September 2006

A mistake too often made by those examining Israel’s behaviour in the occupied territories — or when analysing its treatment of Arabs in general, or interpreting its view of Iran — is to assume that Israel is acting in good faith. Even its most trenchant critics can fall into this trap. Such a reluctance to attribute bad faith was demonstrated this week by Israel’s foremost human rights group, B’Tselem, when it published a report into the bombing by the Israeli air force of Gaza’s power plant in late June. The horrifying consequences of this act of collective punishment — a war crime, as B’Tselem rightly notes — are clearly laid out in the report.

Olmert unravelling

28 September 2006

Kadima and the government are in trouble as the Israeli public steps even further towards the right in politics, writes Jonathan Cook in Nazareth Israelis saw in the Jewish New Year on the weekend with a flurry of opinion polls showing that they feel more insecure now than they have at any time over the past 10 years and that they no longer trust the leaders they elected just six months ago. Both results reflect the bitter public mood that has followed Israel’s military humiliation at the hands of Hizbullah over the summer. A survey in The Jerusalem Post revealed that 56 per cent believed Israel was less safe than a decade ago, when the country was recovering from the assassination by a Jewish extremist of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and facing a spate of Palestinian bus bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

In a CounterPunch article article criticising Human Rights Watch for singling out Hizbullah rather than Israel for harsher condemnation of its military actions during the Lebanon war, I made sure to quote the organisation fairly and accurately before seeking to refute its arguments. Unfortunately, in her recent response HRW’s Middle East policy director, Sarah Leah Whitson, did not return the favour. Possibly realising that her case was weak, she decided to paraphrase my argument instead, misrepresenting it, and only then try to rebut it. According to Whitson, I claim to know that Hizbullah was trying to hit military rather than civilian targets in Israel during this summer’s war because on several occasions its rockets actually did strike military targets.

The trajectory of a long-running campaign that gave birth this month to the preposterous all-party British parliamentary report into anti-Semitism in the UK can be traced back to intensive lobbying by the Israeli government that began more than four years ago, in early 2002. At that time, as Ariel Sharon was shredding the tattered remains of the Oslo accords by reinvading West Bank towns handed over to the Palestinian Authority in his destructive rampage known as Operation Defensive Shield, he drafted the Israeli media into the fray. Local newspapers began endlessly highlighting concerns about the rise of a “new anti-Semitism”, a theme that was rapidly and enthusiastically taken up by the muscular Zionist lobby in the US.

The measure of a human rights organisation is to be found not just in the strides it takes to seek justice for the oppressed and victimised but also in the compromises it makes to keep itself out of trouble. Because of the business that human rights defenders are in, they must be held to a standard higher than we demand of others. Unfortunately, one of the best — Human Rights Watch — has failed that test during the war in Lebanon this summer. To its credit, HRW has risked much opprobrium for taking Israel to task for systematically breaking international law during its assault on Lebanon.

More than a little uncomfortably, I find myself with a bone to pick with one of our finest champions of humanitarian values and opponents of war. During Israel’s attack on Lebanon this summer, the distinguished British journalist Robert Fisk did sterling work — as might have been expected — debunking some of the main myths that littered the battlefield almost as dangerously as the tens of thousands of US-made cluster bombs that Israel dropped in the last days of the fighting.