Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2 No. 8 (Fall 2002): Public Security and Human Rights: Articles: Israeli Exceptionalism?

Dec 31, 2002

Human rights activists living through a prolonged, bloody, and escalating conflict frequently find themselves on the losing side of an issue they never could have imagined in their worst nightmares. Such is the case in Israel, where the government has committed serious human rights violations against Palestinian civilians. Possibly the most egregious of these violations—which include the demolition of homes of alleged terrorists’ families and the routine torture of those under interrogation—is the targeted killing of senior members of Palestinian resistance organizations. To complete the picture, however, it must be stated that these desperate measures have been taken in an environment of mounting lethal attacks against both Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza and Israelis living within the Green Line—the area assigned to Jewish rule by the UN partition plan of 1947, plus land captured by Israel in the war of 1948.

Public resistance to human rights arguments has tied the hands of the human rights community. For Israelis targeted killing is the necessary response to suicide bombers; it is counterterrorism—à la guerre, comme à la guerre, in war as in war. Even among human rights activists, the commitment to human rights is stopped cold by the notion of Israel as a Jewish state, which allows for violations in the service of maintaining a Jewish majority. A case in point is the refusal of lib -eral Israelis to allow the return of Palestinian refugees. Not only is this a human rights violation, but it is contrary to the basic idea of the right to return of exiles—the very raison d’être of the state of Israel. For pacifists like myself, the matter is clear and human rights are absolute: this is not a war of self-defense, but a colonial war for territory and illegal settlements. The occupation must end, and this war should not be fought.

It is distressing to see how insensitive our public is to the policy of the excessive use of force. And yet this is hardly surprising, given the degree to which violence has characterized the Israeli domination of Palestinians throughout this conflict. When the Israeli media uniformly parrot a statement issued by the Ministry of Defense that the army has killed a Palestinian on his way to perpetrating an atrocity, the public has no way of knowing how plausible this claim is. It is very hard to remind the public that this person is only suspected of bloodshed and has not had an opportunity to prove his innocence. The media, which have willingly sided with the “national interest,” are less inclined than ever to present the story of Palestinian life under occupation. Sisyphean efforts by the human rights community to remind Israelis that more than 99 percent of the Palestinian population consists of noncombatant civilians are eroded each time a bomb explodes with Israeli casualties.

Even if targeted killing were always perfect, meaning that only the combatant actually targeted was killed, it would still represent a grievous deviation from basic standards of justice: a human being executed without the chance to prove himself innocent of suspicions gathered by an intelligence apparatus without passing any form of judicial review. What we are witnessing are extrajudicial killings so horrific that they are virtually indistinguishable from acts of vengeance—taking Israel out of the company of civilized nations. The fact that there is no death penalty in Israel does not resonate, as the public has gotten used to extrajudicial murders. Some of the victims of targeted killing stand accused simply as leaders in Palestinian resistance organizations, and their “elimination” does not seem to present a problem to the Israeli general public, for which all Palestinians are suspect.

In my view, the reason the Israeli government rarely relies on the alternative policy of arresting and trying suspects is because it takes longer to plan and execute the removal of a suspect from Palestinian territory than it does to simply lob a bomb or shoot a missile at him. It also puts Israeli soldiers at risk. Israel wants to occupy with impunity, and when the occupied population resists violently (which I deplore, but which is its right), Israel’s suppression of the violence is unjust. When Israel resorts to excessive force against an entire civilian population, it enters the realm of war crimes. The alleged absence of alternative means of “self defense” doesn’t allow murder; it requires ending the occupation.

On issues pertaining to the peace process, especially on the question of borders and settlements, there is a vociferous debate, and we in the human rights community have been out front. But we have done next to nothing in addressing our government’s policy of targeted killing. Sadly, we have not only failed to reverse the policy, but we have barely generated a public discussion about it. Appeals, so far unsuccessful, to the High Court of Justice by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel stand as rare exceptions to our silence on this matter. We have spoken out against the deaths of innocent bystanders in the process of executing a targeted killing—as in the case of a one-ton bomb dropped by the Israeli military on a crowded Palestinian neighborhood last July, killing at least ten children and many adults in addition to the person targeted. Yet we are virtually silent with respect to extrajudicial executions of Palestinian suspects.

How can we explain the silence? I would suggest that human rights activists in Israel work in an environment much different from those of our counterparts around the world. For fifty-four years, Israel has maintained a state of high military readiness. For more than half of those years it was in a state of war with all of its neighbors. The peace treaties that it has signed—with Egypt and Jordan—are considered fragile. All Israelis feel that they are in danger, as civilians have been killed in virtually every Israeli city. We have grown accustomed to living with emergency regulations.

Also atypical is the fact that a good percentage of Israeli human rights activists have been combat soldiers, and many of us continue to spend a month or more every year in reserve duty well into middle age. At the very least, almost every Israeli activist has a close relative currently serving in a combat unit; pacifism is, unfortunately, a rare phenomenon in Israel, even within the human rights community.

For much of Israeli society the very concept of human rights resonates poorly. Rabbis for Human Rights tries to remind Israelis of the classical Jewish idea of compassion, in the hope that it might strike a chord among the traditionally minded. Building on our contacts in the field and the cooperation we enjoy with Palestinian NGOs, we try to refute Israelis’ belief in an innate Palestinian hostility toward them, and emphasize that human rights violations victimize the civilian population. When theological and legal arguments do not convince, there is the temptation here to speak pragmatically—for example, making the case that collective punishment fosters rather than deters terror—but that is not our strong hand.

Public debate among Israelis used to be about whether the latest security measures would bring “peace” (i.e., a Palestinian surrender) or would lead to further insecurity—for Israelis. Today, the renewal of violence by mainstream Palestinian militants following the failure of the Camp David talks has buttressed the public’s conviction that Palestinians have never wanted anything but the destruction of Israel, and the debate has shifted away from prospects for peace. It is my belief, based on twenty years of talking with inspiring international human rights and peace activists, that Israelis and Palestinians need the ongoing presence and support of the international community. At a time when human rights are increasingly threatened by new insecurities, it is even more important that we strengthen our consciousness of the unity of the human race and the blessings of human solidarity.

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