On the 23rd November, The Embassy of Israel in London hosted a meeting between various NGOs and Daniel Taub the Director of the General Law Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Below is an informal transcript of his briefing.
Mr Taub began by emphasizing that the current situation in the region was not where Israelis hoped they would be a decade ago "the first thing to stress is that we’re not where we wanted to be – as one Israeli commentator said ‘the future isn’t what it used to be!’ It is amazing to remember the astonishing degree of cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians in 1994, based on the conception that we needed to change the diskette in relations between the two sides"
Mr Taub explained that the ultimate failure of the Oslo process was "not a technical breakdown with Oslo but human error, the fact that the leader of the Palestinians, Arafat had not internalized the fact that peace making requires compromise and tough decisions on both sides."
Explaining the reasoning behind disengagement, Taub said, "two realizations fed into the current thinking about disengagement.
1. Israel can not control the lives of millions of Palestinians
2. There is no partner to engage with on the other side
And "because of these two truths, there is a need for unilateral steps, but this is only Plan B, a fall back option. Israel knows that ultimately, the only solution will be through negotiation."
"Disengagement also raises numerous questions, amongst them, how to evacuate 7,000 people from their homes without tearing Israeli society apart, how to withdraw without empowering terrorists (a la South Lebanon) and how to withdraw without causing unnecessary hardships to Palestinians."
With regards to Palestinians elections, Taub explained that it is "Not for Israel to tell them who they should elect, but there are certain policies that Israel sees as being conducive to political re-engagement; In particular, stopping incitement in school books and on state sponsored television would be a great help. There can be no more accurate example of someone’s future intentions than what they teach their children. And whilst dealing with Hamas may be difficult, the PA can have no excuse for not taking care of incitement that is broadcast from State TV. How far the PA goes in removing incitement will be a sign for Israel about how serious they are about peace."
Terror versus Human Rights: "It is not an option for us to say that any policy that may harm civilians is completely out of bounds"
Explaining the dilemmas facing Israel, Taub explained, "When it comes to security, the truth is that there are very few tools in the defense tool box. During Oslo, Israel had armed the Palestinian Authority and 98% of the Palestinian population was under PA jurisdiction. Furthermore, each tool has dilemmas – none is problem free."
Using the issues of Israeli closures as an example Taub mentioned, "closures are a very effective way of stopping potential suicide bombers, yet at the same time, it causes problems for tens of thousands of Palestinians. So Israelis are faced with the decision – ‘do we stop one bomber today but cause more frustration, or do we take a calculated risk and let people through? We don’t always get the balance right, but this is not an equation and there are no simple answers. The balance is not made any easier by the fact that terrorists deliberately create situations to which democracies can not respond to due to humanitarian situations. Building a rocket factory near a school or from amongst a civilian area creates a ‘win win’ situation for the terrorists – either Israel acts and causes civilian casualties, or Israel doesn’t act and allows free reign to the rockets. Contrary to International Law, terrorists don’t distinguish themselves from civilians, and again a very difficult balance needs to be drawn."
"Israel is currently struggling with the issue of how to fight to terrorism on the one hand without harming civilians on the other. And a discussion on how best to do it is not only legitimate but necessary. But it is not an option to say that any policy that may harm civilians is completely out of bounds."
The Security Fence and the Supreme Court: "No one wanted it…it is ugly, expensive and causes hardships…the only thing going in its favor is that it works"
On the Security Fence, Taub remarked that "The first point to make about the Security Fence is that no one wanted to build it – in fact if three years ago someone would have suggested it they would have been on the margins of political debate. It is ugly, expensive, it causes hardships etc – yet the only thing going in its favor is that it works, both in Gaza where there has been a fence for years and in the West Bank in which ‘successful’ attacks have been cut by over 80%. The fence is specifically designed to stop suicide bombings, which despite taking up on ½ % of total attacks suffered by Israel, make up over 50% of all Israeli casualties. And getting on a bus without being blown up is as much a human right as getting through a checkpoint."
"There are two main concerns about the fence – its route and its impact on the Palestinian population. However the route has actually been determined by those Palestinian terrorists who target Israelis wherever they live. People always say that it should be built along the Green Line. Yet not only was the Green Line never a security line, but terrorists make no distinction between Israelis who live in Israel or in the West Bank. And if Israel can protect them without causing undue hardship to the Palestinians, then this is what we will do. The Palestinians can not have it both ways, they can’t not fight terror on the one hand, and then demand that we build the fence according to their route on the other."
"With regards to whether the fence causes undue hardship, Israel is definitely a learning curve…the main way for dealing with all humanitarian issues is through the Supreme Court, a court that has shown itself to be fiercely independent in several cases over the past decade. In the case of the fence, the Court ruled that the balance between Israeli security and Palestinian human rights was not right and that Israel had to redraw its plans. It argued that ‘democracies have to fight terrorism with one hand tied behind their backs – but because of this they have the upper hand’. On the one hand, this makes me as an Israeli feel very proud, the fact that even during a war, my court holds such principles dearly – but on the other hand it is very difficult to know that there are things my government could be doing to make my kids safer and aren’t."
What NGOs can do: "We can only have dialogue if there is a balance between Israeli and Palestinian rights"
With regards to the work of NGOs in the region, Taub concluded, "Israel is open to dialogue in how to deal with the threats, but we can only have dialogue if there is a balance between Israeli and Palestinian rights. One UN delegation commented that Israel can build a fence but only if it has no impact on Palestinians. The fact is that there is no way to fight terrorists who hide amongst civilians without impacting those civilians in some way. Terrorism and Israeli measures are interdependent of one another and whilst Israeli actions can be a subject for legitimate debate, they can’t be seen in a vacuum. If you take the illness out of a medical operation, you’re left with assault."
He added, "Some credit should be given to Israel for being a democracy, for the continued price that civilians are paying and for the freedom of the media. I am not saying that we should be cut slack, just that the dilemmas Israelis face should not be taken for granted. NGOs should also be wary of forces that have an interest in using humanitarian international law to further political aims. There is a real danger that organizations are being abused by political campaigns and are allowing international law to be adulterated. As an example, the debate over whether to apply the Geneva Convention de jure or de facto to the West Bank is a legitimate debate and both sides have facts to support their claims. However, apart from the recent occupation of Iraq, Israel is the only country to have applied the Convention in any form over the past fifty years. Yet Israel is the only country to be continually criticized in the UN about its violations."
Courtesy of the Embassy of Israel in London (http://london.mfa.gov.il)