Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Let Their People Stay

The legal principle of non-refoulment says that a country should not return asylum seekers to their country of origin if they face the possibility of persecution or of having their rights violated in their country of origin. This principle seems to be absent in considerations being made in Israel to deport a group of refugees after having been arrested by the newly formed "Oz unit." Along with some cavalier comments by Israeli politicians that 'there are no more refugees from Darfur' workers who are in Israel illegally along with refugees from points across Africa are being arrested in large numbers, along with their children and being slated for deportation.

News of the possibility of the children of refugees being deported, some of whom were actually born in Israel has resulted in significant backlash from the Israeli public who seem shocked by the possibility of deporting these children who in many cases are well integrated into Israeli society and no little of the homes they are going to be returned to.

This issue has focused attention on the situation of many of these migrant workers and refugees in Israel, many of whom have taken jobs that were once held by Palestinians until the second intifada. As an example, this story tells of the challenges faced by some refugees from the Sudan living in Israel and just trying to get by.

In some cases, the law is on Israel's side. For example, prohibitions against migrant workers bringing their children with them have been broken, but just because something is law, does not make it right. It seems that the basic principles of fairness and compassion would allow these people, who merely want a better life for themselves and their family. It's good to see that public pressure and recognition of injustice seems to be having an impact on the myopic policies of the government.

No, I Won't Play With You.

So, who's the real loser here? Who suffers most in this case?

Good (Sort of) News From Morocco

The King of Morocco has issued a statement saying that the Holocaust was "one of the most tragic chapters of modern history." The statement was made at a meeting of the Aladdin project which promotes Holocaust education amongst Muslims.

This statement is both good and bad news. It's good, of course because it is an Arab Muslim leader recognizing a historical fact often denied or question by many of his coreligionists, notably, the president of Iran. Apparently, it is the first time any Arab leader has made such a clear statement about the historical truth of the Holocaust and recognized the suffering it caused the Jewish people.

It's bad, however, because it stops short of denying that Israel exists because of the Holocaust. Those who say that Palestinians are being punished for Europe's sins may only take comfort in the Moroccan King's statement arguing that, yes, one of the worst crimes in history is being compensated by permitting another.

The Aladdin project tries to dispel this with their Q&A. They write:

"Did Jews use the Holocaust to bring about the creation of Israel?

It would be a mistake to believe that the Jewish state owes its
existence to Hitler. Jewish nationalism, Zionism, was more than half a century
old when the Jews of Europe were exterminated. All the institutions of a Jewish
state were already in place in Palestine when Hitler rose to power in 1933, and
when the partition of Palestine was proposed in 1936. Israel, therefore, was not
a direct outcome of the Holocaust.Reading the deliberations of the United
Nations and its bodies in 1947-1948, it is difficult to find evidence that the
Holocaust played a decisive or even significant role. It is certainly the
case that the Holocaust hastened the legitimacy of a Jewish homeland in the eyes
of the world. But there is no cause-and-effect relationship between the
Holocaust and Israel. "

and

"Why should the Palestinians, who had nothing to do with the Holocaust, pay the
price for it?


The question of the Holocaust, as a human catastrophe, must be
separated from the creation of the state of Israel and, more particularly,
Israeli policies.

The hearts and minds of Palestinians and Israelis are burdened
by sacred histories, by traditions of pain, by superstitions about the other, so
much so that it is difficult for one to see the suffering of the other, now and
in history.

The common Palestinian (and Arab) understanding of Jewish history,
like the common Jewish understanding of Palestinian (and Arab) history, is
riddled with malice and myth. It is the responsibility of intellectuals on both
sides of the divide to try to correct the malice and the myth in the two
communities. Muslim intellectuals must be courageous enough to declare that
equating the Jews with the Nazis and drawing the Star of David (as a Jewish
symbol) as the Nazi Swastika is not only absurd, but also the ultimate affront
to victims of the Holocaust and their families - likening the victims to their
executioners.

Jewish intellectuals, too, have a duty to erase the myth and malice
that clutter their fellow Jews' view of the Palestinians and their legitimate
aspirations.

Most importantly, the question of the Holocaust must remain separate
from political disputes. Even if the Holocaust had played a decisive role in the
creation of Israel, and even though Arabs did not have any part in the tragedy
that visited the Jewish people, it would be morally unconscionable for Muslims
to deny the Holocaust, or to consider acknowledgement of its having taken place
to be a show of support for Israel or a betrayal of the Palestinians' rights."


The answer to the first question is excellent, but the second one falls a bit short. A better answer would note that Palestinians are not paying a price for the Holocaust, but rather for the rejection of the presence of Jews, or more precisely, a Jewish state in the ancestral homeland of the Jews. The legal creation of Israel was a legal recognition of facts--Jewish presence, Jewish institutions, Jewish History, Jewish ability to establish sovereignty--in what is today Israel. Circumstances that existed since before world war 2. The war that resulted from Israel's declaration of Independence in 1948 and it's fallout is the cause of Palestinian suffering,not the Holocaust.

This being said, sometimes it's best not to look a gift-horse in the mouth. The King of Morocco should be congratulated for a statement, that at least in the Arab world, is quite bold and is a step towards understanding and reconciliation.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Thoughts on the Question of Diplomats Vs. NGOs

In this posting from a couple of days ago, I linked to this article which carries a quote from Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Lieberman which struck me. He said in a press conference that NGO's "...were replacing diplomats as the engine for setting the international community's agenda." This comment was made as a criticism of the bias against Israel attributed to NGOs.

The question though is, is this a true statement, and if so, is it really a bad thing?

It's hard to be sure exactly if the statement is true. If one is to accept the allegations that the so called Jewish or Pro-Israel lobby in the US and other parts of the world are the drivers behind many western countries' foreign policy on the middle east, then perhaps one would also be willing to accept the argument that groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty act as lobbies for other groups or issues. The reverse is true as well, if one is to assume that NGOs set global policy, perhaps it is true that lobby groups, such as pro-Israeli or pro-Jewish (whatever that means) lobbies also influence policy.

This article, from a Canadian foreign policy newspaper discussing Canadian aid to Gaza points out that in Canada, much of the foreign policy vis a vis Israel is controlled by the Prime minister's office, as opposed to by experts and "desk officers" at the lower, working level, within the department of foreign affairs and international trade. In this case, it would seem that a number of pressures, including ideology would weigh on the Prime Minister in his crafting of this policy and that perhaps it is not NGOs setting agenda for debate, but rather the Prime Minister and his own worldview.

Similarly, taking the example of the Iraq war, much of the public was against the US led invasion of that country, yet it took place anyway. The agenda was not set by civil society or NGOs, but rather government which insisted the issue be discussed and that the invasion would take place.

So, Lieberman seems to be partially right, the global agenda is set by sources which can include NGOs or by diplomats, and often, it's a little of both. On many issues, when crafting a foreign policy a foreign ministry will not simply decide on a position in a vacuum. For example, when Canada develops its foreign policy on almost any issue, the department of foreign affairs and international trade will consult widely with other departments in the Canadian government. A variety of agencies will be asked for their position, depending on the topic, which could include the department of defense, the Canadian international development agency, various security agencies, and "stakeholders" amongst the public, including NGOs, who will be asked for their views on a given issue. Input on policy will come from a number of sources and only on the most pressing or high profile issues will the approach be "top-down."

In many cases, the political leadership will decide for example: "we need a free trade agreement with country X" or "we want to punish country Y for reasons A, B and C" but the details of all this: the content of the free trade agreement, the best method of punishing a country are decided based on wide consultation amongst government and experts in the public and finalized and implemented by bureaucrats.

Is it really so bad though, if NGOs are setting the agenda? Not really. In a democracy, foreign policy should be set according to the general will of the people in that country. It's true that elected officials often have a role in this policy, but the ones who really work, on a daily basis to put the details of policy in place and turn the general direction they are pointed in, into something more concrete, are unelected. Therefore it is important that various sectors of society have the chance to feed into a policy that elected officials are often unwilling to get into the "nuts and bolts" of.

This is somewhat reflected in the article the Israeli Consul General to NYC had published in YNet the other day. In it, he encourages those who would support Israel to take advantage of their ability to create their own media (blogs, twitter, facebook, you tube, etc.) to promote their message. The goal of this, of course, is to influence the public, not politicians, and so by influencing the public, it is hoped that politicians, civil society and major media outlets will pick up on these messages. The broader picture, of course, is the recognition that what ordinary people think, counts. NGOs make up part of that group of "ordinary people."

Similarly, NGOs, in many cases (not just the middle east) speak for those who otherwise have no voice. NGOs that do report of violations in dictatorships or otherwise closed states give a voice to those who cannot do it for themselves and take the place of the ordinary citizen who may call his elected official to voice an opinion. If we are to strive to make the global system fair then certainly the voices of millions who cannot speak for themselves must be heard, and NGOs are able to fill this role.

So, in sum, Mr. Lieberman, you are only partially correct that NGOs are the international agenda setters, but really, it's not such a bad thing that they are. If you don't like them, critique them on a factual basis and tear apart their arguments. It's the best way of dealing with them.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Could Cooperating With NGOs Mitigate the Bias Problem?

In the wake of the story about Human Rights Watch (HRW) using its sparring with Israel as a reason for Saudis to get out their cheque-books and donate to the organization (see HRW's response to these allegations here) came this unusually titled article in the Jerusalem Post: Diplomacy: Israel vs. Human Rights Watch.

The title of the article is interesting because the article itself doesn't really talk much about diplomacy. Instead it focuses on how Israel will be taking NGOs to task on their reporting about Israel, how NGO Monitor is highly critical of NGOs like HRW and how HRW is now defending itself against criticisms from Israel and NGO Monitor.

One argument presented by the Israeli government is that to be more fair, HRW should distinguish, when reporting, between democracies and all other states in order to ensure that criticisms are seen in the proper context...the erroneous actions of well intentioned democracies versus the intentional violations of totalitarians with no regard for human rights. On this point, however, HRW needs to be considered correct in their reply. The HRW position is that nobody gets a pass, human rights are universal and they must be respected by all. A democratic state should be treated no differently than a dictatorship when facing scrutiny on human rights. This being said, however, the Israeli governments point of viewing supposed violations of human rights in their proper context is important. It is quite a different thing to attack civilians because you don't like their religion, skin color, politics, etc. than it is to kill civilians when attacking an enemy in their midst. In these generic examples a difference is to be drawn between the targets of the attack. Whether a democracy is the perpetrator of one or the other is irrelevant.

Unfortunately for HRW, parts of the article has their spokesperson come off sounding somewhat exasperated in her response to claims against HRW. The article quotes an HRW spokesperson responding to criticism with rhetorical questions and by suggesting that her critics merely make blanket accusations but cannot really prove anything HRW has actually said is wrong. The irony here, however, is that the HRW spokesperson does not actually address the many critiques of her organization on the NGO monitor website and instead categorically denies any charges of HRW's fallibility--in other words, exactly what she points at her critics for doing.

The NGO monitor website is itself somewhat exasperated in its critiques of HRW in some places, but does point to actual instances where HRW seems to have made errors in its reporting, errors that do not seem to be officially acknowledged. The NGO monitor website also has reports applying statistical methodology to demonstrate HRW's bias against Israel. Some of this does, however, seem somewhat dubious. For example, the report shows, as bias, the disproportionate attention HRW placed on Israel versus other states in the region. It's true, this could be an indication of bias, but it could also be evidence that maybe there are more violations, or allegations of violations coming from Israel than other countries in the region.

The point, however, is that the number of reports against Israel would probably be smaller is Israel would be more cooperative with the organizations in question. If Israel could provide researchers with information and the Israeli perspective of the incidents in question, then perhaps there could be better understanding of the Israeli position reflected in the reports that are otherwise doing damage to Israel's reputation. There is precedent for this in the "Gaza beach" case where cooperation with HRW lead one of their experts to reverse his original position that Israel had targeted civilians. More such cooperation could in the future, avoid the erroneous report in the first place.

The Nakba Law Redux

A weaker version of the "anti-Nakba bill" was recently given support by the government's committee on legislation. The weaker version of the bill would, rather than a prison term--as in its previous iteration--prohibit the use of taxpayers money to fund commemorations of the Nakbah, or to commemorate Israeli Independence day as a day of mourning.

First, it's worth pointing out that this bill is not yet law. Indeed, to the best of my understanding of the Israeli legislative process, it actually has several more hurdles to clear before it becomes law. The article says that the Ministerial Committee for Legislation has made a decision to support the bill. The next step, is for a second reading of the bill, which is done article by article and then a third reading of the bill before it becomes law. In the cabinet, however, a minister may object to the resolution of the committee that accepted the bill and the whole thing could die, or be sent back to square one. In short, there's a long way to go before this bill becomes a law.

What about the merits of the bill itself. That's a more difficult question. The bill raises important questions about the limitations of freedom of speech. The question is, should it be illegal to criticize the state if you have received public funds? Most democracies have some limitations on free speech: hate speech comes to mind and any countries, such as France, also have rules against the desecration of the flag or the national anthem. Such prohibitions against the desecration of Israeli symbols are punishable by fine under the proposed bill. This further divides the question, by adding a new issue: should it be illegal to desecrate symbols of the state?
The second question is probably easiest to answer. No, it should not be illegal to desecrate symbols of the state. For one, really, they are just symbols and burning a flag does little real damage to the state that flag represents. Though it may be considered distasteful by some, burning a flag is really just an act of symbolism and a manner of expressing an opinion. Desecrating these symbols, so long as they don't cause real damage (for example burning down the actual houses of parliament which are also symbols, but have more meaning than a cloth flag) harms nobody and allows for the expression of a sentiment. A strong, confident democracy should be able to shrug off such flag burning and not have to legislate against people expressing their feelings or ideas in this way. For example, Quebec separatists have burned Canadian flags. It is deeply offensive and troubling to see, but other than a bit of tugging at the heartstrings, it does not really impact anyone's life. It is no secret what these separatists want, if they burn a flag to show it, nothing changes. The same should be said about an Israeli bill that may make such activities punishable by law.

The other question is that of commemorating the Nakbah, renouncing Israel's right to exist as the democratic state of the Jewish people or supporting terrorism against Israel with public funds. Again, a slippery slope. First, this is not an outright ban on the freedom of speech, it is only a prohibition on using taxpayer money for certain purposes. Not using taxpayer dollars (shekels) to support terrorism seems straightforward enough. It's likely that not only would there be a violation of the "Nakba" law if this were to happen, but also many other criminal laws in Israel. In other words, Israel probably already has laws on the books that would seek to outlaw the support of terrorism and so this provision of the "nakba" law seems superfluous.

As for the middle point, renouncing Israel's right to exist as a Jewish democratic state, similar prohibitions already exist in Israel. For example, one cannot sit in the Knesset if they negate this right (see article 7(A)(1)). Basically, this is the legal codification of Zionism, that the Jewish people have a right to a state and that said state should be democratic. This is the raison d'etre of Israel, to be a Jewish homeland. If the Israeli position were to change and choose to move away from nation statehood based around the concept of the Jews as a people then there would be little point to Israel being distinct from its neighbours. It is the protection of this Jewish character of the state that makes Israel, Israel. The Nakba law as explained in the article does not seem to negate the right of Israelis to challenge this concept of Israel, it only says one cannot use public funds to do it. Turning again to the Canada-Quebec example, many in Quebec speak of breaking Canada up, but activities with this aim do not have Canadian government support.

Finally, the concept of using state funds to commemorate the Nakbah. This is truly problematic. The Nakbah, is based on the Palestinian/Arab view of Israeli history. In historical fact, Palestinian villages were destroyed and Palestinians chose/were forced to/were encouraged to (by various sources) to flee their homes and become what is now the oldest group of refugees on earth. There is history to this and to deny it, or simply pretend it didn't happen seems disingenuous. Also, to suggest punishing Arabs for publicly demonstrating their sorrow over a historic event that has shaped their lives and the history of their people seems silly, in that it accomplishes nothing but creating bitterness. On the contrary, Israel should encourage its Arab citizens to feel that they can commemorate their history in any way they choose and that as full citizens of the state they can have funding for their activities.

Therefore, a summary run though of the proposed bill as explained in the article:
--Illegal to desecrate symbols of the state? Bad idea.
--Illegal to use state funds to support terrorism? There must already be a law on this. If not, then okay, good idea.
--Illegal to deny negate Israels Jewish Democratic nature with state funds? A reasonable idea.
--Illegal to allow state funds to be used to commemorate the Nakbah? Bad idea.

Will the bill ever become a law? No idea.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Way Childhood Should Be

Thanks to the Debate Link for bringing this article about a summer camp for Palestinian and Israeli children.

As I have said before and as studies from the Peres Peace Centre show (as alluded to by the article) these types of grass roots contacts between ordinary people go a long way to break down stereotypes and encourage young people, future leaders, to know one another in a carefree, peaceful way, and not through caricatures.

May all those involved in this project go from strength to strength and may their work be repeated infinatley.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Choosing to Stay Silent: Probably a Mistake

In an E-mail interview with the Jerusalem Post, Justice Goldstone who is leading the UN Human Rights Council Mission investigating war crimes related to Israel's war against Hamas argued that Israel should reverse its current position of non-cooperation and work with the fact finding mission.

Goldstone argues that the original mandate of his mission has changed and pledges to look far deeper into the conflict, including for example, Palestinian prisoners in Israel and the case of Gilad Shalit.

Israel maintains, however, that the mandate was never formally enlarged--though it may have been brought up in conversation--and legally, the mandate remains paragraph 14 of the resolution passed at a special session of the UN Human Rights Council on January 12, 2009. The paragraph reads:
"14. [the Council] Decides to dispatch an
urgent, independent international fact-finding mission, to be appointed by the
President of the Council, to investigate all violations of international human
rights law and international humanitarian law by the occupying Power, Israel,
against the Palestinian people throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory,
particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip, due to the current aggression, and
calls upon Israel not to obstruct the process of investigation and to fully
cooperate with the mission;"

It's not difficult to see why Israel may be wary of a mission with such a mandate. The mandate narrowly limits itself to investigation of Israel only, ignores any activities by Hamas, adopts the controversial international legal position that Israel occupies Gaza even after having withdrawn and predetermines that Israeli action is pure aggression and not a defensive action in response to years of rocket fire, as Israel describes it.

Another point raised in objection to the mission is that one of its four members, Professor Chinkin, signed a letter in the Times of London that called Israel's attack on Hamas a war crime, suggested that the rockets fired by Hamas were not justification for self defense, that the attack against Hamas was not necessary, and commits the oft repeated and flawed position that because Israel killed more Palestinians than Hamas has killed Israelis, a violation of proportionality has occurred. This is a flawed position because proportionality does not mean equivalence. Proportionality means in proportion to the threat faced. It also ignores the fact that one reason the Israeli death toll is so low is that Israel has an excellent civil defense system and its people have basically been living in bunkers. There are a litany of other reasons, but this is besides the point.

The point is, a person on a panel established to "investigate" has already put in writing who she believes the guilty party is. It's true that this fact finding mission is not a court, but its findings could eventually come to be considered as authoritative and perhaps even used in court. If anything, the mission is more akin to detectives trying to gather evidence to condemn a suspect. In this case, however, the detective approaches the case having already decided who is guilty. If this were a court, a judge would be expected to recuse themselves as justice could be brought into disrepute by the perceived bias. There is international legal precedent for this. See a case from Sierra Leone where a judge who had previously written about a person he was about to judge recused himself. Professor Chinkin should do the same.

Despite the fact that the mandate of the investigation and one of its members seems to predetermine the outcome of the work they will do, Israel still should have participated. The consequence of Israel not participating in this mission is that one can be sure that groups like Hamas will. Hamas will show the investigators what Hamas wants them to see, will offer their version of events and one can be certain this will paint Israel to be about as evil as can be. Israel, on the other hand, which likely has oodles of intelligence information on what Hamas is and has been doing, who can likely explain each target they hit and provide minute by minute reports on combat in Gaza will not have the opportunity to make its case. It seems that by not participating, Israel ensures that the final report of the committee will be unfavorable to it. Israel is forfeiting its chance to not only influence the report as it is being drafted, but to afterwards critique portions with which it disagrees by saying that the evidence they may have provided was ignored and thus being able to more legitimately critique the report. Meanwhile, this opportunities that Israel is surrendering, Hamas will have.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Saudi and Human Rights Watch Controversy

An online "bloggosphere" debate seems to be taking shape over Human Rights Watch and a fundraising trip one of its officials made to Saudi Arabia to raise funds allegedly using HRW's fighting against Israel as a "hook" for Saudi donors.

Credit goes to "The Debate Link" for assembling some of the key documents related to this debate in a single place and to providing an interesting perspective on the matter.

The discussion is unfolding as follows: This article was published in a Saudi newspaper which reports on how at a fundraising dinner the focus of the fundraising evening was a discussion of how HRW has been able to "battle" Israel and its supporters.

Picking up on this story was the Israeli based NGO "NGO Monitor" which was the tip off for "the Volokh Conspiracy" blog which picked up on this story, criticized HRW for the practice of raising funds from regimes such as Saudi Arabia and was then reproduced by the Wall Street Journal. Responses to this criticism of HRW came on the "Opinio Juris" blog in which criticisms of HRW were dismissed by pointing out that HRW and the individual who had travelled there for fundraising was a critic of Saudi Arabia as well. Simultaneously in "The Atlantic" a discussion between the author and a HRW representative is reproduced in an attempt to answer the question "...did your [HRW] staff person attempt to raise funds in Saudi Arabia by advertising your organization's opposition to the pro-Israel lobby?" To which the answer was, in a nutshell, 'we report on Israel and its supporters respond with lies and deceptions' but no straight yes or no was given.

Many of the critiques raised in this debate are valid. It's worrying that the wealthy elite in a country like Saudi Arabia would be solicited for funds when such donations could have the effect of immunizing those elites from criticism--assuming HRW will not bite the hand that feeds it. Similarly, it's worrying that "fighting" against Israel is a valid fundraising pitch as it offers incentives for HRW to apply greater scrutiny to Israel and conclude that Israel is at fault since such reporting against Israel could pay dividends in the form of fundraising. It is also revealing that the responses of HRW to the Atlantic which suggest that when Israel "fights back" (as an aside, fights back against what? If HRW fighting Israel, or critiquing it? There's a difference, but this may just be semantics) it's supporters fight with lies and deception with the implication that HRW is the only truth of the matter. Certainly, HRW is not infallible (see for example here and here.)

An interesting aspect of this debate which has not arisen as a subject of much discussion is how the Israeli Prime Minister's office, is using HRW's trip to Saudi Arabia as evidence that this organization has lost its "moral compass" and is making this story its opening salvo in "...a battle Jerusalem has decided to wage with NGOs it deems biased against Israel."

This blog has explained before why Israelis see groups such as HRW and Amnesty International with such suspicion. these sorts of NGO's however, serve important roles and should not be seen as the enemy, rather, they should be highly informed, impartial observers who call things fairly, and who bring to light issues that countries need to correct, or take responsibility for. For this reason, pointing to HRW as immoral because they are taking money from Saudis after pumping up their Israel fighting credentials (which, as mentioned, is disturbing) seems to ring somewhat hollow. Even if HRW is exposed as being hypocritical or immoral in its fundraising practices that does not make it wrong. Just because a group reports violations in one place and not in another, does not make the violations it reports on any less true just as it does not mean the violations being ignored have not happened.

The strategy Israel should adopt in exposing bias and defending itself against criticisms it finds unfair is to evaluate, with a fine toothed comb, every word of every report relating to Israel put out by such groups. Israel (within reason of course, and without getting bogged down by needing to dedicate to many resources to this matter) should carefully investigate and examine each of the reports it takes issue with, as well as the ones it does not take issue with, and criticize even the tiniest inaccuracy. Israeli investigators should produce their own findings, even if they are expected to match up with HRW's, and in cases where they feel they have been taken out of context, should produce a counter report explaining exactly what happened. These investigations should be fully transparent and conceal only what would endanger national security. It is in this way that bias can be exposed and ended.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Soldiers' Testimony About "Cast Lead"

An Israeli NGO called "Breaking the Silence" has published a report including the testimonies of several soldiers who served in the recent war against Hamas describing some of the less than savory things that happened in Gaza. The report (full text here) describes, amongst other things, the rules of engagement, home demolition, the controversial use of white phospherous and the involvement of the IDF chaplains.

The report is being held up by its publishers as evidence of immorality in the conduct of the war and amongst the higher echelons of the IDF, not the individual soldier. The Al Jazeera reporter in the clip here, smugly turns to the report as removing any uncertainty that Israel violated the laws of war. The report has also, however, come under sharp criticism. For example, one of the soldiers offered testimony that Israeli soldiers used Palestinians to enter homes that may may have been booby trapped in order to protect the IDF. That soldier, however, was not actually in Gaza at he time the event he describes occurred. An official IDF spokesperson said that:
"...a considerable portion of the testimony is based on rumors and secondhand
accounts. Most of the incidents relate to anonymous testimony lacking in
identifying details, and accordingly it is not possible to check the allegations
on an individual basis in a way that would enable an investigation, confirmation
or refutation
."

The Israeli defense minister, Barak, has encouraged soldiers with such stories to come forward and file formal, proper complaints to allow the incidents they alleged to be properly investigated.

Others in Israel have been saying that these reports should not be rejected so quickly and out of hand. Columnists like Derfner in the Jerusalem Post argue that it's the IDF that has something to hide and that the soldiers are telling the truth. A similar point is made on YNet by a reservist Lt. and member of Breaking the Silence who writes that:
"Should we accept the recklessness characterizing Cast Lead as legitimate
warfare, it will be an admission that we chose to belittle the notion of
education for values and that we chose to renounce our way."

The report produced by Breaking the Silence is over 100 pages and I've only had time to read about 45% of it. A few things stand out. Firstly, none of the soldiers' names are revealed, neither are their units or ranks. Now, this alone does not make what they're saying untrue but it certainly damages credibility. Imagine attempting to prove anything alleged in this report in a courtroom and saying to the judge: "My lord, trust me, these things are true, I know 30 guys who told me, but I'm not going to tell you who they are, where they saw these things, how they cane prove anything or even what unit they were in. Just trust me, okay, please, my Lord?" One would be laughed out of the courtroom with the swiftness of a startled gazelle fleeing from a hyena.

A second point: reading these testimonies, many of the soldiers acknowledge that they had not seen many of the things they were talking about. They say they were told of certain things, that some people were discussing things, but in very few cases did they actually observe the events they describe. This again, does not mean the events described did not happen, but it does shake the credibility of the claims. Thinking again in the context of a courtroom, this is the definition of hearsay. The rules of testimony only allow a witness to testify to conversations having taken place, not to the truth of the statements.

Thirdly, in almost all of the cases I did read, the soldiers acknowledged that they were fighting a war, that the rules in a war are not the same as the rules when policing a city. They acknowledged that they were under orders to protect themselves, to open fire if they felt their lives to be in danger and that there was danger all around them. For example, in discussing how homes were demolished because they were suspected to contain tunnels, the soldier in question did acknowledge that many of the homes did have tunnels to be sued for smuggling, kidnapping and ambushes and that many of these homes were indeed booby trapped. There are reported incidents of innocents being accidentally killed, but not indiscriminately, rather because the soldier felt threatened.

It seems that many of these soldiers witnessed or heard about terrible things that profoundly upset them, as they profoundly upset me when I read about the report. People dying, suffering, homes destroyed, killing the enemy and accidentally civilians uninvolved in fighting must have a horrible psychological effect on a person. One that thankfully I know nothing of first hand and that I will hopefully never know. The point is that these testimonies, which may or may not be accurate and remain unverifiable speak, mostly, of the types of things one could expect to happen in a war and these soldiers likely spoke out about these things that would probably disturb most people. I don't think there are motives here to expose or allege war crimes and I don't think many of the incidents I've read about are war crimes. I think that these soldiers were upset, as I was, to hear graphic accounts of the horror of warfare and wanted to speak out about it. I do not think there's much more to it than that.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Massive Lawfare in the Wake of Cast Lead in Gaza

Another long overdue bunch of articles I've been sitting on...

Der Speigel reports that the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR)will be launching a great many lawsuits against Israel and Israelis as a result of the Israeli war against Hamas in Gaza. To be precise, 936 such cases are planned and lawyers in several European states are preparing the proceedings required. Spain in particular is expected to be a site of many such cases. The countries in question all hold universal jurisdiction, meaning they can prosecute violations of international law to which their state has no obvious connection if the jurisdiction in which the alleged offence took place will not properly investigate the allegation itself. These cases go ahead despite Israel having launched an 11 day investigation into the IDF's conduct in Gaza.

The original article on these cases explains that the "ideal" case being sought by PCHR hard to achieve:

"The perfect case would have certain characteristics. The dead must be
civilians. Credible witnesses are needed. Hamas fighters must not have been in
the area, as they might have abused local residents as human shields. And the
identities of those who gave the orders and those who did the killing must be
clear."

It's very difficult not to be cynical about these cases and to view them as anything more than asymmetrical warfare and lawfare: attempts to harass Israel with little basis.

First the number of cases and the range of jurisdictions in which they could take place. This is what most lawyers would refer to as a "fishing expedition." The Plaintiffs (PCHR) are shopping around for the best jurisdiction in which to be successful, with a number of claims, some of which are of dubious foundation all in the hopes that "Winning a case, just one, would be enough."

Moreover, the way that the "perfect" case is referred to as meeting certain criteria to show certain things is indicative that there's something more than the search for justice afoot here. There's a search for a single instance in which an Israeli soldier has acted in violation of the rules of war. In over 900 cases purporting to be instances of civilian deaths, PCHR hopes that at least one of them will show that Israelis, under clear orders, killed civilians for no reason in the absence of any armed Palestinians. In other words, in any circumstance other than the ones described here, there may be reasonable doubt that civilian casualties were unavoidable consequences of military activity but, PCHR hopes, some Israeli soldier somewhere acted inappropriately. This is what is needed to produce a ruling that could be then used politically as "evidence" of Israel's violation of the laws of war.

Even if an Israeli were to be found guilty of killing civilians while under orders and in the absence of armed Palestinians, it would still prove nothing: other than that an Israeli soldier acted inappropriately. Does this make the Israeli army, or state complicit in war crimes? That depends on the case in question, but probably not. In fact, it may not even be sufficient evidence of a war crime. A clear order given to shoot at civilians in the absence of armed opposition resulting in civilian death could be the result of bad intelligence, misinterpretation of events in a dangerous situation by people under stress or any other number of events.

Der Speigel alludes to this sort of burden of proof:
"Systematic war crimes, of the kind which Al-Alami accuses the Israelis of
carrying out, are not easy to prove. The attorneys must demonstrate that the
Israel military attacked civilians without reason, perhaps even deliberately.
They must prove that these attacks were not part of the conduct of war against
Hamas fighters, and that they were not simply cases of technical or human error,
but the senseless taking of human life. But who is to decide whether such
killings were accidental or intentional and if they show carelessness or
cruelty?"

This is the burden on any prosecution against Israel. It must be demonstrated essentially, that Israeli soldiers killed for the sake of killing that the "guilty act" the "actus reus" was accompanied by a "guilty mind" the "mens rea" which in this case would consist of the desire to kill Palestinian civilians for no other reason than to merely kill. A tall order for any prosecutor indeed.

Is it unimaginable that some crazy person in the IDF may have shot a civilian because that soldier is nothing more than a psychopath? No, it's possible. Crazy and evil people exist everywhere. Was there, however, a systematic policy, or intent to kill Palestinian civilians for no reason? That I sincerely doubt. I do not believe that the Israeli army, as a matter of policy, set about killing Palestinian civilians in Gaza for no reason.

In the absence of evidence that the IDF set out to kill civilians, in the light of the fishing expedition for jurisdictions and cases in the hopes that at least one will "stick" and in the light of the desire for the "perfect case" I would argue that this wave of accusations is little more than unsubstantiated lawfare. An effort to harass Israelis, many of whom will be found not guilty, and to further hamstring future IDF activities out of the fear that more such cases will be brought as a result of activities in confrontations not yet fought.

Monday, July 13, 2009

My 14 at 100

This post is my 100th since I started blogging. I thought it would be interesting and "fun" for me at least to go through some of my posts and from them, make a list of the individuals or groups that I thought deserve special recognition for their efforts to advance peace between Israel and its neighbours.

In no particular order:

Those behind a failed Turkish effort to build a peace hospital in Israel which would have brought together both Israeli and Palestinian workers and patients.

"Friends of the Earth Middle East" is an NGO that is working with Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian people living in shared watersheds to help conserve water, protect the environment and do all of the above cooperatively. They are creating necessary connections between ordinary people from three groups with--at best--cold relations.

A former Canadian Ambassador to Israel and his team who have put together what may be the most feasible and comprehensive plan for the sharing of Jerusalem under any future peace agreement.

Druze member of the Israeli Knesset Kara, who, though he may really be of dubious credibility, seems to be making well intentioned efforts to reach out to Arabs in other countries and talk about possibilities for moving peace forward. Far more than many others have done.

The appropriate officials in the Israeli and Jordanian water ministries who, rather than disagree and squabble over a potentially contentious water sharing issue, instead followed the stipulations of their peace treaty and dealt cooperatively with an environmental problem affecting shared water sources.

Ordinary Egyptians who are happy to be living in peace.

Wafa Younis, the leader of a Palestinian band that was disbanded after the "sin" of trying to reach out to Israeli Holocaust survivors and teach her children and the survivors something about eachother's culture.

Hapoel Tel Aviv. The Tel Aviv soccer team working to bring Israeli and Palestinian kids together to get to know one another and have some fun in a safe environment.

The Israeli Members of the Knesset behind the Evacuation-Compensation bill, making its way through the legislative process to encourage non-ideological settlers to voluntarily leave contentious settlements.

The Palestinian medical doctor whose children were tragically killed in the Israeli attack on Hamas in Gaza who, despite his loss and his right to anger, continues to strive for peace.

The Israeli Academic Centre in Cairo and those who have staffed it for many years in the hopes of deepening cultural ties between Israel and its peace partner, Egypt.

The founder of a West Bank Holocaust museum who, though I think he may be a bit misguided, is trying to teach other Palestinians about this saddest chapter in Jewish history, a chapter often denied in the Palestinian narrative.

A Kuwaiti Journalist whose political career died as soon as it was born for suggesting that Kuwait should make peace with Israel.

The Peres Centre For Peace and much of the good work it does. Especially this photo journalism exchange.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Netanyahu's Speech in Israeli Media: The Palestinian Reaction, Part 2

I know it's long overdue, but I wanted to continue writing about how the Israeli media reacted to Netanyahu's foreign policy speech in Tel Aviv last month.

One aspect of the speech that Israeli media seems to be struggling to understand is the Palestinian reaction to the speech. For example, immediately after the speech, Palestinian authority officials immediately condemned it for not showing any flexibility of the issue of Palestinian refugees and on the status of Jerusalem. Similarly, Syrian media and even the president of Egypt commented that the speech did not offer real chances of peace and that Israel's request to be recognized as a Jewish state was a non-starter.

Some in Israel see the Palestinian and wider Arab response to Netanyahu's speech as proof of rejectionism on the other side. In other words, it is evidence that even in the face of offers to negotiate immediately, the Palestinians simply reject Israel no matter what and will always reject offers of peace.

Others have been more inquisitive about the reasons for the harsh response. Some have suggested that the harsh Arab reaction will ultimately backfire as they will be seen as the ones shutting the door on Netanyahu's offer. Others have suggested that the harsh reaction is either a pre-planned, knee-jerk rejection or, is a reflection of Palestinian surprise that Netanyahu did not offer all they wanted in light of the Palestinian belief that the US is on their side and that they, not Israel is in a position of power.

It seems then that Israeli analysis of the Palestinian reaction to Netanyahu's speech falls into one of two categories: 1) Palestinians really don't want peace and so they instinctively reject everything Israel offers or 2) Palestinians don't understand why Israel is not doing what Palestinians feel the US has told it to do.

There's a third option though, not really examined in the media, and that is that Palestinians are unhappy that Netanyahu will not freeze settlements and that he insists on Israel being recognized as a Jewish state. The settlement issue is long standing and really should not come as a surprise to anyone. It's a contentious issue that remains a very sore point, but can ultimately be resolved. The only really new thing Netanyahu said in his speech was that he wants Israel to be recognized as a Jewish state. The only such state in the world. As highlighted by the Egyptian president's comments, many Palestinians see this as some sort of a humiliation, that it is some sort of a shame that they would have to recognize that their neighbour is a Jewish state.

The Palestinian response frankly seems to be too quick to be taken too seriously. Netanyahu gave a an important foreign policy speech. It seems almost irresponsible for officials, representatives of any government, to come out and within minutes, after only hearing the speech that first time, without any further analysis or revision, pronounce their opinions. In fact, such a reaction is the definition of a knee-jerk reaction. It is the voicing of the first thing that comes to mind without further study. True, Palestinians were likely looking for key things, hoping for key commitments that they may not have heard, but speeches such as these require some thought and some reading between the lines to be properly understood.

It's one thing for someone writing on a blog, or a journalist to respond to a speech right away, it's quite another for a government official to respond, within seconds, to a policy speech by an adversary. One would hope that in future, cooler heads and more careful analysis will prevail.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Is Canada Really the Best Teacher?

The Globe and Mail carries an interesting story about how Israel is looking to Canada as a model to integrate the Jewish people with various cultural backgrounds who arrive in Israel.

A recent conference held in Israel indicated that half of the population of Israel were not born in that country and that with people arriving on Israel's shores from disparate backgrounds (for example: Russian, Ethiopian, North African, European, North American and Yemeni) integrating all these people into a single country and into a single national identity is a challenge. Complicating this challenge is that some of these people do not want to be integrated--many Russians who move to Israel are often resented by Sabra's, native born Israelis, for this--and also that in addition to a diverse Jewish population there are of course Arab, non-Jewish minorities as well as migrant workers who come to Israel, largely from Asia, to find work there.

The article notes that Israel will be looking to Canada and its model of a multicultural "mosaic" as opposed to a "melting-pot" to integrate these immigrants with diverse cultural backgrounds into a single Israeli identity without forcing them to sacrifice their various cultures brought with them from their old country.

Two points spring to mind. First, is Canada really such a great model for this? Canadians have long spoken of the "two solitudes" that on the English and the French and how the two have never properly integrated with one another and how there is great misunderstanding and mistrust between the two. Similarly, Canadian treatment of its native population has been, shall we say, less than the ideal. Furthermore, in my estimation, the Canadian model of multiculturalism, to a degree, discourages full integration as cultural communities can be discouraged from "mixing" with one another, even though all of them may be proud Canadians. The result of this is English Canadians knowing little or nothing of French Canadian culture and vice versa, which translates into--in the Canadian case--a certain degree of disunity.

The second point that comes to mind is that Israel will need to decide what they want the overarching Israeli identity to be. It has been repeated that Israel is a Jewish state. Fine, but not everyone in Israel is Jewish, even though Jews are in the majority. If Israel were to model its identity on the Canadian one, it would do well to identify and reproduce a Canadian identity which could perhaps be defined as fluid--one that changes with the types of immigrants who come to Canada to build it. An Israeli identity may want to reflect core Jewish values but recognize that the cultural approach to Judaism, and the Jewish or Israeli identity will necessarily change with each new wave of arrivals from different parts of the world. To tell people that they can come to a country without abandoning their culture means that flexibility is required by the destination country to recognize and accept and accommodate for these cultural differences, insofar as they are not an affront to the key, overarching principles of national identity.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Ignorance North of the Thames

Hello! I'm back from vacation in (remarkably hot and sunny--thank you global warming) England and Scotland. For some reason I'm having a very hard time getting over my jet lag and still don't have the energy for a good, detailed post (or to catch up on the news) so I'm going light tonight.

I had a brief encounter in London which is sticking with me. In a small, neighborhood-type vegetable shop, I met an Afghan stock-clerk who was shocked when I told him that, contrary to his belief, the population of the United States was not 100% Jewish. I told him (unknowingly, incorrectly) that the US Jewish population was under 1% of the total US population (it is in fact around 2% of the population.) He seemed very skeptical. The conversation then turned into a truncated discussion (cut short because I and my travelling companions really had somewhere we had to be) between me, the stock-clerk and the Turkish cashier about how Jews control everything. the conversation, unfortunately, never had time to become more profound than the Stick-clerk and cashier insisting that Jews control everything and me retorting, "ummm...no, I don't agree with you" a few times. I also commented that I wished it were true that Jews controlled everything, because then I may be able to benefit from this omnipotence as well.

Also, on learning I was Jewish, the stock clerk said that I obviously was not "pure" Jewish, whatever that meant. I think he was trying to imply that I was not orthodox. I responded that I was Jewish, just not completely observant. He commented that he found that the Jews who showed their Jewishness (I assume he meant visibly orthodox ones) were better, or more respectable than the ones in the US who hide their Jewishness.

I literally do not know any more about the individuals I spoke with other than what is written above. I don't know where they were born, their politics, their religion, their education, nothing. What I do know, is that two ordinary people that I met were under the impression that the whole population of the US, the most powerful country on earth, were Jewish, that Jews control everything and that Jews who were not visibly Jewish were somehow insidious.

A few questions spring to mind. Where do these ideas come from? What gives this impression? How many other people think this way? What is wrong with a person who is Jewish who chooses not to be observant? And, even if the whole population of the US were Jewish, so what?

I don't have answers to most of these questions other than to say they reflect profound ignorance. The idea that Jews somehow control everything (the banks are a common institution referred to) is not novel. It's also simply untrue. In the Canadian case, for example, of the five major banks in this country (TD, RBC, CIBC, Scotia and BMO) not one of them has a Jewish person as its head. Do Jews work for these banks? Sure, but Jews also work in the pharmaceutical industry, that doesn't mean that they own or control it. The accusation is nonsense, but it persists. The fact is, for the stock-clerk and the cashier, Jews are the Bogey man. A Jew can "blend in" become invisible, yet still exercise their control in the guise of someone or something else. Since the Jew controls everything, anything bad that happens is their fault, and there is no free will, because it's the Jew that's calling the shots.

The manifestation of this ignorance in the two people with whom I had that brief encounter in a north-London greengrocer is frightening because, even though there was no explicit evidence of it in this case, this ignorance leads so easily to hatred. I wish I had more time to have spoken with those two men to really figure out where their ideas came from. From the short exchange we did have, I hope at least what I said about the US and Canadian Jewish population will be believed and that it will occur to them that if this supposed "fact" is untrue then perhaps other notions of what Jews are and are like will also be subject to further questioning and reflection.