“The Current Israeli Government Feels It Can Do Anything”

May 16, 2018
Mchael Sfard, Israeli human rights lawyer on the IDF’s lax live-fire rules, and how the government gets away with it.

michael Sfard

Isaac Chotner, in Slate, interviews Michael Sfard.

“On Monday, as the United States Embassy was moved to Jerusalem amid celebrations of Israel’s 70th birthday, at least 58 Palestinians were killed, and thousands were wounded, in the Gaza Strip. Since the end of March, protesters have been trying to breach the fence separating Gaza and Israel; the combination of the embassy move, the birthday, and the 70th anniversary, recognized on Tuesday, of the nakba (catastrophe), when thousands of Palestinians were expelled from their homes, has only intensified the violence. (The White House blamed Hamas for the deaths; human rights organizations have faulted Israel’s “live fire” tactics.)”

“To discuss what all this means, I spoke by phone with Michael Sfard, one of Israel’s leading human rights lawyers and the author of The Wall and the Gate: Israel, Palestine, and the Legal Battle for Human Rights. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed what Israel could be doing to ensure more safety for protestors, how the Trump administration is exacerbating the situation, and whether this is the most extreme government in Israel’s history.”

Isaac Chotiner: What is your biggest concern about the events in Gaza over the past 24 hours?

Michael Sfard: We—the human rights community in Israel—have been concerned and we issued warnings that the open-fire regulations, or what we know about the open-fire regulations, allow the use of lethal force against unarmed civilians who do not pose an imminent danger at the time they are being targeted. And that resulted, and will continue to result, in unwarranted killings and injuries. We haven’t had any inquiry or investigation into the killings and the injuries yesterday, but it seems very likely, given the open-fire regulations and given the experience of past weeks, that many lives could have been saved without endangering the security of Israel and Israelis. And that is a terrible thing.

What is it about the regulations that you think are most flawed?

We know they include at least two permits to allow force that could be potentially lethal against individuals who do not pose imminent danger to lives at the time they are being targeted. One is individuals who are considered by the army as principal “agitators” or principal demonstrators, whatever that means. And if some conditions are met, they can be targeted. We know that in the list of conditions that have to be met, we know there is no demand that they present imminent danger, which is a departure. That is a deviation from the laws of use of force against civilians.

And the second deals with individuals who cross a certain line of distance toward the Gaza border fence and damage it. And again, damaging the border fence is an offense and it is an attack launched against a military installation. But it is not a capital-punishment offense, and it can and should be dealt with by nonlethal means. And unfortunately, what we see and what we know from statements from both generals and ministers, there is a permit to shoot to injure in these cases. Even if the intent is not to kill, but to injure or to stop, the legal implication of using lethal force, or force that potentially could be lethal, is enough for me to conclude that this is illegal and a grave violation of international law.

Let me put it in a sound bite: International law allows endangering human life in order to protect human life, not any other thing. And what we are seeing here is a deviation from that very simple, very important principle. (more…)


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