This week, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared: “We must expose the hypocrisy of human rights organizations that turn a blind eye to the most repressive regimes in the world, regimes that stone women and hang gays, and instead target the only liberal democracy in the Middle East.”
He was reacting to the publication of a pair of long, comprehensive reports on the occupation, one by the IDF reservists’ organization Breaking the Silence, the other by Human Rights Watch.
Netanyahu’s statement, however, contained two lies. First, organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Oxfam don’t turn a blind eye to the world’s most repressive regimes; just the opposite. They report continually on dictatorships across Asia and Africa, documenting persecution of women, gays, dissidents, minorities and other victims. In fact, it’s largely because of human rights reports about such persecution that Netanyahu and the rest of us are aware of it.
Second, while Israel is a democracy at home (though not a liberal one, certainly not with the political atmosphere of the last decade), it isn’t anyone’s idea of a democracy in the West Bank and Arab east Jerusalem (nor on the border, seacoast and in the airspace of Gaza).
In the democratic world, Israel’s armed domination of the Palestinians is unique. It didn’t used to be, but now it is one-of-a-kind. This country’s occupation of Palestinian territory is the last bastion of colonialism in the free world.
People forget that. Which is why we need human rights reports like “Israeli Soldier Testimonies, 2000-2010” from Breaking the Silence and “Separate and Unequal” from Human Rights Watch – to force people to remember the simple, awful truth.
READING THROUGH the 431-page book of soldiers’ stories and the 166- page report about the mechanics of Israeli colonialism, you get a sense of how utterly we have become the Palestinians’ masters over the last 43 years.
The bullying and brutalizing of civilians is accepted as routine by young soldiers on occupation duty – even now, after the intifada has been extinguished, when Palestinian Authority police in the West Bank work with Israel to fight violence, terrorism and Hamas.
“There was a lot of joy at others’ misfortune, people even told about it happily,” said a soldier describing the “fanatical atmosphere” at a 2009 night raid on a village near Nablus. The soldiers “break the floors, turn over sofas, throw plants and pictures, turn over beds, break closets, tiles...”
The residents “are dying of fear, girls pee in their pants... [Soldiers] yelled at old people, one of them had an epileptic seizure... he doesn’t speak Hebrew and they continue to yell at him.”
The troops were looking for weapons and when they didn’t find any, “they confiscated kitchen knives.”
The book by Breaking the Silence has testimony from 101 combat soldiers.
All are anonymous because they’d be branded as informers or traitors if
their names were made public. Their anonymity is the excuse the IDF
uses to dismiss all of their testimony.
“I see my officers, laughing away with their backs to me, cracking up
from laughter, and below me I see the border policemen beating people to
a pulp, guys suffocating, one guy bleeding...,” said another soldier,
describing a 2007 “anti-fence” demonstration in Bil’in. “They’re
laughing, cracking sunflower seeds, and I say, ‘What evil people you
are.’ I look and they said, ‘Look what a blow that guy just took!’”
The book is not about IDF soldiers fighting terrorists, it’s about IDF
soldiers humiliating, beating, shooting and sometimes killing unarmed
civilians or, at most, adolescent boys throwing stones that very rarely
hit anyone. It’s the story of David and Goliath, only now we’re Goliath.
“Separate and Unequal” is about the civilian side of the occupation.
Since 1967, writes Human Rights Watch, “Israel has expropriated land
from Palestinians for Jewish-Israeli settlements and their supporting
infrastructure, denied Palestinians building permits and demolished
‘illegal’ Palestinian construction (i.e., Palestinian construction that
the Israeli government chose not to authorize), prevented Palestinian
villages from upgrading or building homes, schools, health clinics,
wells and water cisterns, blocked Palestinians from accessing roads and
agricultural lands, failed to provide electricity, sewage, water and
other utilities to Palestinian communities, and rejected their
applications for such services.
“Such measures,” the report continues, “have not only limited the
expansion of Palestinian villages, but imposed severe hardships for
residents, including forcing children to walk long distances for school,
and leaving residents with limited access to medical care, which can
often be accessed only by crossing multiple checkpoints...
“Roadblocks, checkpoints and substandard roads delay ambulances and
people seeking medical care, in addition to the costs they impose on the
Palestinian economy. Since Palestinians need special military permits
to enter settlements, usually as laborers, medical services there are
effectively unavailable to them. In some cases, Israel’s discriminatory
policies have forcibly displaced Palestinians from their communities.
“Such policies,” the report notes with acute understatement, “have not been applied to Jewish settlements.”
It’s so basic, so obvious, yet so mortifying that people forget – which
is why it’s good that Human Rights Watch reminded people, in detail, of
the ABC’s of what we’ve built in the West Bank, of what it is we’re
It’s not liberal democracy. It’s colonialism. This is the last vestige of colonialism in the free world.
Which, along with the extraordinary backing Israel gets from the US, is
what makes the occupation a natural, necessary, unceasing target for the
free world’s human rights organizations.