In an effort to contain growing outrage over Israel’s overt disregard of international law and human rights, the Israeli military has launched a PR campaign in which it sends its former soldiers all over the United States to speak about their personal experiences. Last Wednesday, Ann Arbor bore the dubious honor of providing the platform for a military with a history of war crimes to rationalize its actions.
At 4 p.m., students, faculty, staff, and community members seated themselves in the League's Henderson room where the two Israeli soldiers would soon speak. At 4:05 when the first soldier began his narrative, the room was full to capacity. As the first soldier, Omer, started speaking, nearly all of the event’s attendees stood up, taped their mouths shut and revealed red shirts bearing the names and ages of children killed during the Gaza invasion. Omer continued to give his presentation to a sea of red-garbed, silent protestors and went on to claim that Israel goes out of its way to avoid targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure when engaging in counter-terrorism. terrorism. He spoke of how proud he was to have served in an army with a moral code that preserves human life. About fifteen minutes into Omer’s speech, the protestors stood up in unison and filed out in utter silence. As they walked out, two students held up signs that read: “We stand today for those who have been silenced” and “Stand with us against injustice and walk out on oppression.” At this, several of the remaining attendees also rose and left. By 4:20 the room was nearly empty, with only a handful of people still seated.
The events’ attendees were protesting the presence of representatives from Israel’s military, called the Israel Defense Forces, which is accused of war crimes by the United Nations and condemned by major human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Israel's own B'Tselem. Early last year, Israel caused global outrage with its aerial bombardment and armed invasion of the impoverished Gaza Strip in 22 days during December 2008-January 2009, killing over a thousand civilians including more than 300 children. In the three-week war, Israel destroyed nearly all of the civilian infrastructure in Gaza, even attacking a UN hospital and Red Cross ambulances, despite the fact that medical vehicles, personnel, and buildings are protected under international law. In addition, Israel's military shelled the U.N. Works and Relief Agency's compound in Gaza City, which stored and distributed food aid and medicine for the entire population of the Gaza Strip.
According to a UN inquiry, the Gaza campaign intended to destroy the civilian economic output of the Strip and exacerbate the suffering of a populace that has already endured a four-year long siege by Israel. This siege continues to block basic supplies like pasta, paper, and shoes from entering Gaza, and has brought the local economy to a near standstill. The siege is condemned by both the United Nations and leading international human rights organizations as illegal because it engages in collective punishment and uses starvation of civilians as a method of warfare.
In late May of this year, Israeli Special Forces stormed a humanitarian flotilla heading for Gaza while it was still in international waters. The flotilla was carrying aid including medicines, wheelchairs, school supplies, and children's toys, aiming to break the siege of Gaza and to bring the world’s attention to the disproportionate suffering of Palestinian civilians. The flotilla was crewed by over 600 activists from 37 nations, including a Nobel Laureate, a holocaust survivor, and several members of European parliaments. The Israeli military went on to kill nine activists aboard the flotilla and injure dozens more with automatic weapons.
In an effort to contain the international fallout from Israel's actions, the Israeli government has launched what is essentially an international propaganda campaign. This campaign attempts to shift attention away from recent events by focusing on Israel’s technological and biomedical achievements, its humanitarian aid to other countries, and a framing of the flotilla massacre and Gaza invasion in terms of 'self-defense'. Ann Arbor was the latest stop in this rebranding campaign. Moreover, the soldiers present Wednesday were not merely representatives of a military that has committed war crimes, they themselves could be traced back to the violence. The organizing group StandWithUs described the second soldier present on Wednesday, Shai, as a member of the “elite Givati infantry brigade.” This brigade was investigated by the Israeli Military Police for an airstrike during the Gaza invasion that targeted a civilian home, killing 21 civilians, including women and children, and wounding 19 more.
On Wednesday, the silence spoke clearly: the justification of atrocities will not be welcomed at Michigan. Similarly, the international community’s continued outrage with Israel’s government signifies the approach of a day when the audience willing to listen to its self-exonerations will also disappear.