The U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva has released a highly critical report on the three-week war late last year between Israel and Hamas, in which 1,400 Palestinians, the vast majority of whom were civilians, and 13 Israelis, 10 of them soldiers, were killed. In clear and unambiguous language, the report accuses both sides of war crimes and crimes against humanity and demands that the U.N. Security Council pass the case to the International Criminal Court should Israel and Hamas refuse to launch an independent investigation into its findings.
The inquiry was headed by Richard Goldstone, an internationally recognized and deeply respected war-crimes judge from South Africa who is not only Jewish but also a trustee of Jerusalem’s prestigious Hebrew University.
The measure of true democracy is not how well it stacks up next to the Third World dictatorships it borders, but how dedicated it is to maintaining its own principles and ideals.
Among the findings of the 575-page report was the rejection of Israel’s claim that it was forced into invading Gaza as an act of self-defense. The investigation concluded that the incursion into Gaza was not only planned long in advance but was “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate, and terrorize a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself and to force upon it an ever-increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability.”
The U.N. report was equally condemnatory of Hamas for failing to distinguish between Israeli civilian and military targets, labeling Hamas’ use of extrajudicial executions and arbitrary arrests of its political opponents “crimes against humanity.”
The Human Rights Council concluded its report by calling on Israel to open the crossings into Gaza and cease its crippling economic blockade, which the group called an act of “collective punishment” meant to deliberately deprive Gazans of “means of subsistence, employment, housing, and water.” The council also demanded that Hamas renounce attacks on Israeli civilians and immediately release the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held prisoner in Gaza since 2006.
Not surprisingly, both Hamas and Israel, which refused to cooperate with the inquiry, immediately rejected the report’s findings as biased and illegitimate.
The response from Hamas to the U.N. report was predictable. “The Palestinian people and the Palestinian resistance were in a position of self-defense and not of attack,” said Ismail Haniyeh, the former Palestinian prime minister. “One cannot compare the simple capabilities of the resistance with the great strength of the occupation.” In other words, Israel is the aggressor; we acted in self-defense.
Unfortunately, the response from Israel was equally predictable. President and former Prime Minister Shimon Peres called the report “a mockery of history” because it did not “distinguish between the aggressor and a state exercising its right for self-defense.” Translation: Hamas is the aggressor; we acted in self-defense.
To be honest, I expect as much from Hamas, a nonstate entity and, in the eyes of much of the world, a terrorist organization answerable to no one, not even the Palestinian citizens it claims to represent. Of course Hamas will simply ignore the findings of the U.N. What benefit can come to the group from accepting it?
But the fact that Israel, a rich, vibrant, pluralistic, and proud democratic state and member of the international community, is also choosing to ignore the report—refusing even to acknowledge the accusations, let alone address them—is frankly embarrassing, and not worthy of its historic commitment to human rights. Israel’s (well-worn) strategy for dealing with the U.N. report’s findings is simple: Attack the messenger.
“The same U.N. that allows the president of a country [Iran] to announce on a podium its aspiration to destroy the state of Israel has no right to teach us about morality,” the speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin said, obviously forgetting what the purpose of the United Nations is.
According to the news site Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israeli government and its allies in Washington have launched a diplomatic offensive to persuade the international community, and particularly the United States, to preemptively dismiss the report’s findings before it is published in October. JTA cites Eli Ovits, spokesman for The Israel Project, as suggesting that his is one of a number of organizations actively pushing for an “on-the-ground approach to countering whatever deleterious effects the report may have on Israel’s efforts to shape the conversation on talks with Palestinians and Iran.”
Israel’s foreign ministry has already been making telephone calls to representatives of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council in order to pressure them into rejecting the report outright. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon will be meeting this week with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, for that very purpose. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the emphasis of the Israeli offensive will be not on addressing the accusations of the Human Rights Council but on reaching out to the nations associated with the council to head off discussions of the report at the source. And now it appears that Israel is focusing its energies on discrediting an analyst for Human Rights Watch and frequent critic of Israeli human-rights violations, Marc Garlasco, for his odd hobby of collecting Nazi memorabilia—a true red herring, considering that neither Garlasco nor Human Rights Watch took part in the U.N. investigation.
Of course, Israel does not have much to worry about. It is not a member of the ICC, so the only way a case could be brought against it is if the Security Council demands it. And, as everybody knows, that will never happen, because the U.S. has veto power in the council.
But the U.S. is also a newly enshrined member of the revamped Human Rights Council, having joined the group in June as a full-fledged member—ending a three-year Bush administration boycott—precisely to bring more legitimacy to an organization plagued by scandals and controversies. The head of the U.S. delegation, Esther Brimmer, has promised in no uncertain terms that “the United States will not look the other way in the face of serious human-rights abuses. The truth must be told, the facts brought to light, and the consequences faced. While we will aim for common ground, we will call things as we see them and we will stand our ground when truth is at stake.” I hope Brimmer means what she said and that she will take her own council’s report seriously and not merely dismiss it, as the Israeli government would like.
In my discussions with Israelis on these issues, they are always quick to point out that their country, unlike their Arab neighbors, is a democracy dedicated to the principles of human rights and equality.
That’s absolutely true.
If ever Israel is condemned by the international community for its human-rights violations, it simply points to Syria, or Egypt, or Iraq, and cries, “They’re worse!”
That, too, is true.
When confronted with criticism by the U.N., Israel always cries out that it is the focus of far more attention than say, Myanmar or Congo.
But the measure of true democracy is not how well it stacks up next to the Third World dictatorships it borders, but how dedicated it is to maintaining its own principles and ideals regardless of the damage it may pose to its international reputation. For its own sake, I hope that Israel abandons its foolish strategy of trying to delegitimize the U.N.’s charges and instead does something it has rarely ever done: Actually answer the charges.
Reza Aslan, a contributor to the Daily Beast, is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and senior fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of the bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War.