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2009-11-03

Israeli Activists Criticize US House for Considering Resolution Condemning Goldstone Report on Israeli War Crimes in Gaza

Guests

Jeff Halper, Israeli peace activist and scholar. He is coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions

Micha Kurz, Co-founder of the group Breaking the Silence, an organization of veterans of the Israeli Defense Forces that collects testimonies from Israeli soldiers speaking out about their conduct in the occupied Palestinian territories. He is now a coordinator at Grassroots Jerusalem, an organization mapping grassroots activities in and around Jerusalem.

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The House is expected to overwhelmingly vote today to condemn a UN inquiry that found Israel committed scores of war crimes in its three-week assault on the Gaza Strip. Headed by the South African jurist Richard Goldstone, the inquiry also accused Hamas of war crimes and said both sides should investigate the allegations or face international prosecution. Over 1,300 Palestinians were killed in the Israeli attack, a majority of them civilians. Nine Israelis were killed by Palestinians and another four by so-called friendly fire. The bipartisan, non-binding House measure calls the Goldstone inquiry "irredeemably biased and unworthy of further consideration or legitimacy." The vote comes one day before the United Nations General Assembly is expected to take up the inquiry’s findings. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The House is expected to overwhelmingly vote today to condemn a UN inquiry that found Israel committed scores of war crimes in its three-week assault on the Gaza Strip. The report, headed by the South African jurist Richard Goldstone, also accused Hamas of war crimes and said both sides should investigate the allegations or face international prosecution. Over 1,300 Palestinians were killed in the Israeli attack, a majority of them civilians. Nine Israelis were killed, three by so-called friendly fire.

The bipartisan, non-binding House measure calls the Goldstone inquiry, quote, "irredeemably biased and unworthy of further consideration or legitimacy." The vote comes one day before the United Nations General Assembly is expected to take up the inquiry’s findings.

The vote also comes as the Obama administration is under criticism for backing off its previous demands that Israel halt settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank. Israel is refusing to halt construction of about 3,000 West Bank houses or any construction in occupied East Jerusalem.

On Saturday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the reversal after meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

    HILLARY CLINTON: What the Prime Minister is saying is historically accurate. There has never been a precondition. It’s always been an issue within the negotiations. What the Prime Minister has offered, in specifics of a restraint on the policy of settlements, which he has just described — no new starts, for example — is unprecedented, in the context of prior to negotiations.

AMY GOODMAN: Clinton’s comments drew criticism from Palestinian and other Arab leaders. Speaking in Morocco Monday, Clinton tried to address those concerns, now adding that Israeli pledges to "restrain" settlement growth are, quote, "not enough."

    HILLARY CLINTON: They will build no new settlements, expropriate no land, allow no new construction or approvals. And let me just say, this offer falls far short of what we would characterize as our position or what our preference would be, but if it is acted upon, it will be an unprecedented restriction on settlements and would have a significant and meaningful effect on restraining their growth.

    And let me just take a step back, because I want to put this into the broader context. I will offer positive reinforcement to the parties when I believe they are taking steps that support the objective of reaching a two-state solution. I will also push them, as I have in public and in private, to do even more.

AMY GOODMAN: As Israel continues to build new homes for settlers, it’s also defying US demands to halt the destruction of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem. Around thirty Palestinians were displaced in home demolitions last week. According to the UN, as many as 60,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem are at risk of forced evictions, demolitions and displacement.

We’re joined right now by two guests. Here in the firehouse, Micha Kurz is the co-founder of the group Breaking the Silence, an organization of veterans of the Israeli Defense Forces that collects testimonies from Israeli soldiers speaking out about their conduct in the occupied Palestinian territories. Now he’s coordinator of Grassroots Jerusalem, an organization mapping grassroots activities in and around Jerusalem. And on the phone with us from Israel is Jeff Halper, an Israeli peace activist and scholar, coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

I want to begin with you, Jeff, in Israel. Talk about this non-binding resolution that’s expected to pass in the House, condemning the Goldstone report. You just came from the United States.

JEFF HALPER: Yeah, I just came from the United States, and I just came from a week of meeting with members of Congress and the administration in Washington.

You know, it’s very — it’s very distressing, of course, because in the entire world, Israel relies on the United States as really its only — only firm supporter. The United States is the patron of Israel. But it’s not really the administration — it’s Congress — that’s Israel’s trump card. That is, Israel says it can circumvent the President; it can circumvent the administration by going directly to Congress. And Netanyahu works the phones all the time with Congress. So, in a sense, it’s a kind of divide and rule.

And when I was in Congress, I was telling members of Congress, “You have to understand that you’re being used by Israel as a kind of a — as a trump card against your own administration, preventing the American government from presenting a coherent policy speaking in one voice.” And I think that you really see that, that, in a way, it’s under — I would consider that a gross violation of the internal — you know, a gross, you know, intervention in the internal affairs of the United States, which would seem to me should get all members of Congress upset, no matter what their stand is.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a Human Rights Watch statement on this, saying, “Members of the [US] House of Representatives should oppose a resolution that calls for the Obama administration to reject scrutiny of Israel and Hamas,” this House Resolution 867, calling on the US President and Secretary of State to "oppose unequivocally any endorsement or further consideration of the ‘Report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict.'”

Jeff Halper, how has it been received in Israel? I mean, Judge Goldstone, well-known jurist from South Africa, also a Zionist. His daughter was talking on Israeli radio and talking about his significance and his Zionism.

JEFF HALPER: Right. Well, I think it’s been — it’s been received here very hard, because it’s really the first time that Israel has — maybe except the International Court of Justice decision on the wall, that Israel has been held accountable for its actions.

And, of course, Israel always presents itself as being the victim, and Israel is defending itself against terrorism and all of that. So the fact that an important figure like Goldstone, through the UN, says no, that Israel is the attacker, Israel is the aggressor, Israel used a disproportionate amount of force, and that was the violation, that’s what made it a war crime, the attack on Gaza, is something that really is much more important than simply Israel going before the International Criminal Court. It means that Israel’s entire image as this little democratic Jewish victim of the conflict is being called into question, and Israel is being held accountable as the strong party for its actions. And that, I would say, is the greatest threat to Israel, because once it could be held accountable by Goldstone, then the dam has burst, and Israel will have trouble defending any of its policies anywhere.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of this resolution, if passed in the United States, for the rest of the world, for Israel and the rest of the world?

JEFF HALPER: Right. Well, what I say — you know, what I told members of Congress that I met, I don't think they understand, that I don’t think the American people understand how much human rights means to the rest of the world. This is the hope of peoples all over the world to get out of oppression, to get some kind of parity, to be included in the world. Human rights really means something. And it’s something that’s meant to protect powerless people against governments, and corporations, as well, actually, so that it means a lot.

So when the United States stands against clear violations of human rights by Israel, I think this isolates the United States in a much broader sense from the world. It isn’t only Israel and the US alone in the UN voting against everybody else, but it really, I think, completely compromises any American credibility in the world as trying to foster democracy or trying even to be a part of the world. It really shows how disconnected the United States is from the concerns of people everywhere, including Europe.

So I think this —- I don’t think the Americans understand what it means to go against human rights. I think they feel human rights are anti-American, they somehow trump American exceptionalism. But I think the United States really has to reevaluate its stand, in general, in terms of enforcement of human rights all over the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Halper, speaking to us from Israel, there an Israeli peace activist, coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

Micha Kurz, you’re traveling here in this country. You’re a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces. You co-founded the group Breaking the Silence, Israeli soldiers talking about what they did in Gaza during this assault. Explain what you found.

MICHA KURZ: Breaking the Silence was founded close after the Second Intifada in 2004. We were talking about mostly what it means for soldiers, not as much what it means for Palestinians, but what it means to send eighteen—, nineteen-year-olds into occupied territories, controlling other human beings and making that a routine reality for us, for everyone who goes to the army. And in Israel, everyone goes to the army. Women go in for two years; men go in for three. And all of it’s when we’re eighteen.

What we were doing back then hasn’t — didn’t have anything to do with the Goldstone report. It was a self-check on what’s going on in Israeli mainstream morality: What’s the price we’re paying for these — for occupying these territories and controlling these people?

AMY GOODMAN: Share some of the testimony. Talk about your own experience. When did you serve?

MICHA KURZ: I served during the Second Intifada, a lot of time in Hebron. And a lot of what we were doing in Hebron, it turned out, was as protecting the settlers. We would hear, for example —-

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the populations, the size of the settlers and the Palestinian community.

MICHA KURZ: Hebron is a settlement of around 600 to 700 settlers in the middle of a Palestinian town of about 160,000 Palestinians. It’s at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a holy spot for anyone -— everyone involved.

And it was actually some of my first times in the Occupied Territories. I came to the army fairly patriotic and enthusiastic about serving my country. And what I ended up doing, it turned out, was protecting Palestinians from the settlers more than vice versa.

We would wake up in the middle of the night hearing banging from down in the settlement, and it turned out that there were settlers that were knocking down walls into Palestinian shops during curfew, and slowly doing this. We’d send a patrol to stop them, and we’d have to leave, and they’d keep working on this hole in the shop until it was wide enough to walk in, lock the doors from the inside, and take all the merchandise out and move a new — expand the settlements that way. This was slowly happening all the time in Hebron, especially back in 2004, when curfews would last forty days, and shopkeepers wouldn’t — weren’t able to go and fix it up.

And this is something we’re seeing today in Jerusalem, in East Jerusalem all the time. Silwan is slowly being taken over by settlements under the guise of archaeological NGOs slowly digging underneath other Palestinian homes and evicting family, one at a time. It’s a gradual process.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the process of your transformation? Do you remember the moment — was it a moment, or it was a period of time, where you felt maybe what we’re doing here is wrong?

MICHA KURZ: I don’t think there was one moment. I think over the course of the Intifada and watching what was going on with friends and the process that happens at a checkpoint. When you put a nineteen-year-old in a checkpoint to control a civilian population, what that looks like on the ground is that I get the power and the responsibility over everyone on the street.

And so, if 400 people come by that day through my checkpoint, and my order is that there is a curfew, then I have to tell 400 people that they have to go home right now. And the first hundred people, I tell them fairly politely, if I’m nice and I’m in a good mood in the morning. And the second hundred people, I’ll be a little more impatient. By the fourth hundred person that shows up at my checkpoint that day, I’m going to be pissed off, and I’m going to say, “What don’t you understand when there’s a curfew here?” And this is over a course of one shift in a day.

Over three years, this is what we watched our friends and myself go through. We would — if someone would break curfew at some point, we’d be — easily we’d handcuff and blindfold someone and sit them down as a punishment for six hours. So they learned, don’t — you don’t break curfew this way. And this became daily reality.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you say you were in the minority or in the majority of Israeli soldiers who were questioning what you were doing?

MICHA KURZ: I’d say right now it might be a minority still, but I think people are slowly waking up. This is what’s going on.

AMY GOODMAN: Micha Kurz, I want to play an excerpt from one of the video testimonies from the Breaking the Silence website. This is First Sergeant Amir, a reservist from the Armored Corps who served in Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, as they call that, the Israeli assault on Gaza earlier this year. He’s describing the briefings his unit received during the training for the assault.

    FIRST SGT. AMIR: [translated] At any obstacle, any problem, we open fire and don’t ask questions, even if it’s firing in the dark, aimed at an unknown target. Fire when we don’t see, deterrent fire? No problem with that, etc. A vehicle that’s in the way? Crush it. A building in the way? Shell it. This was the spirit of things that was repeated throughout the training.

    INTERVIEWER: Meaning that in briefings no one even mentions the issue of innocents?

    FIRST SGT. AMIR: It is not mentioned. And if it is mentioned, it is only to say that there are no innocents, everyone there is enemy. That’s a phrase we kept hearing from that brigade commander, too, that wherever we would be, if there is anyone there, they must be the enemy.

    INTERVIEWER: You had briefings before entering that included rules of engagement?

    FIRST SGT. AMIR: Not that I recall. There were no rules of engagement. The rules of engagement were to shoot. Those were the rules of engagement. You see anything suspect? Shoot.

AMY GOODMAN: “The rules of engagement were [to] shoot.” So said Amir, the Israeli soldier in Gaza, collected on the Breaking the Silence website. The significance of these soldiers speaking out after this last assault? How many were there? And the effect in Israel?

MICHA KURZ: So far, there are over forty soldiers from different units around Jerusalem that have spoken up, and they’ve been in different parts of Gaza through those couple of weeks.

And I think the significance in Israel is the shift that we’ve seen, a very clear moral standard shift. Israel talks about being the most moral army in the world. The West Bank had some standard we would — no matter what was going on, what assignment we’d get, there was a briefing, a very clear briefing, whether it was Defensive Shield in Ramallah in 2004 or during the Intifada. There was a — the difference with Gaza this time was, after Israel sent out the fliers and the warnings to Gaza, we were — Israeli soldiers were allowed to do whatever they want. The briefings were not clear anymore. This is a — that was a first, as far as Israeli standards. It’s as if the IDF had shifted gears for the first time. And Gaza — Gaza is a — it was appalling. It’s shocking. But most of all, I think I’m mostly saddened by —-

AMY GOODMAN: And the resolution that’s being introduced now, expected to pass in the House, that condemns the Goldstone report?

MICHA KURZ: Well, I can speak as Micha, not as Breaking the Silence, on that. And as far as I know, Goldstone, a self-proclaimed Zionst on the board of directors of Hebrew University and all the high school education program, a daughter living in Israel, well respected internationally, is well qualified. Israel had not let him into Israeli territories in [inaudible] to actually conduct a well-balanced report. And it seemed in Israeli media and through Israeli politicians that they actually hadn’t read the report -— it was just a reaction. I’m saddened by it. I don’t understand it.

AMY GOODMAN: Micha Kurz, I want to thank you very much for being with us, a co-founder of the group Breaking the Silence, now coordinator of Grassroots Jerusalem, an organization mapping grassroots activities in and around Jerusalem. And on that point, the grassroots actions that are taking place in Jerusalem? Very quickly, you’ve got thirty seconds to lay out the groups and the actions.

MICHA KURZ: I’d like people to know that there are Israelis and Palestinians and internationals spread out all over Jerusalem and all over the West Bank finding innovative solutions, sustainable solutions, to the problems that the policymakers are —-

AMY GOODMAN: And the groups that are doing this work?

MICHA KURZ: There is ICAHD, where Jeff is from. There’s Rabbis for Human Rights, the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, Bustan Qaraaqa and Beit Sahour. They take care of -— this summer Beit Sahour has had their water shut off for forty days. They build water catchment systems and cisterns. This is an amazing thing. If anyone in the States needs to support something, wants to support something, support the grassroots organizations on the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks very much, Micha Kurz.

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