OpinionIsrael at War

Israel is angry at the wrong part of a UN report

Accusations of violating humanitarian law are legitimate, but privileging the Palestinian narrative is not.

The Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room of the Palace of Nations in Geneva. The room is the meeting place of the U.N. Human Rights Council. Credit: Ludovic Courtès via Wikimedia Commons.
The Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room of the Palace of Nations in Geneva. The room is the meeting place of the U.N. Human Rights Council. Credit: Ludovic Courtès via Wikimedia Commons.
Rabbi Shlomo Levin. Credit: Courtesy.
Shlomo Levin
Shlomo Levin is the author of The Human Rights Haggadah.

The U.N. Human Rights Council released an approximately 200-page report on June 12, finding that both Hamas and Israel are responsible for numerous breaches of human rights and humanitarian law. The report detailed the Hamas atrocities in southern Israel on Oct. 7 and Hamas’s indiscriminate rocket fire into Israel. Then it documented a litany of what it said are Israeli war crimes, including targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure, disproportionate use of force and many more.

Israel reacted with indignation and fury, calling the allegations against it “abhorrent and immoral.” But while Israel is right to be angry, it is directing its anger at the wrong part of the report.

The more than one hundred pages documenting alleged Israeli war crimes are serious and legitimate. There may be reasons to disagree with some of the conclusions and some of the reporting may be off the mark, but the whole thing cannot be simply swept away with allegations of bias and antisemitism.

However, on the very first page, the section titled “Introduction and Methodology” includes the following:

Both the 7 October attack in Israel and Israel’s subsequent military operation in Gaza must be seen in context. These events were preceded by decades of violence, unlawful occupation and Israel’s denial of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, manifested in continuous forced displacement, dispossession, exploitation of natural resources, blockade, settlement construction and expansion, and systematic discrimination and oppression of the Palestinian people.

What is this paragraph for? The central point of humanitarian law is that there are strict limits on what is acceptable behavior, even in wartime. However great the cause, however important the battle, some lines must not be crossed. So, even if someone thinks Hamas is right to fight against Israel, it cannot justify taking hostages and firing rockets at cities. No matter how justified Israel is in seeking to rescue the hostages and defend its population, that does not make destroying civilian infrastructure, denying relief aid or using weapons that cause disproportionate harm okay.

Since context is irrelevant to determining breaches of humanitarian law, the above paragraph is completely at odds with the report’s stated goal of evaluating compliance with international law. Its only effect is to open the door for those who seek to justify Hamas atrocities. Seen in this light, Israel’s decision not to cooperate with the commission is understandable.

Furthermore, if the commission wanted to consider context despite its irrelevance, there is no reason for it to cite only the Palestinian side. Israel could easily maintain that the context of the current war is the refusal of Palestinians in Gaza to live in peace even after Israel’s withdrawal in 2005. Instead, the Palestinians took advantage of the withdrawal to launch endless attacks in pursuit of their dream of destroying Israel completely. This forced Israel to impose a blockade and take other measures to decrease the Palestinians’ access to weapons, which Hamas has then used to falsely claim it is fighting for freedom from occupation rather than to commit genocide and ethnic cleansing. The commission has no grounds for accepting the Palestinian narrative as truth and completely excluding the Israeli viewpoint.

One area in which context really does matter, however, is when it comes to evaluating humanitarian violations. No country on earth does a complete job of safeguarding human rights for all its citizens and no army succeeds in following humanitarian law all the time. Of course, this is not ideal, but in practice, to judge how a country is doing we have to compare it to others in similar circumstances rather than hold it to an unrealistic expectation of perfection.

So, the commission might have mentioned that, while it has collected evidence of Israeli war crimes, we should remember to evaluate them in the context of how other countries have responded to atrocities committed against them by terrorist armies basing themselves in civilian areas. For example, we might compare Israel’s conduct in Gaza to the conduct of the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11. Whether Israel is better or worse—you decide.

Israel must take allegations against it seriously and cannot dismiss them merely by noting that they come from a biased source. But it is right to argue that Israel’s own narrative of what led to this war and Hamas’s true goals are just as legitimate as the Palestinians’ narrative. While Israel must do its utmost to uphold humanitarian law, we have to view its shortcomings in the context of how wars have been fought by other countries and not hold it to a standard of perfection no other country meets.

Meirav Shahar, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, wrote on X that this report is in service of a narrow political agenda against Israel. Unfortunately, it seems like she’s right.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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