Emmanuel Navon
International Relations Expert

A reply to Hagai El-Ad

The B'Tselem director, who made his case against occupation at the UN, did so in extremely bad faith and naïveté

On October 14, on the eve of Sabbath and of the Jewish holiday of Succoth, B’Tselem’s executive director Hagai El-Ad addressed the UN Security Council (UNSC), pleading for concrete and urgent measures to end Israel’s control of the West Bank. I disagree with what El-Ad said at the UNSC, and I disagree with the method he chose to advance his agenda. But on one point (which he made here), I do agree with him: his many critics (like me) should address his arguments.

Before I do that, let me remark on the venue picked by El-Ad to make the case of human rights and for international law.

At the UNSC, two permanent members (Russia and China) are occupiers, human rights abusers, and international law violators. Russia partially occupies Chechnya, Georgia and the Ukraine. It is committing war crimes in Syria. Critical journalists and opposition leaders are eliminated by the Kremlin. China occupies Tibet. The Communist Chinese government tramples human rights at home (including those of formerly British-ruled Hong Kong residents) and defies international law abroad (as recently as July 2016, China defied the International Court of Justice’s ruling on the South China Sea, while threatening Japan and the Philippines with military action).

Then there are the UNSC’s non-permanent members such as Venezuela and Egypt. Venezuela is a corrupt and bankrupt autocracy. Egypt strangles the Gaza Strip with a sealed border, thus contributing to a humanitarian misery which the likes of B’Tselem generally blame on Israel alone.

The UNSC, in other words, is hardly an appropriate venue to make the case for international law and for human rights. Indeed, what Hagai El-Ad did was almost tantamount to pleading for chastity in a brothel.

Now to the content of El-Ad’s statement at the UNSC. In his presentation, El-Ad denounced Israel’s “distractions from the big picture.” Yet El-Ad did just that himself. The “big picture” is that the stalemate that El-Ad denounces has many causes and that it cannot be blamed on Israel alone. One of these causes is the Palestinians’ rejection of territorial compromise on five occasions: in 1937 (Peel Commission); in 1947 (UN partition plan); in July 2000 (Ehud Barak’s proposal at Camp David); in December 2000 (President Clinton’s “parameters”); and in 2008 (Ehud Olmert’s proposal). Past attempts to end the stalemate have failed, mostly because of the Palestinians’ rejection of plans that would have granted them a state over most of the West Bank and over all of the Gaza Strip.

Theoretically, Israel could withdraw unilaterally from the West Bank (or most of it) to end its partial control of the Palestinian population (I say partial, because this control is also exercised by the autocratic and corrupt Palestinian Authority, something El-Ad chose not to mention). But the precedent of the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip has taught us a lesson foreseen by many: that the alternative to partial military rule after unilateral withdrawal is recurrent and military confrontation. Is it more or less moral to partially control the population of Gaza or to conduct deadly military operations every two years to end Hamas’ rocket attacks at Israeli civilians? These are typically tough questions that decision-makers have to face in the complicated real world and in the hopelessly cruel Middle East. In El-Ad’s world, by contrast, there are neither dilemmas, nor context or complexity. There is only an Israeli oppressor and a Palestinian victim.

El-Ad claimed at the UNSC that he and his organization “are fighting human rights violations.” In fact, they only fight human right violations that are not perpetuated by the Palestinian Authority and by Hamas. Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid used to work for B’Tselem. After the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994, Eid started monitoring human rights violations by the Palestinian leadership. He was arrested by the PA and, after his release, founded the “Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.”

El-Ad said at the UNSC that “Palestinians have the right to life and dignity.” They certainly do. But that right is also denied to them by Hamas in Gaza and by the Fatah leadership in the PA. Even if Israel were to end the legal military blockade of Gaza, Palestinians there would still be oppressed by Hamas. Even if Israel were to pull out from the West Bank, Palestinians there would still be denied their right to life and dignity by their own rulers, just like in the rest of the Arab world (with the possible exception of Tunisia). I am not saying this to justify the stalemate, but to point out to the extreme bad faith and naïveté of Hagai El-Ad.

El-Ad called upon the UNSC “to send to the world, to Israelis and to Palestinians, a clear message, backed by international action: Israel cannot have it both ways.” In other words, if the stalemate persists, Israel, and Israel alone, should pay a price for it. The Palestinians, by contrast, can continue to have it both ways. They can continue to officially advocate a two-state solution while demanding that the “right of return” be applied to Israel proper (the two being incompatible). They can continue to have their two oppressive and corrupt governments (in Gaza and in Ramallah) regale the world about freedom and human rights. They can continue to receive funding from Western governments to teach their children that the killing of Jews is rewarded in heaven.

While El-Ad did not specify which “international action” the UNSC should undertake against Israel, he most likely meant a Chapter 7 resolution to force Israel out of the West Bank. El-Ad, however, did not call for a parallel “international action” to protect Israel from the missiles that would be launched from a Fatah or Hamas-controlled West Bank surrounding Jerusalem and overlooking Tel-Aviv. And in his plan, there would be no UNSC resolution declaring that the so-called “right of return” has no basis in international law and is incompatible with a two-state solution.

Finally, El-Ad claimed that Israel was “established through international legitimacy granted through a historic decision” by the UN in 1947. This is inaccurate. The UN General Assembly (UNGA) vote on 29 November 1947 was a declaratory recommendation, not a binding decision. This recommendation became moot the moment it was rejected by the Arab League. The vote was symbolic and emotional, but it did not establish the State of Israel. Had the Jews not rebuilt their land for the decades preceding the vote, and had they not won the war imposed on them by six Arab armies in 1948, the State of Israel would not have been established.

What El-Ad was telling the UN, in substance, was this: you gave birth to this child, now tell him to behave. Besides being factually wrong, this statement ignores the fact the UN of 1947 is not the UN of 2016. In 1947, the UN was composed mostly of free nations that had fought together to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Today, the UN is an organization where Muslim states and autocracies have a numerical majority at the General Assembly, at UN agencies, and at the Human Rights Council. It is the UN that elected Assad’s Syria to the Security Council in 2002, and Ghaddafi’s Libya as Chair of the human rights commission in 2003. It is the UN that sat idle as a genocide was taking place in Rwanda in 1994 and as a massacre was perpetuated in Srebrenica in 1995. It is the UN that has looked the other way for five years as more than half-a-million people have been killed in Syria. And it is the UN that has just “declared” that the Jewish people has no historical connection to the Temple Mount.

That Hagai El-Ad would rely on such an organization to solve the intricate Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to uphold human rights is naïve at best and malicious at worse.

About the Author
Dr. Emmanuel Navon is a scholar and practitioner of diplomacy. He is the Executive Director of ELNET Israel (an NGO that promotes relations between Israel and Europe) and is an adjunct lecturer of International Relations at Tel Aviv University. In addition, he is a Senior Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS), and an international affairs analyst for i24news. He is the author of The Star and the Scepter: A Diplomatic History of Israel.
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