Gideon Levy, Reciprocity in International Law Is About Rights, Not Conditions

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Youth wear shirts reading "Avera is still alive" at a Tel Aviv rally in support of the Israeli citizen held captive by Hamas in Gaza, September 8, 2019.
Youth wear shirts reading "Avera is still alive" at a Tel Aviv rally in support of the Israeli citizen held captive by Hamas in Gaza, September 8, 2019. Credit: Moti Milrod

I am glad that a defamatory piece published in the opinion pages of this paper (“What a Surprise – Even a Proud Liberal Zionist Scion Can Be a Racist,” Oct. 22) provided an opportunity to raise the imperative of equally upholding international law and its principle of reciprocity in ensuring the return of two deceased Israeli soldiers – Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul – and two civilians – Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed – held in Gaza in a six-year standing violation of international law.

As I have stated on the record, in both interviews and on Twitter, I am proud to be living in a country in which the defense minister enables the treatment of Saeb Erekat; a country that does not condition its own morality on the morality of its foes or its allies. Any inference or suggestion that attributes otherwise to me is either a misunderstanding, a mistake, or misleading.

Leaving aside the disrespectful and false personal attacks made in the article, the very premise of it is based on an incorrect interpretation of reciprocity.

In the tweet cited, I refer to this fundamental tenet of international law, noting that Israel’s humanitarian gestures toward those in need warrant reciprocal calls for Israel’s own humanitarian necessities – the return of our four boys. This, alongside the imperative to fulfill the unwritten contract between the state and its citizens, obligate Israel to demand that they, and their families, be unconditionally released from captivity.

Unlike “conditioning,” which would argue that Israel should only provide treatment to Erekat if its humanitarian needs are met, reciprocity underscores Israel’s commitment to performing such humanitarian acts and, at the same time, the commitment to upholding the humanitarian needs of its citizens, while expecting the international community to do the same.

Reciprocity is a principle of exchange, of benefits, and of rights, not one of withholding or reward. This is fundamentally different than what the article falsely attributes to me: namely, that humanitarian aid should be hinged or “conditioned.”

It is imperative that these principles be upheld consistently, by all who purport or wish to promote and protect universal human rights. When just one population, one country, or one religion is left out, the inconsistency enables and empowers a culture of impunity that compromises these universal principles, threatening the foundations upon which the entire social structure is built – both nationally and internationally.

To claim that Zionists, like myself, who believe in Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, should be left out of this universal system of rights, is unjust. To argue that our humanitarian needs do not matter and that our citizens – Jewish or Bedouin; Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, or Ethiopian – should remain captive to a genocidal terrorist organization, along with their families and loves ones, undermines the system of law and rights created to ensure peace and prosperity for all.

The cries of the families of these four Israelis are at least as just and legitimate as the cries of others in need of humanitarian aid.

The unequal approach to applying human rights promoted in the article is compounded by the allusion to the UN’s 1975 infamous and revoked “Zionism is Racism” resolution. As the rest of the region embarks on a potentially transformative process and paradigm shift – away from rejectionism and toward recognition, negotiation and peace – there are evidently some who are unable to leave demonization, delegitimization and double standards behind.

“Humanitarian for Humanitarian” infers equal application of reciprocity to all, insisting that the humanitarian needs of all are valid and should be upheld equally. Those that cannot accept this expose their preferential treatment, promoting the rights of some, at the expense of others.

Michal Cotler-Wunsh, a Kahol Lavan Knesset member and international law expert, holds an LL.M from McGill University and an LL.B from Hebrew University.

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