Michael Kohler

Freedom of movement

The US slams Ben Gvir's freedom of movement remarks. Fine, but why the silence on a similar issue over Israel's border?
Lebanese soldiers stand behind a damaged vehicle after a UN peacekeepers convoy came under fire in the Al-Aqbiya village, south Lebanon, December 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari, File)
Lebanese soldiers stand behind a damaged vehicle after a UN peacekeepers convoy came under fire in the Al-Aqbiya village, south Lebanon, December 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari, File)

Israel’s National Security Minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, made headlines recently with his comments that Jews’ freedom of movement throughout the West Bank trumped that of Arabs. Ben Gvir faced tremendous criticism for those comments from many within Israel, human rights groups, and significantly, from the US State Department calling him out by name. “The US strongly condemns Minister Ben Gvir’s inflammatory comments on the freedom of movement of Palestinians in the West Bank.” Ben Gvir did attempt to clarify his remarks by claiming he wasn’t referring to all Arabs, but only to, “terrorists who throw stones and murder us.”

To be fair, I would like to think Ben Gvir was just referring to those Arabs who seek to attack and harm Jews, and not all Arabs, all the time, as his comments suggested. But, for the Meir Kahane disciple who was barred from serving in the IDF because of his extremist views and who until recently proudly posted a picture of the mass-murderer of Arab worshippers, Baruch Goldstein, in his home, Ben Gvir does not deserve, nor has he received the benefit of the doubt. The damage was done, and he did what the current Israeli government has continued to do, and that is give PR gifts to those who seek to delegitimize Israel and call it a racist and apartheid state.  Israel supporters around the world will continue to vociferously push back on those comments with facts and figures and anecdotes to prove those assertions false. But with Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich (who has called on Israel to raze a Palestinian village) as the face of this government, it is increasingly harder to make that argument.

Just after reading of Ben Gvir’s latest spat, I saw a blog in the Times of Israel by Aaron Jacob, Director of Diplomatic Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, entitled, “Hezbollah’s dangerous provocations.” The piece discusses the upcoming renewal of the mandate of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) created to maintain the peace along Israel’s northern border. Jacob writes that in a recent report on Security Council Resolution 1701, enacted after the 2006 month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah, UN Secretary General Guterres repeatedly states that Hezbollah has hindered and denied UNIFIL’s freedom of movement along the border with Israel, which is critical to UNIFIL carrying out its peace-keeping responsibilities.

Interesting – there’s that phrase again, “freedom of movement.” A controversial Israeli Minister makes a stupid, inflammatory comment about Arabs freedom of movement and the State Department calls him out and the internet and Instagram explode (thanks to Bella Hadid with her direct criticism of Ben Gvir to her millions of followers). But, when for 17+ years from enactment of Resolution 1701, Hezbollah, a universally recognized, Iran-supported terrorist organization with its stated goal as the destruction of the State of Israel restricts the movement of a UN peacekeeping force intended to maintain a peaceful border, all we hear is….wait for it….nothing.

Hezbollah, which effectively controls all southern Lebanon, if not the entire country, has an estimated 150,000 rockets and missiles amassed and aimed at Israel. This arsenal includes Iranian-supplied cruise missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, and thousands of long- and medium-range rockets capable of hitting nearly anywhere in Israel. In the next conflict, the Iron Dome and David’s Sling missile defense systems, while incredibly effective, will not be able to intercept all incoming rockets. Israeli civilians – the direct and intended target of Hezbollah – will die. Lebanese civilians, innocent bystanders that have and will be used as human shields by Hezbollah, will also die. Sensing Israel’s weakness from its societal rift caused by the judicial overhaul debate, as Aaron Jacobs writes, Hezbollah has been prodding Israel with cross-border infiltrations, allowing Hamas to fire rockets at Israel from its controlled territory and further entrenching itself along the border not only right in front of UNIFIL, but as the Secretary General freely admits, by restricting the UN force’s ability to even move about and travel through the very territory it is tasked with protecting.

As the de facto ruling authority in the West Bank, it is important for Israel to ensure that all inhabitants – Arabs and Jews – enjoy, at a minimum, basic human rights, including the freedom of movement. Ben Gvir’s comments were at odds with that simple premise and therefore unacceptable. But if that simple fact is true, should it not also be true that the de facto ruling authority in Lebanon should be held to a similar standard, especially regarding a UN peacekeeping force ostensibly tasked with helping maintain a quiet border?

Israelis just might be thinking: We need to ensure complete, unfettered freedom of movement throughout the West Bank for all, even if it is known that some of those people are terrorists intending to harm or kill them? And, (taking Ben Gvir’s comments in the best, possible light) if they dare to suggest that their freedom of movement outweighs the freedom of movement of terrorists, Israel is labeled a racist, apartheid state called out by the State Department and excoriated in the court of public opinion? Meanwhile to the north, Hezbollah – with its decades-long, terrorist history, including the blowing up of the US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 (for those who might have forgotten), among others – literally bullies and restricts the movement of the UN peacekeeping force, and the world is silent?

Maybe, just maybe, when Israel defenders suggest that Israel is held to a double standard, this is an example of what we mean.  I, for one, am certainly not defending Ben Gvir nor do I agree with his comments. But it is important to understand those comments were made following a recent alarming uptick in execution-style ambushes of Israelis killed while driving in the West Bank or simply engaging in other everyday activities. That is not an excuse for his remarks; rather some context in which they were made. I am simply suggesting that if Israel is to be rightly criticized for Ben Gvir’s unacceptable comments, then maybe, just maybe, the same international human rights organizations, social media influencers, and even possibly the US State Department could pay some more attention to Hezbollah’s bullying of UNIFIL, subjugation of Lebanese civilians, and continued entrenchment along Israel’s northern border provoking Israel into a future, devastating round of violence where hundreds of civilians will die.

About the Author
Michael Kohler is on the Long Island Regional Board of the American Jewish Committee, is committed to strengthening the relationship between US Jews and Israel, and professionally works as an immigration attorney on Long Island, N.Y. The opinions expressed are personal and do not reflect those of AJC or any other group or organization.
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