Israel's war against international humanitarian law

July 9, 2010
Richard Kuper


Israel sees aid workers as security threat

NGOS are ‘the enemy within’

Thomas Keenan & Eyal Weizman

The Israeli assault on an aid flotilla heading to Gaza is a decisive episode in the country’s relation to international humanitarian law

Many details have yet to be established about the Israeli commando assault on the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in a flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, early on 31 May 2010. But whatever the investigation ultimately reveals, the killing of nine activists indicates a dramatic recent transformation in Israel’s relationship to civil society organisations and international humanitarian law.

The Israeli raid makes evident two parallel and related developments: the increasing politicisation of humanitarian aid, and the Israeli government’s growing sense of being threatened by human rights organisations and international law.

With very few exceptions, direct and intentional attacks on aid workers or human rights advocates (even those who have forsaken the strict neutrality of humanitarianism) have mostly been the work of undisciplined militias, ragged armies, criminal gangs and police states. Perpetrators have included the Taliban, the Bosnian Serb army, Iraqi insurgents and the organisers of Latin America’s dirty wars. Now, with the lethal raid on the Mavi Marmara, is Israel following them?

Threat to the state

The attack in the Mediterranean (though it was followed on 5 June by the non-violent prevention of another attempt to deliver supplies to Gaza on the Rachel Corrie) represents the violent culmination of a process by which the Israeli government, and private proxy groups, have come to see humanitarian and human rights groups, and even international humanitarian law, as an enemy of or a threat to the existence of the state.

Before the departure of the flotilla, Israel’s deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon declared that “there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza”, so the flotilla was not a relief mission but “a provocation intended to delegitimise Israel”. (The Israeli government press office even emailed copies of a Gaza restaurant menu to reporters.) After the attack, Ayalon’s description of the flotilla as an “armada of hate and violence in support of the Hamas terror organisation” was the ratification of this Israeli government interpretation of civil society activists, at sea and on land (1).

The current campaign began last summer, after reports from human rights organisations challenging the conduct of the Israeli military in Operation Cast Lead, its assault on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009 (2). The new government of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who had already consolidated his hardline reputation during an earlier term (1996-99), seemed to react to the reports, their authors and their logic with unusual severity. “We are going to dedicate time and manpower to combatting these groups; we are not going to be sitting ducks in a pond for the human rights groups to shoot at us with impunity,” Ron Dermer, director of policy planning in the prime minister’s office told the Jerusalem Post in July 2009. “Every NGO that participates in this adds fuel to the fire and is serving the cause of Hamas. This is exactly what Hamas wants to do” (3).

Last August Moshe Ya’alon, the minister of strategic affairs and a former Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) chief of staff, declared in a meeting with settlers that the activists of Peace Now were a “virus”. “We again are dealing with the issue of the virus, Peace Now – the elitists, if you may – who have [inflicted] great damage” (4).

Although he was reprimanded by Netanyahu for the remark, Ya’alon’s phrase, coming after Dermer’s militant words, has set the tone of the campaign since. It came into its own after the publication of the report of the UN fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict (under the chairmanship of the South African judge Richard Goldstone) to the UN Human Rights Council in September. The report concluded that there was evidence that serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law had been committed by Israel (and Hamas) during the conflict, and that Israel had committed actions amounting to war crimes, and possibly crimes against humanity.

The Israeli government could have ignored the report, or dismissed it by attributing it to the usual “anti-Israeli” suspects. Instead it took the charges extremely seriously, although not in the way the commission might have hoped. The government decided to combat both the report and the phenomenon that it saw the document as exemplifying – “Goldstonism” or the “Goldstone effect”, which it understands as an international tendency to delegitimise Israel, denying its right to exist (5).

Netanyahu, in a November lecture at the Saban Forum, a leading Israeli security studies institute, identified three strategic threats (6). The first was “a nuclear Iran”, which has threatened to “wipe Israel off the map”. The second was cross-border “missile and rocket attacks” from Islamist militant organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah. And the third? “The third challenge to peace is the attempt to deny Israel the right to self-defence. The UN Goldstone report on Gaza attempts to do that.”

Undue protection

Netanyahu was quick to emphasise that it was not Justice Goldstone or any particular organisation or report that was the threat, nor was Israel its sole target: “Be assured that this UN report is not Israel’s problem alone. It threatens to handcuff all states fighting terrorism.” The problem, Netanyahu suggested, was more than an ideologically or politically motivated abuse of international humanitarian law (the “laws of war”). It was the current definition of this law, which he argued gave undue protection to “terrorists embedded in civilian areas [who] deliberately launch attacks on the innocent” and undermined the legal and moral position of the states that fight against them.

Netanyahu called for a radical rewriting of international humanitarian law to address the “threat”. “Paradoxically it is possible that the firm response of important international leaders and jurists to this morally twisted report will accelerate the re-examination of the laws of war in an age of terror.”

It is one thing to criticise the Geneva conventions or international humanitarian law and another to violate or ignore them. States and non-state actors do both all the time. It is a third, and very different, thing to construe this body of law and its advocates as a threat to the existence of a state, and to initiate systematic combat of them. But this interpretation, advanced routinely by the Israeli government, might explain why legal opinions such as the Goldstone report – which would limit Israel’s capacity to act “disproportionally” – could be seen as an existential threat.

In this light, perhaps the raid on the Mavi Marmara demonstrates what the Israeli government might mean by the end of “impunity” for NGOs and other international activists. They would be assigned a new status as a strategic threat on a par with Iranian nuclear weapons or missiles and rockets.


This January a leading Israeli thinktank, the Reut Institute, worried about the “delegitimation war”. Its director, Gidi Grinstein, wrote in Haaretz: “Our politicians and military personnel are threatened with lawsuits and arrest when they travel abroad, campaigns to boycott our products gain traction, and our very existence is challenged in academic institutions and intellectual circles. The country is increasingly isolated. To date, Israel has failed to recognise these trends for the strategically significant, potentially existential, threat they constitute” (7).

Perhaps the recognition has now happened. The Israeli government and a group of proxy organisations have launched “counter-delegitimisation”, directed at humanitarian and human rights NGOs. They seek, in the words of a participant, “to end the practice used by certain self-declared ‘humanitarian NGOs’ of exploiting the label ‘universal human rights values’ to promote politically and ideologically motivated anti-Israel agendas” (8). Israeli groups have launched campaigns against the New Israel Fund – a US-based organisation that funds civil-society activists in Israel – which has been accused (as have the NGOs it has funded) of undermining the foundations of the state by contributing to the research behind the Goldstone report (9).

This atmosphere contributed to two recent high-level political decisions in Israel: the Knesset’s overwhelming vote in February to pass a law depriving groups that receive support from foreign governments (as do most human rights and humanitarian groups) of their tax-exempt status, and thus their ability to raise money abroad; and the proposal of a new law in April to close NGOs involved in bringing legal proceedings against Israeli government officials or military officers abroad.

Enemies from without

The military has started confronting international activists with renewed vigour and zeal. It has recently invaded Palestinian towns to arrest not militants but international activists (mainly European members of the International Solidarity Movement). Many other activists do not get the chance to enter, having been turned back at the border or held in the new detention facility built in Tel Aviv airport.

In a public letter released in January, 13 Israeli human rights organisations called on the government to “denounce the increasing assaults on the human rights and social change organisations in Israel”. It cited “a series of invective comments by officials who wish to delegitimise the civil society organisations who work for human rights and social change”. Buried among them were words attributed to Moshe Ya’alon, who was quoted as saying of human rights organisations: “Your enemies will come from within”. International NGOs presumably would be the “enemies from without” (10).

The idea that the Mavi Marmara-led flotilla and the activists on it were designated as enemies could help explain why a full-scale military operation was ordered against a humanitarian mission (after all, several ships carrying humanitarian aid had been allowed into Gaza in previous years); and why, even when resistance from some of the ship’s passengers to the takeover seem to have turned violent, the soldiers’ response was so disproportionate.

If Israel still seeks to rewrite international humanitarian law and to regulate humanitarian supplies as instruments of state power, and if some international organisations respond with legal challenges and others with more ships, then the incident of the Mavi Marmara will be remembered as an opening shot in this new battle of law and aid.

Original text in English

Thomas Keenan is director of the Human Rights Project and associate professor of comparative literature at Bard University, New York; Eyal Weizman is director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London, and author of Hollow Land, Verso Books, London, 2007

(1) “Seizure of the Gaza flotilla: Press conference with Dep FM Ayalon“, 31 May 2010;

(2) B’tselem, “Operation Cast Lead, 27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009“; see also the report from Breaking the Silence (Shovrin Shtika), “Soldiers’ Testimonies from Operation Cast Lead, Gaza 2009“, 15 July 2009.

(3) Herb Keinon, “Diplomacy: Israel vs. Human Rights Watch”, The Jerusalem Post, 16 July 2009 (updated 18 July 2009).

(4) “Ya’alon calls Peace Now ‘a virus’“,, 19 August 2009; ; Attila Somfalvi, “Netanyahu: Ya’alon remarks unacceptable“,, 19 August 2009.

(5) Alastair Macdonald, “After Goldstone, Israel seeks to sharpen PR weapon”, Reuters, 2 February 2010.

(6) “PM Netanyahu addresses the Saban Forum“, 15 November 2009.

(7) Gidi Grinstein, “Israel delegitimizers threaten its existence”, Haaretz, Tel Aviv, 14 January 2010.

(8) “About NGO Monitor,

(9) New Israel Fund, “NIF Under Attack“.

(10) Association for Civil Rights in Israel, “Targeting of Human Rights Organizations Destroys Israeli Democracy“, 2 February 2010. See also the important article by Acri’s director Hagai al-Ad, which was invaluable to our research, “To be or not to be a pariah state”, Foreign Policy, 8 May 2010.

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