Israel and its automatic defenders, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down, have come out all guns blazing against the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) report on last summer’s Gaza campaign. The report is hypocritical, biased, one sided, distorted, a capitulation to terrorist groups and a “rape of the truth”, as Netanyahu noted.
Very few people will be reading the report, anyway - including those who will be voicing very strong opinions about its contents. Israel bashers will maintain that it proves once and for all that the Israeli army is guilty of war crimes. Israel advocates will respond that it proves once and for all that the United Nations is morally bankrupt. Most people will make do with a few headlines and tweets.
That is a shame. As my colleague Amos Harel points out, the report issued by a commission of inquiry headed by former federal prosecutor and New York judge Mary McGowan Davis is no reprise of Cast Lead’s Goldstone Report. Whatever its flaws and shortcomings, it is far more disciplined and balanced. For that reason alone, its negative ramifications for Israel might be far greater.
For the few who will wade through its 183 pages, the report makes for harrowing reading. It devotes ample space and deference to Israelis suffering from rocket attacks, but its eyewitness accounts of the scenes of carnage in Gaza in the wake of Israel air force bombings in which entire families were wiped out will disturb even the most ardent justifier of Israeli actions. They are, in a word, atrocious.
“The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness,” Judith Herman writes in the book Trauma and Recovery, but that observation relates to people who had been exposed to the calamities in the first place. Last summer, the overwhelming majority of Israelis were spared the sights and sounds of the carnage in Gaza: Israeli media refrained from covering the suffering of Gazans while politicians and pundits maintained that it was unpatriotic to even discuss. The hardships and ordeals of Israelis cowering from rocket attacks, undeniable in and of themselves, were magnified tenfold while the misery of Gaza was not only downplayed but also depicted as well deserved.
The rapid fire condemnations and denunciations of the new report will ensure that nothing much changes: most Israelis and their supporters will find no compelling reason to waste their time on a “defective and biased” report that is issued by a body that is “obsessed” with Israel, as Netanyahu said on Monday. As a direct consequence, most Israelis will view any criticism based on the contents of the new report as confirmation of anti-Israeli prejudices. Therefore, they will be unable to comprehend what is so upsetting to outside observers. And they will ignore claims that Israel doth protest too much, to paraphrase Hamlet’s mom, or that it has depleted its meager reserves of international goodwill or credit.
The frustration will inevitably be vented inwards. Israeli NGOs that assisted the UNHCR panel will be portrayed as internal backstabbers who may have grown more sophisticated but remain treasonous all the same. Support for legislation aimed at curbing the activities and funding of such groups will only increase. The dwindling tolerance for dissent will grow ever more meager.
It is a vicious circle that has traditionally marked Israeli attitudes to its 48-year occupation of the Palestinians, refined and perfected by Netanyahu and the Likud. International condemnation of Israel - well deserved or hypocritically one-sided, on conduct of war, expansion of settlements, or treatment of African migrants - is automatically dismissed and portrayed as incontrovertible proof of incorrigible anti-Israeli sentiments and rampant anti-Semitism. The ensuing sense of siege and isolation drives Israelis further to the insular right, as evidenced in this March’s elections. The insular right in turn is then shunned by the world and criticized at every turn, providing ever more fodder for the claim that the whole world is against us. And so on and so forth.
Hamas is a terrorist organization and Israel had every right to retaliate in force to the rocket attacks launched against its citizens. Israel is the victim of a blatant double standard and the UNHCR is indeed a ridiculously one-sided anti-Israeli operation. This does not negate the fact that in some cases the IDF employed exaggerated and indiscriminate force that resulted in massive and unwarranted loss of civilian life. One didn’t need McGowan Davis’ report to know that - it was right there during Operation Protective Edge, on television screens throughout the world, with the exception of only one country: Israel.
Instead of confronting its deeds, perhaps even justifying them as lying in the grey areas of the morality of war, Israelis and their leaders prefer to cling to a world of black and white, one in which we are 100% right and everyone else is 100% wrong, and to lead their flock accordingly. In that respect, it doesn’t really matter whether the UNHCR report was better or worse than Goldstone and whether it presented a fair or skewered picture of the Gaza war: its true significance is that it embeds Israelis ever deeper in their isolated bunkers, in a place where every opportunity is a trap, every risk is existential and every reaction is justifiable, given the circumstances.