In December 1948, the New York Times published a letter by 27 American Jewish intellectuals, including Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt, warning of “the dangers to Israel” posed by the far-right Freedom Party (Herut). The letter described how the party’s militia had killed “most of the inhabitants — 240 men, women and children” of the Arab village of Deir Yassin, except for a few that were kept “alive to parade as captives through the streets of Jerusalem.” The signatories denounced Herut leader Menachem Begin and urged “all concerned not to support this latest manifestation of fascism.”
In 1973, Herut merged with other parties to form Likud, the party now chaired by current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu, who governs in coalition with other right-wing parties, has proven every bit as violent as the Herut thugs of yesteryear.
This year, from March 30 to May 15, tens of thousands of Palestinians demonstrated at the barbed wire fence that surrounds Gaza to protest the Israeli blockade, the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and their confinement to the crowded and immiserated Gaza Strip.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) responded by massacring a total of 112 demonstrators (including 13 children). On March 31, after snipers killed 15 protesters, the IDF bragged in a tweet: “Everything was accurate and measured, and we know where every bullet landed.” Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the IDF soldiers “deserve a medal.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the IDF for allowing Israelis to enjoy Passover observances “peacefully.”
Not everyone in Israel was at peace. B’Tselem, a human rights group, said, “Israel … has made Gaza a huge prison, yet forbids the prisoners even to protest against this, on pain of death.”
Noting that “lethal force is banned by international law except to meet an imminent threat to life,” Human Rights Watch called for a formal investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which was created by the United Nations in 2002 (but runs independently from it).
Since 2015, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has been conducting a “preliminary examination” of the 2014 Gaza War, which killed 2,251 Palestinians (including 1,462 civilians) and 73 Israelis (including 6 civilians). On April 8, she warned that “any new alleged crime committed in the context of the situation in Palestine may be subjected to my office’s scrutiny.”
On May 18, the U.N. Human Rights Council voted to set up a commission of inquiry to examine Israel’s use of force, 29 to 2 (the United States and Australia) with 14 abstentions (including Britain, Germany and Japan). Because the United States has veto power on the Security Council, any recommendation is unlikely to move forward.
As the Likudniks see it, the only thing Israel has done wrong in Gaza is lose the public relations war. Speaking at a briefing for the Jewish Federations of North America, IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said, “The ‘winning picture’ overwhelmingly, by a knockout, unfortunately, have been the graphics from the Palestinian side. The amount of casualties has done us a tremendous disservice, unfortunately, and it has been very difficult to tell our story.”
That wouldn’t surprise Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, Seymour Melman and the others who signed that letter to the New York Times 70 years ago. The authors were prophetic: “It is in its actions that the terrorist party betrays its real character; from its past actions we can judge what it may be expected to do in the future.”
That future is now.
It’s time for ICC Chief Prosecutor Bensouda to move the proceedings from the court of public opinion, where Israel’s leaders are currently being tried, to a more proper venue: The Hague.
Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.