A Turning Point in Criticism of Israeli Human Rights Policies

James Zogby
Monday 7 Feb 2022

This past month, we were treated to a few classic examples of how Israel deals with criticism and how it may be finding it increasingly difficult to dodge challenges to its abusive behaviors.

Example 1. On January 12, 2022, Omar Abdulmajeed Assad died at the hands of the Israeli occupation forces. He didn't just die. He was murdered. While different in some details, his murder was not unlike the killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis or Eric Garner in New York City, two Black men who were killed by American police. The deaths of Garner and Floyd became central to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.  
In the early morning hours of January 12th, Mr. Assad, a 78-year-old Palestinian American, driving home from an evening spent playing cards with friends, was stopped by a group of Israeli occupation forces conducting a raid into his village of Jiljilya. Despite being in Area A and therefore presumably under the control of the Palestinian Authority, the Israelis nevertheless claim the right to enter the village at will, raid, harass, and detain Palestinian residents.  
When stopped by the raiding party, Mr. Assad objected and argued with the Israelis. He was forcibly pulled from his car, handcuffed, and gagged. He was then dragged for about 100 yards and deposited, face down, on the cold 32F degree ground. A few other Palestinians who were detained with him reported that one of the Israelis sat on Mr. Assad's back, holding him down. 
About an hour later, the Israelis freed the other men and departed. After a short while, the soldiers returned and seeing Mr. Assad still lying motionless, cut the handcuffs from one of his wrists and left his lifeless body on the ground. The other detainees brought a doctor from the village who came to the site, saw that Mr. Assad wasn't breathing, noted that his face was blue, and pronounced him dead. 
While there are many such gruesome Palestinian deaths at the hands of Israeli occupation forces, most of which are never reported in the West, this one was different because Mr. Assad was an American citizen. A US senator and a group of congresspeople were quick to respond with calls for an investigation, as did the US Department of State. 
This past week, the Israeli military announced that it had completed its investigation and released its findings hoping to assuage the concerns of the Americans. The military investigation concluded that "the incident pointed to a moral failure and to an error in judgment by the troops, while seriously undermining the value of human dignity."  One commanding officer was rebuked, and two of the soldiers involved were dismissed from their service. 
The Israelis may have hoped that this would be the end of the matter, only to have the US State Department respond that "the Biden administration expects a thorough criminal investigation and full accountability in the case of Omar Assad."

The painful death of Mr. Assad at the hands of the Israeli occupation forces raises some deeply troubling concerns. The brutality meted out to Mr. Assad and the callous disregard for Palestinian human life on display in his death hearken back to countless earlier episodes in which Israeli forces have demonstrated that they view Palestinians as less than full human beings. 
In this case, the members of Congress and State Department are right — a criminal investigation is necessary precisely because, given the facts we know, this cannot be dismissed as a mere "moral lapse." The Israeli forces involved displayed criminally negligent/reckless behavior resulting in death. What is to be adjudicated is whether they are to be charged with homicide or manslaughter. Nothing less will do. 
In the past, such brutality was ignored and never even warranted an investigation. But because Mr. Assad is an American and because there is a growing sensitivity toward Palestinian rights among progressive Democrats, including those in Congress, this case could not be so easily dismissed with a faux investigation that whitewashed this murder.      
Example 2. While the death of Mr. Assad was still in the news, Israel received yet another blow when Amnesty International released a meticulously documented 280-page report, Israel's Apartheid Against Palestinians: A Cruel System of Domination and a Crime Against Humanity. 
The report notes that: "Decades of deliberately unequal treatment of Palestinians in all areas under the control of Israel has left Palestinians marginalized and subject to widespread and systematic socioeconomic disadvantage as they are barred from equitable access to natural and financial resources, livelihood opportunities, healthcare, and education." 
As the report continues, it provides details of Israeli policies that have negatively impacted Palestinians, in different ways, depending on whether they are citizens of Israel, residents of "East Jerusalem," the occupied West Bank, and Gaza, or refugees in exile denied the right to return to their homes and properties. In all cases the report argues, Israel has established laws and practices that privilege one group (Jews) at the expense of Palestinian Arabs — in other words, apartheid. 
Much of what is in the report has been known for decades. (I covered much of this ground in my 1978 book, Palestinians, The Invisible Victims: Zionism and the Problem of Palestinian Rights.) In the past year two Israeli human rights groups — Yesh Din and B'Tselem — and Human Rights Watch have issued reports making the same charge. But this was different for two reasons. It comes from Amnesty International, which even the State Department regularly cites as the "gold standard" of human rights groups. And it makes the case in international law for why Israel should be charged with "a crime against humanity." As a result, the issue of apartheid will gain currency among groups in the US concerned with human rights. An example: This past week, the Episcopal Church in DC overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling Israel an apartheid state. 
Israel's main concern is that, with the backing of Amnesty International, others will follow suit and pressure will grow for the International Criminal Court to take up the issue, creating even more attention on Israel's behavior towards the Palestinian people. 
Because of the prestige of Amnesty International and the urgency their charges have created, whitewashing won't do, so Israel had to take a different tack. For this reason, the Israeli hasbara machinery went into full gear to denounce the report as "malicious" and demonize Amnesty International as anti-Semitic. On cue, pro-Israel groups and members of Congress echoed these charges focusing their outrage on the term “apartheid” without ever addressing the actual substance of the report or the violations of human rights contained within it. 
It's not clear how Israel will weather these two storms — the murder of a Palestinian American and the charge of apartheid. What is clear, however, is that we are in a new era in which whitewashing crimes or demonizing those who accuse Israel of committing them will not be so easily swept under the carpet.

* President Arab American Institute

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