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Ill-conceived ‘crusade’

 

Israel’s reply to Goldstone suggests more civil approach

Ron KampeasWorld
Published: 05 February 2010
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Israel took a conciliatory tone in its reply to a report on the Gaza War by Richard Goldstone, shown here addressing the media after presenting the report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Sept. 29, 2009. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferre

WASHINGTON – The Goldstone wars continue, but beneath the shouting a diplomatic track has emerged.

The Israeli government last week published a reply to the U.N. Human Rights Council’s report on the conduct of last winter’s Gaza war with Hamas, insisting that Israel Defense Forces investigations into possible Israeli wrongdoing in Gaza were not principally motivated by last autumn’s U.N. report.

Nonetheless, the reply repeatedly refers to the U.N. report — known as the Goldstone report for its principal author, retired South African Judge Richard Goldstone — and was delivered within the six-month deadline that Goldstone recommended to avoid international prosecution.

News Analysis

Moreover, the bulk of Israel’s reply is dedicated to establishing the independence of military investigators and prosecutors, which would satisfy Goldstone’s requirement that any investigation should not be a matter of the alleged perpetrators investigating themselves.

The Israeli document notes that two senior IDF officers were disciplined for firing rocket shells into a populated area of Gaza where the field office of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, the principal group administering relief to Palestinian refugees, was situated.

More striking is the conciliatory tone taken by the Israeli government toward Goldstone and the human rights groups from which he drew in writing his report — acknowledging that Goldstone and the groups played a critical role in helping the IDF examine its actions.

An Israeli army spokesman said that while the army relied primarily on its own resources to identify deviations from policy, the human rights groups helped spur along the process.

“We take a look at ourselves and where we were right and where mistakes were made,” Capt. Barak Raz told JTA. “It’s important that a commander can go home at the end of the operation and look his family in the eye, and that the soldiers 20 years from now can look in their children’s eyes.”

Nonetheless, he added, “I can’t deny that these reports also contributed to our ability to be made aware.”

The civil tone does not mean the rhetorical wars engendered by Goldstone, a human rights icon with a pro-Israel history, are over. Top Israeli officials, up to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, continue to cast the report as inimical to Israel’s interests as Iran and its putative nuclear weapons program.

Non-governmental defenders of Israel continue to demonize Goldstone. Most recently, Alan Dershowitz likened him to a “moser,” a Jewish traitor deemed in some interpretations as worthy of a death sentence.

In the meantime, left-wing and pro-Palestinian groups continue to call for war crimes investigations of Israel and have inhibited travel by Israeli officials to Europe lest they face arrest warrants.

Against the noise, the government’s description of the Israeli army’s cooperation with the same groups was telling.

Noting that 150 separate investigations arose from Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s name for the Gaza War, the government reply says that a portion were initiated by the army and “others were opened in response to complaints and reports from Palestinian civilians, local and international non-governmental organizations, and U.N. and media reports.”

Of the 150 probes, 36 have resulted in criminal prosecutions — 19 of these involved shooting toward civilians, and 17 involved using civilians as human shields, mistreating detainees, and theft.

Between 1,000 and 1,500 Palestinians died in the war. Human rights groups say the majority were civilians, while Israel says the majority were fighters.

Israel launched the operation after Hamas stepped up its rocket attacks on southern Israel. Such attacks had been an almost daily occurrence since the terrorist group took over the strip in 2006, and dated back more than eight years.

Of the 34 incidents outlined in the Goldstone report, the Israeli government says the army was investigating 22 before the report was published — it admits that Goldstone’s research led to the other 12 inquiries. (The two officers reprimanded for shelling the UNRWA compound are not among them.)

Additionally, the government reply says, the Military Police Criminal Investigation Division “has sought assistance from non-governmental organizations (such as B’Tselem) to help locate Palestinian complainants and witnesses, and to coordinate their arrival at the Erez crossing point to Gaza, to allow interviews and questioning.”

B’Tselem is an Israeli human rights group concerned with the mistreatment of Palestinians.

The approach is welcome, said Michael Sfard, the legal counsel for three groups — Yesh Din, Peace Now, and Breaking the Silence — that have been targeted by right-wingers and some Israel defenders as antagonistic toward Israel’s interests.

“It’s the first time since Cast Lead that a government body has done something that is purely professional, and this is how it should have been handled,” Sfard said.

Goldstone declined a request from JTA for an interview.

Despite its conciliatory tone, the government’s reply said the report reflects “many misunderstandings and fundamental mistakes with regard to the Gaza Operation, its purposes, and Israel’s legal system.”

A researcher for Human Rights Watch, one of the groups that Goldstone drew upon in compiling his report, said the army investigations, while welcome, focused more on the foot soldiers than on orders that might have been illegal.

“We’re concerned that low-level grunts are being investigated for violating orders when in fact the orders themselves may have been illegal,” researcher Fred Abrahams said. “We don’t have faith in the military’s willingness to investigate itself.”

Sfard agreed, saying he trusted the integrity of the military prosecutors in dealing with the military establishment, but wondered whether the prosecutors were willing to indict their own commanders.

He noted, for instance, that the report said prosecutors cleared Israel of wrongdoing in the use of white phosphorus while acknowledging the use of the chemical during the war. Army commanders likely would have sought the military advocate general’s opinion before using the phosphorus, which burns skin on contact but may also be used to identify targets in areas where there are no civilians.

That puts prosecutors in the unenviable position of saying their commander sanctioned an illegal order.

Moreover, Sfard said, as independent as he believes the military prosecutors are, he doubts that they would take on the military chief of staff himself, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who formulated much of the policy.

“If the chief of staff has approved an attack, it is very difficult to expect that the military police and prosecution would deal with that,” he said.

Sfard said there was still a need for an independent Israeli commission to investigate the conduct of the war.

Anne Herzberg, the legal adviser for NGO Monitor, a group that tracks the funding and alleged biases of human rights groups, said she believed Israel may yet set up such a commission — but not because of pressures from human rights groups such as the ones Sfard represents.

“If they feel there’s room for that and there’s enough support, they should do it for internal purposes and because the Israeli public demands it,” she said, “not for a certain fringe sector of Israeli society making a lot of noise.”

JTA

 
 

NIF fracas: Defending Israel or destroying democracy?

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Jewish right-wing activists dressed as Arabs demonstrate in Jerusalem against the New Israel Fund on Jan. 30. Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)/JTA

JERUSALEM – A campaign against the New Israel Fund — a U.S.-based organization that funds civil society activists in Israel — has sparked a fierce debate over the limits of free speech, the financing of NGOs, the dictates of loyalty to the state, and, ultimately, over the fundamental values of Israel’s Zionist democracy.

The questions cut close to the bone on both sides of the ideological divide. For example: Are left-wingers using Zionist money to undermine the foundations of the state? Or are right-wingers trying to gag nongovernmental organizations critical of Israeli policies and actions? And to what extent are the government and its agencies involved in trying to silence their critics?

At the center of the storm is the Goldstone report on alleged Israeli war crimes during the fighting in Gaza last winter. (See related story, Will Israel's response to Goldstone be enough?.)

Most Israelis see the report as biased, based on flimsy evidence and false assumptions, and part of a concerted international campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state. The attack on the New Israel Fund was part of an angry Israeli backlash against Goldstone. But was it a bona fide attack on an organization accused of undermining Israel’s international standing or a premeditated onslaught against civil society?

The campaign against the NIF was conducted by an organization called Im Tirtzu, which describes itself as “an extra-parliamentary movement to strengthen Zionist values” and boasts a video endorsement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It claimed that 16 NIF grantees — among them Physicians for Human Rights and B’Tselem, human rights organizations active in the Palestinian territories; Breaking the Silence, a group of soldiers reporting on Israeli army violations of moral norms; and ACRI, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel — had provided Goldstone with material contributing to false charges against the Israel Defense Forces in informer-like actions that were tantamount to betrayal in a wartime situation.

“The results of these groups’ activities caused significant diplomatic damage to Israel and harmed the country’s capacity to defend itself militarily,” Im Tirtzu said, adding that NIF was largely to blame because it had funded these “anti-Zionist” organizations.

In late January, young Im Tirtzu members dressed as Hamas fighters demonstrated outside the Jerusalem home of NIF President Naomi Chazan waving placards depicting Chazan with a horn emerging from her forehead. The text on the placard read: “Fact! Without the New Israel Fund there could be no Goldstone Report and Israel would not be facing international accusations of war crimes.”

The horn was a play on words, the Hebrew “keren” meaning both fund and horn, but critics say it also had obvious anti-Semitic connotations that many found offensive.

Im Tirtzu used the image as well in advertisements placed in several Israeli newspapers. The Zionist Organization of America has seconded the criticisms of the NIF.

The New Israel Fund says it knows that many of the minority rights groups it backs in the name of empowering the disenfranchised and fighting discrimination in Israel also take positions that the NIF does not endorse, such as calling for an end to Israel’s Jewish character. NIF officials say that while they do not agree with everything their grantees do or say, revoking their funding would be inimical to NIF’s goal of promoting free speech and strengthening Israel’s minorities.

“They’re using me to attack in the most blatant way the basic principles of democracy and the values of Israel’s declaration of independence; values of equality, tolerance, social justice, and freedom of speech,” Chazan declared.

In dismissing the Im Tirtzu case against the NIF as baseless, Chazan said that the materials the groups allegedly transferred to Goldstone are mostly in the public domain. And even if they were not, it would be the duty of the groups to pass on what they know — that is their raison d’être as human rights groups.

Far from giving succor to Israel’s enemies, the grantees were trying to create a better Israel, Chazan said.

The NIF and its defenders note that its work goes well beyond organizations focusing specifically on Palestinian rights. It also funds civil society groups dealing with a host of domestic Israeli issues, such as providing women’s shelters, supporting Ethiopian immigrants, and challenging the Orthodox monopoly on Jewish religious practice.

Earlier this month, a group of leading Israeli academics, writers, actors, directors, and political activists, including novelists Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, placed a full-page ad in Haaretz expressing “disgust at the campaign of incitement and hatred” being waged against Chazan, the NIF, and the organizations it supports.

Several U.S. Jewish groups on the left side of the political spectrum issued their own statements slamming the anti-NIF campaign on similar grounds. The tenor of the anti-NIF campaign was criticized as well by Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League.

In late January, 13 of the 16 NIF grantees slammed by Im Tirtzu fired off a letter to President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin complaining that the Im Tirtzu attack on the NIF was part of a larger pattern encouraged by “senior government officials.” In other words, it was more than a one-off campaign by a young, marginal group but part of an anti-democratic trend for which the government was setting the tone.

They gave some examples: Interior Minister Eli Yishai backing claims that organizations that help refugees and asylum-seekers “aim to destroy Israel”; Netanyahu denying the legitimacy of Breaking the Silence testimonies on the Gaza war; Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon referring to Israeli human rights organizations as “enemies from within.”

Others see the specter of an impending clampdown against civil society.

Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall and director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, an NIF grantee, was questioned and fingerprinted by police in early January after taking part in an all-female prayer session at the Western Wall that involved the use of a Torah. A week later, ACRI director Hagai El-Ad was arrested while monitoring a protest against Jewish settlement in the Arab neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah in eastern Jerusalem and released as soon as the case went to court.

Were these isolated cases of police folly or part of a pattern dictated from above?

There is no hard evidence to suggest that the Netanyahu government is planning to curb civil society or that the police action had the prime minister’s blessing. What is clear is that Netanyahu is deeply concerned by what he calls “Goldstonism” — moves in the international community aimed at delegitimizing Israel.

The prime minister says he sees three existential threats: Iran; a Palestinian state without adequate security arrangements; and rampant Goldstonism. That means that Israeli organizations the government feels contribute to delegitimization of the state could be seen as serious threats to national security. But the government does not seem to be considering operative moves against them.

Moves, however, are afoot in the Knesset. The Law Committee, headed by Yisrael Beiteinu’s David Rotem, whose party has proposed that Israeli citizens take loyalty oaths, has set up a subcommittee to examine the sources of funding of NGOs active in Israel. Some of the committee members aim to ban funding by foreign countries, which is seen as interfering in Israel’s internal affairs. Most of that funding is from European countries for left-wing NGOs.

Otniel Schneller of the Kadima Party wants to go a step further, proposing the establishment of a full-fledged parliamentary commission of inquiry to probe the conduct of the NIF and its grantees. Schneller says he is against the absurdity of Israeli civil society “paying organizations like Physicians for Human Rights to slander us,” and wants to stop the NIF from supporting anti-Zionist groups.

Schneller’s proposal, which he plans to submit next week, has run into stiff opposition from the left and right.

Left-wing Meretz leader Haim Oron asked who would decide who is a Zionist or what are Israel’s best interests. Schneller, he suggested, should fight the left-wing organizations with counter arguments rather than trying to cut off their funding.

On the right, the Likud’s Michael Eitan argued that parliamentary commissions of inquiry are established on non-political issues, such as corruption in soccer or water prices.

“It is unheard of for the majority in the Knesset to investigate the minority,” he fumed.

Eitan’s stand has the support of others in the Likud, like Rivlin and Minister without Portfolio Benny Begin, and it is not clear whether Schneller can muster a majority for his proposal.

Meanwhile, Im Tirtzu’s funding also has attracted scrutiny in recent days.

Liberal organizations and bloggers have been reporting that Im Tirtzu has received money from the Central Fund of Israel, a U.S.-based nonprofit that has also supported pro-settler organizations and a group that aids militant Israeli Jews accused of carrying out violence. They also note that Im Tirtzu reportedly has received $200,000 over the past two years from John Hagee, an evangelical pastor in San Antonio, Texas, who is staunchly pro-Israel but came under fire for having declared in a sermon that God allowed the Holocaust to happen as part of a plan to bring Jews to Israel.

Hagee has expressed regret for the upset caused by his remarks and promised to be more sensitive in the future. A spokesman for the pastor criticized the tenor of Im Tirtzu’s campaign against NIF.

Meanwhile the debate goes on, with each side seeking to claim the mantle of preserving Israel’s fundamental nature.

“Today the question is not whether Israel survives, but what kind of Israel survives,” said Daniel Sokatch, the NIF’s chief executive officer.

Im Tirtzu leader Ronen Shova countered that “The debate is not about left or right. The new debate is between Zionists and non-Zionists.”

JTA

 
 
 
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