11 July 2007 - The good with the bad
Yesterday, I went to a press conference held in Jerusalem by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights while Countering Terrorism, Martin Scheinin of Finland. Sheinin—an elegant, smart fellow—has been on an eight-day mission to Israel and the Palestinian territories to investigate the human rights implications of the measures Israel takes to protect its citizens.
During his time in the region, Scheinin met with many Israeli officials, observed Israeli prisons and military trials, and met with victims of terror attacks. He was also briefed by human rights organizations such as B’Tselem and ACRI. In the occupied territories, he met Palestinian representatives and toured the security barrier along its route. He seems to have applied himself sincerely to the task.
The press release—which hints at what Scheinin’s final report would look like—proceeds from the postulate “that sustainable security can only be achieved through due respect for human rights.” It points out that Israel’s laws for fighting terror, many of which date back to the British Mandate, are outdated and incompatible with Israel’s goals as a democracy (a new counterterrorism bill is being drafted.)
Scheinin points to the impact of the security barrier on Palestinian rights, noting that Israeli officials say it will one day be replaced by an agreed-upon international boundary. He also comments on the impacts of checkpoints and closures, expresses shock at the vague guidelines for using physical pressure in interrogations, and criticizes Israel’s recent High Court of Justice decision on targeted killings.
There was a small smattering of journalists there, including a two-man TV crew from Al-Jazeera. Only seven questions were asked, and I asked four of them. (A British AP correspondent asked why Scheinin did not always refer to the barrier as a “wall”; one European journalist asked about Palestinian MPs in Israeli custody and another asked whether Israel was involved in state terror. Hello, media bias.)
I introduced myself and began firing away. First, I asked whether—since Special Rapporteurs must be formally invited by the country they are investigating—Israel had brought him in as a counterweight to John Dugard, Special Rapporteur on Palestinian rights (alone) in the occupied territories. He said no—he had sought Israel’s invitation out of his own interest, and Israel had agreed to participate.
Next, I asked why the Palestinian human rights violated by the security barrier were listed at length in the press release, but the right to life of Israelis was not mentioned once. He suggested that the right to life is implicit in counter-terrorism and that he is not seeking to balance it against the other rights involved, but rather to encourage policies that improve the overall human rights situation in the area.
I then asked whether he had investigated the counter-terrorism policies of the Palestinian Authority on his visit. He said that he had not, but that he had mentioned to a Palestinian official that he hoped to be invited back soon to examine what the PA is doing, if anything, to live up to its responsibility to stop terrorism and enforce international law and peace agreements with Israel.
Finally, I challenged his criticism of the High Court ruling. Scheinin said that the court applied a “vague” standard, but as the judgment clearly indicates, the underlying international law itself is vague. Was he saying the court was wrong about the law, or that it had applied it incorrectly? Scheinin conceded that there is a dispute about the law, but that he himself read it in a stricter sense than the Court.
After the conference was over, I headed out to the hallway and joined the other journalists for refreshments. I overheard the AP guy tell a colleague: “That was a boring one.” Someone else was looking for a Jerusalem Post reporter, who apparently failed to pitch up. At least Al-Jazeera came prepared, I thought—then wondered: what would human rights mean to audiences in most Arab countries?
I walked out of the hotel and down towards the Damascus Gate, where I went looking for an Arabic bookstore that I heard was selling a textbook I am looking for. It was my first time in that part of East Jerusalem in eight years. I had been scared the first time I went; I had been warned not to, and that was before the second intifada. But I found the area safe and friendly, with fewer soldiers than before.
I walked through the bustling streets, using my rudimentary Arabic to ask for directions. I eventually found the bookstore I had been looking for, and the textbook, but spent a long time just browsing through two shelves of books in English on the Middle East. So many, so many. Impossible to read them all—not that I’d want to read all of them, but I’d really like to know what there is to know.
I paged through an obscure but credible-looking environmental report on water pollution in the West Bank. There were photographs and descriptions of how wastewater from some of the settlements contaminates groundwater that is used by Palestinian towns. The problem, I thought to myself, is Israel’s overall sys—but hang on, maybe it’s not some systemic thing. Maybe it’s just wrong, and that’s it.
What to do, or feel, about Israel’s sins? Do the problems in the territories affect the prospects of the overall project? I’m reading a book by a respected Israeli academic who seems to think Zionism has to return to its origins (how delicately put!) and that Jews should go back to Europe to establish a cultural community. That’s what former Knesset speaker Avram Burg has done, recently becoming a French citizen.
That’s also what historian Tony Judt recommends, and what Jews on the far left seem to believe. Later in the evening, I learned about a lecture historian Michael Oren gave yesterday on the topic. He says: get a grip, Israel. Read Exodus. Jews aren’t used to power or freedom. But we have to get over our historical conditioning to powerlessness. We have be strong, and learn to take the good with the bad.
Update and correction: The Jerusalem Post reporter did indeed show up, and here is her excellent article.