The U.S. Should Pressure Israel On Jenin Fact-Finding
One of the more glaring facts that has become evident since September 11th is the reality that the nations of the world do not agree on standards and the definitions of words and even reject internationally-accepted rules ratified by law. This standard-less and lawless world has become even more vague and unpredictable in character since the escalation of tensions and violence in the Middle East, marked by the inability or unwillingness of the principal parties involved, and observers, to come to an agreement on whether or not what is happening in Israel and the occupied territories is a war, terrorism, retaliation, massacre, genocide, colonialism, legitimate self-defense, or a war of independence.
This problem in arriving at standards, and internationally "accepted" definitions is compounded by the fact that there appears to be no honest broker, trusted by both the Palestinians and the Israelis that can qualify as arbiter, intermediary, referee or even judge. The United Nations, it has been hoped by many, would serve that role, but the journey to that destination for the UN has been troubled and slow. There is no denying that the international organization has been compromised by its persistent funding needs and the selective nature of its interventions. The UN has made its fair share of mistakes but it has performed its share of good deeds, and after nearly a century of existence, the world still has no substitute, in terms of reaching a global consensus.
The controversy over the events that have taken place in Jenin, a controversial Palestinian refugee camp, and the UN's intention to send a fact-finding committee to the camp and region to determine whether what occurred should be identified as a massacre, as Palestinians charge, or a fierce battle between the Israeli military and a camp full of terrorists, as Israel asserts; has brought again to the surface the reality that both sides lack a trusted bridge over which they can cross through the blinding fire of emotion into a clear recognition of the truth.
But despite its flaws and troubled history the UN does indeed have the ability to display a badly needed international consensus and rare voice of reason in the midst of heated arguments and violence. The time period throughout the Israeli military operation in the West Bank and occupied territories was one such period where the UN has lived up to some of its potential. That rare era continued after Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) began to pull out of areas where some of the most intense fighting took place and disputes erupted over the nature of the engagements. No such area was more controversial than Jenin, where both sides, though looking at the same event, have two diametrically opposed views as to what took place.
The United Nations Security Council, with United States support, voted to establish a truth-seeking team that would look to determine what happened in the Palestinian refugee camp. And last Friday, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres gave his approval to the fact-finding mission stating that his country had "nothing to hide." But only a few days later, the Israeli government voiced its disapproval of the individuals that make up the committee as well as its scope. But Israel's arguments, even on the surface appear to be disingenuous and inappropriate.
First, the United Nations has full authority over who should be on the committee. Both sides know this. If the Palestinians and Israelis were to take turns nominating and selecting committee members that could be an entirely feasible arrangement but the UN Security Council, including the United States, did not opt to mandate such a procedure. And secondly, Israel's cry of foul in reference to demands made by Palestinians that the portfolio of the fact-finders be expanded is not to be taken seriously - the Israelis themselves are attempting to "broaden" the Jenin investigation into a probe into Palestinian suicide bombers and are being granted a hearing by UN General Secretary Kofi Annan regarding the matter.
No, the real reason that Israel does not want the UN's investigation to move forward is because it may lead to the unraveling of its cause from the U.S.-led war on terrorism. A linkage that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has shamelessly accomplished for several months, since the first major terrorist attack in Israel that occurred after September 11th,which killed 25 Israelis. It was right after September 11th that former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began to equate the loss of Israeli lives at the hands of Palestinians with the loss of American lives at the hands of men said to be members of Al-Qaeda. And immediately, after the attack that killed 25 Israelis, while in the White House, Sharon reportedly told President Bush that the Israelis were justified in a broad military attack against the Palestinians and specifically the Palestinian Authority (PA) because of what the United States had done in Afghanistan, specifically against the Taliban. Netanyahu and other pro-Israel supporters wasted no time whipping out calculators to demonstrate that in pure population ratios Israel's loss of 25 lives equaled or exceeded America's losses at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, which numbered in the thousands.
Since that time, the U.S. media has generally accepted the moral equivalence of not only Yasser Arafat (who for the last decade was generally accepted as a diplomatic participant in a peace process, parallel to numerous suicide bombings) and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, but Yasser Arafat and Osama Bin Laden. Suddenly, the same conservative and liberal politicians and journalists that for years and decades described the turmoil in the Middle East as essentially a "land and religious disagreement" to be resolved by a "peace process", were viewing any act of violence in the Middle East through the narrow prism of the Bush doctrine. The power to define the Middle East conflict in a historical context was now deemed illegitimate by the American media after September 11th. A complex conflict that intensified in a particular way since 1948, in only 4 months, after September 11, 2001, had become a battle between an innocent country retaliating against terrorists from among another group of people. The analogy between what happened on September 11th and the back-and-forth between the Israelis and the Palestinians had been taken to its extreme. Prime Minister Sharon has used this dramatic turn of events and re-definition to his advantage, placing the Bush administration on the defensive for several months.
But all that could unravel if a UN Jenin investigation team reveals in graphic detail that Israel used excessive force and even committed war crimes, two concepts that have been off limits since September 11th. Such a discovery would return the world to a standard that many people, before and after September 11th have accepted - that self-defense does not mean a blank check and should not result in boundless military action. Any voice that seeks to return the nations of the world to such a rule is now deemed to be an apologist for terrorists.
But in light of what the evidence and anecdotes coming from Jenin suggest and in light of what the U.S. has already judged the Israeli military to be guilty of, there is a growing belief that the Israeli government, as a state, is engaging in the same behavior that it accuses Palestinians and the PA of committing and justifies retaliating against under the Bush doctrine.
That the Israeli government has used the climate created by September 11th and the Bush doctrine to serve its own purposes is not hard to recognize. But the extent to which those purposes and military objectives have inappropriately and in violation of U.S. law, cost the lives of innocent Palestinian civilians, has not been publicly or legally recognized. As we editorialized last week, Israel is in clear violation of U.S. law in its use of U.S-made weapons on civilian targets and in civilian areas. The State Department has documented this fact in no uncertain terms. Yet the Bush administration has not acted as it is mandated to do so by law.
As we pointed out, the mere fact that at one point, the Israeli Army revealed that it had detained over 4,100 Palestinians while only a little over 120 of those detainees had been previously listed as wanted as terrorists and criminals, indicates that a rather indiscriminate military operation, dependent upon U.S. weapons, may have been at work in Jenin and the occupied territories. That the Israeli government and military feel that they have close to a blank check under the Bush doctrine could be seen in the attitude contained in the words of the commander of Israeli forces in Jenin, Brigadier Eyal Shlein, who reportedly could be heard on Israeli radio saying of Jenin: "Yes, it is a tightly packed refugee camp. I am sure they do not like it, and I imagine that there are injuries. But people who raise children willing to commit suicide, who choose this path, they are expected to pay the price."
William J. Burns, U.S. assistant secretary of state said of Jenin that it is "A terrible human tragedy...What happened in Jenin camp has caused enormous suffering for thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians." Terje Roed-Larsen, U.N. coordinator for the region, stated that "combatting terrorism does not give a blank check to kill civilians."
Amnesty international says that it believes the Israeli government and military may be guilty of the following violations or must answer:
o Failure to give civilians warning or time to evacuate Jenin refugee camp before Apache helicopters launched their first attacks.
o Failure by the Israeli Defence Forces to protect the people of the refugee camp, who are "protected people" under the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilians Persons in Time of War.
o Allegations of extrajudicial executions.
o Failure, for 13 days, to allow humanitarian assistance to the people in the camp who were trapped in the rubble of demolished houses or running out of food and water.
o Denial of medical assistance to the wounded in the refugee camp and deliberate targeting of ambulances.
o Excessive use of lethal force and using civilians as a "human shield."
o Ill-treatment, including beatings and degrading treatment, of Palestinian detainees.
o Extensive damage to property with no apparent military necessity.
And a preliminary report by the World Health Organization, US-AID and the Palestinian Health Ministry has determined that up to 600 homes in Jenin have been destroyed and 200 others have been damaged past the point of residency as a result of the Israeli offensive, which is said to have included the bulldozing of houses.
And possibly worst of all, reports from those in Jenin and surrounding areas state that relief agencies have not been provided access, the camp has been without water for two weeks, and ambulance workers seeking to provide assistance have been shot at and threatened by IDF.
Even in war there are rules and international treaties that govern. So if one does subscribe to the theory that Israel is involved in a legitimate act of self-defense or is one-half of the participants engaged in a war, then their military actions fall under international law that they have signed off on. To ignore such, is to admit a belief that Palestinian lives are worth less than Israeli lives or that Israel is above international law.
Suddenly, after agreeing to allow the fact-finding committee to proceed, the Israeli government has reversed itself, setting itself again, opposite to the United States, its benefactor. The United States government, which voted for the truth-seeking committee should exert its influence on Israel in order to get it to comply with the aims and purposes of the fact-finding group, regardless of its problems with the personalities that comprise it. A transparent, clearly-defined and inclusive research process guided by principles can overcome any personal bias, even flawed personalities, identified by Israel. As long as the information-gathering and access to facts is uninhibited and mandated to be comprehensive, and as long as the committee members are engaged in lawful dialogue the shortcomings of any single member of the committee can be overcome as the process moves toward higher and higher levels of truth.
If Israel continues to obfuscate and delay (after having rejected President Bush's repeated calls to withdraw from the occupied territories) in the face of legitimate evidence and reasonable opinion that U.S. law is being violated in the IDF's use of American-made weaponry, the Bush administration, if it is self-respecting and interested in becoming an "honest broker", as it says, really has no other choice but to follow the advice and proposition(s) of former President Jimmy Carter who wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed:
"There are two existing factors that offer success to United States persuasion. One is the legal requirement that American weapons are to be used by Israel only for defensive purposes, a premise certainly being violated in the recent destruction of Jenin and other villages. Richard Nixon imposed this requirement to stop Ariel Sharon and Israel's military advance into Egypt in the 1973 war, and I used the same demand to deter Israeli attacks on Lebanon in 1979. (A full invasion was launched by Ariel Sharon after I left office). The other persuasive factor is approximately $10 million daily in American aid to Israel. President George Bush Sr. threatened this assistance in 1992 to prevent the building of Israeli settlements between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
I understand the extreme political sensitivity in America of using persuasion on the Israelis, but it is important to remember that none of the actions toward peace would involve an encroachment on the sovereign territory of Israel. They all involve lands of the Egyptians, Lebanese and Palestinians, as recognized by international law."
Israel must be persuaded toward international consensus and previously defined-standards and most immediately, a truthful review of its actions in Jenin if a peace process is to be eventually embraced and all-out war avoided. The UN can play the role of an honest broker, if it places the seeking of truth above and beyond anything else. Once truth is established, justice is obtainable and equity can enter, with no loss of life or lack of fairness to the state of Israel.
Thursday, April 25, 2002