Analysis from Israel

Liberal American Jews are often appalled by allegations of Israeli “war crimes” against Palestinians — and equally appalled by Israelis’ apparent indifference to these allegations. What is wrong with their Israeli brethren, these well-meaning Jews wonder, that they seemingly countenance such heinous acts?

Haaretz‘s woman in Ramallah, Amira Hass, unintentionally provides the answer in her citation today of the following testimony collected by Breaking the Silence, a group formed to allow ex-soldiers to “break their silence” about Israeli “war crimes”:

And there is another soldier who suddenly understood, during Operation Defensive Shield, that “the tank is a crazy source of fire. You’re moving around in (a populated area ) with all these refugee villages around and all these clumsy weapons, and you fire in a place like that. To fire with a cannon inside a neighborhood … I felt bad.

“Defensive Shield is a complicated and hysterical story … they constantly spoke in terms of war. It took me two or three months to understand … that I hadn’t returned from a war. I was in some campaign … that was worthless in many senses.

“And all the time there was that terminology of shoot in every direction, at anything that moves, and all the time the word war was repeated. … To this day, I go around with the feeling that someone from the outside orchestrated the atmosphere.”

Two ostensible facts about Defensive Shield, Israel’s April 2002 incursion into the West Bank, emerge from this testimony: soldiers opened fire indiscriminately, and the operation was militarily unjustifiable to begin with — downright “worthless.” Yet both are demonstrably false.

First, Palestinian allegations of an Israeli-perpetrated “massacre” in Jenin during the operation sparked intensive investigations. Yet even the UN — not an organization known for its pro-Israel bias — concluded that the death toll in Jenin was exactly 52 Palestinians and 23 Israeli soldiers, while Human Rights Watch (another organization not known for pro-Israel bias) concluded that only 22 of those Palestinians were civilians.

Given the difficulty of fighting in a crowded urban environment where combatants and noncombatants are intermingled, and where combatants don’t even wear uniforms (making them harder to distinguish from civilians), this is an extraordinarily low civilian casualty rate, one no other Western army involved in urban warfare has matched. Thus, far from constituting indiscriminate fire, Defensive Shield exemplified the most discriminating fire imaginable.

Second, far from being “worthless,” this was one of the most successful operations in Israel’s history. The number of Israelis killed by Palestinian terror — which peaked at 449 in the intifada’s second year (September 2001-September 2002), including 134 in March 2002 alone — fell by about 50 percent a year in each of the next several years. And the main reason was Defensive Shield, launched in response to that deadly March 2002.

Allegations are rarely so easily disprovable; most pit one person or group’s word against another, with no way to know who’s right. But when organizations like Breaking the Silence treat even such patently false allegations as credible indictments, most Israelis find it hard to give their other claims any credence.

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Why Israel Needs a Better Political Class

Note: This piece is a response to an essay by Haviv Rettig Gur, which can be found here

Israel’s current political crisis exemplifies the maxim that hard cases make bad law. This case is desperate. Six months after the coronavirus erupted and nine months after the fiscal year began, Israel still lacks both a functioning contact-tracing system and an approved 2020 budget, mainly because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more worried about politics than the domestic problems that Israel now confronts. The government’s failure to perform these basic tasks obviously invites the conclusion that civil servants’ far-reaching powers must not only be preserved, but perhaps even increased.

This would be the wrong conclusion. Bureaucrats, especially when they have great power, are vulnerable to the same ills as elected politicians. But unlike politicians, they are completely unaccountable to the public.

That doesn’t mean Haviv Rettig Gur is wrong to deem them indispensable. They provide institutional memory, flesh out elected officials’ policies, and supply information the politicians may not know and options they may not have considered. Yet the current crisis shows in several ways why they neither can nor should substitute for elected politicians.

First, bureaucrats are no less prone to poor judgment than politicians. As evidence, consider Siegal Sadetzki, part of the Netanyahu-led triumvirate that ran Israel’s initial response to the coronavirus. It’s unsurprising that Gur never mentioned Sadetzki even as he lauded the triumvirate’s third member, former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov; she and her fellow Health Ministry staffers are a major reason why Israel still lacks a functional test-and-trace system.

Sadetzki, an epidemiologist, was the ministry’s director of public-health services and the only member of the triumvirate with professional expertise in epidemics (Bar Siman-Tov is an economist). As such, her input was crucial. Yet she adamantly opposed expanding virus testing, even publicly asserting that “Too much testing will increase complacence.” She opposed letting organizations outside the public-health system do lab work for coronavirus tests, even though the system was overwhelmed. She opposed sewage monitoring to track the spread of the virus. And on, and on.

Moreover, even after acknowledging that test-and-trace was necessary, ministry bureaucrats insisted for months that their ministry do the tracing despite its glaringly inadequate manpower. Only in August was the job finally given to the army, which does have the requisite personnel. And the system still isn’t fully operational.

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