In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vigorously took up the country’s latest strategy for responding to allegations of human rights abuses: kill the messenger. He denounced a recent report by the UN’s Human Rights Council that had accused Israel of possible crimes against humanity during its assault on Gaza last winter, calling it a “travesty,” a “farce” and a “perversion.” The Hamas terrorists Israel was up against had committed acts akin in history only to the Nazi blitz of British civilians during World War II, Netanyahu asserted. Indeed, in denying a nation’s right to resist attack, the report sought to undermine Israel’s “legitimacy.”
The head of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, Judge Richard Goldstone, was “upset” by the speech. “It is disingenuous, to put it lightly, what Netanyahu said,” he told The Nation. “The idea that this is aimed at delegitimating the state of Israel–that is the last thing I would want to do.” Goldstone, a Jew and a Zionist, said that Israel’s leaders were behaving contemptuously, “ignoring the specific allegations and simply launching a broadside.”
Those broadsides began not long after the ascension of the right-wing Netanyahu government in March, when his ministers began painting human rights and peace groups as a fifth column for terrorists. “For the first time the Israeli government is taking an active role in the smearing of human rights groups,” says Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch.
Traditionally that job had gone to Israel’s friends. The executive director of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, for instance, condemned human rights groups this past spring as part of an international “campaign” to dehumanize the Jewish state to the point where “Israel stands alone, isolated and at risk.” But as one international report after another accused Israel of war crimes during the Gaza assault, the Israeli government joined the fight. The government refused to cooperate with Goldstone’s investigation, forcing him to enter Gaza from Egypt. Israeli witnesses had to be flown to Geneva to be interviewed.
The Israeli government has also sought to quash domestic dissent. In April it targeted the anti-militarism organization New Profile, seizing computers and detaining activists. In July, when a group of Israeli veterans called Breaking the Silence released dozens of anonymous soldiers’ testimonies from the Gaza assault describing indifference to civilian targets, the Israeli government went, well, ballistic. It threatened to cut off the financial support the group receives from the Dutch, Spanish and British governments and warned those governments that their support was illegal. Israel indicated that it would look into foreign support that Israeli human rights groups B’Tselem and Machsom Watch receive as well.
Ron Dermer, a Netanyahu adviser who was raised in Florida, struck a fearsome tone: “We are going to dedicate time and manpower to combating these groups. We are not going to be sitting ducks in a pond for the human rights groups to shoot at us with impunity.”
Shooting back meant calling out New York-based Human Rights Watch for raising money in Arab countries, an anti-Arab theme that was echoed in a September attack on Human Rights Watch published by the Jerusalem-based advocacy group NGO Monitor. The critique listed staff members who are allegedly “anti-Israel,” with some of the charges as flimsy as the fact that an official had been on the board of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. And as Judge Goldstone found, the Israeli government has refused to cooperate with Human Rights Watch investigations. “Over the last year they have not wanted to meet with us, even when we’ve presented them with very, very detailed questions about IDF conduct based on preliminary investigations,” says program director Iain Levine.
Of course, Palestinian human rights activists are familiar with stonewalling, and much worse. A March 2006 UN report criticized the Israel Defense Forces for the “systematic targeting of peace and human rights activists” and noted that Israel seemed to use administrative detention to deter human rights work. That policy was underscored in September, when Israel arrested Mohammad Othman, a human rights activist, after a visit to Norway, where he had pushed for boycott, divestment and sanctions.
The impetus for the new Israeli strategy appears to be fear of shifting international opinion. As analyst Michael Wahid Hanna of the Century Foundation puts it, Goldstone’s stunning findings may well “take on a life of their own…and make diplomatic life much more tricky.” The Netanyahu government is counting on the United States to block a potential UN Security Council recommendation for an international war crimes tribunal and has warned the Obama administration that the Goldstone report can only hinder the peace process. Certainly human rights reports have emboldened Israel’s critics. Just two days after the release of the report, the British Trade Union Congress, representing more than 6.5 million workers, endorsed the boycott movement against Israel, explaining that the decision was “the culmination of a wave of motions passed at union conferences this year, following outrage at Israel’s brutal war on Gaza.”
We are used to accounting for the costs of the Israeli occupation in concrete terms: so many checkpoints, so many colonies, so many dead civilians. The new Israeli effort suggests an even larger cost: that of the very idea of human rights. The government has yet to question one factual allegation Goldstone has made, says progressive Zionist blogger Jerry Haber. “Israel’s only recourse, after it violates the rights of Palestinians, is to deny that such rights exist.”