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With no justice on the horizon for Gaza, what comes next?

A new report by B’Tselem concludes that the Israeli military’s investigations into its own alleged crimes are little more than a whitewash. So what comes next?

A Palestinian woman walks past the rubble of a home that was destroyed by Israel during the 2014 war, Rafah, Gaza Strip, July 30, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash 90)

A Palestinian woman walks past the rubble of a home that was destroyed by Israel during the 2014 war, Rafah, Gaza Strip, July 30, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash 90)

Sometimes a seemingly dry bit of research can seem to rise to the level of literature, challenging the status quo in ways that, in the long run, only literature can. Take, for example, the first Arab Human Development Report. Penned by researchers from the region, the 2002 report concludes, rather boldly, that “the predominant characteristic of the current Arab reality seems to be the existence of deeply rooted shortcomings in the Arab institutional structure.”

Sure, that conclusion was used in too many reductionist opinion columns following 9/11. See, for example, Thomas Friedman’s 2002 piece, “Arabs at the Crossroads,” in which he declares that to “understand the milieu that produced bin Ladenism,” one need only “read this report.” But for the vast majority of Arabs who grew up in that milieu (myself included) and did not embrace “bin Ladenism,” Friedman’s invitation was neither here nor there. If we studied the report, we did so because it concerned us, because we weren’t afraid to see our notions of ourselves refracted, even reversed.

This mirroring is precisely what good literature can do. But to do so, it must not shy away from its cause. And that, I fear, is what discerning readers might conclude about a new report by the consistently top-notch Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.

Earlier this week, I sat down to read “Whitewash Protocol,” the organization’s latest report which offers a review of the Israeli military’s investigation of alleged abuses and crimes during Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 “round of fighting” (the quotation marks are B’Tselem’s) that left 68 Israelis and 2,202 Palestinians—546 of them under the age of 18—dead.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

This paper … aims to review how Israel chose to investigate suspected breaches of IHL [International Humanitarian Law] that took place during Operation Protective Edge. The repeated pattern of whitewashing, as described in [a previous B’Tselem report on the matter, s.b.], formed the basis for our decision to stop referring complaints to the military law enforcement system. However, as any system is capable of self-correction—at least in theory—we decided to examine, two years after the fighting ended, how the military law enforcement system has performed.

Fair enough, but the report is bookended by two seemingly contradictory statements: First, that it sets out to test a theory (that “any system is capable of self-correction”); and, second, that the subject at hand far too grave to be looked at as “a theoretical issue.”

Current IDF Military Advocate General Brig.-Gen. Sharon Afek, Tel Aviv, August 30, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Current IDF Military Advocate General Brig.-Gen. Sharon Afek, Tel Aviv, August 30, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Here are the last lines from the report:

There was no accountability after Operation Cast Lead, only whitewashing. Now, after Operation Protective Edge, there is no accountability either, only whitewashing. This is not a theoretical legal issue: we are talking about human lives, and the toll might, heaven forbid, mount even higher.

So why posit a theory—and spend 13,000 words testing it—only to conclude by warning off theoretical pursuits altogether? The question is even more perplexing when one considers that B’Tselem and others have, since 2014, issued several other reports essentially disproving the theory that Israel’s military “justice” system could self-correct. Just weeks after the fighting ended, B’Tselem Executive Director Hagai El-Ad himself said: “Common sense has it that a body cannot investigate itself.”

Perhaps with this latest report, B’Tselem is trying to keep a step ahead of Israel’s Military Advocate General (MAG), to whom it has refused to hand over details on alleged Israeli abuses in Gaza — the better to not abet its whitewashing. In that case, it makes sense that the organization continue to shine light on the MAG’s updates on its investigations into “exceptional incidents” during Protective Edge, including a June update that cleared the military of wrongdoing in the July 16, 2014 attack that killed four children from the Bakr family as they played on the Gaza beach:

Israel’s interest is to stave off an investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC). To illustrate the point, B’Tselem cites in its report former MAG Major General Danny Efroni, who warned: “If the probe is a whitewash and not a true investigation, nothing will stop the ICC.” So calling the MAG’s investigations just that — part of a “whitewash protocol” — is compelling, from a legal perspective. But remember that last line: “[t]his is not a theoretical legal issue; we are talking about human lives…”

I can get behind that, especially after seeing those human lives up close. But the circle I can’t seem to square is this: How many more times can people — or, indeed, organizations — of conscience investigate a system that refuses to honestly investigate itself? If speaking truth to power has done little to advance that truth, might the powerless embrace another truth?

That question takes on more urgency for those closest to the struggle. There can be no equivalence, of course, between what an Israeli must consider and what a Palestinian, stripped of choice by the Israeli occupation, must endure, but I nonetheless read with interest my colleague Mairav Zonszein’s recent piece in The Forward, in which she asks: “Should I give up on changing Israel from within — and take a stand by leaving?”.

As a Palestinian, I must accept that my opinion on the question may never be an empathic one. But I don’t doubt Mairav’s intentions. So, too, with B’Tselem. I admire the perseverance, the “optimism of the will,” that compelled the organization to produce another finely researched report on the ever-deeper entrenchment of the system it seeks to change. But in its final words — where B’Tselem concludes that, “what we said then still holds true now, and that Israel continues to devote most of its efforts to creating a façade and nothing more” — I am left wondering what comes next.

To read “Whitewash Protocol” as literature is to be left aching for a denouement, some resolution — some way forward — for its protagonists. None of this is to say that B’Tselem and other human rights organizations haven’t done a fine job within their mandate. They have. But as it stands, this latest report tells us what we already know (thanks to B’Tselem itself). It presses the fret just a little longer, extending the solemn note of our inability — all of us — to force a reckoning for the wronged.

I can’t presume to know what B’Tselem’s alternatives might be — or the costs of choosing them. But I do know this: I’m tired of the same old story. I want to know how this one ends.

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    1. Bus189

      It wasn’t the “optimism of the will” that motivated B’tselem to write another boring report with a preordained conclusion. It is European money that does that. The report should be called: “Paid for Europe, written for Europeans, produced with the conclusion Europe wants in mind, and bashing Israel in the process”. That is what the European NGOs are paying for and that is what they are getting. And this is precisely why no one in Israel cares about yet another report produced by a foreign-funded NGO which is paid for producing anti-Israeli propaganda. But, enjoy the reading, because in truth, all they can do is write the reports and all you can do is read them.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Perhaps you guys could come up with less hackneyed hasbara terms than “European money…” and “bashing Israel” to do your usual slander routine of good Israeli organizations of impeccable integrity like B’tselem and Breaking the Silence? It gets boring. The “European money” slander is straight out of the most anti-Semitic video ever made, produced by the Samaria Settler Council:

        Reply to Comment
        • Bus189

          Why change something that both works and is eminently true? The EU itself is the biggest sponsor of B’tselem. Most of the rest of the budget comes from European governments and their associated charity organizations. This is fact and no one denies it.

          It is a foreign-funded organization that produces reports ordered and paid for by European governments and organizations and it is an eminently political organization whose goal is to bash Israel and to force international action against it.

          B’tselem/BtS are obvious examples of direct foreign intervention in Israel. In any other part of the world this would be considered neocolonialist behavior and would be scorned by the same crowd that cheers them on. They are acting as agents of foreign governments as part of an explicit European agenda to demonize Israel.

          This process started around 2009 as an explicit policy direction of the European governments and it will continue until it is either demonstrated to be ineffective or until Israel finally takes measures to stop the blatant intervention in its domestic political affairs. We are close to both of these points.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            You thought you’d double down on the slander — for you to tell us the infamous Herr Stürmer video is “eminently true” tells us all we need to know about who you are and what base of fanaticism you write from — and add a heap of classic settler arrogance. You see, B’tselem is concerned with human rights, which believe it or not, they actually believe applies to human beings who are not Israelis — I know, shocking, what’s wrong with these people? — and, they are exclusively concerned with violations of the human rights of people under illegal and brutal occupation in a space distinctly outside the recognized borders of Israel. They are, explicitly, *not* concerned with addressing human rights issues within Israel. So your phrase, “domestic political affairs,” perfectly captures that precious settler arrogance and narcissism and the typical settler apartheid mentality. In fact it is the occupation in a nutshell. “Don’t interfere with our ‘domestic political affairs’ while we rule over millions of other non-domestic people we treat like untermenschen and would be outraged if you called them ‘domestic.’ And if you don’t cooperate we’ll go all East German Stasi on you while we crow about what a democracy we are.” Who do you think you’re kidding? For those who want the accurate, slander-free version of who and what B’Tselem is and does, see this:

            Reply to Comment
    2. Bus189

      B’tselem is an organization organized and run by Israelis in Israel. It is a mostly European funded organization that is very active in Israeli domestic politics. It operates as both a means of producing propaganda against Israel (to be consumed both inside and outside Israel) and as a domestic loyal opposition (that is, loyal to its European funders) to the Israeli government. In practice the organization acts as a foreign agent within Israeli domestic politics. The human rights issue is the cover that it operates under. That is it. If someone (say, the EU, which sent more than $1M last year) were to tell the people running B’tselem that there is a more effective way to bash Israel, the organization would immediately switch to doing that. And that is because rather than being a human rights organization it is primarily an anti-Israel organization and that is precisely why it is getting funded by foreign governments.

      So, it is an Israeli organization. It is funded primarily by Europeans. It is active in domestic Israeli politics. It is active in opposing the Israeli government. It is active in lobbying abroad against the Israeli government. Draw your own conclusions.

      Mine are that it is an Israeli organization that is used by foreign governments to place pressure on the Israeli government. That is an entirely illegitimate, hostile and anti-democratic intervention in a country’s domestic affairs and it absolutely makes not one bit of difference what cover such an organization uses. If foreign governments want to influence the Israeli government they can send messages through their embassies, make declarations in their capitals, or, yes, sanction Israel. All of these are legitimate means of expressing displeasure with a foreign democratic government. What isn’t legitimate is to spend tens of millions of dollars sponsoring domestic opposition to the government and financially sponsoring anti-governmental election campaigns. It would not be allowed in other countries and it should not be allowed here.

      That message is getting through. B’tselem and BtS will have their spigot of foreign funding cut off and then they will shrivel back up into the tiny fringe vile organizations they really are.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “The human rights issue is the cover that it operates under. That is it. If someone (say, the EU, which sent more than $1M last year) were to tell the people running B’tselem that there is a more effective way to bash Israel, the organization would immediately switch to doing that. And that is because rather than being a human rights organization it is primarily an anti-Israel organization and that is precisely why it is getting funded by foreign governments.”

        This does not pass the smell test. At all. It is pure slander. Made up out of whole cloth. It is not even minimally plausible. In order for it to be true you have to posit that there are large numbers of Israeli Jews who are simply traitors. Preposterous. Of course I can’t tell whether you actually believe this treif or if you know how cynical it is but are peddling it under the belief that it is permitted to lie for Greater Israel and under the belief that the human rights of non-Jews are a trifling matter. Smells bad either way.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Bus189

      Are you denying that this is an organization that is funded primarily by foreign governments? Are you denying that in 2015 it received more than a million dollars from the EU itself? Are you denying that foreign governments have their own interests when they send their money to organizations abroad? Are you denying that employees of donor-sponsored organizations make efforts to please their donors?

      So, there is a large number of Israelis that get their salaries paid for by organizations that are sponsored by foreign governments motivated by their own foreign interests. These employees are obligated by both their jobs and the basic logic of their self-interest to pursue goals and policies that are supported and promoted by foreign governments. And the activities that they carry out are primarily focused on demonizing their own country while operating as a domestic and unelected opposition to the democratically elected government of their own country. These organizations owe their position in the public domain primarily due to the massive amount of European funding that allows them to run public relations campaigns and employ staff to promote themselves and their agenda.

      Call it what you want, but it is obviously a situation which is illegitimate under the principles of both democracy and sovereignty. It really does smell bad when foreign governments are sponsoring domestic organizations with the express purpose of demonizing their own country. It certainly does have the faint scent of treason.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        For one thing, and the arrogance of this never ceases to amaze in terms of Israelis’ manufactured self-righteousness and sense of outrage, B’Tselem is openly and transparently working to protect the severely damaged human rights of people Israel is brutally invading and occupying on land that is foreign territory with respect to Israel. So it is not “an internal domestic affair.” It is very much the outside worlds’ business what is going on. Your saying 10,000 times that it is not will not make it less true.

        Reply to Comment