Monday, July 14, 2014

How Israel Turned Tragedy Into Opportunity

On June 12, three Israelis settlers [1] were murdered by two Palestinian extremists. When news broke of a kidnapping and possible murder, rumors swirled in the West Bank of an Israeli false flag operation. After all, the reasoning went, no Palestinian political player stood to gain from a kidnapping. As the story developed it became clear that this was only wishful thinking by Palestinians who were too ashamed to admit that two of their countrymen were responsible for a hideous crime. 

It is now widely accepted that there was never a kidnapping and no one investigating the incident ever suspected one. To be sure, three Israeli settlers were killed, but it was done immediately without the intent to ever hold them. The act itself sounds like an American B movie horror flick. On the evening of June 12, two men picked up three young hitchhikers and summarily executed them. 

Rachelle Fraenkel is the mother of one of the murdered Israelis. While testifying before the UN Human Rights Council she said "[e]very mother's nightmare is waiting and waiting endlessly for her child to come home". The Israeli government cynically prolonged the suffering of the aggrieved families and marketed the agony of the three grief-stricken mothers to the UN for political gain. 

Throughout Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's two-and-a-half week grandstanding,he knew the settlers were dead. There were gunshots on the emergency call, and an Arab voice saying they had killed three. Their blood was found in a vehicle riddled with bullet holes. Israel had already arrested those who had done it in Hebron just days after it happened and quite possibly knew where the bodies were buried. Due to a press gag order, none of this was made public until 18 days later when the bodies were "discovered". The Israeli government lied to both the Israeli people and international observers and disrespected the memory of those killed by turning a tragedy into a political opportunity. 

If it was important enough for the Israeli government to lie about the events surrounding the tragedy, it is certainly important enough to ask why. There are three key reasons why the Israeli government played politics by lying about the nature of this tragedy. First, international public opinion of Israel is at a record low. Second, continued reporting on a kidnapping and search and rescue mission created political cover for the Israeli Military to move against Hamas members and other political dissidents in the West Bank. Finally, the systematic oppression of Palestinians and the confiscation of their land and resources is only possible where Israeli suffering is highlighted and Palestinian suffering is downplayed to create the illusion of parity. 

It was impossible to achieve these goals with the truth, that three Israeli settlers were murdered. This would have been a short-lived story that would perhaps dominate one 24-hour news cycle. The tragedy had to be milked for weeks to buy time for the Israeli operation in the West Bank and to maximize the public opinion impact of the story. 

First, Israel's pubic image has been suffering incredibly in the past several months. Palestine has been beating Israel savagely in both public opinion and political maneuvering. The push from universities, religious groups and NGOs across the globe to divest from companies that profit from the continued illegal occupation of Palestine has reached unprecedented levels. 

The Gates foundation and the Methodist Church recently divested from G4S, a British corporation which in the face of mounting pressure, has vowed to end its security operations in Israeli prisons. The Presbyterian Church also divested from its corporations that profit from occupation, namely Hewlett-Packard, Motorola and Caterpillar, which is infamous for making the weaponized bulldozers that the Israeli Military uses to bulldoze Palestinian homes and olive groves, and which killed American peace activist Rachel Corrie. 

However, there is a far greater threat facing the Israeli settlement enterprise. Because fundamental norms of international law have been internalized in the domestic legislation of many countries, the proper implementation of domestic legal regimes requires the differentiation between Israel proper and its illegally occupied settlements. The illegal Israeli settlements are not recognized as part of Israel under international law and a differential legal treatment ineluctably flows from this different status. 

One example is the EU's inability to make scientific funding available to Israeli universities operating in the occupied West Bank, or to allow settlement-produced goods to receive preferential treatment under the EU-Israel Association Agreement. The EU also cannot recognize Israeli certification procedures for settlement produce (e.g. poultry veterinary certification and organic food certification) because the Israeli government simply does not have the authority to grant such certification to settlement produce. This dispassionate legal evolution is motivated by the necessity for consistency within an EU legal regime that has internalized the fundamental norms of an international legal system. 

This cold rationality is completely unrelated to the passionate moral idealism that motivates the BDS movement and it is far more troubling for Israeli policymakers, which is why they often try to conflate the two concepts. Additionally, many governments have recognized that aside from these known legal problems, there are likely other legal issues as yet unknown that could detrimentally harm business operations after an initial investment is made. As a result many states have warned companies against conducting operations in the illegal West Bank settlements. 

This same stance is reflected in the EU's refusal to make scientific funding available to Israeli universities operating in the occupied West Bank, refusing to allow settlement-produced goods to receive preferential treatment under the EU-Israel Association Agreement, and refusing to recognize Israeli certification procedures for settlement produce (eg poultry veterinary certification and organic food certification). These measures are motivated by the necessity for consistency within the EU legal regime and respect for the norms of an international legal system, a motivation completely unrelated to the moral idealism that motivates the BDS movement. 

When the peace talks between Palestine and the Israelis collapsed, international observers, including US Secretary of State John Kerry, unanimously placed the blame squarely on Israel for missing prisoner release deadlines and announcing the construction of new settlements in Palestine. Weeks later, when Abu Mazen announced a Fatah-Hamas Unity Government, Netanyahu claimed that was the reason for the collapse of the peace talks. Netanyahu saw the murder as an opportunity to vilify Hamas (which has denied any involvement) and consequently, the new Unity Government as well as a chance to recover some of the international good will it has lost. 

Second, the timeline for which the farcical kidnapping storyline was allowed to continue was just sufficient to give the Israeli Occupation Forces a pretext for conducting the mass arrest of hundreds of political dissidents and the collective punishment of an entire race. While ostensibly the West Bank operation was to recover kidnapped Israelis, given the evidence available to policymakers at the time of its execution and the breadth of the arrests, this is simply not believable. At its root, the massive West Bank operation (Operation Brother's Keeper) had the goal of breaking the Palestinian Unity Government. 

Only a handful of the 650 arrested were even questioned about the murder. For the past several years, the Likud government has bemoaned the fact that the PLO was not a true partner for peace because they could not speak with a unified voice for Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. During the past few weeks, Netanyahu had repeatedly expressed his opposition to the Fatah-Hamas unity government and had been searching diligently for a way to undermine it. This was the opportunity he was waiting for. 

Finally, without maximizing the perception of Israeli suffering, it would be impossible for Israel, in the face of overwhelming international condemnation, to continue its systematic oppression of Palestinians and the confiscation of Palestinian land and resources. The common media rendering of the Israeli occupation is the story of a complicated bilateral conflict that fails to capture the reality of the unilateral domination of one people by another. According to the Ramallah Bureau of Statistics, since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000 to April 2013, Israel has killed 1,518 children, the equivalent of one Palestinian child every three days for 13 years. 

During the first year of the Second Intifada, the New York Times featured stories that covered 125% of the deaths of Israeli children in either the headline or the first paragraph, meaning they covered some of the same deaths more than once. In the same time period, only 18% of the deaths of Palestinian children were covered in the headline or first paragraph. The result of such reporting is the illusion of symmetry of suffering in an asymmetric conflict. 

The reporting on the most recent wave of violence is no different. There has been extensive coverage of the three Israelis killed while short shrift is given to the 10 Palestinians killed in the Israeli Military's West Bank operation. Only one Palestinian death has been widely reported, that of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir who was forced into a car, tortured and killed by Jewish terrorists. Most reports tie the present Palestinian unrest to anger at this murder while ignoring those killed by the Israeli Military. While Palestinians are upset by this murder, the force driving them nearer to a Third Intifada is the lack of value Israel and the international community places on their lives and their freedom. 


1. The commonly used term for Jewish Israelis who live in segregated, walled communities built on confiscated Palestinian land in the West Bank. 

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors. 

Justin Schwegel is a recent JD graduate and Global Law Scholar from Georgetown University Law Center with a master's degree in international economic law from Sciences Po Paris. He was a public health educator with the Peace Corps in Guinea and formerly served as a fellow at the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute. 

(Copyright 2014 Justin Schwegel) 

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