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No “Hamas Exception” for Human Rights: A Reply to the American Jewish Committee

Hamas policemen guard a street corner in Gaza City, on June 27, 2010. (Photo: Shawn Baldwin / The New York Times) Following my post about my plans to participate in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in opposition to the blockade of Gaza, “Why We Must Sail to Gaza,” David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, responded by challenging me to answer his concerns about Hamas and Israeli security.

Following my post about my plans to participate in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in opposition to the blockade of Gaza, “Why We Must Sail to Gaza,” David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, responded by challenging me to answer his concerns about Hamas and Israeli security.

Of course, I welcome the opportunity to respond to David's concerns, and I thank David for giving me the opportunity to do so. Moving the focus of attention from the arena of violence to the arena of engagement and dialogue — that's a key component of what nonviolent resistance is all about.

The overall thrust of David's piece appears to be that Hamas is a monster, and therefore whatever the Israeli government does — including the blockade of Gaza — which is claimed to be “in defense against Hamas,” is justified.

The logic of the argument that the blockade of Gaza is automatically justified by the threat of violence to Israel from Hamas should be familiar to Americans. It's essentially the same logic that the Bush-Cheney Administration used in justifying its decisions to torture detainees — ignore the Geneva Conventions and the right of habeas corpus, and invade Iraq after 9/11: your concerns about human rights and international law are very pretty. But now we are facing a terrible enemy, so your pretty concerns about human rights and international law are no longer relevant.

If the argument was wrong when the Bush-Cheney Administration made it, then the argument is wrong when made by the American Jewish Committee. The fact that one faces an adversary with weapons, even an adversary that has attacked civilians with weapons, does not give carte blanche for violations of human rights. If it did, the concept of “human rights” would have no meaning, because the very idea of “rights” implies something that is not contingent; in particular, something that is not contingent on what other people do.

As the American Declaration of Independence put it:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

A key word here being “unalienable”: these are rights that flow from being human, and are not contingent.

I take it as “self-evident” that these words apply to Palestinian civilians in Gaza. The 1.6 million Palestinian residents of Gaza did not forfeit their human rights when Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections; nor did the 1.6 million Palestinian residents of Gaza forfeit their human rights when Hamas took control of Gaza. They did not forfeit their human rights, because they could not forfeit their human rights: their human rights are “unalienable,” and are not contingent on whether Hamas wins a legislative election; neither are they contingent on whether Gaza is ruled by Hamas.

Of course, if it is self-evident that these words apply to Palestinians, then it is self-evident that these words apply to Israelis. To affirm in an American political context that these words apply to Israelis is to bring coals to Newcastle, but I have no problem asserting that two plus two equals four, if someone is mistakenly under the impression that I believe something different.

In particular, the residents of Sderot have the right not to have rockets from Gaza fall on them; and more generally, Israelis have the right not to be attacked from Gaza. And therefore, it is obviously legitimate for the Israeli government to take just, legal and necessary measures to protect Israelis from rocket fire or other attacks from Gaza. But it is not legitimate for the Israeli government to take measures that are unjust or violate international law, simply because Israeli government officials claim that they are necessary. If we had to accept unquestioningly the say-so of Israeli government officials that any measure that they take in the name of “security” is just, legal, and necessary, then on what basis would we question such assertions from US officials, or Bahraini officials, or the officials of any other government?

Measures taken by the Israeli government which are clearly and directly linked to blocking attacks on Israel from Gaza or to blocking the transmission of weapons to Gaza are not a focus of international controversy.

In March, the Israeli military deployed a new antirocket missile defense system. There was no major international outcry against this deployment. Also in March, the Israeli government interdicted a ship going from Turkey to Egypt that the Israeli government said contained weapons bound for Gaza, while saying it had no evidence of Turkish or Egyptian involvement in the shipment. There was no major international outcry against this action.

The record suggests that Israeli government actions which appear to be clearly and directly linked to preventing attacks from Gaza into Israel are not the occasion of protest. Rather, it is Israeli government actions. which directly target civilians in Gaza which are the subject of (not yet enough!) protest.

For example, the death of two-year-old leukemia patient Nasma Abu Lasheen, denied access to medical care by the Israeli authorities — was protested by physicians for Human Rights – Israel. The death of 20-year-old liver disease patient Anas Saleh, denied medical care by the Israeli blockade — was also protested by Physicians for Human Rights – Israel.

It's actions like these that are at issue. It is obvious that preventing Palestinian civilians from receiving medical care has nothing to do with stopping rockets.

David wrote:

Israel has made clear that it has only one reason for enforcing a blockade — to prevent weapons-smuggling by a ruling group that publicly calls for Israel's destruction.

But the public record shows otherwise.

In June 2010, McClatchy reported, under the headline Israeli document: Gaza blockade isn't about security,”:

As Israel ordered a slight easing of its blockade of the Gaza Strip Wednesday, McClatchy obtained an Israeli government document that describes the blockade not as a security measure but as “economic warfare” against the Islamist group Hamas, which rules the Palestinian territory.
However, in response to a lawsuit by Gisha, an Israeli human rights group, the Israeli government explained the blockade as an exercise of the right of economic warfare.
Sari Bashi, the director of Gisha, said the documents prove that Israel isn't imposing its blockade for its stated reasons, but rather as collective punishment for the Palestinian population of Gaza.
The Israeli government took an additional step Wednesday and said the economic warfare is intended to achieve a political goal. A government spokesman, who couldn't be named as a matter of policy, told McClatchy that authorities will continue to ease the blockade but “could not lift the embargo altogether as long as Hamas remains in control” of Gaza.

In his response to me, despite asserting that the blockade is all about weapons, David appears to embrace the “punish the population” rationale of the blockade revealed in this Israeli government document, when he writes:

Don't you infantilize Gaza by refusing to hold Hamas and those who voted for it responsible for what's happening? [my emphasis]

The implication of what David writes is: the blockade is justified punishment for the Palestinian residents of Gaza, because they voted for Hamas. [Of course, not all residents of Gaza voted for Hamas — some of them voted for Fatah or someone else, some of them did not vote at all, and among those who did not vote at all, some did not do so because they were indeed infants, or like two-year-old Nasma Abu Lasheen, had not been born yet in 2006; but these considerations do not appear to concern David.]

This is the crux of the disagreement, it appears to me, between David and me. David sees the blockade of 1.6 million residents of Gaza — whose consequences, as previously noted, include the deaths of infants — as justified punishment for the electoral victory of Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections.

I do not see the blockade of 1.6 million Palestinians in Gaza as justified punishment for the outcome of the 2006 legislative elections. Rather, I see it as the Israel human rights NGO Gisha sees it: collective punishment of a civilian population, forbidden by international law.

And therefore, it seems obvious to me that as an elementary issue of justice, every aspect of the blockade must be removed that is not clearly and directly related to arms shipments.

Indeed, in 2010, President Obama called for focusing narrowly on arms shipments:

[President Obama] also called for an easing of Israel's blockade. “It seems to us that there should be ways of focusing narrowly on arms shipments, rather than focusing in a blanket way on stopping everything and then, in a piecemeal way, allowing things into Gaza,” [Obama] told reporters.

Which brings us back to the Gaza freedom flotilla. Obviously, we are not bringing weapons to Gaza. Is anyone claiming that we are? Therefore, according to view advocated by President Obama in 2010, the Israeli government should let us pass to Gaza unmolested, since the Israeli government should “focus narrowly on arms shipments.”

This is not, at present, the Israeli government policy. Last year, the Irish boat Rachel Corrie was stopped by Israeli authorities from going to Gaza. To my knowledge, no one from the Israeli government ever claimed that they had any reason to believe that the Rachel Corrie contained weapons. As the Guardian reported at the time:

The former U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Denis Halliday, said from the ship that trade unions and government officials had inspected its cargo. “So we are 100 percent confident that there is nothing that is offensive or dangerous,” he told Israel's Channel 2 TV.

The issue with the blockade is not the Israeli right of self-defense against armed attack. This right is not in serious international dispute. The issue in dispute is the deliberate punishment of civilians, and denial of their freedom. If the policy in 2010 had changed to that advocated by President Obama, “focusing narrowly on arms shipments,” there would be no dispute worth noticing today regarding the blockade.

But the fundamental policy did not change. And that is why our freedom flotilla must sail; and why we are urging Secretary of State Clinton to use her influence with the Israeli government to ensure our safe passage.

And although David and I may still disagree about the blockade, I hope he will use whatever influence he has with Israeli government officials to urge the Israeli government not to use violence against the flotilla.

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