Rachel Shabi, Tel Aviv, Sunday 27 December 2009
Israeli troops yesterday shot dead six Palestinians in two separate incidents, as evidence emerged that an increasingly fragile ceasefire between armed groups loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement and Israel appeared to be in danger of breaking down.
The shootings, the most serious violence in months, came a day before today’s first anniversary of the outbreak of Israel’s war against Gaza in which almost 1,400 Palestinians died – and as allegations have emerged from Israeli human rights campaigners who opposed the war that they are facing concerted attempts to silence them.
Three of the Palestinians were killed in an airstrike just inside the Gaza border. According to Israeli officials they had been scouting the area for a possible infiltration operation, but according to Hamas officials and medics they had been searching for scrap metal to salvage.
More serious in its implications, however, was the shooting dead of three members of Fatah’s armed wing – the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades – in a raid on the northern West Bank city of Nablus, apparently in retaliation for the shooting of an Israeli driving near the settlement at Shavei Shomron. Relatives who witnessed the Nablus shootings said soldiers fired at two of the men without warning. An Israeli army spokesman, Major Peter Lerner, said troops fired after the three men failed to respond to calls to surrender.
It also follows the discovery of an improvised explosive device on a busy road leading to the huge Israeli settlement at Modi’in with a letter from an al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades unit claiming responsibility. The two incidents have followed recent warnings from both Israelis and Palestinians that frustration among a younger generation of al-Aqsa members – which signed an amnesty deal with Israel in 2007 – over the lack of progress in the almost moribund peace process was in danger of boiling over.
An aide to Abbas described the killings as a “grave Israeli escalation” which showed “Israel is not interested in peace and is trying to explode the situation”.
The shootings have come as Israeli human rights campaigners issued a stinging critique of how Israelis who opposed the war in Gaza have been treated by the state, claiming that they have been silenced, accused and vilified.
In its annual report, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel states: “Instead of taking an honest look at its reflection, Israeli society and its institutions chose to smash the mirror.”
Although much attention has been focused on the continuing plight of Gaza’s residents, still suffering under a prolonged Israeli economic siege that has prevented rebuilding of the war-damaged coastal strip, there has been less focus on the treatment of those Israelis who campaigned against the war and for the ending of the blockade.
“There has been a huge change in the way the government treats those who dissent,” says Michael Sfard, an Israeli lawyer representing several human rights groups. This process, he adds, has accelerated in the year since the attacks in Gaza: “The gloves have come off.”
Sari Bashi, director of human rights group Gisha, says Israeli campaigners in this field “know that red lines were crossed in Gaza, that the Israeli military relaxed its restraints on the use of force and that terrible violations were taking place”. But she accuses the Israeli government of using a “shoot-the-messenger” tactic to deal with such concerns.
“Instead of addressing credible claims of human rights violations, there have been attempts to undermine the legitimacy of anyone trying to raise awareness,” she says.
One prominent issue has been a scrutiny of the funding of human rights groups. In June 2009, Breaking the Silence, a group of veteran Israeli soldiers, released shocking testimonials from combat soldiers who served during the Gaza assault. The Israeli army dismissed these reports, while the government pointed out that the group receives funding from the EU, as well as from Britain, Spain and the Netherlands.
Foreign governments were asked to stop funding Israeli groups critical of the Israeli army. The Israeli media swarmed with denouncements of Breaking the Silence, partly on the grounds that it was serving “foreign interests”.
This year, Knesset members initiated a draft law that would require Israeli civil society organisations to state their funding sources in every document and every media interview. But Bashi points out that such financing is already transparent. “We report our sources of funding to three separate organisations and on our website,” she says.
Mark Regev, an Israeli government spokesman, says the concern is over whether groups defined as non-governmental organisations should receive contributions from overseas governments. “No one has in any way inhibited their activities,” he said of human rights groups in Israel. He described the complaints of de-legitimisation as “attempts to create a bogeyman”.
But campaigners hold that, as a consequence of attempts to discredit them, their motivations are more discussed than the actual content of their reports. Breaking the Silence says the group is still struggling to raise discussion of the details of its testimonials – and not just the fact of their release – within Israel.
Several commentators point out that, in an increasingly “us-and-them” society, it is not just groups reporting on Gaza that have become targets of denunciation. Campaigners for the rights of foreign workers in Israel are also decried, sometimes at ministerial level: one foreign ministry official wrote that the Israeli Hotline for Migrant Workers, “represents criminals and helps them extinguish morality from the land of Israel”.
Campaigners focused on Gaza’s plight complain that they are still as marginal as ever. “I am a very lonely voice,” says Naomi Zion, a peace campaigner who lives near Sderot. Zion finds it “almost impossible to ask critical questions about Israel’s actions”.
“We lost the ability to see the other side; people just don’t care,” she says. “We lost our empathy skills – and when you lose that, you lose your humanity.”