International Human Rights Day provides an opportunity to both celebrate and reexamine the nature of global human rights. Following the escalation of violent attacks against southern Israel in November, many human rights conversations have centered on the rights of residents of Israel and Gaza. Political advocacy non-governmental organizations (NGOs) specifically, continue to pressure Israel to remove restrictions on the freedom of movement of Gazans. However, they do so in a vacuum, ignoring the challenge of securing Israeli human rights – including the right to security and self-defense.
Israeli concerns regarding unrestricted movement into and out of the Gaza Strip proved prescient when the fighting began, as rockets and missiles that had been smuggled into Gaza were used to target Israeli civilians.
The Fajr-5 missiles, which were aimed at the largest population centers of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, originated in Iran and were brought into Gaza through intricate smuggling channels.
Ibrahim Menai, a tribal leader who runs tunnels that run from Sinai to Gaza, told CNN: “Beduin who are involved in arms smuggling receive the weapons from Sudan on small fishing boats through the Red Sea and by land through rugged mountain terrain only familiar to them and are almost impossible to intercept by security forces.”
Human rights organizations, like the Israeli group Gisha, chose to ignore the flagrant threat to national security, instead calling the Israel-Hamas cease-fire an “opportunity to finally end the civilian closure of Gaza and enter into regional arrangements that will allow residents of Gaza the freedom of movement to which they have a right.”
Similarly, on November 28, one week after the Israeli-Hamas cease-fire was announced, Israeli forces arrested Palestinian fishermen when they crossed the nautical limit in the Mediterranean Sea. This arrest came within the context of Israeli concessions, as part of the cease-fire, to permit Gazans to fish further into the sea. A spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Forces explained, “The process of easing restrictions is exactly that: it’s a process. If the quiet continues, it allows Israel to move forward in that process.”
In the wake of threats to national security of this magnitude, calling this détente a “process” is not only natural, it’s responsible. Yet human rights groups immediately moved to condemnations, for the fishing incident as well as for other restrictions of movement.
For example, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), funded by European governments, condemned “the continued Israeli violations against Palestinian fishermen in the Gaza sea,” and urged Israel to “immediately stop its policy of chasing and arresting Palestinian fishermen, and to allow them to sail and fish freely.”
Pushing the envelope one step further was head of Gisha, Sari Bashi, who was quoted as saying that “…even if fishermen could venture out six miles… that’s not enough. Many people are concerned that the more valuable fishing stocks are further out.”
Gisha’s unrealistic expectations, a week after over a thousand missiles were aimed at Israel, raise serious concerns about the ability of human rights groups to offer constructive solutions regarding the balance of human rights and security.
Gisha’s demands, which ignore the security component, are irresponsible. In this imagined reality, “more valuable fishing stock” trumps the threat of missiles; the safety of Israel’s citizens is secondary to freedom of movement. Should this be at all costs? Indeed, even as the conflict de-escalated and the ceasefire had already taken effect, boats with a fresh supply of Fajr-5 missiles were reportedly being deployed from Iran.
Yet, for these NGOs, the “continued Israeli violations against Palestinian fishermen” is the perceived danger to human rights, not the smuggling of new weapons meant for attacking innocent civilians.
The tension between security and human rights manifested itself in another example from the recent conflagration.
One of the cri-decoeurs of the human rights community is the 2003 Citizenship and Entry Law and family unification cases, or instances where Palestinians are not given Israeli citizenship via marriage, although their spouses reside in Israel.
Yet, the Tel Aviv bomber, who injured almost 30 innocent civilians on November 21, was precisely such a case.
The suspect is an Israeli-Arab originally from the West Bank who obtained Israeli citizenship when he married an Israeli-Arab. Of course not every unification case will involve would-be terrorists, but as part of its responsibility to protect its citizens, Israel must proceed with caution.
If only Israel lived in the pollyanna-ish reality created by the human rights community, a world where access to ample fish was the only right at stake. Hamas and the armed groups of Gaza have provided a stark reminder of the reality Israel actually faces when balancing all sides of the human rights equation.
The writer is a researcher with Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor.