of many, the corporation’s diplomatic correspondent, Jonathan Marcus, promised in an online article to explain “What weapons are being used in the Israel-Gaza conflict”.

At length he enumerated the kinds of rockets in Hamas’ hands and their range. But what of Israel’s massive offensive arsenal? This was the extent of his disclosure: “The full panoply of Israeli air power has been used in a steadily escalating series of attacks against rocket launch sites, weapons stores, and the command elements of Hamas and other groups.” Note there was no mention, despite documentation, of strikes on civilians.

He then quickly switched to Israel’s “defensive” weapons. “As important in determining Israel’s strategic outlook as its offensive operations is the reliance that it places on missile defence—the Iron Dome system—to defend its civilian population.” The rest of the article continued in the same vein.

Marcus could hardly have done a better job of promoting the idea of the Palestinians as aggressors and Israelis as the victims had he been paid to do so by Israel’s ministry of hasbara (propaganda). The article concealed the fact that by the time of its publication, on July 10, dozens of Palestinians, including many children, had been killed by Israel’s “defensive” operation.

Meanwhile, Hamas’ fearsome arsenal had by this time killed precisely no Israelis—and barely any had been harmed, excepting the reports of numerous Israeli victims of “anxiety”, many of them presumably provoked by reports like Marcus’. (During these operations no one has the time or resources to record the vast number of Palestinians in Gaza suffering from anxiety.)

As the explosions and disfigured bodies from Gaza blurred into an almost indistinguishable collage of suffering for social media activists, I too watched the coverage and analysis of the past weeks’ events with a weary sense of deja vu.

When Hamas was not being presented as the aggressor, forcing Israel to “respond” and “retaliate”, it was apparently a military leviathan. With its lightly armed cadres and the off-the-back-of-a-truck rockets, Hamas “exchanged fire” and “traded blows” with one of the most powerful armies in the world. A headline on yet another “balanced” BBC story declared: “Israel under renewed Hamas attack”.

Dissembling by media

The dissembling, as ever, reached its apeothosis in the US media. The New York Times, for example, offered headlines that stripped Israeli atrocities of their horrific import while invariably removing Israel from the scene entirely. A missile strike on July 10 that wiped out a family of nine Palestinians watching the World Cup was titled “Missile at beachside Gaza cafe finds patrons poised for World Cup”, as if the missile itself took the decision to “find” them.

Similarly, when four children were hit by a missile on July 16, as they played football on a beach in full view of international correspondents in a hotel nearby, the Times editors changed an already weak headline—“Four young boys killed playing on a Gaza beach”—to the downright mendacious: “Boys Drawn to Gaza Beach, and Into Center of Mideast Strife”. No blast, no deaths or injuries and, of course, no Israeli responsibility in sight. All of it whitewashed with that weasel word “strife”.

And what was the seemingly innocuous word “drawn” supposed to convey? Did it not hint that the boys had gone somewhere forbidden; that, in short, it was their fault for being in the wrong place, as though in Gaza there was a right place to be under the rain of Israeli missiles? Or maybe the Times editors hoped we would infer that they had been lured there by a more sinister, local hand.

Interventions by US media organisations were not restricted to word games. NBC’s experienced Gaza reporter Ayman Mohyeldin, who has been the most even-handed of the US correspondents, was told by studio executives he was being pulled from Gaza because of “security” concerns. The decision happened the same day he landed possibly the biggest scoop of his career: he had been playing ball with the boys moments before they were slaughtered. He never got to file his horrifying exclusive.

Strangely, however, Gaza was safe enough for Richard Engel, NBC’s correspondent in Tel Aviv, who immediately took Mohyeldin’s place in the tiny enclave. A storm of protest from viewers forced NBC to relent a few days later, allowing him back as inexplicably as they had required him to leave.

Diana Magnay also felt the long arm of the executives at CNN. During a live link located on a hill in Israel overlooking the Gaza Strip on July 17, the CNN correspondent had talked to anchor Wolf Blitzer as a missile slammed into Gaza behind her. As the explosion lit up the night sky, loud cheers could be heard just off-camera. A visibly discomfited Magnay was forced to explain as delicately as she could that crowds of Israelis came to watch and celebrate Gaza’s suffering.

A short time later she tweeted behind-the-scenes information. The mob had threatened her and her crew if they broadcast “a word wrong”. She described them, not ungenerously, as “scum”. Her tweet survived 10 minutes, suggesting just how closely US correspondents were being policed by station executives. Shortly afterwards, CNN announced that she had been reassigned to Moscow, apparently the US media’s equivalent of a Siberian re-education camp.

But the treatment of Mohyeldin and Magnay doubtless served a larger purpose, reminding the US media corps of the limits of acceptable discourse when it comes to Israel.

Abductions set the scene

For much of the media, the starting-point for the latest “escalation” was the abduction on June 12 of three Israeli teenagers while hitch-hiking from a seminary located in a notoriously violent settler enclave in the Palestinian city of Hebron. For nearly three weeks, Israeli troops scoured the West Bank, raiding thousands of homes and making hundreds of arrests, on the pretext of searching for the youths. Their bodies were eventually found in a shallow grave near Hebron, on June 30.

(In turn, though largely ignored by the media, the inciting cause of the abductions was most likely the execution by Israeli soldiers of two unarmed Palestinian youths taking part in a protest on May 15, Nakba Day, near Ramallah. The moment of the boys’ deaths was caught on film from various angles, showing they had posed no threat to the soldiers stationed nearby. Israel again suggested that the video evidence—some of it provided by CNN—was faked.)

Opportunistic as ever, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, imposed a gag order on reporting a phone call made to the emergency services by one of the Israeli youths shortly after the abduction. Gunshots can be heard. The abandoned car, found the next day, had eight bullet holes and the teenagers’ blood on it. In short, Israeli officials knew from the outset that the three youngsters were dead.

Israel also quickly determined who they thought were the suspects: two or three young men from Hebron, who went underground almost immediately afterwards. They were from a family loosely affiliated with Hamas but also with a history of being, in the words of one Israeli analyst, “trouble-makers”. This tenuous link appears to have been the sole evidence for Netanyahu’s strident and oft-repeated claim that Hamas had ordered the abductions and that it alone would be held accountable—first in the West Bank, then in Gaza.

Mass raids across the West Bank, dubbed Operation Brother’s Keeper, rounded up hundreds of Hamas activists, most of them with no ties to the movement’s military wing. Netanyahu had good reason to wish to exploit the teenagers’ deaths as a way to eradicate Hamas’ infrastructure—from charities to newspapers—in the West Bank and turn the screws on the Islamic group in Gaza.

Scuppering Palestinian unity

After the collapse in late April of the US-imposed peace talks—for which Israel, unusually, had taken most blame—the endlessly accommodating Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas had partially reversed course, launching initiatives without Netanyahu and Washington’s prior approval.

It had applied to join a handful of international bodies, hinting that it might go so far as to join the International Criminal Court in the Hague, thereby exposing Israel to possible war crimes trials. Equally significantly, Abbas’ Fatah party, which dominates the West Bank, had signed a reconciliation agreement with Hamas, its chief political rival in Gaza, after seven years of bitter discord. The two groups set up a unity government of technocrats in early June and promised to arrange national elections for the first time since 2006.

Israel’s assault on Hamas in the West Bank—and, by stepping aside, the PA’s security forces’ implicit assent—were the first prong in Netanyahu’s plan to undermine the unity government. The attack on Gaza the second.

But the Israeli public’s thirst for revenge—stoked by incitement from the prime minister down—was not slaked by the ransacking of the West Bank. Israeli mobs patrolled the streets of Jerusalem seeking out Palestinians to attack. One group went a step further: on July 2, they grabbed a 16-year-old boy, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, close to his home in the Shuafat neighbourhood, and drove off with him to a forest. On the way, they beat him and made him drink flammable liquid. At their destination, they set him on fire.

Red Cross urges release

Into this medley of deceptions and bad faith stepped the guardians of our moral scruples: the international human rights organisations. They are beholden to the system of international humanitarian law that is supposed to govern the relations between states, and offer guidance in circumstances of war and occupation. Our politicians and media may not be trusted, but surely these exponents of an ethical global order can be.

The foundational statutes of international law—the Geneva Conventions—are upheld by the Swiss-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). It has been given the responsbility—at least by those states that have signed the conventions, which is the vast majority—to interpret and enforce as best it can their provisions on behalf of the victims of armed conflict.

Its role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been notoriously difficult, given that Israel signed the conventions early on but has refused to accept that their provisions apply in the occupied Palestinian territories.

To the causal observer, an ICRC statement issued on June 15 appeared routine. It expressed concern for the three Israeli teenagers abducted three days earlier and called for their “immediate and unconditional release”, noting that international law prohibits abductions and the taking of hostages. The ICRC also offered to act as a “neutral intermediary” to achieve the youths’ release.

But in practice, the statement was an exceptional departure from the ICRC’s customary behaviour, at least towards Palestinians.

In the wake of the three youths’ abduction, as already noted, Israel launched a wave of raids in the West Bank, effectively kidnapping anyone with the faintest connection to Hamas, including journalists, charity workers, students and politicians. Within days, dozens of Palestinians had been seized and transferred out of Palestinian territory into Israel, in violation of international law. Soon the number would reach more than 500. Most were held without charge or access to lawyers.

These prisoners joined thousands of others in Israel’s jails, including some 200 inmates held without charge. Many of them were in the midst of a protracted hunger strike that was endangering their lives.

Further, Israel had in its jails a similar number of Palestinian children—all illegally held in Israel—who were rarely able to see their families. As groups like Defence for Children International had observed, these children were routinely abused. They were often seized from their beds in the middle of the night, and then once in detention subjected to torture and solitary confinement. What did the ICRC have to say about their condition? Had it called for their immediate release or offered to act as mediator?

Asked about this by Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada, an ICRC spokeswoman said: “ICRC doesn’t usually call for the release of detainees in general. We monitor their condition and if we have any concerns we discuss with the authorities issues regarding their treatment.”

That fitted with the kinds of statements more usually associated with the ICRC. Relating to Israel’s rampage through the West Bank and its mass arrests, ICRC tweeted dryly on June 18: “Military operations in the West Bank and Gaza: ICRC steps up its activities.” Regarding the hunger-strikers, the ICRC’s concern amounted to nothing more than a supremely disinterested humanitarianism. On June 17, the Red Cross offered a typical update: “We visited 27 hungerstrikers so far this week in Assaf Harofe, Poriya, Tel Hashomer and Wolfson hospitals.”

Secret prison comes to light

The ICRC’s traditional justification for such studied detachment was explained to me back in 2003, when I investigated a secret prison in Israel, known as Facility 1391.

The role of 1391 was to disappear Arab prisoners that were not covered by Israel’s responsibilities as an occupying power. Many of the inmates were from Lebanon, seized by Israel during its long occupation of the country that ended in 2000. It was Israel’s Abu Ghraib, and as in its Iraqi counterpart torture was common.

During my research I was told that the ICRC were aware of the prison. When I called the office in Jerusalem to find out what they knew, a spokesman refused to say anything on record. In fact, he refused to say anything apart from confirming that they knew of the prison’s existence and location, although he claimed they had not had any access.

The ICRC’s justification to me for refusing to speak further or to criticize Israel for what amounted to a gross violation of international law was that they believed it was essential to maintain a position of “absolute political neutrality”. I was told it was in the vital interests of the Palestinian prison population that the ICRC keep Israel’s trust so that Red Cross access would not be withdrawn.

But the principle of “absolute political neutrality” that was so crucial to the ICRC back in 2003—and has directed their policy for decades, given their almost complete silence on Israel’s belligerent occupation—had been jettisoned with shocking alacrity in defending the rights of the three Israeli teenagers. Did the ICRC not also owe “absolute political neutrality” towards the Palestinians?

Power-friendly humanitarians

The truth is that the ICRC’s role in safeguarding international humanitarian law is subject to its careful assessment of where power resides in the international system. Making an enemy of Israel is extremely risky for an organization that relies on the support of major western powers. Making an enemy of the Palestinian people, a nation-in-waiting that needs every scrap of help it can get from the international community, is cost-free. Moral scruples can go hang.

That was also presumably why Navi Pillay, the United Nations’ respected high commissioner for human rights, adopted the stale language of diplomacy rather than an expression of moral outrage over the attack on Gaza. An anaemic statement issued on July 11 carefully avoided identifying Israel’s actions as war crimes, as they clearly were.

Instead Pillay noted that the reports of civilian casualties “raise serious doubt about whether the Israeli strikes have been in accordance with international humanitarian law”. It was a familar soundtrack of muted disapproval, one that for decades has endorsed international inertia.

Human Rights Watch, based in New York, performed no better. It issued a statement on the fighting on July 9 that was barely distinguishable from press releases published by the organisation during Israel’s operations in 2009 and 2012.

I have had run-ins with HRW before, not least in 2006 when I took issue with its lead researcher Peter Bouckaert. In the immediate wake of Israel’s attack on Lebanon that year, Bouckaert opined to the New York Times:

I mean, it’s perfectly clear that Hezbollah is directly targeting civilians, and that their aim is to kill Israeli civilians. We don’t accuse the Israeli army of deliberately trying to kill civilians. Our accusation, clearly stated in the report, is that the Israeli army is not taking the necessary precautions to distinguish between civilian and military targets.

This seemed a grossly presumptious statement, as I observed at the time. Bouckaert made his claims, even though Israel’s precision strikes had killed many hundreds of Lebanese, a majority of them again civilians, while Hizbullah rocket attacks had killed only small numbers of Israelis, a majority of them soldiers. This is what I wrote:

How does Bouckaert know that Israel’s failure to distinguish between civilian and military targets was simply a technical failure, a failure to take precautions, and not intentional? Was he or another HRW researcher sitting in one of the military bunkers in northern Israel when army planners pressed the button to unleash the missiles from their spy drones? Was he sitting alongside the air force pilots as they circled over Lebanon dropping their US-made bombs or tens of thousands of “cluster munitions”, tiny land mines that are now sprinkled over a vast area of south Lebanon? Did he have intimate conversations with the Israeli chiefs of staff about their war strategy? …

He has no more idea than you or me what Israel’s military planners and its politicians decided was necessary to achieve their war goals. In fact, he does not even know what those goals were.

In bed with the State Dept

In its July 9 statement, HRW trod the same ground, beginning: “Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel appear to be indiscriminate or targeted at civilian population centers, which are war crimes.” Meanwhile, the Israeli offensive was characterised in the following terms: “Israeli attacks targeting homes may amount to prohibited collective punishment.”

So for HRW, Palestinian rocket attacks that had at that stage killed no one were “war crimes”, while Israel’s massive assualt on Gaza, which quickly led to the deaths of dozens of Palestinians, many of them women and children, was simply “collective punishment”. Both were violations of international law, of course. Put another way, both were war crimes. But, as so often before in this conflict, HRW could only find the courage to articulate the accusation when it referred to Palestinians.

Similarly, in an outrageous mangling of international law, the statement also suggested that Hamas leaders were legitimate military targets even when not involved in combat. Israel, on this reckoning, was entitled to strike Hamas figures even as they slept or ate in their family homes. The problem was that, were such an interpretation to be consistently applied by HRW, it would sanction Hamas to target any home in Israel where a family member serves in the armed forces or is a reservist—that is, most Israeli homes.

As Helena Cobban, a Middle East expert, noted of a subsequent report by HRW, published on July 16, that made the same error:

How many times do we have to spell this out? The essential distinction in international law is not between ‘fighters’ and ‘civilians’—which are the categories used throughout this HRW report—but between “combatants” and “noncombatants”. A fighter who is not currently engaged in either the conduct, the command, or the planning of military operations is not a combatant. …It is quite illegal to target such an individual.

Dragging their heels

HRW’s July 16 report was at least an improvement on its earlier one, not least because it included actual case studies in Gaza, in which the evidence of war crimes was indisputable. But this is a pattern too: groups like HRW wade in at the beginning of an Israeli attack with equivocations, only finding their moral backbone later on, as the mounting evidence of Israeli war crimes starts to discomfort the international community. HRW does not lead the opposition to war crimes, as it should; it merely provides the excuse to seek a way out, but only after nearly everyone is agreed that it is time to bring things to an end.

In short, HRW is not the voice of a global moral conscience; it is an organisation keen to keep its access to, and credibility with, policy elites. That is hardly surprising given that HRW, while styling itself as “one of the world’s leading independent [human rights] organizations”, has a virtual revolving door policy with the foreign policy establishment, especially the US state department.

The cosy ties between the US administration and HRW have become so glaring that it prompted a recent letter of complaint signed by more than 100 public figures, including Nobel peace prize laureates Adolfo Perez Esquivel and Mairead Maguire, and the former UN Assistant Secretary General Hans von Sponeck.

They noted that HRW’s recently departed Washington advocacy director, Tom Malinowski, was a former special assistant to President Bill Clinton, and speechwriter to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Last year, he left HRW to become an assistant to the current Secretary of State, John Kerry. But not before he had used his role at HRW to justify “under limited circumstances” the legitimacy of extraordinary renditions—the kidnapping and smuggling of individuals to torture sites out of official US oversight.

Meanwhile, the vice-chair of HRW’s board of directors is Susan Manilow, who describes herself as “a longtime friend to Bill Clinton”. Also, HRW’s Americas’ advisory committee includes Myles Frechette, a former US ambassador to Colombia, and Michael Shifter, a former director for the US government-funded National Endowment for Democracy. A recent member of the committee was Miguel Diaz, a CIA analyst in the 1990s who now works at the State Department.

Similarly, Suzanne Nossel, an exponent of pre-emptive war, left her senior position at HRW in the late 2000s to join the State Department. She later went on to join another leading human rights group, Amnesty International USA, this time as its executive director.

The rest of HRW’s board may not be so tainted by direct political connections, but most are hardly champions of the common man either. A significant number are millionaires who made their fortunes in the financial industries.

This incestuous relationship between the elite policy-makers and the elite human rights community is endemic. Consider Unicef, the humanitarian children’s fund of the UN. It has been virtually silent on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite masses of evidence of systematic abuse of children by Israel. Local watchdogs have tried to raise a cry about Israel’s imprisonment and torture of children, and about the blockade of Gaza that has led to widespread and chronic malunitrition. Unicef has uttered barely a word in support.

Might that have anything to do with the fact that Anthony Lake is its executive director? That is the same Lake who served as National Security Advisor to Bill Clinton in the 1990s; and the same Clinton who has repeatedly declared his fealty to Israel.

International human rights monitors have adopted a bland, risk-averse “humanitarianism” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a way to avoid engaging with the conflict’s more profound, and urgent, political dimensions. Like the media and the politicians, the great fear of international human rights groups is running foul of the Israel lobby.

Shaping the elite discourse

Nonetheless, Israel is in difficulty. It is gradually losing the battle for public opinion. Grandly, Israel calls this development “delegitimization”, but in truth it simply a growing popular awareness of the realities of Israeli occupation, fueled by the more plentiful opportunities for the public to bypass official sources of information.

The task of Israel’s lobbyists is to slow down this awakening as much as possible and to insulate policy-makers from its effects. That is the stated mission, for example, of Britain’s fledgling pro-Israel media lobby, known as BICOM or the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre. BICOM is a product of Israel’s concern at the increasingly globalized nature of English-language media.

For decades, the Israel lobby focused its work almost exclusively on the United States, expecting its super-power patron to keep it out of diplomatic, military and financial trouble. It developed a political lobby—AIPAC, or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—that worked to intimidate the US Congress and, alongside it, the White House. No US president, certainly not one up for re-election, dares turn down an invitation to speak at AIPAC’s annual conference.

Less visible but just as important are Israel’s lobbying organisations targeting the US media. The best known, the Anti-Defamation League, is led by Abraham Foxman, whose own bigotry should have discounted him from the job were the ADL really interested in defamation. But Foxman is an arch-exponent of defamation as long as it is directed at Israel’s opponents.

In early July, for example, he wrote a commentary for the Huffington Post berating Palestinians for a culture “that espouses pure hatred of Israelis, and often Jews, regardless of their actions, and is wholly uninterested in living at peace with its neighbors”.

But the ADL has two other major allies in its campaign of intimidation of the US media: Honest Reporting and Camera, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting. The latter has a journalists’ “hall of shame” on its website that documents its run-ins with most of the major journalists who have covered the region for US audiences.

I should disclose that I have a small place of honor there too for my brief flirtation with the International Herald Tribune after it was taken over by the New York Times. My two entries for supposed “inaccuracy” pale next to the current 33 listings for Jodi Rudoren, the New York Times’ correspondent. Her appearances reflect neither a documented failure of accuracy (or rather, not in the way the lobby claims) nor a pro-Palestinian bias in her reporting. In fact, Rudoren has been almost as much of an Israel partisan as her predecessor, Ethan Bronner.

Rather, Camera’s relentless campaign against Rudoren is a measure of the New York Times’ critical role in shaping elite opinion. The lobbyists’ goal is either to hound her into submission—to encourage her to self-censor more effectively than she already does—or to pressure her editors into moving her elsewhere, on the assumption that her replacement will find their room for journalistic integrity even further circumscribed.

Breach in the dam

With the US Congress and media bullied into submission, Israel was largely able to shape elite opinion in the US. But a breach in the dam has grown over the past two decades. With the rise of the internet and social media, Americans enjoy access to a much more diverse media than they once did, including to liberal—at least by US standards—publications in Britain such as the BBC and the Guardian.

Israel’s lobbyists identified this danger early on, shortly after the outbreak of the second intifada in late 2000. Soon Israel had started to replicate the US lobby in Britain, creating BICOM in 2002. It and other Israel lobby groups have over the years battered the BBC into submission, turning it into another mouthpiece for Israeli propaganda.

The extent of the corporation’s capitulation became impossible to ignore in early 2009, when it refused for the first time in its history to broadcast adverts for the disaster emergencies committee’s appeal, because the selected charitable cause was Gaza, which had just been laid waste by Israeli bombing. Even British politicians lambasted the BBC for its craven decision.

The lessons learnt by BICOM were no doubt derived from the lobby’s long experience in the US. In 2010 BICOM staff joined Israeli strategists in drafting a paper called “Winning the Battle of the Narrative”. In it, they made the following observation:

The political elites in Europe and in the US are much more tolerant towards Israel’s policies then [sic] the wider public in those same countries; however, the public’s mood and the media’s coverage (especially in the UK) determine the government’s leeway to pursue a pro-Israeli foreign policy agenda.

Jonathan Cummings, the former director of BICOM’s Israel office, noted the same year that British media were influencing elites outside the UK, presumably a reference to the US. “With media outlets like the BBC, the Guardian, and the Financial Times playing an increasingly significant part in framing the issue well beyond its own borders, British attitudes carry far.”

He suggested that pro-Israel lobbyists should therefore reinvigorate their efforts to “create barriers to delegitimisation, insulating policy-making environments” from public opinion.

This activity is effective. It is the reason why the policymakers, the media and the most influential international human rights organisations still consistently fail to convey the shocking reality of what Israel is doing on the ground to Palestinians. It is why public opinion is still rarely reflected in foreign policy decisions affecting Israel.

This assault on Gaza, like the earlier ones, will leave hundreds of Palestinians dead, a majority of them civilians. It will end neither the siege nor the resistance to it. It will outrage public opinion around the globe. But our elites will carry on giving Israel financial, military and diplomatic cover, as they have now done for more than six decades. More