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Human Rights Lawyer Michael Sfard: “Israelis Must Maintain Their Humanity Even When Their Blood Boils”

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Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights lawyer and expert on international human rights, calls for Israel to act within international law in response to Hamas’s attack on civilians Saturday. “My government is waging an attack that seems to be using war crimes to retaliate on war crimes,” says Sfard. “They want revenge, as if a revenge would bring back the dear ones that are gone.” Sfard says Israel should end its bombing and lift the blockade on Gaza because civilians do not deserve punishment for militant attacks. “Modern international law prohibits, with no exception, collective punishment.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: To talk more about the Israeli assault on Gaza, the siege and Hamas’s shocking attack on Israel, we’re joined by longtime Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard. He’s an expert on international human rights and international laws of war. He represents Palestinian and Israeli activists and human rights organizations. He’s also the author of the book The Wall and the Gate: Israel, Palestine, and the Legal Battle for Human Rights. His new op-ed on Haaretz is titled “Israelis Must Maintain Their Humanity Even When Their Blood Boils.” Michael Sfard joins us in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Thank you so much for joining us, Michael, and welcome to Democracy Now! If you could talk about your piece that you wrote for Haaretz, “Israelis Must Maintain Their Humanity Even When Their Blood Boils”?

MICHAEL SFARD: Well, good morning to you, and thank you very much for having me.

These are terrible, terrible days, actually quite a nightmare that we’re living through, and my heart goes out to the previous interviewees from Gaza.

We have experienced a shock. I have to mediate to you the sentiment in the Israeli public, in the Israeli society. The attack on Saturday was a savage attack, targeting civilians, going from one house to another in civilian neighborhoods and killing, murdering women, children and elderly and innocent people, and also, in the scene of the party, killing hundreds of people. And the blood boils. And the blood boils. It’s not just that the blood boils, but also one feels a puncture in the heart, a hole in the stomach.

And now the question is: What do you do with that, with this, confronting this inhuman attack? Do you fill the punctured heart and the hole in your belly with cement, with concrete, or do you fill it with the warmth of compassion? And I’m afraid to say that many Israelis are extremely filled with rage and desire for revenge. And I, as a human rights lawyer — and in the last three decades I have been working tirelessly, dedicating my professional career to protect the rights of everyone, and especially Palestinian communities who are under occupation, under a regime of apartheid and under the very cruel blockade in Gaza — the only way that I know is to put a cry to adhere to the norms of international law. And I have to say I want to shout, but I understand that at this time there is very little space for a voice like that.

And when I hear the leaders of the state of Israel and the generals, and their rhetoric suggests that things that in the past they denied that the Israeli army is doing in the cycle of attacks on Gaza is now almost probably an official policy — targeting en masse inhabited areas, starving people as a method of warfare. I mean, this is — if what Hamas has done was a blatant war crime — and, I mean, the legal term is “war crime,” but, in fact, it’s a crime against humanity, not in the legal sense, but in the moral sense. It was an attack on everything that is human. To take hostage women with their children, elderly men and women on wheelchairs, this is just incomprehensible. But now my government is waging an attack that seems to be using war crimes to retaliate on war crimes. And this is definitely not what should be done now.

AMY GOODMAN: As a lawyer, as an Israeli, as a Jewish human rights lawyer, can you talk about what collective punishment means, legally and morally? I mean, I think about the Pittsburgh synagogue, which was the worst killing of Jews in the United States in many years; this brutal attack this weekend, the worst killing of Jews since the Holocaust. But the idea of the response being to attack an area of land that is the home to over 2 million people — in this case, 2 million Palestinians — if you can explain? When the shooter shot up the Pittsburgh synagogue, they didn’t destroy — U.S. authorities — his community, his neighborhood. They went after him. They tried him. Michael Sfard, can you respond?

MICHAEL SFARD: Yes. I mean, every moral, human moral system that I know rejects collective punishment, definitely modern ones, but also we find it in the Bible, that children should not bear the spoiled fruits that their fathers have eaten. I mean, there are many, many commandments even in the Bible, which is a very old system of norms, that says that people should individually be found responsible for crimes they are committing. And, of course, international law, modern international law, prohibits, with no exception, collective punishment. We have very clear language written into the Fourth Hague Regulations of 1907 and in the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949.

But I don’t think I need to reference to international treaties. It is something that each and every one of us has to have as an instinct, as a moral basic principle: People should bear responsibility for their deeds, and not their neighbors and not their people and not their sisters or brothers or mothers or fathers.

And it’s not the first time that Gazans are paying the price for things that are done by Hamas or by other groups in the Palestinian society, and not only in Gaza, but also in the West Bank. I mean, this is abhorrent, but this is exactly what’s going on. And under international law, it’s a war crime to inflict collective punishment definitely on civilians.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Michael, I mean, more Israeli citizens were killed Saturday than during the entire Second Intifada of 2000 to 2005. As Amy mentioned, more Jewish people were killed than — 1,300, over 1,300, since the Holocaust. Tony Blinken, secretary of state, speaking earlier today, invoked the experience of his stepfather who survived the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau. Now, if you could say — you’ve said it’s very important to understand the context under which Hamas’s attack took place. Do you believe, in Israel or elsewhere, there are enough people coming out with your position, condemning both Hamas’s attack as well as the occupation and Israel’s response in Gaza?

MICHAEL SFARD: There are people in Israel that feel — that have the same sentiment that I’ve voiced in my op-ed and I’m expressing here, but I have to be honest. I mean, we’re experiencing now a huge setback. I don’t know when there will be space for these kind of messaging in Israel or in Palestine, for that matter. Again, when the blood boils, people choose — and this is probably a human feature, but it’s not a good one. Humans have many, many good features, but they have a lot of bad ones. And this is a bad one. They want revenge, as if a revenge would bring back those, the dear ones that are gone.

And, yes, in reference to the Holocaust, people in Israel have a very special mental vocabulary. And the events of Saturday have immediately triggered the scenes of pogroms in Russia and Ukraine of the 19th century and, of course, the Holocaust, and the threat of annihilation, which is, of course, irrational, because we do — we have an army that had a huge, huge collapse, and, of course, one that would be investigated, an amazing failure, and yet the Israeli army is strong, and Israel is not under threat of annihilation. And yet this is exactly what people feel. And one has to understand that in order to understand the Israeli sentiment. People are feeling under threat of annihilation. And that is a part of our collective psychology. It’s not just benign. It’s not just something that we’ve grown into by chance. It’s something that is injected and indoctrinized from early age. I’m not different in that sense. I mean, I have to struggle with making these comparisons. And that allows the Israeli government and the Israeli army to do stuff that are just — that people should, in a normal circumstance, object to.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you respond, Michael Sfard, when you bring up the occupation, not as a justification for what happened this weekend, but saying that it is essential to understand and to resolve at this point, that these are not two equal nations where one invaded another? In the midst of all of this, Israel is responsible for what happens in the West Bank and Gaza.

MICHAEL SFARD: Yes, Amy, context is important. But I want to pause for a moment and say context is important in order to understand the root causes and in order to think of what is the way out, what is the way forward. But sometimes context is brought as a means to mitigate the horrific nature of what has happened. So, while I am ready and I will say some things about context, I do wish to say that what we’ve seen on Saturday has no justification whatsoever. It’s a crime. It’s inhuman. And this is something that — because every abhorrent crime in humanity’s history has a context, of course.

So, having said that, yes, Gaza is under occupation. And it’s not just any occupation. It’s an occupation coupled with a cruel blockade, blockade that put more than two-and-a-half million people for more than a decade and a half in a closed-up area, where Israel controls most borders and the airspace and the goods that flow in and the people that go in and out. And Israel retains Gaza on the verge of suffocation. And this is inhuman. And by the way, in the line of those responsible for this blockade, Israel stands first. But the line is long, and it includes the Western world that allows it. I can’t recall any other context in which the international community and the Western powers allowed such a blockade on millions of innocent people and not came over with a plan to end it. So, occupation and, yes, Israel is the strong power here, and, yes, Israel is the one that maintains that blockade. And if you look in the last decade and a half, it seemed like there was no reason for Israel to change its policy. America was fine with it. Europe was fine with that. The U.N. didn’t do much about it.

And I just hope — I hope, from this very deep pit that we’re in, that we will start now to — I mean, we’re now in the eye of the storm, so it is too early to say where we’re heading. But I — you know, I don’t pray; I’m not a religious person. But I desire that maybe from this calamity we will start crawling out of that pit. And we can try to do all these — trying to go through different roads. Eventually, the road map is right before us. It’s international law. It’s justice and human rights and respect for the dignity of all people and for their rights and for their collective rights, for the right of self-determination. There will be no end for this, no end to bloodshed, there will be no end to the conflict, without adhering to the principles that humanity has adopted throughout its long, scarred history of man-made catastrophes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Michael, we have less than a minute, but if you could say something —


NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sorry to interrupt you — about the status of the Israeli hostages who have been taken by Hamas? What do you know about them, and what do you expect will happen? What do you know about what might happen?

MICHAEL SFARD: Well, one of the terrible things about the hostages situation is that Hamas would not provide any information about their condition. And that is an abuse, a psychological abuse, for the families. I mean, I heard all kinds of statements threatening to hurt them, to kill them. This is — I know very little. And unfortunately, my friends in Gaza, who are human rights — my colleagues in Gaza, I am not in — I fear for them, too, and I don’t know how they are, if they are safe, if they are alive.

You know, I just want to end with the following. My grandmother, my maternal grandmother, was a Holocaust survivor. She hid in the Warsaw Ghetto and then in the Aryan side of Warsaw for several years with her mother and sister. And she wrote an autobiography, where she wrote that probably the biggest challenge in the face of inhumanity, of being a victim of inhumanity, is to remain your own humanity. That’s the biggest challenge. And in this area, there are so many victims. So many victims. And the challenge is that those victims, that went through living hell, will retain their humanity.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Sfard, I want to thank you for being with us, Israeli human rights lawyer. We’re going to link to your new article for Haaretz titled “Israelis Must Maintain Their Humanity Even When Their Blood Boils,” speaking to us from Tel Aviv.

Coming up, we speak with the Palestinian journalist Amjad Iraqi. Stay with us.

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