Analysis from Israel

One of the worst things about many “human rights” organizations is the way they actually undermine some very fundamental human rights. A prime example is B’Tselem’s new report on Palestinian civilian deaths during this summer’s war in Gaza. Few people would disagree that the presumption of innocence is an important right, but when it comes to Israel, B’Tselem simply jettisons it. In fact, the group states with shocking explicitness that it considers Israel guilty until proven innocent.

Take, for instance, one incident the report discusses, an attack on the a-Dali building in Khan Yunis. B’Tselem doesn’t mention any combatants being present, but an alert Jerusalem Post reporter recalled that Amnesty International had identified one fatality as a combatant. He asked about this discrepancy, and here’s his account of B’Tselem’s response:

Without addressing the specific incident, a B’Tselem representative said there were cases where the group suspected that fighters may have been involved, but it was only reporting their involvement where the evidence was hard and clear.

In other words, if B’Tselem isn’t certain whether the victims were combatants or civilians, it lists them as civilians and then accuses Israel of war crimes. In fact, it does this even if it “suspects that fighters may have been involved.” In short, it presumes Israel’s guilt unless proven otherwise.

Moreover, the report stressed repeatedly that B’Tselem “has no way of knowing” why Israel struck any particular target, and evidently, it doesn’t care. But as NGO Monitor pointed out, the “why” is crucial: If, say, the building was used to store weapons or launch rockets at Israel, then it was a legitimate military target. Without knowing whether the building was targeted legitimately or indiscriminately, it’s impossible to accuse Israel of war crimes–unless, of course, you simply presume Israel’s guilt.

But B’Tselem goes beyond merely presuming Israel’s guilt; it also deliberately omits exculpatory evidence. Take, for instance, the attack on the Kaware home in Khan Yunis. As the report accurately says, the family left after receiving an IDF warning, but other civilians subsequently entered, and the IDF realized this too late to abort its strike. What B’Tselem left out, however, was that those civilians came deliberately to serve as human shields for the building, which the IDF claimed was a Hamas command center. The surviving Kawares said this explicitly, and several prominent media outlets reported it at the time. “Our neighbors came in to form a human shield,” Salah Kaware told the New York Times. Yet this all-important fact–that civilians had deliberately returned to serve as human shields, a development the IDF couldn’t have predicted–was simply omitted from the report.

The same goes for the bombing of Beit Lahiya. As the report correctly notes, the IDF warned residents to evacuate, and many did. But others stayed, and some were killed. B’Tselem blames the IDF for this, saying, “Many had nowhere to go, as the military was conducting strikes throughout the Gaza Strip.”

But Palestinian human-rights activist Bassem Eid offered a very different explanation in a lecture at last month’s Limmud conference in England. According to his sources in Gaza, armed Hamas gunmen arrived and warned that anyone who left town would be considered a collaborator. And Hamas, as is well known, executes collaborators. So faced with a choice of certain death at Hamas’s hands or possible death at the IDF’s hands, residents who encountered those gunmen returned home.

Perhaps B’Tselem truly didn’t know this–in which case either its research is shoddy or its sources in Gaza are unreliable. Or perhaps, as in the Kaware case, it deliberately omitted this information. But either way, the result is the same: B’Tselem blamed Israel for a crime actually committed by Hamas. Had Hamas not prevented the evacuation, those civilians wouldn’t have died.

The report did acknowledge that Hamas stored arms in civilian buildings, launched rockets from civilian areas, and otherwise violated international law; it even admitted that this made it “extremely challenging … to avoid harming civilians.” So how was Israel supposed to have surmounted this challenge? That’s not B’Tselem’s problem; it “does not purport to offer the Israeli government or the military any operative plans for conducting armed conflict in Gaza.”

In other words, it admits that preventing civilian casualties under these circumstances is nearly impossible, but declares that unless Israel can accomplish the impossible, it effectively has no right to defend its citizens against a terrorist organization. And self-defense may be an even more fundamental human right than the presumption of innocence.

But in B’Tselem’s view, evidently, Israelis have no rights. They are only and always guilty.

Originally published in Commentary on January 28, 2015

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How a Changing American Liberalism Is Pulling American Jews away From Israel

In his essay “Why Many American Jews are Becoming Indifferent or Even Hostile to Israel,” Daniel Gordis lists, as key sources of tension, four major differences between the American and the Israeli political projects. His analysis strikes me as largely accurate, yet I think he misses something important by treating the differences as longstanding and perhaps even inherent. In fact, most are of recent vintage, and there is nothing inevitable or intractable about them. They are the product, first, of dramatic changes in the tenets of political liberalism, and second, of a collective decision by many American Jews to follow the new liberalism wherever it leads—even when it contradicts longstanding axioms of both American politics and traditional Judaism.

Take, for instance, the issue of universalism versus particularism. It’s true, as Gordis notes, that unlike Israel, America was not founded to serve a particular ethnic group. Nevertheless, throughout most of its history, America has viewed itself and functioned as a nation-state. Thus, despite promoting supranational projects like the European Union, which entail forfeitures of sovereignty, America has shunned any such project for itself, preferring jealously to preserve its own sovereignty. This preference traces straight back to the founders’ distrust of “entangling alliances.” Even today, there is bipartisan agreement that America’s first responsibility is to itself, whether or not the “international community” agrees; that’s why even a thoroughly liberal president like Barack Obama didn’t hesitate to launch strikes against anti-American terrorists worldwide without waiting for UN approval—something few European countries would deem thinkable.

Of course, the agreement isn’t wall-to-wall. In recent decades a vocal subset of American liberals, mostly housed in the left wing of the Democratic party, has come to believe that—in the words of Walter Hallstein, first president of the European Commission—”the system of sovereign nation-states has failed.” As perhaps inevitable corollaries of this belief, they argue that national decisions require “global legitimacy,” and that one’s fellow citizens have no more claim on one’s allegiance than do citizens of other countries.

Princeton University, my alma mater, exemplifies this evolution. When I graduated in 1987, the university’s motto was “Princeton in the nation’s service,” which nobody considered problematic. A decade later, the idea that a university should dedicate itself to serving its own country in particular had become unacceptable in advanced liberal circles. And so, in 1996, the motto was changed to “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.” Two decades later, even this was deemed too particularistic; last year, the university’s trustees recommended a new version: “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.”

The change is hardly trivial. Americans who view their country as a nation-state, even if not the state of a particular ethnic group, have no trouble understanding why, when Israeli and Palestinian interests clash, Israel puts its own interests first: why it is reluctant to cede more territory to Palestinians when every previous such cession has massively increased terror, or ready to fight wars to stop rocket fire on its civilian population. Only for liberals who believe that countries have no right to prioritize their own citizens over other human beings are such decisions unacceptable.

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