Israel Prefers Not to Air Its Dirty Laundry

The norm of distorting and whitewashing the army's activities was set by David Ben-Gurion in 1952, when he lied to the UN about the Qibya massacre.

zeev sternhell
Zeev Sternhell
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The bodies of three of the four children from the Bakir family killed by on IDF strike on a Gaza beach.
The bodies of three of the four children from the Bakir family killed by on IDF strike on a Gaza beach. Credit: Reuters
zeev sternhell
Zeev Sternhell

It’s true there are countries in the world where human rights are trampled worse than they are in the occupied territories, and whose civilian populations suffer from more severe repression. It’s also true that Arab citizens of Israel wouldn’t want to exchange their legal, political and social status for that which exists in any Muslim country. But none of those countries presumes to be a light unto the nations or presents itself as an exemplar for the entire world.

For almost 50 years now, Israel has demanded the right to rule over a population that doesn’t want the colonialist regime that has been imposed upon it. Moreover, it has done so on the strength of a divine order inscribed in the Bible. In the Western world, such arguments provoke ridicule that borders on disgust and are viewed as a cynical façade for the exploitation of military power and an appetite for conquest.

This is the source of the spreading anti-Israel sentiment among the educated classes of Europe and the United States – this, and not any age-old hatred of Jews. It’s not that anti-Semitism has disappeared; far from it. But enmity toward the Jews isn’t the principal driver of anti-Israel sentiment; revulsion at Israeli colonialism is.

In the eyes of large segments of Western society, a country that views colonialism as a desirable situation is an anachronism that is destined to disappear. Moreover, were it not for fear of the world’s response, the inequality would also have spread to Arab Israelis, because a not insignificant portion of right-wing voters and leaders view Arab Israelis merely as tolerated residents of a land of which Jews are the only legitimate owners.

Faithful to the principle that justice is always on the side of its army – except in the case of the 1982 massacre in Beirut’s Sabra and Chatila refugee camps, which cried out to heaven, and even that was only due to Menachem Begin’s unique character – Israel prefers not to air its dirty laundry at all, solely to avoid having to admit that any stain might cling to it. If the killings of 1948-49 could at least be understood in the context of the “it’s us or them” situation that prevailed at the time, this has not been the case from then until today.

Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was the one who set the norms: The Qibya massacre of 1953, perpetrated by a paratroop unit under the command of Ariel Sharon, in accordance with operational orders issued by the Central Command, was presented to the United Nations by Israel as a spontaneous action by residents of border communities who had suffered from cross-border attacks from Jordan. The entire country knew the truth and it was reported to UN headquarters in New York by observers stationed here. But official Israel stuck to the big lie. Since then, distortions and whitewashing have become standard practice, changing little between the Six-Day War of 1967 and last summer’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.

Meanwhile, however, civil society has matured, and the job of exposing the truth, for our own sakes and that of our children, has passed into its hands – the hands of individuals and organizations, first and foremost human rights organizations. All of them have an obligation to cooperate with each other and not to fear cooperating with international inquiry commissions or appealing directly to global public opinion. And this must be stressed: The fact that the situation isn’t even worse, and the extent to which Israel tries to restrain itself, is only due to the fear of international sanctions.

Former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz’s flight from London wasn’t lost on the establishment, and the military advocate general’s decision to close the investigation into last year’s killing of four children on a Gaza beach will yet boomerang on us via American universities once the new academic year begins. Perhaps then, even here, people will understand that human life is not just an article in the penal code.

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