Common Grounds

Opinion | This Is How Israel Really Silences Palestinian Human Rights Advocates

May 23, 2023

Source: Haaretz


By Nathaniel Berman

Published May 21, 2023


Ever since 1967, Israeli governments have effectively admitted that violating international law is essential to maintaining the occupation and violating Palestinians' human rights. And they try and silence criticism by using a kind of very effective intellectual blackmail

Opinion | This Is How Israel Really Silences Palestinian Human Rights Advocates

Israeli forces detain Palestinian Fevzi El-Junidi, 14-year-old, following clashes in Hebron in December 2017.Credit: Wisam Hashlamoun / Anadolu Agency



“But what is your solution to the conflict?” 


This question is one that is increasingly being posed to critics of Israeli violations of Palestinians’ human rights



It’s a question I encounter in my own conversations, on social media and in public debate. The question tends to be posed by those who consider themselves “centrists” or even “liberals,” those who may even declare that they hope for an end to the occupation “some day.”


This phenomenon was given a great boost by the previous government of Naftali Bennet and Yair Lapid government, whose coalition agreements proclaimed the deferral of any significant change in relations with the Palestinians.


More militant supporters of the present government are somewhat less likely to pose this question. After all, Bezalel Smotrich, the government minister with the greatest authority over the Occupation, unapologetically proclaims that West Bank Palestinians must be permanently subordinated to Israel, without the slightest regard for their human rights.


The effect of the question is to deflect discussion from concrete violations of Palestinian rights to interminable debates about one or another “solution” and to fruitless speculations about whether it could bring a final end to decades of conflict.


It is high time that those advocating Palestinian rights refuse this kind of attempt to defer respect for those rights. Internationally guaranteed rights were not designed for a utopian future in which all problems are solved.


In fact, the very opposite is true.


Treaties providing for individual rights against abusive governmental power were designed precisely for the kind of world in which we live: a world rent by national conflicts, ethnic animosities, and power-imbalances of all kinds. We may divide these kinds of rights into two broad categories.


Young girls wave Palestinian flags in Khan al-Ahmar, a Bedouin encampment in the West Bank in January that is slated for evacuation by Israel.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The first category is that of “international human rights law,” applicable in all times and all places.


The second category is what international lawyers call “international humanitarian law”: the rules applicable to situations growing out of armed conflicts, including occupations. The second category, of course, is designed for precisely those situations for which no “solution” has yet been found.


The four Geneva Conventions of 1949, enacted in the wake of the horrors of WWII, are the key codifications of international humanitarian law. The fourth of these Conventions, concerned with occupation, is the treaty most relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It lays down a broad-ranging set of rules for the administration of occupied terrritory and a broad-ranging set of rights for the occupied population, which it calls “protected persons.”


In the months following the 1967 War, the Israeli government decided to refuse to admit that this Convention applied, as a matter of law, to the occupied territories. Government officials explicitly declared that this refusal was due to Israel’s intention to violate a variety of the Convention’s provisions – particularly its prohibitions on settlements, house demolitions, population expulsions, and the change in the legal status of at least parts of the territories.


These violations of the Convention remain cornerstones of the Israeli administration of the West Bank. Israel has thus been systematically and deliberately violating the Fourth Geneva Convention for more than a half-century. Deferring a confrontation with such violations until a “solution” to the conflict is reached is nonsensical. Any real “solution” will end the occupation, at which point the Convention will no longer apply.


A sophisticated twist on the indefinite deferral of Palestinian rights appeared three years ago with Micah Goodman’s well-publicized program for “shrinking the conflict.”


This program explicitly abandoned, for the indefinite future, any “solution” – opting, instead, for a set of pragmatic policies which could improve the lot of Palestinians under Israeli occupation.


The program made no reference to Palestinian rights under international human rights or international humanitarian law. For example, it did not seek to remedy the most glaring legal inequity of the Occupation: the subjection of Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank to two legal systems, separate and radically unequal, in relation to most criminal law charges.


This inequity particularly wreaks injustice on Palestinians who live in Area C, where most Jewish settlers live, but affects all Palestinians in the West Bank. It violates fundamental non-discrimination provisions enshrined in every relevant international treaty, as well as offending the basic conception of equality before the law. This inequity derives ultimately from the very presence of Jewish settlers in occupied territory, which violates a key provision of the Fourth Geneva Convention.


Despite its high-profile reception, Goodman’s program has not been implemented by Israeli governments, even though most of it could be put into place unilaterally. But key features of its rhetoric have become part of mainstream debate – above all the abandonment of “solutions” and the indefinite deferral of human rights. It undoubtedly laid the basis for the Bennett/Lapid government’s deferral of any substantive negotiations with the Palestinians over the occupation.


Strangely, those posing the “what is your solution” question seem to embrace the basic assumption of the most adamant opponents of the occupation: that the violations of international law are essential to maintaining the occupation.


By responding to specific charges of illegal Israeli actions with a demand for a utopian resolution of the conflict, they seem to be saying that they can’t envision the Occupation without the illegal Israeli policies.


If this were not the case, they would respond directly to the specific claims and not flee to debate about utopian “solutions.” Of course, it seems likely that they are not fully conscious that they are implicitly admitting that Israeli policies are clearly illegal. But the speed with which they dodge the specific issues suggests that they are at least somewhat aware of the justice of the charges.


Palestinian women waiting to cross Qalandiya, the Israeli military checkpoint near Ramallah, the West Bank to pray in Jerusalem during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.Credit: Nasser Nasser /AP

Such exchanges resemble a famous scene from “The Battle of Algiers,” the 1966 film about French repression of an uprising against their rule in Algeria in the mid-1950s. In this scene, “Colonel Mathieu,” a fictionalized French military leader, is asked by journalists about allegations that the French were torturing Algerians. Rather than responding directly, Mathieu declares that the real issue is whether France should stay in Algeria.


If the answer is “yes,” he says, then one must accept the means required to secure France’s continued presence. He thus implicitly admits the use of torture, but deflects the discussion to the broader issue of French rule. His stance implicitly dares his interlocutors to challenge the legitimacy of French rule, which at that time would have been a very radical step for a French citizen to take. It is a kind of intellectual blackmail, one that is very effective. But it also implicitly acknowledged that French rule in Algeria required the heinous policy of torture.


An analogous (if not exactly identical), dynamic takes place when specific criticisms of Israeli violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law are deflected with questions about “solutions.” The intention is the same: to silence human rights advocates.


When human rights advocates protest against Israeli policies such as the demolition of homes and schools, the expulsion of Palestinians from specific areas of the West Bank, detention without trial, the acquiescence of the army in rampant settler violence, and the maintenance of two legal systems for Jewish settlers and Palestinians, separate and radically unequal, they must insist on keeping the discussion in the here-and-now.


When a “solution” is found for the conflict, Palestinians will not need international rights which protect them from such abuses. But in the real world, these blatant violations of international law must be protested – and ended.



Nathaniel Berman is the Rahel Varnhagen Professor in Brown University’s Department of Religious Studies. He is the author of Passion and Ambivalence: Colonialism, Nationalism, and International Law and Divine and Demonic in the Poetic Mythology of the Zohar: the ‘Other Side’ of Kabbalah. Twitter: @na_berman


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