It’s been two years since Israel initiated the “Operation Cast Lead” military assault on the besieged Gaza Strip. Since then, the right-wing Israeli government of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has launched an unprecedented wave of intimidation against Israeli peace and human rights groups. These groups say they are “working in an increasingly hostile environment,” according to a New York Times report, and that Israeli government leaders are fostering “an atmosphere of harassment” by turning “human rights criticism into an existential threat.”
However, Congress has chosen to look the other way – and wants the executive branch to do the same.
A resolution — sponsored by House Foreign Relations Committee Chair Howard Berman (D-CA), Middle East Subcommittee Chair Gary Ackerman (D-NY), and soon-to-be House Foreign Relations Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) — condemned the findings of the UN Human Rights Council report for documenting such infringements on civil liberties and other human rights violations by the Israeli government.
Included in the resolution were the words: “even though Israel is a vibrant democracy with a vigorous and free press, the report of the ‘fact-finding mission’ erroneously asserts that ‘actions of the Israeli government . . . have contributed significantly to a political climate in which dissent with the government and its actions . . . is not tolerated.’” It passed the House by an overwhelming 344-36 vote.
The UNHRC fact-finding mission, led by the prominent South African jurist Richard Goldstone, is best known for documenting evidence of war crimes by both Hamas and the Israeli government. However, it also covered suppression of internal dissent both within the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and within Israel and found that “individuals and groups viewed as sources of criticism of Israel’s military operations were subjected to repression or attempted repression by the Government of Israel.”
Pattern of Abuse
In recent months, I have contacted scores of offices of Democratic members of Congress. I’ve offered them evidence that the UNHRC report accurately documented the growing intolerance of the Israeli government to legitimate dissent. Yet to this day, they stand by their vote, insisting the charges of Israeli repression were “erroneous” and denying that the repression continues.
The rightist Netanyahu government, apparently emboldened by such a broad bipartisan defense of its actions from Washington, has only increased its repression of Israeli citizens in the year since the House passed its resolution. This has included surveillance and intimidation of Israeli peace and human rights groups, with the detention for days without charge of scores of Israeli Jews attending or simply en route to peaceful protests. On December 27, for example, an Israeli court sentenced Jonathan Pollack, a leading young human rights activist, to three months in prison for being part of an “illegal assembly” –a bicycle protest against the war on Gaza.
Other Israelis speaking out have been imprisoned or otherwise censored as well. The Knesset stripped member Haneen Zoabi of her parliamentary benefits and her diplomatic passport for taking part in last summer’s humanitarian aid mission to Gaza. The government has detained Israeli community activist Ameer Makhoul – whom Amnesty International has called “a key human rights defender” and “a prisoner of conscience” – on “espionage” charges, though they have refused to make the charges public. And the government charged Israeli whistle-blower Anat Kamm, who documented illegal assassinations of Palestinian opponents by the Israeli military, with espionage and banned the Israeli press from reporting on her detention.
This past June, 25 members of Israel’s parliament introduced legislation that would ban Israeli organizations if they support universal jurisdiction for war crimes. A second bill would make it illegal to support a boycott or other sanctions against products from Israeli settlements. Prime Minister Netanyahu has also pushed for a loyalty oath, which would require prospective citizens to pledge loyalty to Israel as a “Jewish state” in an effort to exclude non-Jews and non-Zionist Jews from citizenship.
There has been a systematic McCarthyistic campaign against academic freedom. Parliamentary hearings supported by Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar have challenged the legitimacy of left-leaning professors who address Israeli human rights abuses. Membership in anti-occupation or human rights groups has been used to bar young academics from being hired.
Israeli actors, directors and playwrights who signed a petition that they would not perform in a new theater built in the West Bank settlement of Ariel have been banned from receiving government subsidies, including funding for international tours, as well as the right to perform at state venues.
Im Tirtzu, a nationalist Israeli organization, goaded on by government officials, launched a harsh billboard smear campaign against 12 human rights organizations and their funders, the New Israel Fund and the Ford Foundation. Meanwhile, right-wing thugs have assaulted prominent Israeli peace and human rights advocates with apparent acquiescence of some segments of the police.
Goldstone’s fact-finding mission also expressed concerns at the government’s threat to eliminate the tax-exempt status of human rights groups and limit their ability to receive support from abroad, noting it could have “an intimidating effect on other Israeli human rights organizations.” The New York Times reported that Israeli tax authorities have repeatedly harassed such organizations as the Israeli advocacy group Gisha, which supports freedom of movement for Palestinians.
Human Rights Watch and other groups have condemned such efforts to silence Israel’s vibrant civil society. But the overwhelming majority of the U.S. Congress continues to insist that such human rights organizations have no basis for such concerns.
The U.S. Congress has gone on record denying – and, by implication, defending – Israeli government repression against Israeli citizens. In this resolution and previously, Congress has rationalized Israeli repression of Palestinians and Lebanese as necessary acts of “self-defense” against “terrorism.” However, this same excuse cannot justify intimidation of Israeli individuals or organizations. By including this clause in the resolution attacking the Goldstone commission report, then, a large bipartisan Congressional majority is effectively legitimizing the suppression of nonviolent peace and human rights activists in a democracy. This action constitutes a very dangerous precedent.
When Congress begins denying well-documented cases of government-backed repression of human rights activists because the country in question is nominally “a vibrant democracy with a vigorous and free press,” then it’s only a matter of time before the Democrats, along with their Republican counterparts, begin denying and defending such repression against human rights groups here in the United States as well.