Commentary Magazine


Topic: war crimes

Even During the Six Days of 1967, War Was Hell and Context Was Everything

That a portion, albeit a small minority, of Israeli society is deeply critical of its army, and even of the Zionist principles at the core of the state’s purpose, is not a secret or news. Nor is this something that is limited only to Jews and Israelis as Gilbert and Sullivan made clear when they included a line about “the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this, and every country but his own” in The Mikado. But with Israel, the stakes are higher than those for Americans or 19th century Britons who always blamed their own country first. Thus the New York Times article lauding a new documentary that seeks to portray the conduct of the Israel Defense Forces during the 1967 Six-Day War in a negative light must be seen not only as an expression of free opinion in a democracy but also an effort to undermine the Jewish state’s self defense. Censored Voices, which was shown at the prestigious Sundance Festival this past weekend, may be based on historical testimony, but its purpose seems more to be to buttress efforts to undermine the IDF’s current efforts than telling untold truths about the past.

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That a portion, albeit a small minority, of Israeli society is deeply critical of its army, and even of the Zionist principles at the core of the state’s purpose, is not a secret or news. Nor is this something that is limited only to Jews and Israelis as Gilbert and Sullivan made clear when they included a line about “the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this, and every country but his own” in The Mikado. But with Israel, the stakes are higher than those for Americans or 19th century Britons who always blamed their own country first. Thus the New York Times article lauding a new documentary that seeks to portray the conduct of the Israel Defense Forces during the 1967 Six-Day War in a negative light must be seen not only as an expression of free opinion in a democracy but also an effort to undermine the Jewish state’s self defense. Censored Voices, which was shown at the prestigious Sundance Festival this past weekend, may be based on historical testimony, but its purpose seems more to be to buttress efforts to undermine the IDF’s current efforts than telling untold truths about the past.

As Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren acknowledged, filmmaker Mor Loushy is a leftist critic of her own country. Her only previous effort was a movie that sought to discredit the Israeli tourism industry as being too oriented toward bolstering the Zionist narrative of a nation reborn through pioneering struggle. But she did happen upon a treasure trove of testimony about the Six-Day War when she obtained tapes of testimony about that conflict taken down at the time, much of which was included in a seminal book The Seventh Day. That volume famously explored the misgivings of many Israelis about their unexpected triumph and the sacrifices that were required by war. In particular many spoke of their discomfort about and being the conquerors in the fighting rather than underdogs fighting against long odds. As author Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in his justly acclaimed recent book Like Dreamers, these discussions about the aftermath of that war, which was widely and rightly seen as one of self-defense and survival, presaged all the debates about the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians in the decades that followed.

But not everything in the tapes used for the book were published. Some soldiers spoke of brutal behavior on the part of the IDF during the fighting as well as of claims of abuse of Arab prisoners. It is that material, obtained by Loushy from The Seventh Day’s editor Avraham Shapira, that forms the basis of her documentary.

The accounts upon which the film is based are contemporaneous and from soldiers claiming to be eyewitnesses. Thus, they must be treated as credible or at the very least as the basis for a reasonable investigation into any wrongdoing on the part of IDF soldiers. But Loushy’s motives here, as well as those that seek to laud this film, are not strictly objective. As Loushy tells the Times, she believes that if the topic of Israeli misbehavior were aired more thoroughly in the aftermath of the war, it might have made the country more amenable to accommodating its Arab and Palestinian foes.

This is, of course, nonsense. In the aftermath of its astounding victory in June 1967, Israel made clear its willingness to negotiate withdrawal from the territory that it had gained with the exception of the newly unified city of Jerusalem. The Arab world responded with its famous three “no’s”—no peace, no recognition, and no negotiations—to Israel. Nor have the Palestinians—even the so-called moderates among them—ever transcended their political culture in which rejection of Zionism is intrinsically linked with their national identity. Putting the onus for the lack of peace on Israel is not only illogical; it denies agency to the Palestinians.

But the focus on allegations of Israeli misbehavior—and it must be stressed that the incidents spoken of in the film have not been thoroughly or impartially investigated—also fails to put the issue in context. Israel was fighting for its life in June 1967. The world soon forgot the spectacle of isolated, tiny Israel in May of that year, preparing for an assault by nations whose leaders pledged to drive the Jews into the sea. Prior to the war, mass graves were dug in Israel’s cities in anticipation of large civilian casualties.

It should also be stated that if Israel’s soldiers were wary of taking prisoners or aggressive in their conduct, their activities must judged against the behavior of the troops of Arab armies toward Israelis who fell into their hands and not solely via historical hindsight.

But even if we were to concede that some Israelis didn’t live up to their army’s high standards of conduct, that hardly makes them unique in history. The same sorts of accusations in terms of abuse or killing of prisoners could be lodged against a minority of U.S. troops during World War Two—the “good war” as far as most Americans are concerned. There is just as much, if not more material to splice together an account of G.I. war crimes that could, if taken out of context, make it seem as if the Americans were the bad guys in that war and the Germans and the Japanese were the victims.

But though there are documented instances of Americans crossing the line in that conflict, such an account would tell us nothing about World War Two or about the respective combatants. Whether the war is justified or not or even if the opposing army is composed of genuine villains, war is always hell and even good people may wind up doing bad things. What matters is context. On its own, this topic constitutes a marginal footnote to history. But to re-write the narrative of 1967 to paint Israel as the wrongdoer is more of a falsification of history than anything else. If the point of Censored Voices is to add credence to the efforts to arraign Israel in the dock of international opinion or in that of the International Criminal Court for its efforts to defend the nation against Hamas terrorists, it must be seen as part of the effort to delegitimize the Jewish state.

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How the World Encourages Hamas to Recruit Child Soldiers

Hamas is currently recruiting thousands of Palestinians aged 15 to 21 into its new “Liberation Army” in Gaza, journalist Khaled Abu Toameh reported today. So on top of the fact that it’s spending its money on a military buildup even as thousands of residents of Hamas-controlled Gaza remain homeless with no help in sight, half the age cohort Hamas seeks to recruit consists of people under 18, whom the United Nations and international human-rights groups define as children. Recruiting child soldiers is generally considered a gross violation of human rights. Yet far from condemning this behavior, the “international community” is actively encouraging it.

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Hamas is currently recruiting thousands of Palestinians aged 15 to 21 into its new “Liberation Army” in Gaza, journalist Khaled Abu Toameh reported today. So on top of the fact that it’s spending its money on a military buildup even as thousands of residents of Hamas-controlled Gaza remain homeless with no help in sight, half the age cohort Hamas seeks to recruit consists of people under 18, whom the United Nations and international human-rights groups define as children. Recruiting child soldiers is generally considered a gross violation of human rights. Yet far from condemning this behavior, the “international community” is actively encouraging it.

After all, you don’t hear much about Hamas’s recruitment efforts from the UN, the EU, the media or major human-rights organizations. But if those child soldiers are someday killed fighting Israel, all of these bodies will vie over who can condemn Israel for “killing children” most vociferously. And it’s precisely that reaction that makes recruiting child soldiers a win-win for Hamas: By so doing, not only can it significantly expand its fighting forces, but it can also ensure that Israel suffers international vilification whenever a war breaks out–all without suffering any negative consequences to itself.

In fact, it’s a triple win for Hamas, because this tactic doesn’t only endanger the child soldiers themselves; it also endangers innocent 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds. After all, if Hamas is recruiting children this age into its “army,” then Israeli soldiers have to treat every male in that age range as a potential combatant. And in the fog of battle–where it’s often hard for soldiers to tell exactly who is shooting at them, especially since Hamas operatives don’t wear uniforms and frequently open fire from amid civilians–anyone who looks like a potential combatant is more likely to be killed. Thus Israel will be accused of killing even more children.

During last summer’s war in Gaza, for instance, the “official” UN statistics reported worldwide asserted that almost a quarter of the Palestinian fatalities–24 percent–were children. Most people, hearing a figure like that, are shocked and appalled, and immediately conclude that Israel was at best guilty of using excessive force and at worst of war crimes. Consequently, Hamas benefits when this figure is inflated; Alan Dershowitz aptly termed this Hamas’s “dead-baby strategy.”

But it only works because the UN, the media, human-rights groups, world leaders, and all the other sources people depend on for information collaborate with it.

One way they do so is by neglecting to mention that some of those children–we’ll probably never know how many–were actually killed by misfired Hamas rockets or secondary explosions of the weaponry Hamas routinely stores in civilian houses; all Palestinian casualties are automatically blamed on Israel. Another is by neglecting to provide comparative data that would illustrate the difficulty of preventing civilian casualties while fighting terrorists in a dense urban environment, like the fact that the proportion of children killed in U.S. airstrikes in Iraq was much higher, at 39 percent.

A third reason, however, is that the UN carefully doesn’t mention how many of those “children” were males aged 15, 16, or 17; it defines everyone under age 18 as a child and lumps them all together in one grand total. Given Hamas’s known habit of recruiting teenagers, at least some of those killed “children” were certainly either actual combatants or people Israeli soldiers had valid reason to suspect of being combatants. But you’d never know that from the UN, the media, human-rights groups, or world leaders.

You might call this the “dead teenager” variant of Hamas’s strategy: Fan international hatred of Israel by recruiting child soldiers whose deaths will be reported worldwide as “Israel kills innocent children.” And as long as the international community keeps collaborating with this strategy, Hamas will have every incentive to keep right on recruiting child soldiers.

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World Yawns as Hamas Admits War Crimes

Perhaps it’s because the world is currently transfixed by the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and isn’t paying much attention to the events in Gaza that generated such outrage from human rights groups determined to indict Israel for war crimes before any investigations are even conducted. But perhaps some of those who pooh-poohed Israel’s claims that Hamas was firing rockets at Israeli cities from civilian areas and thereby using the people of Gaza as human shields will pay a smidgeon of attention to the news that, as the Associated Press reported today, Hamas operatives admit that they did exactly what the Israelis said they did.

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Perhaps it’s because the world is currently transfixed by the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and isn’t paying much attention to the events in Gaza that generated such outrage from human rights groups determined to indict Israel for war crimes before any investigations are even conducted. But perhaps some of those who pooh-poohed Israel’s claims that Hamas was firing rockets at Israeli cities from civilian areas and thereby using the people of Gaza as human shields will pay a smidgeon of attention to the news that, as the Associated Press reported today, Hamas operatives admit that they did exactly what the Israelis said they did.

According to the AP, contrary to the claims of its defenders, Hamas operatives have admitted firing rockets from civilian areas in Gaza. But they say they did so at a distance from actual buildings. As the AP report noted, videos from surveillance conducted by the Israeli Air Force has produced evidence of rockets flying from residential neighborhoods, hospitals, cemeteries, mosque courtyards and other civilian areas. But Hamas officials quoted by the news service now say that when they did fire from such places, the rocket launchers were always at a “safe distance” from such structures or that the nearby buildings were deliberately kept vacant.

Given the evidence of civilian casualties from Israeli fire directed at such launchings, this is a transparent lie. More to the point, if human rights groups and the international press accept this excuse they will not only be validating an almost certainly false story but also moving the goalposts to accommodate the terrorists propaganda needs.

Let’s remember that the international press that flooded into Gaza during the war did a conspicuously poor job of covering Hamas activities in Gaza. No pictures were shot of Hamas fighters or of the thousands of missile launches during the 50 days of conflict. Instead they either knuckled under to Hamas intimidation or were actively complicit in publicizing the narrative the Islamists preferred that focused solely on Palestinian suffering instead of Hamas terror.

Hamas figures quoted by the AP contend that it was impossible for them to fire missiles without being in the vicinity of civilians because the strip is so congested. There are two answers to this argument.

One is to point out that, despite the contentions about Gaza being the most congested place on earth, that there are, plenty of vacant areas in the strip. Parts of Gaza are crowded but it is not one continuous urban jungle. If Hamas really wanted to avoid Israeli fire being brought down on areas where civilians lived they could have used such places. But, firing from beaches or open fields doesn’t provide the cover that hospitals, mosques or school courtyards give the terrorists.

More to the point, if the only places they shoot missiles that are deliberately aimed to cause the maximum civilian casualties for the Israelis are an urban area, and then a group that was not a pack of bloodthirsty terrorists would have held its fire. Hamas did not.

These admissions prove again, as if much more proof was needed, that what Hamas did during this war was a double war crime. They were intent on slaughtering as many Jews as possible with their rockets and tunnels and also hopeful of causing Palestinian deaths as well to increase international sympathy for their cause.

Giving Hamas a pass because they fired near civilians but not on top of them is to grade them on a curve whose purpose is to justify their war on Israel. While individual Israeli strikes might have been made in error as always happens in the fog of war, Palestinian casualties were completely the responsibility of the group that launched this war for no good reason, kept it going when cease fires would have ended it before more were killed and did everything in their power to maximize the pain to their own people.

We can expect human rights groups, the United Nations to pay little attention to these admissions as they continue to seek to bash Israel for having the temerity to defend itself. But if anyone wants the truth, Hamas has just laid it out for the world to see. Too bad, much of the press and those participating in anti-Israel demonstrations where anti-Semitism is rampant, aren’t interested in it.

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What to Do With a Dead Nazi

Predictably, the death of one of the last living war criminals from the Nazi era has triggered the usual emotional storm, showing how difficult it is for Western societies to fully come to terms with the past and act with moral clarity when it comes to its ghosts.

Erich Priebke was an SS officer in Rome when the occupying power ordered the execution of hundreds of Jews and political prisoners in response to an attack by the Italian Resistance. Priebke participated in the slaughter and was condemned. He passed away last week in Rome, the scene of his crimes 69 years ago. Like so many war criminals, in 1945 he found an escape route to South America, where he lived, undaunted, undisturbed and unrepentant, until he was finally extradited in 1994 to stand trial in Italy. By then, Priebke was an octogenarian pensioner, who, unlike his victims, lived a full and free existence. He even begat a child whom he raised in the same values of anti-Semitic hatred, if one is to judge by the recent declarations of his son.

Nor was his punishment commensurate to his crimes – being so old when he was extradited, he spent his confinement at the home of his lawyer, rather than in a prison cell, or under six feet of dirt like his victims. Every additional day of life for Priebke has been an insult to the memory of his victims and all those who died at the hands of The Nazi extermination machinery. That he died at age 100, in the tranquility of his lawyer’s residence in Rome, is a reminder of the limits of human justice.

It is also the trigger of a disingenuous polemic about pity, piety, mercy and the dignity of death, for now many voices are being raised in Italy to give him a proper burial, inclusive of religious sacraments. But given his crimes, no measure of prayer and holy water should save his soul.

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Predictably, the death of one of the last living war criminals from the Nazi era has triggered the usual emotional storm, showing how difficult it is for Western societies to fully come to terms with the past and act with moral clarity when it comes to its ghosts.

Erich Priebke was an SS officer in Rome when the occupying power ordered the execution of hundreds of Jews and political prisoners in response to an attack by the Italian Resistance. Priebke participated in the slaughter and was condemned. He passed away last week in Rome, the scene of his crimes 69 years ago. Like so many war criminals, in 1945 he found an escape route to South America, where he lived, undaunted, undisturbed and unrepentant, until he was finally extradited in 1994 to stand trial in Italy. By then, Priebke was an octogenarian pensioner, who, unlike his victims, lived a full and free existence. He even begat a child whom he raised in the same values of anti-Semitic hatred, if one is to judge by the recent declarations of his son.

Nor was his punishment commensurate to his crimes – being so old when he was extradited, he spent his confinement at the home of his lawyer, rather than in a prison cell, or under six feet of dirt like his victims. Every additional day of life for Priebke has been an insult to the memory of his victims and all those who died at the hands of The Nazi extermination machinery. That he died at age 100, in the tranquility of his lawyer’s residence in Rome, is a reminder of the limits of human justice.

It is also the trigger of a disingenuous polemic about pity, piety, mercy and the dignity of death, for now many voices are being raised in Italy to give him a proper burial, inclusive of religious sacraments. But given his crimes, no measure of prayer and holy water should save his soul.

To the Vatican’s credit — a further sign that Pope Francis’ warmth to the Jewish people is not just genuine but driven by moral resolve — an order has gone out to all Roman churches not to celebrate the funeral. Priebke’s lawyer is stuck with a Nazi cadaver in his home, and Italy is debating how to dispose of his dead body.

And this is where moral clarity is missing – Priebke and his fellow thugs never gave any of their victims the dignity of a decent burial. Complicit governments gave him a new lease of life, letting him escape justice and live for another 69 years after his crimes were consummated. Now that he is dead, human forgetfulness and some measure of malice is chastising those who wish to prevent his burial on Italian soil, let alone with the succor of religious sacraments.

Priebke’s cadaver should simply be cremated; his ashes dispersed at sea, outside Italy’s territorial waters, so as not to pollute the memory of his victims further by his presence and so as not to provide another pilgrimage site for European Neo-Nazis.

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Human Rights Activists vs. the International Court

Under other circumstances, I might enjoy watching “human rights” activists decry the very international justice system they lobbied so hard to establish. But not when reactions like this one, by David Harland of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, show just how much resistance there will be to the important norms established last month by the appellate court of an international war crimes tribunal in the Hague. In a verdict ironically issued just as the world was obsessing over Palestinian civilians killed in the latest Hamas-Israel war, the court essentially upheld, in a Balkan context, all the arguments Israel routinely makes about the legitimacy of its own military operations. Consequently, the judges acquitted and freed two Croatian generals whom a trial court had convicted of war crimes and sentenced to 18 and 24 years, respectively.

The appellate court’s first important move was acknowledging the obvious fact that in wartime even the most careful army makes mistakes. The trial court had convicted the Croats of illegally shelling four towns they were trying to capture. The appeals court said the lower court’s criterion–“that any shell that landed more than 200 meters away from a military target must have been fired indiscriminately–was arbitrary and ‘devoid of any specific reasoning’,” to quote The Guardian’s apt summary. In short, it accepted the fact that soldiers are human beings who make mistakes, and errant shells don’t necessarily mean the soldiers fired indiscriminately.

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Under other circumstances, I might enjoy watching “human rights” activists decry the very international justice system they lobbied so hard to establish. But not when reactions like this one, by David Harland of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, show just how much resistance there will be to the important norms established last month by the appellate court of an international war crimes tribunal in the Hague. In a verdict ironically issued just as the world was obsessing over Palestinian civilians killed in the latest Hamas-Israel war, the court essentially upheld, in a Balkan context, all the arguments Israel routinely makes about the legitimacy of its own military operations. Consequently, the judges acquitted and freed two Croatian generals whom a trial court had convicted of war crimes and sentenced to 18 and 24 years, respectively.

The appellate court’s first important move was acknowledging the obvious fact that in wartime even the most careful army makes mistakes. The trial court had convicted the Croats of illegally shelling four towns they were trying to capture. The appeals court said the lower court’s criterion–“that any shell that landed more than 200 meters away from a military target must have been fired indiscriminately–was arbitrary and ‘devoid of any specific reasoning’,” to quote The Guardian’s apt summary. In short, it accepted the fact that soldiers are human beings who make mistakes, and errant shells don’t necessarily mean the soldiers fired indiscriminately.

Second, it acknowledged the obvious fact that even the most careful army can’t prevent civilian casualties. Some 150 civilians died in the generals’ four-day bombing campaign. But the appeals court said these deaths didn’t constitute war crimes, because the troops had aimed at legitimate military targets. In other words, it ruled that civilian casualties aren’t ipso facto illegal; they may be unavoidable consequences of legitimate military activity–especially when military targets are located in crowded urban areas.

Third, it acknowledged that even when genuine war crimes occur, they may be the acts of errant individuals rather than deliberate policy: It concluded that acts of looting and murder following the bombing campaign occurred not on the generals’ orders, but despite them.

Finally, it acknowledged the obvious fact that fleeing a war zone is normal, so a civilian exodus isn’t necessarily proof of a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

In short, the court recognized a simple truth that “human rights” activists try hard to obscure: War is always hell, but not every act of war is a war crime.

Unfortunately, this welcome breath of sanity has been under assault from the moment it was issued. The first attack came from the court itself: The dissenting judges in the 3-2 verdict publicly termed it “grotesque” and said it lacked “any sense of justice.”

Now, activists like Harland are joining the chorus. Unlike the court, he can’t accept that civilians might spontaneously–and sensibly–flee a war zone: “If the acquitted generals were not responsible for this ethnic cleansing, then somebody was,” he declared.

Even more disturbing, he appears to think “fairness” requires convictions for all parties to a conflict even if only one side committed war crimes: “Convicting only Serbs simply doesn’t make sense in terms of justice, in terms of reality, or in terms of politics,” he wrote.

I can’t imagine a worse indictment of the “human rights” community than that: Justice be damned; convictions must be issued to both sides for the sake of “politics.” It’s precisely that monstrous idea against which the appeals court struck such a welcome blow last month.

But as reactions like Harland’s show, restoring sanity to the concept of “international human rights law” is going to be a long, hard haul.

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Hamas’s Triple War Crimes

Standing beside the UN secretary general yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted again that every rocket from Gaza is a double war crime, since each reflects: (1) an intentional indiscriminate attack on civilians, while (2) hiding behind a civilian population for protection.

It is actually a triple war crime, because the use of civilians as shields is intended not simply for protection of the terrorists, but to ensure that Palestinian civilians are killed — to produce the response from the UN, the New York Times, and others in the “international community” necessary to win the media war that is conducted alongside the military one. In a phone call late last night in Israel, a noted Israeli commentator described the situation that Israel faces as Kafkaesque: 

“The most bizarre part is that Israel is in the position of protecting the Gaza public from its own leadership that is trying to get them killed in order to win points with the New York Times.” 

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Standing beside the UN secretary general yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted again that every rocket from Gaza is a double war crime, since each reflects: (1) an intentional indiscriminate attack on civilians, while (2) hiding behind a civilian population for protection.

It is actually a triple war crime, because the use of civilians as shields is intended not simply for protection of the terrorists, but to ensure that Palestinian civilians are killed — to produce the response from the UN, the New York Times, and others in the “international community” necessary to win the media war that is conducted alongside the military one. In a phone call late last night in Israel, a noted Israeli commentator described the situation that Israel faces as Kafkaesque: 

“The most bizarre part is that Israel is in the position of protecting the Gaza public from its own leadership that is trying to get them killed in order to win points with the New York Times.” 

In another call yesterday, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren said that Israel has so far used more than 10,000 phone calls, text messages, pamphlets, and other public announcements to warn Palestinian civilians of areas to avoid, and inform them of areas where they can safely take shelter. Pamphlets have been dropped from the sky providing directions — complete with roads to use. 

As Netanyahu told the UN head yesterday: “I’m not sure that there is another military on earth that goes to such great lengths to keep innocents out of harm’s way.” It is an extraordinary accomplishment, given the fact that Israel is facing an enemy that uses triple war crimes as the heart of its military/media strategy.

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