As yet another wave of Palestinian terrorism broke out this week, Israelis faced a painful internal debate: How far can they go in fighting terrorism without compromising their moral and legal principles?
The debate focused primarily on the revelation that the radical, left-wing Israeli organization Gush Shalom was collecting information on the actions of Israel Defense Force officers that might be submitted as part of war crimes charges to the new International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Gush Shalom — Hebrew for Peace Bloc — is an organization led by journalist and former legislator Uri Avnery, who believes Israel must evacuate the West Bank and Gaza Strip and retreat to the borders it had before the 1967 Six- Day War.
In recent years the organization has taken several controversial actions, including an international call to boycott Israeli goods produced beyond the Green Line, as the pre-1967 border is known.
Never before, however, has Gush Shalom stirred such public controversy as with the letters it sent in recent months to 15 Israeli officers serving in the territories, claiming that they are guilty of offenses tantamount to war crimes.
The letters warn the officers that Gush Shalom is monitoring their actions and intends to compile information against them for submission to the International Criminal Court.
Gush Shalom spokesman Adam Keller told JTA that the first letters were sent several months ago, but someone else — whom he did not name — saw fit to publicize them only now, in the midst of a wave of Palestinian terror.
Despite the latest terror attacks — which he said he also considers war crimes — Keller said Gush Shalom will continue monitoring IDF officers to ensure they do not violate international law.
The government swung into action as soon as the news hit the press. Cabinet Ministers Limor Livnat and Dan Naveh called on the government to take legal steps against the Gush Shalom activists.
“It is inconceivable that something like this can happen here,” agreed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who instructed Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein to check possible legal measures against the group.
Rubinstein said his office had been looking into the case for several months but had not yet reached a conclusion.
Gush Shalom, for its part, said it would not be deterred by Sharon’s “threats.”
“By collating information on violations of international law by IDF troops in the occupied territories, we have committed no crime,” the group said in a statement.
Keller says Gush Shalom consulted with lawyers and were told there was nothing illegal in warning others not to engage in illegal activities.
Moreover, Gush Shalom so far has not approached the international court, but merely has warned officers that it may do so, and that they are in the spotlight.
Still, the controversy is an indication of the growing moral and legal dilemmas the Israeli army faces as it tries to combat a seemingly endless supply of Palestinian terrorists.
The more intensive terrorist acts become, the greater the inclination in the Israeli military — and the general population — to take tougher measures to maintain Israelis’ security.
Among them is a plan to demolish the houses of Palestinian suicide bombers. Israel’s High Court of Justice was expected to rule Tuesday on an appeal by relatives of Palestinian terrorists against the planned demolition of some 40 homes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israeli officials hope the policy will decrease suicide bombers’ motivation by showing them how their families will suffer for their actions.
It very quickly proved its efficacy: Several would-be bombers confessed that they had called off their attacks for fear that their families would suffer the consequences.
To some Israelis, the demolition orders raise the delicate question of collective punishment.
Others wondered how effectively Israel could fight a war against a ruthless enemy when its own citizens were threatening to lead the prosecution of Israeli officers.
Gush Shalom’s letters, sent to officers with ranks ranging from lieutenant to brigadier general, were signed by “Gush Shalom’s team for the collection of evidence against war criminals.” They were sent following specific complaints by Palestinian residents against the officers.
“As citizens concerned about the status and image of the state of Israel and the IDF,” the letters declare, “we cannot quietly condone such acts. We warn you that evidence about these acts has been compiled, and put in a file that we are preparing.”
The letter warns that the file is likely to be submitted as evidence in an Israeli court or to an international war crimes tribunal. The letter ends with a veiled threat: “We hope that from this time forth you will be careful, and refrain from carrying out or taking operational responsibility for more acts that represent violations of international law.”
Keller said the group preferred to take the issue to an Israeli court, but feared that Gush Shalom “or some international body” would have to turn to the International Criminal Court.
Israel declined to ratify the treaty establishing the court, fearing that Israeli officials, soldiers or settlers would be prosecuted in politically motivated trials.
What may not have occurred to them was the possibility that such a trial would be instigated by a group of Israeli citizens themselves.
Ha’aretz this week quoted a senior officer who called the letters “an attempt to harm the morale” of soldiers.
“This is an exercise in incitement and sedition,” the officer said. “They’re trying to foster a sense of personal threat” among officers,
But he added, “I’m happy to say that the letters haven’t harmed these officers’ performance.”
Despite the army’s conviction that its actions in the territories are lawful, staffers in the Military Prosecutor’s Office has discussed at length issues of legality and the possible involvement of the War Crimes Tribunal.
“The concern is less with the fear that officers may violate international law, but more with concern that reserve officers may think twice before serving in the territories lest they expose themselves to possible international indictments,” said reserve Col. Shalom Harari, who has served in the territories in the past.
Gush Shalom’s action triggered criticism from the left as well. Legislators Avshalom Vilan and Mossi Raz from the Meretz Party deplored the letters, saying they make “all IDF officers potential suspects.”
The soldiers should be well trained in what actions are permissible in the territories, Vilan and Raz said, but the public debate over their behavior should be conducted in Israel and not carried overseas.
Former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin echoed the criticism, saying that IDF soldiers should be forewarned not to engage in illegal action. If they do violate the law they should be tried in a military court, but it is not the duty of Israelis to report on fellow citizens to foreign elements, Beilin said.
Keller, however, insisted that the letter-writing campaign already has yielded positive results.
“It is very important that IDF officers know that there is a limit to what they can do in the areas under their control,” he said. He rejected the argument that his complaints should be directed at the policy-makers rather than at the soldiers in the field.
“Officers are not the G.I.’s at the gate,” he said. “They have a lot of consideration they can exercise.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.