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A turning point in criticism of Israeli human rights policies

Feb 21,2022 - Last updated at Feb 21,2022

This past month presented two examples of how Israel deals with criticism and how dodging challenges to its abusive behaviors has become increasingly difficult.

Example 1. On January 12, Omar Abdulmajeed Assad, a 78-year-old Palestinian American died at the hands of the Israeli occupation forces. On his way home from an evening spent playing cards with friends, he was stopped by Israeli soldiers conducting a raid into his village, Jiljilya. Despite being in Area A, under the control of the Palestinian Authority, the Israelis claim the right to raid the village and detain Palestinian residents.  

When stopped, Mr Assad argued with the soldiers. He was pulled from his car, handcuffed, gagged, dragged 100 yards and deposited facedown on the cold ground. A few other detained Palestinians reported that one of the Israelis sat on Mr Assad's back, holding him down. 

An hour later, the Israelis freed the other men and departed. After a short while, the soldiers returned and seeing Mr Assad still lying motionless, cut the handcuffs and left his lifeless body on the ground. The other detainees brought a doctor from the village who pronounced him dead. 

Among the many gruesome Palestinian deaths at the hands of Israeli occupation forces, this one was different because Mr Assad was an American citizen. A US senator, several congress people, and the US State Department called for an investigation. 

This past week, hoping to assuage American concerns, the Israeli military completed its investigation, concluding that "the incident pointed to a moral failure and to an error in judgment by the troops...." One commanding officer was rebuked and two soldiers were dismissed. 

Despite Israeli hopes that this would be the end of the matter, the State Department responded that "the Biden administration expects a thorough criminal investigation and full accountability".  

The members of Congress and State Department are right, a criminal investigation is necessary precisely because this cannot be dismissed as a mere "moral lapse". The Israeli forces involved displayed criminally negligent/reckless behaviour resulting in death. What must be adjudicated is if the charge should be homicide or manslaughter. Nothing less will do.

In the past, such brutality was ignored and never even investigated. But because Mr Assad is an American and because sensitivity toward Palestinian rights is growing, this case couldn’t be so easily dismissed with a faux investigation whitewashing murder.      

Example 2.  Israel received another blow when Amnesty International released a report: Israel's Apartheid Against Palestinians: A Cruel System of Domination and a Crime Against Humanity. 

It notes: "Decades of deliberately unequal treatment of Palestinians in all areas under the control of Israel has left Palestinians marginalised and subject to widespread and systematic socioeconomic disadvantage as they are barred from equitable access to natural and financial resources, livelihood opportunities, healthcare and education." 

It details Israeli policies that negatively impact Palestinian citizens of Israel, residents of "East Jerusalem", the West Bank and Gaza, and refugees in exile denied the right to return. In all cases, the report argues, Israel has established laws and practices privileging one group (Jews) at the expense of Palestinian Arabs, in other words, apartheid. 

These findings are not new; Israeli human rights groups (Yesh Din and B'Tselem) and Human Rights Watch have issued reports making the same charge. The difference is that Amnesty International, the "gold standard" of human rights groups, makes the case in international law for why Israel should be charged with "a crime against humanity". As a result, the issue of apartheid will gain currency among US human rights groups.

Given Amnesty International’s prestige and their charges’ urgency, whitewashing won't do. Israel had to take a different tack, setting their hasbara machinery into full gear to denounce the report as "malicious" and demonise Amnesty International as anti-Semitic. On cue, pro-Israel groups and members of Congress echoed these charges, focusing their outrage on the term “apartheid” without addressing the substance of the report.

It is not clear how Israel will weather these storms, the murder of a Palestinian-American and the charge of apartheid. What is clear, however, is that in this new era whitewashing crimes and demonising those who accuse Israel of committing them will not be so easily swept under the carpet.

The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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