"Human Rights and Defense against Terror in Israeli Policy" (response to Rabbi Jeremy Milogrom)

Human Rights Dialogue, Series 2, Number 8

April 24, 2003

Human Rights and Defense Against Terror in Israeli Policy

The following was received from Professor Gerald M. Steinberg, Director, Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation, Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel. Use link in the right sidebar to read Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom's article.

In an environment of brutal war and mass terror attacks, the tensions between the primacy of preserving life through defensive actions and other norms related to human rights become very salient. Some practices that would be unacceptable in “normal conditions”, such as large-scale restrictions of movement, become necessary when they can save lives and prevent far greater suffering.

However, many human rights organizations have chosen to ignore these tensions through value judgments that trivialize the complexities and difficult choices, and which define actions for self-defense against terror as immoral and unacceptable. This is accompanied by increasing evidence of the exploitation of human rights issues selectively in order to advance partisan political and ideological objectives. The process of subordination to politics strips these norms of their universal moral authority.

This problem is particularly prominent in the criticism of Israel’s responses to the campaign of brutal terror attacks and suicide bombings that have resulted in the murder of hundreds of civilians, and the maiming of thousands. In this environment, the Israeli government and military have taken steps to fulfill their fundamental obligation to protect the lives of the population. Such actions have included “targeted killings” of key terrorist leaders, as well as ground and air attacks into Palestinian cities.

Since these policies were adopted and implemented, the frequency of successful attacks and the number of casualties have decreased steadily, despite continuing Palestinian efforts to escalate the attacks. In March 2002, there were several bombings per week, and over 100 deaths per month. By the end of 2002, following the application of these Israel Defense Forces (IDF) policies, the ability of Palestinian groups to carry out such attacks was greatly reduced. As analysts such as Steven David and Gal Luft have noted, this counter-terror strategy also places those that plan and execute such attacks on the defensive, reducing their capabilities further.

Ignoring the number of lives that have been saved from hundreds of blocked terror attacks, many NGOs and human rights organizations have condemned these policies. While the policy is widely criticized by human rights groups, they have failed to propose realistic alternatives. Indeed, the vast majority of Palestinian casualties from Israeli military operations have been armed combatants, and many were killed when bombs they were preparing or carrying exploded. These "targets" are not members of an organized and recognized military force and under international law, they are not entitled to the protection provided in this framework.

Some who condemn “extra-judicial killings” advocate forced entry into crowded Palestinians cities and neighborhoods in order to arrest terrorists and bring them to trial. These suspects surround themselves and their bomb factories with thousands of "human shields" in crowded neighborhoods, and the option of arrest, trial and due process of law for these terrorists is not available. Instead, such actions would greatly increase the level of casualties and escalate the violence.

In addition, condemnation of Israeli policies includes accidental civilian casualties. Indeed, whenever military operations take place against terrorists and their infrastructure, whether in Afghanistan or Jenin, civilian deaths may occur. While some Israeli operations have also led to "collateral damage", the emphasis is on avoiding or minimizing this impact. Precise intelligence information has helped the IDF to pinpoint the location of those individuals engaged in terrorism, and, in most cases, to avoid wider damage. In the Israeli operation in the small section of the Jenin camp following the horror of the Passover terror attacks, the IDF did not chose massive bombardment, but rather sent in ground troops. As a result of this moral and humanitarian policy, 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in Jenin when they walked into a building that had been booby-trapped. It would have been far more effective and less costly for the IDF to bomb the hub of terrorist operations from a distance, but Israeli decision makers did not chose this option.

Similarly, planned targeted attacks by Israel have been called off due to concern regarding civilian deaths, and individual soldiers have raised strong objections when they felt that a military action could result in civilian casualties. The Israeli Supreme Court has considered these issues in great detail and its carefully argued decisions are studied and cited throughout the world. In cases in which Israeli soldiers are suspected of abusing their authority, legal proceedings are initiated. Indeed, few if any other nations under conditions of mass terror and war have adhered to the real principles of human rights as closely as Israel.

These dimensions and responses to the dangers of terrorism and war are all part of the Israeli reality, and information is widely available, but they are generally unacknowledged by the organizations and individuals that often speak in the name of “human rights”. As a result, many Israelis and others dismiss the reports issued by human rights organizations as little more than cynical contributions to the political and ideological campaign to delegitimatize Israel.

Indeed, from the dominant Israeli perspective, the framework of human rights has been cynically exploited to support anti-Israel political objectives. One-sided denunciations of “excessive use of force” in response to the Palestinian suicide attacks, and the participation of many NGOs in the demonization of Israel at the 2001 Durban “anti-racism” conference have reinforced perceptions regarding the political manipulation of human rights. As a result of positions that echo Palestinian political views, groups such as the United Nations Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International, the Israeli branch of Physicians for Human Rights are seen by many Israelis and others around the world as hostile organizations devoid of moral standing or impact.

The tendentious references to “war crimes” are also seen to reflect political and ideological positions regarding Israel and “the occupation”. In some cases, Palestinian terrorism and murder are justified as “legitimate resistance” under the slogan of human rights, and gross distortion of the reality of terrorism to which Israel is forced to respond is commonplace. (The article by Jeremy Milgrom in Human Rights Dialogue 2:8 uses terms such as “alleged terrorists” and “Palestinian resistance organizations” to refer to people and groups who have boasted about their role in terrorism.)

There is, of course, intense disagreement regarding Israeli policies following the defensive war in 1967 that led to the capture of the West Bank (occupied by Jordan in the 1948 war). Different terms are used to describe this territory, such as “occupied” or “disputed”, and the wisdom and legality of settlement policies are hotly debated. However, the Israel public and governments have accepted the concept of “land for peace”, and have moved to implement this policy, as seen in the proposals presented in the 2000 Camp David summit.

The cynical and one-sided condemnations have gravely damaged the credibility of the human rights community in Israel. In order to repair the damage to its reputation and potential impact, the human rights community must end such partisan political and ideological activities.