A Phone Call from Hell
by Uri Avnery
There is a direct telephone connection between heaven and hell. I can prove it.
The idea crossed my mind last Sunday, when I was climbing to a snow-covered peak in the alpine region of Italy, where I was the guest at a political conference. The sun was shining, the temperature hovered around zero centigrade, around me was a breathtaking landscape of white peaks. Far away below, calm cowherds led their animals to their green pasture. Heaven on earth.
And then the cellular phone rang. The call came from Tel-Aviv, where the barometer was climbing to 32 degrees and above. The radio news from Israel, which I managed to receive from time to time, told of people killed and wounded, attacks and retaliation, bombs and bombardments, demolition of homes and deportations, and, on top of that, factory closures, mass dismissals, economic disaster. A real hell.
My colleagues at home called to tell me about an exciting development: that morning, "Haaretz" had published on its front-page a hair-raising sensation: "Gush Shalom has threatened officers: We collect material against you for The Hague". (This is the original headline in Hebrew. In the English edition of Haaretz, it was slightly toned down.)
Following the news item, I was told, the Prime Minister has ordered his obedient servant, the Attorney General, to start criminal proceedings against us. The Minister of Justice, Me’ir Shitreet, a third-rate politician, declared that we were a "fifth column". The Minister for Communication, Rubi Rivlin, considered by many to be a clown, solemnly asserted that "This is Treason!"
Any number of politicians and commentators started a lynch campaign. Expressions like "traitors", "informers", "Capo" (the Jewish "camp police", which served the Nazis in the concentration camps), "Judenrat" (the Jewish committees appointed by the Nazis in the ghettos) were freely bandied about.
There was, indeed, good reason for all this commotion.
At the beginning of the year, the Gush Shalom peace movement, like many people in Israel and abroad, decided that it could no longer ignore the fact that in the course of the IDF operations in the occupied territories terrible acts, violating both Israeli and international law, were being committed. Some of these appeared to be war crimes. We in the Gush decided that it was our duty, as Israeli citizens who bear responsibility for the acts of our government and our army, to raise our voice and deliver a stringent warning.
On January 9 we convened a conference on war crimes in a big hall in Tel-Aviv. Several professors of international law and two senior (retired) army officers were on the panel. One of the speakers was a war hero, air force Colonel Yig’al Shohat, who had been shot down over Egypt and lost a leg. In a voice trembling with emotion, he called upon his comrades, the combat pilots, to refuse to obey illegal orders, such as bombarding civilian neighborhoods.
All the TV and radio stations and the two major newspapers ignored the conference, to which they were invited. It was clear that all of the enlisted media had decided to suppress the issue of war crimes.
That became quite clear when we submitted to Kol Israel, the state-run radio network, a paid ad, informing soldiers about their duty to refuse "manifestly illegal orders" – literally repeating the wording of the judgment of the military court following the Kafr Kassem massacre of 1956. Kol Israel refused to broadcast it. We asked the Supreme Court to order the Broadcasting Authority to air the ad, but the court decided that it was unable to do so.
So we decided to take direct action. We distributed among the soldiers a pocket manual, setting out the prohibitions of the Geneva Convention, which was signed by Israel. Among them: Executions without trial (called "liquidations"), shooting of unarmed civilians, torture, prevention of medical treatment, killing the wounded (called "verification of death"), starvation, deportation.
"Protect yourself against indictment abroad!" the manual said, "As a soldier in an occupation army, you are particularly exposed to indictment for war crimes. Strict adherence to this manual will protect you from arrest and indictment abroad!"
The manual concluded: "Soldier, remember! During your military service, whether on regular or reserve duty, you must refuse manifestly illegal orders. If you have witnessed a war crime, you are duty-bound to report it!"
At the same time we sent individual letters to certain commanders and warned them that their actions might lead in future to their indictment in an Israeli or international court. (There is no statute of limitation on war crimes.) In the letters, we relied solely on material published in the media, especially on boasts made by the officers themselves, who practically incriminated themselves.
Copies were sent to the media, all of whom suppressed the information, as well as to the chief legal officer of the army, who did not take any action.
We warned these senior officers that the material collected by us would be put at the disposal of an Israeli court, if, at any time in the future, the courts start to fulfill their duty, or – as a last resort – to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
One may assume that it was one of these officers who gave the sensational news to the military correspondent of Haaretz. The liberal newspaper, which, until that day, had ignored all the information about our action (as, indeed, about almost all the activities of the peace movements) did publish this story as the main sensation on its front page.
The result was a deluge of defamation. The telephone lines of Gush Shalom activists were inundated with curses and death threats. The radio talk shows competed with each other over who would bring the most fanatical extremists to the microphone, with the hosts egging them on and openly supporting them. Gush activists were suddenly invited to TV and radio interviews, where they were faced with interviewers who behaved like interrogators of prisoners in some Shin-Beth cellar.
Of all the curses thrown at us, the most instructive was "informers". It belongs to the ghetto vocabulary. When Jews were a defenseless community, helplessly exposed to the cruelty of Gentile authorities, a Jew who denounced another Jew to the Goyim was considered the vilest of the vile. The fact that this word is used today, after 54 years of having our state, when we have one of the most powerful armies in the world, shows that many in our country still live in the world of the ghetto. Verily, it seems that it is easier to get the Jews out of the ghetto than to get the ghetto out of some Jews. The judges of the International Criminal Court look to them like a mob of drunken Cossacks intent on carrying out a pogrom.
Our aim is, of course, prevention. We wanted to raise awareness of this subject among the officers and soldiers. We hoped they and their colleagues would take the war crimes issue into consideration while making their plans, supplying perhaps the feather that would turn the scales at the moment of decision. We were resolved to turn this subject into a public issue, so as to put pressure on the political and military leadership.
Actually, the campaign of incitement unleashed against us did serve this very purpose. For a week now, war crimes have become a central subject of the public discourse in Israel. No officer or soldier could avoid giving serious consideration to his deeds or defaults in the occupied territories. Many of them for the first time became aware of what war crimes are and how they might affect their own lives.
From now on, this subject will not disappear from the agenda.
[The author has closely followed the career of Sharon for four decades. Over the years, he has written three extensive biographical essays about him, two (1973, 1981) with his cooperation.]