The Tragedy of Israeli Justice


The Israelis have stopped bombing Lebanon for the moment, but at the height of the bombardment there was a moment of supreme irony. In fact, if irony came in a stronger dose than this, they'd have to put a health warning on it.

On July 29, the Israeli Supreme Court freed John Demjanjuk, a 73-year-old man who had previously been sentenced to death on the grounds that he was "Ivan the Terrible," a notorious Nazi gas-chamber operator at Treblinka. Mr. Demjanjuk, who has spent the past 12 years in American and Israeli jails, would probably not agree, but it was a triumphant demonstration of what a decent and civilised country Israel is.

There is little doubt that the Ukrainian-born Mr. Demjanjuk, a Soviet conscript captured by the Germans in 1942, eased his lot and perhaps saved his life by volunteering as a concentration camp guard. And though some allowances can be made for the choices of a very young and not very bright man in the chaos of wartime Europe, Mr. Demjanjuk may well have killed Jews personally. He was certainly part of the genocide machine.

However, documents that only became available after the collapse of the Soviet Union have cast "reasonable doubt" on whether he was actually "Ivan the Terrible" -- the man whose crimes he had been convicted of. So, with a heavy heart, the Israeli judges set him free.

"The quality of doubt is appropriate for judges who cannot examine the heart and mind, but have only what their eyes see and read," said Chief Justice Meir Shamgar. "The matter is closed, but not complete. The complete truth is not the prerogative of the human judge."

It was one of those moments in which a society defines its values, and Israel passed the test with the highest honor. Except that at the very same moment Israeli artillery, planes, and gunboats were mercilessly causing literally thousands of explosions across southern Lebanon.

The ultimate aim was to stop attacks on Israel by Hezbollah guerrillas operating in southern Lebanon, but the means was RTC attacks on Lebanese civilians who had nothing to do with the guerrillas.

"We may be pained by the sight of Lebanese fleeing their homes," said Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, "but we tell them: 'Your government has the option of empowering the Lebanese military to prevent Katyusha (rocket) fire at communities in Israel. Only if fire at the northern communities ceases will you be able to return to your homes in south Lebanon.' "

At least 100 of the 130 people killed in the six-day attack were innocent Lebanese civilians. As the Israeli Supreme Court freed a man accused of killing Jews because of flaws in the evidence, the Israeli state was deliberately killing Lebanese men, women and children whom it accused of no crime whatever.

By its own admission, Israel deliberately killed a hundred or so Lebanese civilians in order to create a wave of refugees and thereby force the Lebanese government to clamp down on Hezbollah guerrillas who use southern Lebanon as a launching ground for attacks on Israel.

"If there will be no quiet and safety for the northern settlements (of Israel), there will be no quiet and safety for south Lebanon residents," Mr. Rabin explained.

Emptying southern Lebanon of civilians and driving a quarter-million refugees into Beirut seems to have achieved Mr. Rabin's aim, at least for the moment. A U.S.-brokered "understanding" promises that Hezbollah will stop launching rockets into Israel so long as Israel does not bomb Lebanon. That promise will probably hold for a month or two, but Hezbollah has not agreed to stop attacks on Israeli soldiers in and near southern Lebanon -- the source of all seven Israeli deaths that caused Jerusalem to unleash the operation, and all three Israeli deaths during it.

But let us not get bogged down in calculating the exchange rate of Israeli and Lebanese deaths. The point that concerns us (and should concern Israelis) is the stark contrast between Israel's standards of justice at home and abroad.

Why is John Demjanjuk, a former American citizen born in the Ukraine, entitled to the due process of Israeli law, and moreover to the full benefit of the doubt when new evidence shows up? Why are other foreigners, Lebanese citizens, killed without so much as an apology when they have committed no crime?

Because courts in democratic societies enforce the law equally on everyone, and you may hope for something like justice if you fall inside their jurisdiction. Whereas governments acting beyond their borders are outlaws in the precise meaning of the word, and you may expect neither justice nor mercy if you get in their way.

Israel is by no means unusual in this regard. All governments, even the most democratic and decent ones, are outlaws once they move outside the boundaries of their own domestic legal systems. There a few customary rules define how and when they may choose to kill foreigners for political purposes, but they are unlikely to be punished even if they break them.

We have lived so long with this huge contrast between the inside and the outside rules that most people don't even see it as a contradiction, let alone a moral and ethical problem. But it is, and once in a while it is worth stepping back and re-asking the obvious question.

Why is it wrong to kill innocent people in gas chambers, and right to kill innocent people with helicopter gunships?

Gwynn Dyer is a syndicated columnist.

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