Damaging Israel’s priceless assets

Netanyahu’s demonising of human rights groups – and European funding of them – does disservice to a proud Jewish history

(GUARDIAN)   With the left in Israel in disarray and unable to mount any effective opposition to the policies of the Binyamin Netanyahu government, Israel’s human rights groups occupy a more significant place than ever in the political landscape. They, and a handful of journalists, are the only organisations and individuals in Israel that have the moral authority and objective expertise to call the government to account for any human rights abuses suffered by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza at the hands of Israeli officials or settlers.

While the Likud-led coalition can brush aside virtually any criticism from opposition groups in the Knesset, reports by human rights groups can get under its skin.

Netanyahu made this perfectly clear on Wednesday when he mounted an outspoken attack on Breaking the Silence after meeting with Gordon Brown in London. Calling on the British government and other European governments to cease funding such groups, Netanyahu said: “They are breaking the silence regarding the only democracy in the Middle East with an independent judiciary and investigative media, which deals with these matters continually.”

Breaking the Silence is the organisation of veteran Israeli soldiers that interviewed those who participated in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Their testimonies “reveal[ed] … the destruction of hundreds of houses and mosques for no military purpose, the firing of phosphorous gas in the direction of populated areas, the killing of innocent victims with small arms, the destruction of private property, and most of all, a permissive atmosphere in the command structure that enabled soldiers to act without moral restrictions.”

The group’s report, released on 15 July, was thoroughly trashed at the time by the Israeli government and military authorities. But 10 Israeli human rights and social change organisations wrote to their country’s prime minister, minister of defence and foreign minister on 2 August, protesting against the government’s attack and its attempt to prevent the group from receiving funding, and saying that the testimonies placed “a large question-mark over the ‘most moral army in the world’ image”. The testimonies also appeared to confirm claims made by international human rights organisations such as Amnesty, which accused both Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes during the conflict.

All of the Israeli human rights groups have come under attack at some point. One of the signatories of the 2 August letter was Physicians for Human Rights – Israel (PHR-I), which was founded in 1988 to “struggle for human rights, in particular the right to health, in Israel and the Occupied Territories”, through advocacy and action aimed at “changing harmful policies”. One of their main current concerns is torture and the role Israeli doctors may have played in cooperating with the practice or failing to report it when they witness it. On 13 August NGO Monitor, which claims to promote critical debate and accountability of human rights organisations in the Arab Israeli conflict, criticised PHR-I for engaging in “political campaigns” and not “universal human rights activities”.

It also quoted Dr Yoram Blachar, president of the World Medical Association (WMA), who said PHR-I is a “radical political group disguised as a medical organisation”. But Dr Blachar is not just president of the WMA. He is also chairman of the Israel Medical Association (IMA), to which all Israeli doctors are obliged to belong. Last week, after increasingly harsh criticism of PHR-I by Dr Blacher, the IMA announced that it was severing all ties with the group. Dr Blachar explained the decision in a letter saying: “the outrageous situation is that PHR’s activity serves as fertile ground for antisemitism, anti-Israelism and anti-Zionism”.

The fact that most of PHR-I’s 1,500 members are also members of the IMA makes a mockery of Blachar’s campaign and simply makes it look as if the IMA opposes action to ensure the right to healthcare to all, irrespective of their religion or nationality – surely a fundamental principle for any doctor. Blachar’s bizarre rhetoric no doubt has something to do with a list of 13 doctors PHR-I suspected of co-operating in, or failing to report, the torture of Palestinians. Blachar is listed as one of those it suspects of failing to report.

The attacks on Israeli human rights groups are crude and unsophisticated. To damn them because they conduct public campaigns to get their message across and achieve change is to completely misunderstand their declared roles. To say such actions do not constitute “universal human rights activities” is to condemn these organisations to impotence and to add “human rights values” to the list of ideological animosities towards Jews that the Israeli government and many of its supporters wheel out when they want to demonise criticism of Israeli actions.

The fact that Netanyahu makes such a high profile attack on Israeli human rights groups at the very moment that the media are full of speculation about an imminent breakthrough in restarting peace negotiations also calls into question just what kind of peace process the Israeli government wishes to engage in. If you make these groups the enemy, you are setting your face against the kind of essential truth-telling and openness that must underpin the trust both sides need to have in each other if a just peace is to be achieved and sustained.

The current government seems bent on making Israel a more illiberal society by undermining freedom of speech, condoning public expressions of racism and threatening mass deportation of refugees. So it’s not surprising that Netanyahu cannot understand just how priceless an asset the country’s human rights organisations are. It’s absurd to trumpet Israel as the “only democracy in the Middle East” and in the same breath attack the very organisations that any democracy must cherish. Their very aims are to strengthen democracy and the rule of law.

These groups are now an integral part of a kaleidoscopic array of voluntary organisations that make up a vibrant global Jewish civil society– a connection that has its roots in the role Jewish NGOs played in building the international human rights system in the 1940s and 1950s. If the Israeli government had any sense it would base its public relations strategy on this fact. By continuing to demonise Israeli human rights groups, it’s just shooting itself in the foot.


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