25 June 2007

25 June 2007 - Knesset hearing on Hebron

Today I attended a Knesset subcommittee hearing on human rights in Hebron, which had been convened to discuss a report jointly filed by ACRI and B’Tselem. They allege that there has been a “quiet transfer” of Palestinians from the part of the city where Jewish settlers have been living since 1968. Some Arab families have begun moving away from the area since the IDF began closing streets and stores.

The closures and the departures began after a Jewish fanatic murdered dozens of Arabs in a local mosque, but began in earnest after the start of the second intifada, when violence again broke out between the two communities. The report alleges that the closures are intended to protect the settlers’ “racist” enclave, while the army says they are necessary to protect both Israeli and Palestinian civilians.

A lot of work went into the report, which included a thorough residential survey of the area. There are a few flaws—for example, it does not mention the centuries-old Jewish community in Hebron, which was evicted in a pogrom in 1929. This is perhaps a critical omission, since it makes it seem as though a Jewish presence in Hebron is illegitimate, and excludes some of the important historical context.

The report includes many moving accounts by Palestinians describing how the closures have affected their lives, as well as testimony by soldiers who witnessed the excessive use of force. There are also complaints that the IDF is lenient in enforcing the law when it comes to violations by Israeli settlers. The report asks the state to return Hebron to the status quo ante, pending the removal of the settlers.

Reading the 79-page document, I felt I disagreed with it in several basic respects. First of all, “quiet transfer” is not deliberate expulsion. It is a sad but inevitable response to a conflict in which both sides are to blame. Second, the IDF has an obligation to protect Israeli citizens if no one else can or will, and the fact that it does so is not necessarily “racist.” (Whether the settlers should have gone there in the way they did is another matter.)

The more I read, the more I became convinced that the Israeli army needs to do more to police lawbreakers among the settlers, and (of course) that the political leaders on both sides need to find a solution to the problem. But I became even more convinced that the real obstacle is not Israeli policy but the complete failure of the Palestinian leadership to protect civilians, Israeli or Palestinian, in the West Bank.

There are pragmatic solutions to the human rights abuses in Hebron, which occur on both sides, and which emerge from the underlying conflict. One is to create a Palestinian state that guarantees equal protection to all residents, including Jews in Hebron. Those settlers unwilling to live under this regime would be able to return to Israel but would no longer be able to call on the Israeli army and police.

Plan B, in the (unfortunate and likely) event that the Palestinian government would be unwilling and unable to guarantee the safety and equality of its Jewish citizens and residents, is for Israel to withdraw the settlers entirely. But this cannot happen until Hamas is neutralized as a military threat to Israel’s cities, which is unlikely to happen through negotiation, at least in the foreseeable future.

Not even ACRI and B’Tselem expect the Palestinians to deliver a new approach—one that upholds the rule of law and respects the historic Jewish connection to the city. So we are stuck with the status quo, which is largely in the hands of the IDF, and all that can really be hoped for in the absence of a stable political solution is that the quality of life of the local population might be improved somewhat.

The question that the chair of the committee kept coming back to all morning was: how can we make this better? The discussion never entertained the political and diplomatic issues I have described above; it was mired in disagreements over the substance of the report itself, including how many families had left Hebron, whether the army was even-handed in enforcing law, and what the law really was.

The discussion was chaotic, to say the least, with Members of Knesset (MKs) frequently interrupting the guest speakers and each other, and spectators also jumping into the fray at times. The attitude of the right-wing MKs was totally obstructionist, and one MK sought to destroy the credibility of the report by cross-examining the author, tripping him up over details that the report sought to clarify.

The left-wing MKs were equally vociferous, almost smug in their declarations of what was or was not international law, impatient with the testimony of the IDF officers present. The officers were quite impressive, never raising their voices to the politicians, illustrating their points with detailed maps, expressing concern for the human rights issues but firm commitment to their mission of protecting Israelis.

The actual discussion was fairly rudimentary, and not too different from the kind of shouting matches that emerge on university campuses in Europe and North America. The left-wing asserted that the Hebron settlement was illegal under international law, which forbids an occupying power from bringing in civilians. The right-wing countered that the settlers had come to Hebron on their own volition.

Some exchanges were rather ugly, especially over questions of law. “There is a dispute over that point!” “No there isn’t!” “Yes there is—there is a case before the courts right now!” “No there isn’t!” “Did you do your homework? Have you read the judgment?” “Have you read the judgment?” Through all this, the chair tried to maintain decorum and kept touting the merits of lively, democratic discussion.

The ACRI legal team had been pessimistic about the meeting beforehand; they feel vulnerable because they are, in effect, standing up for the other side, the enemy. But they seemed rather satisfied with today’s discussions, feeling they had gone to the heart of the issues at stake. Actually, I think the discussion evaded the central issues, and got bogged down in detail. But perhaps past meetings had been worse.

Several right-wing MKs pointed out that there were no settlers present to give their side of the story; one left-wing MK responded by saying that Palestinian residents of Hebron should also be invited to give theirs. That might help, but it won’t be enough to sort this out. I can understand the discouragement that human rights activists feel here sometimes—but perhaps they should rethink their strategy?

It says a great deal about Israel’s commitment to human rights that the Knesset held such a hearing at all. But I’m not convinced Israelis—left or right know how to tackle the complex human rights issues they face. There is also disturbing evidence of a certain persistent callousness in Israeli officialdom—as seen in the eviction of a Bedouin Arab village to make room for a future Jewish town in Israel.

On the activist side, there seem to have been a few examples lately in which groups like B’Tselem have actively begun criticizing Palestinian human rights abuses. Perhaps the detachment of Fatah from Hamas has provided the political cover for them to do so. But the paradigm they’re working in still seems to be weak-vs.-strong, as opposed to wrong-vs.-right, which is the more effective and enduring.

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