Wednesday, October 26, 2011
What Gilad Shalit tells us about the respect for life in Europe, Israel and Palestine
Richard Landes, TELEGRAPH
One of the supreme ironies among the European moral stances has to do with their discourse on the death penalty. It is a standard trope of European contempt for the USA that it still has a death penalty, a sign of its cowboy nature and its retardation in the moral progress of nations.
And yet when that same Europe turns its gaze on the Middle East, the country they have the most contempt for is the only country in the entire region to reject capital punishment, and they have the most admiration for a country that among a widespread political culture that extensively uses torture and execution for the maintenance of public order, shows perhaps the most contempt for the lives of its own peoples and its enemies.
Normally, this would not be even worth mentioning. Most people would just roll their eyes while others complain about Zionist imperialists trying to divert attention from their oppression of the Palestinians. But if you want to understand the “hostage-for-prisoner-exchange” that just took place in Israel and the Western media’s coverage of the event, then you need to pay attention to the issue. Israel first outlawed the death penalty in 1954, thus reversing the Mandate Law, which, in most other instances, Israel took over from the British. They based themselves both on rabbinic precedent (concerns for both respecting the image of God in man and the unattainable burden of proof) and modern liberal sentiment. In doing so, they became the first modern Western democracy to ban the death penalty, followed a decade later by Britain (1965), Sweden (1972), Canada (1976) and France (1981).
Note that Israel passed this law five years after the creation of a polity dedicated to equality before the law for all its citizens, a move that earned them the ferocious hostility of their neighbors in the Arab Muslim world. Normally, when countries attempt these egalitarian revolutions and find themselves surrounded by hostile enemies, they have, by year five, descended into mass executions of their own citizens (French Revolution in their fourth year, Russians, Chinese, Cambodians, almost immediately). Israel, on the other hand, outlawed the death penalty even for Arab terrorists who were captured while killing Israeli civilians. Israel has only executed one person, Adolph Eichmann, held responsible for the extermination of millions of Jews during the Holocaust.
If the Israelis had hundreds of terrorists in their prisons, in some cases serving multiple life sentences, available to trade for Gilad Shalit, a soldier kidnapped from Israeli soil by Hamas combatants five years ago, it’s because of this attitude towards human life, both their own and those of the Palestinians. And that attitude was on full display throughout this exchange, with agonising over endangering future Israelis by releasing these men contrasting with a profound commitment to getting Gilad Shalit back. Some Arabs recognised the unflattering light this shed on their own culture, while others revelled in it.
Palestine, on the other hand, represents almost the polar opposite. This is a place in which killing daughters and wives and homosexuals for shaming the family with (even suspected and loosely interpreted) inappropriate sexual behavior is a regular feature of society, where “collaborators” are summarily executed, where official statistics for executions put the PA at a rate of formal, legal execution that cedes only to China, Iran, N Korea, Yemen and Libya.
The trade of over a thousand Palestinians for one Israeli highlights the radical differences between the cultures. As Hizbullah’s Nasrullah put it after a prison exchange in 2004: “We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are the most vulnerable. The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them. We are going to win, because they love life and we love death.”
If a European, concerned about the nature of the aggressive Islam that has begun to crop up in his cities, citing for example Sharia zones, wanted to understand the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict, he might spend a moment visiting the sites of Palestinian anti-Zionists, where this profoundly perverse culture teems. But of course, that would be politically incorrect. To spend any time pointing out the problems here constitutes the highest level of politically incorrect Islamophobia.
So instead of helping Europeans understand what’s at stake, most of the media and the NGO community have spun this story as one of violations of human rights on “both sides” with a heavy focus on Israeli misdeeds. The prisoners were considered “equal,” and Israeli primarily held accountable by the Geneva Convention for the treatment of enemy combatants when, in reality, the only one protected under these conditions was Shalit, a uniformed soldier kidnapped on his own soil in non-combat situation, and the thousand Palestinian prisoners where convicted in a court, primarily of crimes related to terror attacks on civilians (an, alas, necessary redundancy in these days of sophism).
Thus, The New York Times’s Robert Mackee could speak glibly about the “joy of parents on both sides” at the return of prisoners, and the UN could voice its concern that the prisoners Israel released might be subject to illegal forced transfer. “Returning people to places other than their habitual places of residence is in contradiction to international humanitarian law.” The UN’s concern for the full exercise of free will by convicted mass murderers illustrates the problem. Humanitarian discourse has been turned on its head to protect the ugliest players in this particular game, threatened by ugly forces within their own society, all the while implying that Israel, in its haste to get its own soldier back, trampled their rights and violated humanitarian law. Not surprisingly this led Ban Ki Moon to a moment of moral vertigo where he denounced the violation of everyone’s rights.
Of course, in order to present the moral equivalence of all the “prisoners” in the swap, one has to play down the heinous nature of the crimes and personalities of the Palestinian prisoners released. BBC correspondent Jon Donnison showed the extent of ignorance among the supposedly professional news media by interviewing a man in prison for organising and abetting several suicide bombings. (Because the attacks only injured but did not kill, he did not receive life sentences.) “You are 31 years old, 10 years in prison, serving a life sentence for being a member of Hamas, I mean, how do you feel today?” BBC viewers could be excused for sympathising with a political prisoner, inhumanly incarcerated for belonging to an opposition party, free at last.
In acquiescing with a narrative in which hatred and murder are considered legitimate expressions of “resistance” to “occupation,” Western human rights activists – including many journalists – have degraded humanitarian language at the same time as they have allowed into the public sphere a discourse of genocidal hatred. They have excluded any sympathy for Israelis who defend themselves from the onslaught they have shut out from their and their audiences’ consciousness.
It may seem cost-free to Westerners, but it’s not. In misreading the nature of the threat Israel faces, in adopting a degraded language of human rights to protect the greatest enemies of human rights on the planet, in adopting a corrupted advocacy journalism that masquerades as empirically accurate, they embrace all the kinds of techniques that put them in danger when faced with the same enemy.