A Spanish judge has instituted a judicial inquiry against seven Israeli political and military personalities on suspicion of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The case: the 2002 dropping of a one ton bomb on the home of Hamas leader Salah Shehade. Apart from the intended victim, 14 people, most of them children, were killed.
For those who have forgotten: the then commander of the Israeli Air Force, Dan Halutz, was asked at the time what he feels when he drops a bomb on a residential building. His unforgettable answer: “A slight bump to the wing.” When we in Gush Shalom accused him of a war crime, he demanded that we be put on trial for high treason. He was joined by the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, who accused us of wanting to “turn over Israeli army officers to the enemy”. The Attorney General notified us officially that he did not intend to open an investigation against those responsible for the bombing.
I should be happy, therefore, that at long last somebody is ready to put that action to a judicial test (even if he seems to have been thwarted by political pressure.) But I am sorry that this has happened in Spain, not in Israel.
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ISRAELI TV VIEWERS have lately been exposed to a bizarre sight: army officers appearing with their faces hidden, as usual for criminals when the court prohibits their identification. Pedophiles, for example, or attackers of old women.
On the orders of the military censors, this applies to all officers, from battalion commanders down, who have been involved in the Gaza war. Since the faces of brigade commanders and above are generally known, the order does not apply to them.
Immediately after the cease-fire, the Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, promoted a special law that would give unlimited backing by the state to all officers and soldiers who took part in the Gaza war and who might be accused abroad of war crimes. This seems to confirm the Hebrew adage: “On the head of the thief, the hat is burning”.
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I DO NOT object to trials abroad. The main thing is that war criminals, like pirates, should be brought to justice. It is not so important where they are caught. (This rule was applied by the State of Israel when it abducted Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and hanged him in Israel for heinous crimes committed outside the territory of Israel and, indeed, before the state even existed.)
But as an Israeli patriot, I would prefer suspected Israeli war criminals to be put on trial in Israel. That is necessary for the country, for all decent officers and soldiers of the Israeli army, for the education of future generations of citizens and soldiers.
There is no need to rely on international law alone. There are Israeli laws against war crimes. Enough to mention the immortal phrase coined by Justice Binyamin Halevy, serving as a military judge, in the trial of the border policemen who were responsible for the 1956 massacre in Kafr Kassem, when dozens of children, women and men were mown down for violating a curfew which they did not even know about.
The judge announced that even in wartime, there are orders over which flies “the black flag of illegality”. These are orders which are “manifestly” illegal – that is to say, orders which every normal person can tell are illegal, without having to consult a lawyer.
War criminals dishonor the army whose uniform they wear – whether they are generals or common soldiers. As a combat soldier on the day the Israeli Defense Army was officially created, I am ashamed of them and demand that they be cast out and be put on trial in Israel.
My list of suspects includes politicians, soldiers, rabbis and lawyers.
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THERE IS not the slightest doubt that in the Gaza war, crimes were committed. The question is to what extent and by whom.
Example: the soldiers call on the residents of a house to leave it. A woman and her four children come out, waving white handkerchiefs. It is absolutely clear that they are not armed fighters. A soldier in a near-by tank stands up, points his rifle and shoots them dead at short range. According to testimonies that seem to be beyond doubt, this happened more than once.
Another example: the shelling of the United Nations school full of refugees, from which there was no shooting – as admitted by the army, after the original pretexts were disproved.
These are ”simple” cases. But the spectrum of cases is far wider. A serious judicial investigation has to start right from the top: the politicians and senior officers who decided on the war and confirmed its plans must be investigated about their decisions. In Nuremberg it was laid down that the starting of a war of aggression is a crime.
An objective investigation has to find out whether the decision to start the war was justified, or if there existed another way of stopping the launching of rockets against Israeli territory. Without doubt, no country can or should tolerate the bombing of its towns and villages from beyond the border. But could this be prevented by talking with the Gaza authorities? Was our government’s decision to boycott Hamas, the winner of the democratic Palestinian elections, the real cause of this war? Did the imposition of the blockade on a million and a half Gaza Strip inhabitants contribute to the launching of the Qassams? In brief: were the alternatives considered before it was decided to start a deadly war?
The war plan included a massive attack on the civilian population of the Strip. The real aims of a war can be understood less from the official declarations of its initiators, than from their actions. If in this war some 1300 men, women and children were killed, the great majority of whom were not fighters; if about 5000 people were injured, most of them children; if some 2500 homes were partly or wholly destroyed; if the infrastructure of life was totally demolished – all this clearly could not have happened accidentally. It must have been a part of the war plan.
The things said during the war by politicians and officers make it clear that the plan had at least two aims, which might be considered war crimes: (1) To cause widespread killing and destruction, in order to “fix a price tag”. “to burn into their consciousness”, “to reinforce deterrence”, and most of all – to get the population to rise up against Hamas and overthrow their government. Clearly this affects mainly the civilian population. (2) To avoid casualties to our army at (literally) any price by destroying any building and killing any human being in the area into which our troops were about to move, including destroying homes over the heads of their inhabitants, preventing medical teams from reaching the victims, killing people indiscriminately. In certain cases, inhabitants were warned that they must flee, but this was mainly an alibi-action: there was nowhere to flee to, and often fire was opened on people trying to escape.
An independent court will have to decide whether such a war-plan is in accordance with national and international law, or whether it was ab initio a crime against humanity and a war-crime.
This was a war of a regular army with huge capabilities against a guerrilla force. In such a war, too, not everything is permissible. Arguments like “The Hamas terrorists were hiding within the civilian population” and “They used the population as human shields” may be effective as propaganda but are irrelevant: that is true for every guerrilla war. It must be taken into account when a decision to start such a war is being considered.
In a democratic state, the military takes its orders from the political establishment. Good. But that does not include “manifestly” illegal orders, over which the black flag of illegality is waving. Since the Nuremberg trials, there is no more room for the excuse that “I was only obeying orders”.
Therefore, the personal responsibility of all involved – from the Chief of Staff, the Front Commander and the Division Commander right down to the last soldier – must be examined. From the statements of soldiers one must deduce that many believed that their job was “to kill as many Arabs as possible”. Meaning: no distinction between fighters and non-fighters. That is a completely illegal order, whether given explicitly or by a wink and a nudge. The soldiers understood this to be “the spirit of the commander”.
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AMONG THOSE suspected of war crimes, the rabbis have a place of honor.
Those who incite to war crimes and call upon soldiers, directly or indirectly, to commit war crimes may be guilty of a war crime themselves.
When one speaks of “rabbis”, one thinks of old men with long white beards and big hats, who give tongue to venerable wisdom. But the rabbis who accompanied the troops are a very different species.
In the last decades, the state-financed religious educational system has churned out “rabbis” who are more like medieval Christian priests than the Jewish sages of Poland or Morocco. This system indoctrinates its pupils with a violent tribal cult, totally ethnocentric, which sees in the whole of world history nothing but an endless story of Jewish victimhood. This is a religion of a Chosen People, indifferent to others, a religion without compassion for anyone who is not Jewish, which glorifies the God-decreed genocide described in the Biblical book of Joshua.
The products of this education are now the “rabbis” who instruct the religious youths. With their encouragement, a systematic effort has been made to take over the Israeli army from within. Kippa-wearing officers have replaced the Kibbutzniks, who not so long ago were dominant in the army. Many of the lower and middle-ranking officers now belong to this group.
The most outstanding example is the “Chief Army Rabbi”, Colonel Avichai Ronsky, who has declared that his job is to reinforce the “fighting spirit” of the soldiers. He is a man of the extreme right, not far from the spirit of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose party was outlawed in Israel for its fascist ideology. Under the auspices of the army rabbinate, religious-fascist brochures of the ultra-right “rabbis” were distributed to the soldiers.
This material includes political incitement, such as the statement that the Jewish religion prohibits “giving up even one millimeter of Eretz Israel”, that the Palestinians, like the Biblical Philistines (from whom the name Palestine derives), are a foreign people who invaded the country, and that any compromise (such as indicated in the official government program) is a mortal sin. The distribution of political propaganda violates, of course, army law.
The rabbis openly called upon the soldiers to be cruel and merciless towards the Arabs. To treat them mercifully, they stated, is a “terrible, awful immorality”. When such material is distributed to religious soldiers going into war, it is easy to see why things happened the way they did.
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THE PLANNERS of this war knew that the shadow of war crimes was hovering over the planned operation. Witness: the Attorney General (whose official title is “Legal Advisor to the Government”) was a partner to the planning. This week the Chief Army Attorney, Colonel Avichai Mandelblut, disclosed that his officers were attached throughout the war to all the commanders, from the Chief of Staff down to the Division Commander.
All this together leads to the inescapable conclusion that the legal advisors bear direct responsibility for the decisions taken and implemented, from the massacre of the civilian police recruits at their graduating ceremony to the shelling of the UN installations. Every attorney who was a partner to the deliberations before an order was given is responsible for its consequences, unless he can prove that he objected to it.
The Chief Army Attorney, who is supposed to give the army professional and objective advice, speaks about “the monstrous enemy” and tries to justify the actions of the army by saying that it was fighting against “an unbridled enemy, who declared that he ‘loves death’ and finds shelter behind the backs of women and children”. Such language is, perhaps, pardonable in a pep-talk of a war-drunk combat commander, like the battalion chief who ordered his soldiers to commit suicide rather than be captured, but totally unacceptable when it comes from the chief legal officer of the army.
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WE MUST pursue all the legal processes in Israel and call for an independent investigation and the indictment of suspected perpetrators. We must demand this even if the chances of it happening are slim indeed.
If these efforts fail, nobody will be able to object to trials abroad, either in an international court or in the courts of those nations that respect human rights and international law.
Until then, the black flag will still be waving.
Uri Avnery is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.
As the US Leans Left, Israel Lurches Right – On the Wrong Side of History – URI AVNERY
Of all the beautiful phrases in Barack Obama’s inauguration speech, these are the words that stuck in my mind: “You are on the wrong side of history.”
He was talking about the tyrannical regimes of the world. But we, too, should ponder these words
In the last few days I have heard a lot of declarations from Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert. And every time, these eight words came back to haunt me: “You are on the wrong side of history!”
Obama was speaking as a man of the 21st century. Our leaders speak the language of the 19th century. They resemble the dinosaurs which once terrorized their neighborhood and were quite unaware of the fact that their time had already passed.
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DURING THE rousing celebrations, again and again the multicolored patchwork of the new president’s family was mentioned.
All the preceding 43 presidents were white Protestants, except John Kennedy, who was a white Catholic. 38 of them were the descendants of immigrants from the British isles. Of the other five, three were of Dutch ancestry (Theodor and Franklin D. Roosevelt , as well as Martin van Buren) and two of German descent (Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower.)
The face of Obama’s family is quite different. The extended family includes whites and the descendents of black slaves, Africans from Kenya, Indonesians, Chinese from Canada, Christians, Muslims and even one Jew (a converted African-American). The two first names of the president himself, Barack Hussein, are Arabic.
This is the face of the new American nation – a mixture of races, religions, countries of origin and skin-colors, an open and diverse society, all of whose members are supposed to be equal and to identify themselves with the ”founding fathers”. The American Barack Hussein Obama, whose father was born in a Kenyan village, can speak with pride of “George Washington, the father of our nation”, of the “American Revolution” (the war of independence against the British), and hold up the example of “our ancestors”, who include both the white pioneers and the black slaves who “endured the lash of the whip”. That is the perception of a modern nation, multi-cultural and multi-racial: a person joins it by acquiring citizenship, and from this moment on is the heir to all its history.
Israel is the product of the narrow nationalism of the 19th century, a nationalism that was closed and exclusive, based on race and ethnic origin, blood and earth. Israel is a “Jewish State”, and a Jew is a person born Jewish or converted according to Jewish religious law (Halakha). Like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, it is a state whose mental world is to a large extent conditioned by religion, race and ethnic origin.
When Ehud Barak speaks about the future, he speaks the language of past centuries, in terms of brute force and brutal threats, with armies providing the solution to all problems. That was also the language of George W. Bush who last week slinked out of Washington, a language that already sounds to the Western ear like an echo from the distant past.
The words of the new president are ringing in the air: “Our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please.” The key words were “humility and restraint”.
Our leaders are now boasting about their part in the Gaza War, in which unbridled military force was unleashed intentionally against a civilian population, men, women and children, with the declared aim of “creating deterrence”. In the era that began last Tuesday, such expressions can only arouse shudders.
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BETWEEN Israel and the United States a gap has opened this week, a narrow gap, almost invisible – but it may widen into an abyss.
The first signs are small. In his inaugural speech, Obama proclaimed that “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and nonbelievers.” Since when? Since when do the Muslims precede the Jews? What has happened to the “Judeo-Christian Heritage”? (A completely false term to start with, since Judaism is much closer to Islam than to Christianity. For example: neither Judaism nor Islam supports the separation of religion and state.)
The very next morning, Obama phoned a number of Middle East leaders. He decided to make a quite unique gesture: placing the first call to Mahmoud Abbas, and only the next to Olmert. The Israeli media could not stomach that. Haaretz, for example, consciously falsified the record by writing – not once but twice in the same issue – that Obama had called “Olmert, Abbas, Mubarak and King Abdallah” (in that order).
Instead of the group of American Jews who had been in charge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during both the Clinton and Bush administrations, Obama, on his very first day in office, appointed an Arab-American, George Mitchell, whose mother had come to America from Lebanon at age 18, and who himself, orphaned from his Irish father, was brought up in a Maronite Christian Lebanese family.
These are not good tidings for the Israeli leaders. For the last 42 years, they have pursued a policy of expansion, occupation and settlements in close cooperation with Washington. They have relied on unlimited American support, from the massive supply of money and arms to the use of the veto in the Security Council. This support was essential to their policy. This support may now be reaching its limits.
It will happen, of course, gradually. The pro-Israel lobby in Washington will continue to put the fear of God into Congress. A huge ship like the United States can change course only very slowly, in a gentle curve. But the turn-around started already on the first day of the Obama administration.
This could not have happened, if America itself had not changed. That is not a political change alone. It is a change in the world-view, in mental outlook, in values. A certain American myth, which is very similar to the Zionist myth, has been replaced by another American myth. Not by accident did Obama devote to this so large a part of his speech (in which, by the way, there was not a single word about the extermination of the Native Americans).
The Gaza War, during which tens of millions of Americans saw the horrible carnage in the Strip (even if rigorous self-censorship cut out all but a tiny part), has hastened the process of drifting apart. Israel, the brave little sister, the loyal ally in Bush’s “War on Terror”, has turned into the violent Israel, the mad monster, which has no compassion for women and children, the wounded and the sick. And when winds like these are blowing, the Lobby loses height.
The leaders of official Israel do not notice it. They do not feel, as Obama put it in another context, that “the ground has shifted beneath them”. They think that this is no more than a temporary political problem that can be set right with the help of the Lobby and the servile members of Congress.
Our leaders are still intoxicated with war and drunk with violence. They have re-phrased the famous saying of the Prussian general, Carl von Clausewitz into: “War is but a continuation of an election campaign by other means.” They compete with each other with vainglorious swagger for their share of the “credit”. Tzipi Livni, who cannot compete with the men for the crown of warlord, tries to outdo them in toughness, in bellicosity, in hard-heartedness.
The most brutal is Ehud Barak. Once I called him a “peace criminal”, because he brought about the failure of the 2000 Camp David conference and shattered the Israeli peace camp. Now I must call him a “war criminal”, as the person who planned the Gaza War knowing that it would murder masses of civilians.
In his own eyes, and in the eyes of a large section of the public, this is a military operation which deserves all praise. His advisors also thought that it would bring him success in the elections. The Labor party, which had been the largest party in the Knesset for decades, had shrunk in the polls to 12, even 9 seats out of 120. With the help of the Gaza atrocity it has now gone up to 16 or so. That’s not a landslide, and there’s no guarantee that it will not sink again.
What was Barak’s mistake? Very simply: every war helps the Right. War, by its very nature, arouses in the population the most primitive emotions – hate and fear, fear and hate. These are the emotions on which the Right has been riding for centuries. Even when it’s the ”Left” that starts a war, it’s still the Right that profits from it. In a state of war, the population prefers an honest-to-goodness Rightist to a phony Leftist.
This is happening to Barak for the second time. When, in 2000, he spread the mantra “I have turned every stone on the way to peace, / I have made the Palestinians unprecedented offers, / They have rejected everything, / There is no one to talk with” – he succeeded not only in blowing the Left to smithereens, but also in paving the way for the ascent of Ariel Sharon in the 2001 elections. Now he is paving the way for Binyamin Netanyahu (hoping, quite openly, to become his minister of defense).
And not only for him. The real victor of the war is a man who had no part in it at all: Avigdor Liberman. His party, which in any normal country would be called fascist, is steadily rising in the polls. Why? Liberman looks and sounds like an Israeli Mussolini, he is an unbridled Arab-hater, a man of the most brutal force. Compared to him, even Netanyahu looks like a softie. A large part of the young generation, nurtured on years of occupation, killing and destruction, after two atrocious wars, considers him a worthy leader.
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WHILE THE US has made a giant jump to the left, Israel is about to jump even further to the right.
Anyone who saw the millions milling around Washington on inauguration day knows that Obama was not speaking only for himself. He was expressing the aspirations of his people, the Zeitgeist.
Between the mental world of Obama and the mental world of Liberman and Netanyahu there is no bridge. Between Obama and Barak and Livni, too, there yawns an abyss. Post-election Israel may find itself on a collision course with post-election America.
Where are the American Jews? The overwhelming majority of them voted for Obama. They will be between the hammer and the anvil – between their government and their natural adherence to Israel. It is reasonable to assume that this will exert pressure from below on the “leaders” of American Jewry, who have incidentally never been elected by anyone, and on organizations like AIPAC. The sturdy stick, on which Israeli leaders are used to lean in times of trouble, may prove to be a broken reed.
Europe, too, is not untouched by the new winds. True, at the end of the war we saw the leaders of Europe – Sarkozy, Merkel, Browne and Zapatero – sitting like schoolchildren behind a desk in class, respectfully listening to the most loathsome arrogant posturing from Ehud Olmert, reciting his text after him. They seemed to approve the atrocities of the war, speaking of the Qassams and forgetting about the occupation, the blockade and the settlements. Probably they will not hang this picture on their office walls.
But during this war masses of Europeans poured into the streets to demonstrate against the horrible events. The same masses saluted Obama on the day of his inauguration.
This is the new world. Perhaps our leaders are now dreaming of the slogan: “Stop the world, I want to get off!” But there is no other world.
* * *
YES, WE ARE NOW on the wrong side of history.
Fortunately, there is also another Israel. It is not in the limelight, and its voice is heard only by those who listen out for it. This is a sane, rational Israel, with its face to the future, to progress and peace. In these coming elections, its voice will barely be heard, because all the old parties are standing with their two feet squarely in the world of yesterday.
But what has happened in the United States will have a profound influence on what happens in Israel. The huge majority of Israelis know that we cannot exist without close ties with the US. Obama is now the leader of the world, and we live in this world. When he promises to work “aggressively” for peace between us and the Palestinians, that is a marching order for us.
We want to be on the right side of history. That will take months or years, but I am sure that we shall get there. The time to start is now.
Uri Avnery is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.
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