What is happening here at the UN Human Rights Council is not new. In fact, there has been a deep and persistent problem with UN bodies from New York to Geneva when they address accusations that Israel is violating the basic norms of international law. Having served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in 1997, I witnessed this from the first day I walked into that blue-green building on First Avenue.
I was confronted with an effort to convene what are called the High Contracting Parties of the Fourth Geneva Convention – that is its signatories – to take measures against Israel for alleged violations of the Convention, which had been adopted after World War II, in order to protect civilians in times of war. Israel was a signatory.
The first question I felt that I needed to ask was, when had the signatories been convened previously?
Were they convened when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan?
What about when Iraq went into Iran?
Turkey into Cyprus? No again.
Maybe Libya into Chad?
In fact, in repeated cases of outright aggression, this body of the High Contracting Parties had never been brought together before. But now the UN General Assembly was considering to convene the High Contracting Parties in the sole case of Israel, because of the territories it had captured thirty years earlier in the 1967 Six Day War.
Moreover, the UN’s focus on the singular case of Israel stood out. Back in 1967, both the Security Council and the General Assembly had rejected Soviet efforts to brand Israel as the aggressor in the Six Day War. It was clear as day at the time that Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in a war of self-defense, after neighboring countries from Egypt to Iraq massed their armies along its borders. But that fundamental fact did not deter the UN in 1997 from treating Israel like it was the worst international criminal.
This biased treatment of Israel continued in subsequent years. After Israel implemented the Oslo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization during the 1990’s, and withdrew its military government from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it faced a wave of escalating terror attacks that emanated from the very cities from which it had pulled out. These terror attacks specifically aimed at innocent civilians, and not military targets. City buses began exploding in the heart of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and in other population centers.
In March 2002, a suicide bomber detonated himself at a Passover Seder in Netanya. Israel finally had to act to bring the bombings decisively to a halt even if that meant going back into those West Bank cities that had become springboards for these attacks.
Western militaries had well-developed doctrines for putting down this kind of urban warfare. Their military manuals spoke about utilizing air power, artillery, and even flame throwers to flush out urban guerrillas. There were states that used carpet bombing to blanket whole areas. The Russians used such tactics in Chechnya. And we saw them again in Syria.
But Israel refused to employ what may have been commonly used by others. In the West Bank town of Jenin, known by the Palestinians themselves as the “capital of the suicide bombers,” Israel decided to send in its ground forces in house-to-house combat. A fierce battle ensued. Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian spokesman, peddled the false claim that Israeli forces in Jenin had engaged in a “massacre.”
Israel had sent in reserve units, so that many of the soldiers killed on the Israeli side in Jenin were fathers and husbands.
And how did the UN reply? The spokesmen of UN specialized agencies asserted in the international media that “Israel had lost all moral ground in this conflict” – a conclusion adopted by the late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which he subsequently was forced to retract. The UN ultimately admitted that the number of fatalities was far smaller than it originally claimed. But a pattern of unsubstantiated accusations followed by belated retractions had been set. What did the UN have to say to the widows and orphans of the soldiers who died in Jenin? You know what, it was the UN that lost the moral high ground in Jenin.
This brings us to the UN Human Rights Council in 2009, which has a long history of anti-Israel bias. This was demonstrated yet again after Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2006. It was hoped at that time that an Israeli withdrawal from contested territory would reduce the hostile intent of the Palestinian terror organizations, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which had been firing rockets into Israeli towns in recent years. But the exact opposite occurred. The number of rockets fired into Israeli towns shot up from 179 to 946 – a 500 percent increase – in the year that Israel pulled out. Again Israel was forced to act in its own self-defense, as it moved into Gaza.
Here in Geneva, the Human Rights Council established a Fact-Finding Mission headed by Justice Richard Goldstone of South Africa to investigate Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip. The result was a report, about 500 pages in length, which was the most vicious indictment of the State of Israel bearing the seal of the UN since the “Zionism is Racism” resolution of 1975. The most outrageous charge it made was that Israel deliberately – let me repeat that, deliberately – killed civilians in Gaza. I was no longer in government, but when I was invited by an American university to debate Goldstone, the highest levels of the Israel Defense Forces provided me with all the material I needed to show how the core conclusions in the famous Goldstone report were baseless.
How could Israel have a policy of deliberately killing civilians when it implemented the exact opposite policy of protecting them, by issuing repeated warnings in Arabic to civilians that Israel was about to take imminent action?
Besides leaflets, an Arabic speaking IDF unit telephoned the homes where it was known that Hamas rockets had been stored; Israeli drones monitored if the target had been evacuated. If not, a special non-lethal munition was dropped called a “knock on the roof,” to convince those inside that this was serious – and only then was the target destroyed.
Who else does this? Name another UN member. The Human Rights Council should be ashamed of itself for accusing Israel. The report never really addressed this.
Goldstone subsequently retracted his most damming accusation in an opinion piece in the Washington Post. But the damage had been done. The UN Human Rights Council already voted to endorse the conclusions of the Goldstone Report, although in typical UN fashion, its resolution only condemned Israel and did not even mention Hamas. Musa Abu Marzuq, the Hamas leader, quipped that Hamas had been acquitted by the UN. For the terror organization, the UN had given them a green light to continue their rocket attacks on Israel. There is a straight line from UN actions back then and last week’s launch by Hamas of an Iranian Fajr missile toward Tel Aviv.
Ultimately, however, Israel’s position was vindicated, not by the UN, but by the US through the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey who in 2014 countered the impression the UN had given, by saying: ”I actually do think that Israel went to extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties.”
Back in 2006, the older UN Human Rights Commission had been replaced with the UN Human Rights Council, partly because the commission had such a notorious record on Israel. But right from its birth the Human Rights Council was shown to be a defective UN organ. Towards the end of the year, the former secretary-general of the UN, the late Kofi Annan, could already conclude: “Since the beginning of their work, they have focused almost entirely on Israel, and there are other crisis situations, like Sudan, where they have not been able to say a word.”
Now the UN wants to look at the Palestinian protests along the Gaza Fence. How can anybody take the UN seriously when it has shown that when it comes to Israel its reports have been highly politicized and seriously flawed? Is anyone protecting the human rights of Israeli farmers whose fields are regularly set ablaze by Hamas incendiary weapons?
To our north, as we speak, Hizbullah has militarized 200 Shiite villages in Southern Lebanon and made them into a network for human shields in order to protect their Iranian-supplied missiles. And when Hizbullah constructs attack tunnels into Israeli territory, where is UNIFIL? Let me make clear that it is demonstrated time and again that only Israel will defend itself by itself.
Israel does not seek international forces to protect it. But it does expect one thing from the international community: the truth.
That is today what Israel asks for. But when it comes to the UN, the truth has been extremely difficult to obtain.