Analysis from Israel

Over the past two months, Amnesty International has quietly confirmed nearly all of Israel’s main claims about Hamas’s conduct during last summer’s war in Gaza. Yet the organization still lacks the intellectual honesty to admit that its findings about Hamas completely undercut its main allegations against Israel – made vociferously both at the time and in a series of reports last fall and winter.

Amnesty turned its attention to Hamas only after months of reporting on alleged Israeli crimes. First came a March report on Hamas’s rocket fire, then one this week on its extrajudicial killings of alleged collaborators. Each undercuts a key claim against Israel.

The most interesting finding in the March report was that Hamas’s rockets killed more civilians in Gaza than they did in Israel. Altogether, Amnesty said, the rockets killed six Israeli civilians and “at least” 13 Palestinian civilians. Where did the latter figure come from? From a single misfired rocket that killed 13 civilians in the Al-Shati refugee camp. In other words, Amnesty didn’t bother checking to see whether other Hamas rockets also killed civilians; it simply cited the one case it couldn’t possibly ignore, because it was reported in real time by a foreign journalist at the scene.

But according to Israel Defense Forces figures, roughly 550 rockets and mortars fired at Israel fell short and landed in Gaza, including 119 that hit urban areas. And it defies belief to think those other 549 rockets and mortars produced no casualties.

After all, unlike Israel, Gaza has no civil defense system whatsoever. A 2014 study found that Israel’s civil defense measures reduced casualties from the rocket fire on sparsely populated southern Israel by a whopping 86%. But Gaza has no Iron Dome to intercept missiles, no warning sirens to alert civilians to incoming rockets, and no bomb shelters for civilians to run to even if they were warned. Thus in densely populated Gaza, with no civil defense measures, those misfired rockets would almost certainly have killed at least dozens, and quite possibly hundreds, of civilians.

One of the main claims against Israel made by Amnesty and other human rights groups is that it caused excessive civilian casualties. Most such groups simply parrot the UN claim (which came straight from Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry) that 67% of the 2,200 casualties were civilians; Israel has consistently said the civilian-to-combatant kill ratio was roughly 1:1. While there are many reasons to think the Israeli figure is closer to the truth, even the UN/Palestinian ratio of 2:1 would be drastically lower than the international norm of 3:1.

But once you acknowledge that some portion of those civilian casualties was actually caused by misfired Hamas rockets rather than Israeli strikes, then the claim of excessive civilian casualties becomes even more untenable. Indeed, it means the civilian-to-combatant fatality ratio from Israeli strikes was likely even below 1:1.

Then there’s Amnesty’s report this week on Hamas’s extrajudicial executions. Its most interesting finding, as Elhanan Miller reported in the Times of Israel, is that “Hamas used abandoned sections of Gaza’s main hospital, Shifa, ‘to detain, interrogate, torture and otherwise ill-treat suspects, even as other parts of the hospital continued to function as a medical center.’”

That goes to the heart of the other main allegation against Israel made by Amnesty and its fellows: that Israel repeatedly targeted civilian buildings rather than sticking to military targets. Israel countered that these “civilian” buildings doubled as military facilities – weapons storehouses, command and control centers, etc. – and were, therefore, legitimate military targets, but human rights groups pooh-poohed that claim.

Now, however, Amnesty has admitted that Hamas used Gaza’s main hospital as a detention, interrogation and torture center. And if Hamas was misusing a hospital in this way, it defies belief to think it wasn’t similarly misusing other civilian buildings for military purposes. Once you admit that Hamas did so once, there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t do so again. And, in that case, the allegation that Israel wantonly attacked civilian structures also collapses.

Thus in its reports on Hamas, Amnesty has effectively demolished its two main allegations against Israel. And if it had a shred of honor and decency left, it would admit it. But, needless to say, I’m not holding my breath.

Originally published in Commentary on May 28, 2015

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Israel’s unity government may prove a constitutional time bomb

That Israel will soon have a government is good news; almost any government would be better than the political dysfunction that has produced three elections in the past year. But aside from its existence, there’s little to like about this “unity” government.

The biggest problem isn’t that many important issues will perforce go unaddressed, though that’s inevitable given the compromises required when neither bloc can govern on its own. Nor is it the risk that the government will be dysfunctional even on “consensual” issues like rescuing the economy from the coronavirus crisis, though this risk is real, since both sides’ leaders will have veto power over every government decision.

Rather, it’s the cavalier way that Israel’s Basic Laws are being amended to serve the particular needs of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new partner, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz.

Though Israel’s Supreme Court wrongly claims the Basic Laws are a constitution, they were never intended as such by the parliaments that passed them. Indeed, some were approved by a mere quarter of the Knesset or less.

But they were intended as the building blocks of a future constitution should Israel ever adopt one. That’s why this handful of laws, alone of all the laws on Israel’s books, are deemed “Basic Laws,” and why each addresses a fundamental constitutional issue (the executive branch, the legislature, the judiciary, human rights, Israel’s Jewish character, etc.).

In other words, though they aren’t a constitution, they do serve as the foundation of Israel’s system of government. And tinkering with the architecture of any democratic system of government can have unintended consequences, as Israel has discovered before to its detriment.

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