“The Problem is the Rules”

11 April 2018

Amid the recent events that have left more than a dozen Palestinians dead and hundreds more injured, Israeli NGOs continue to give voice to Israelis who press their government to uphold human rights. Nobody is questioning that Israel has the right to defend itself. Rather, these Israeli human rights activists are calling for Israel’s actions to comply with Israel’s commitments under international law and its founding democratic and Jewish values.

Breaking the Silence and other human rights groups say a key issue is the admission by government ministers and field commanders that the army’s orders are to shoot to kill when it comes to Gazan protesters. Despite the fact that the protesters — even those burning tires and attempting to throw Molotov cocktails over considerable distances at IDF troops, do not pose a direct threat to soldiers’ lives — the army is functioning under new rules of engagement. Even during previous protests the rules allowed soldiers to shoot “inciters” in the leg, not to death, said Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence. The escalation in tactics is not random, he says, but evidence of moral deterioration that is the price tag of more than 50 years of occupation and siege.

“The problem is not the soldiers’ conduct,” says Shaul. “The problem is the rules.”

B’Tselem is taking a somewhat different tack. Acknowledging that the policies of shoot-to-kill come from the top, Israel’s oldest human-rights organization is making its case based on the duty of soldiers to disobey patently illegal orders. Entitled “Sorry, Commander, I Cannot Shoot,” the organization’s print and online advertisements call on soldiers to disregard orders to shoot at unarmed protesters. B’Tselem’s materials draw on an Israeli legal precedent from the Kafr Qasim massacre in 1956 in which Justice Benjamin Halevy ruled that an order to shoot civilians is unmistakably illegal and that soldiers who followed such orders should face criminal liability. Such an order, he wrote, “is an illegality that pains the eye and outrages the heart, if the eye be not blind and the heart be not callous or corrupt.”

“This is part of the moral ethos of this country, something Israelis are taught in school, that army officers are taught as part of their training and that is the moral compass we’re all supposed to follow,” Hagai El-Ad, B’Tselem’s Executive Director, told the New York Times. “And we’re stating that front and center and demanding that we will follow it now.”

In response, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman tweeted that he had asked the Attorney General to open an investigation into B’Tselem for inciting soldiers to disobey orders. In a Sunday radio interview, Liberman also said that “there were no innocent people in Gaza” and that all of the protesters were acting on behalf of the terror group Hamas, which controls the territory. B’Tselem refused to back down from its campaign, and added that Israel’s laws only penalize those who urge soldiers to disobey legal orders – while the order to shoot unarmed civilians is, both by Israeli and international law, patently illegal.

Even without the recent escalation in the battle over what Gazans call the “March of Return,” human rights groups working for Gazan civil rights are unpopular voices in Israel. Gisha: Legal Center for the Protection of Freedom of Movement, an NIF grantee that focuses on basic rights for Gaza’s two million residents, is often a lone voice calling attention to the increasingly tough restrictions imposed on Gaza by Israel.

In a recent op-ed, Gisha Executive Director Tania Hary called both Israeli and American policy to account, noting that exits from Gaza had declined 58% since 2015 and that the economic and social situation has dramatically declined from an already-intolerable baseline for ordinary Gazans. In this moment, Gisha is working to provide meaningful context for diplomats, journalists, activists and others concerned about the most recent conflict.