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.”