When the Israeli government lambasts the United Nations, it is a matter of course. But when Israel’s human rights groups are uneasy with the UN’s conduct, it is time to sit up and take notice.
Jerusalem has just announced that it is refusing to cooperate with a UN probe into possible war crimes committed during the summer war in Gaza, meaning that it will limits its cooperation to internal investigations, which are underway. This is no surprise. The moment that fighting began in July, it was clear that there would be an investigation and that Israel would boycott it. This is the script of Israel’s international relations today, given the Israeli government’s long-held belief that the UN is biased against the Jewish state and that Israel cannot get a fair shake where the world body is concerned.
The domestic reaction seemed pretty predictable too. Civil society groups on the Israeli left would admonish the government for its non-cooperation, argue at length that it is failing its obligations to investigate, and then rush to provide information and testimonies to the panel.
But this time, the UN has alienated even its few natural partners in Jewish Israel, disappointing the civil society groups that are most critical of the military and government.
Last week when Jerusalem stated officially that it is refusing to cooperate with the probe, which is headed by William Schabas, a Canadian academic with expertise in international criminal law and human rights law, I started talking to contacts in these groups. And instead of energized warriors for human rights poised to give the government a dressing down, I encountered deflated activists who found themselves more-or-less in agreement with the government’s decision as formulated by politicians from the rightist Yisrael Beiteinu party.
Back in the spring of 2009 human rights groups raced to help the UN’s Goldstone commission, which was investigating the Gaza conflict of the previous winter. I still have an email from eight groups rallying against Jerusalem’s decision to boycott this commission and declaring that it was “in Israel’s best interest to cooperate with the most credible international bodies, such as the UN fact-finding mission led by justice Richard Goldstone.” The eight group included the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, B’Tselem, Gisha, and Yesh Din. The next month, seven groups — six of them Jewish — announced that they had compiled their own report and passed it to investigators. They added that the UN investigation’s “mission of seeking the truth is of critical importance.”
Today, as the UN embarks on its new probe, groups like these largely feel unable to stand behind it — and are deeply frustrated by where this leaves them.
Like other Israelis, their members have difficulty taking seriously a commission headed by a man (Schabas) who has displayed such negativity towards Israel that he said, discussing the International Criminal Court, “my favorite would be [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu in the dock.”
But it goes deeper than personnel. The discomfort of human rights groups also stems from the way in which the commission was brought into existence and how its brief was defined.
It was created by a resolution of the UN Human Rights Council, which detailed at length numerous Palestinian grievances against Israel, while making just one brief reference about harm caused to Israelis. The latter consisted only of stating that its condemnation of “all violence against civilians wherever it occurs” included the deaths of Israeli civilians by rocket fire. There was no mention of the three Israeli boys murdered by Hamas at the start of the summer, and in almost 1,800 words, not a single reference to Hamas.
The most cunning aspect of the commission’s brief is its timeframe. It covers the period of the Gaza fighting and the preceding period when Israel was carrying out widespread operations in the West Bank trying to find the three boys, who were confirmed kidnapped but not yet confirmed dead. But what is its start date? Staggeringly, it starts the day after the kidnapping. In other words, it consciously edits out the provocation that led to Israel’s raids and arrests in the West Bank, and focuses on what happened from the following day onwards. It leaves the door open to examine earlier events, but its brief is clear — it is looking at violations “in the context of the military operations conducted since 13 June 2014.” The kidnapping took place at around 10 p.m. on June 12.
In 2009, the Human Rights Council mandated a probe into violations “by the occupying Power, Israel, against the Palestinian people” — founding what became the Goldstone Report. This generated controversy and, to Richard Goldstone’s credit, he insisted on expanding the brief to violations on both sides. This time, the resolution is even more vague about whose violations it is examining, but through the choice of timeframe and choice of investigator, it sneakily predetermines the findings.
The human rights groups I spoke to in recent days declined to give me comments for attribution. However a senior figure in one said that the Israeli activist-left feels betrayed by the UN and finds the story of the new commission to be “heartbreaking.” A leader in another said that the UN has weakened his camp, namely groups within Israel pushing for accountability in relation to the summer war, by putting Israelis on the defensive against all investigations. As such, he said, the new commission is “completely counter-productive.”
When listening to Israel’s government today, it can be hard to filter the rhetoric and spin from the valid points. The dismay of the human rights groups over the new UN commission underscores how genuinely problematic it is.
And there is a deep irony to all of this. For years, the Israeli right has been furious that foreign governments have been pouring money into precisely the NGOs I am discussing, seemingly in order to give strength to a dissenting voice in Israeli society. There have even been attempts to enact laws to stop the flow of funds. But it turns out that such legislative attempts were unnecessary — the international community could be relied upon to counter its own investment, and suppress the voice of these groups.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.