But the retaliation against Gaza has driven human rights groups to reaffirm the need to safeguard all civilian life, offering a conscience in a climate of vengeance.
With the shock, horror and Holocaust imagery stemming from Hamas’s October 7 invasion of Israel, the Israeli Left and backers of reconciliation with the Palestinians have been jolted. Some of those who once defined themselves as peace supporters are now turning a blind eye to mass death and destruction in Gaza.
Along with calls by pundits to level the crowded coastal enclave ruled by Hamas, their change of heart is part of an overall atmosphere that has put Israel’s internationally respected human rights groups and activists on the defensive more than ever before regarding both Gaza and the occupied West Bank.
The emerging repentant leftists thought of themselves as left-wingers because they opposed the occupation, favoured dialogue (at least in theory), and hoped for peace, including with the Gazans. But after Hamas’s massacres, atrocities, torchings of trapped families, beheadings and kidnappings of children and the elderly, there is a growing sense that Israel is entitled to do anything to Gaza’s population regardless of whether it tears to shreds the laws of war.
An example of this train of thought was published in the Yediot Ahronoth newspaper on Friday, in an article headlined, Breaking Point of a Leftist. Dror Feuer, a journalist, editor and former television presenter, gave voice to the feeling of many that he, too, could easily have been slaughtered by Hamas and that, even though he and his children are relatively safe in Tel Aviv, he constantly relives the murders and horrors of October 7.
“My heart is sealed off to the suffering of Gazans. As a mild Leftist, it is hard to think such thoughts. But what else is left?”Dror Feuer, journalist
“My heart, I admit, is sealed off to the suffering of the residents of Gaza. As a mild leftist it is hard for me to think such thoughts, and to write them, but what else is left? After what happened, the only humanitarian crisis I care about is ours.”
Feuer then voices what is now an increasingly common assertion that Israel can, and should, ignore distinctions between combatants and non-combatants: “Also in the war against the Nazis, the value of eradicating them took priority over the value of not harming the innocent,” her wrote.
The same approach is being voiced by top diplomats. Israel’s ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely, has likened the situation to the allied firebombing of Dresden in World War II, according to a report in The Guardian.
All of this places the Israeli human rights organisations and activists against the wall. But maybe this is their finest hour. They are sticking to their core principle that all civilian life must be safeguarded in accordance with international law, and thereby offering a sense of conscience in a climate of vengeance.
“Two wrongs don’t make a right. Hamas war crimes don’t give a kosher certificate to violations of international law.”Yehuda Shaul, founder of Breaking The Silence
Yehuda Shaul, founder and former director the anti-occupation veterans group Breaking the Silence, said the Israeli human rights community is still monitoring the government and army and holding them to legal standards, even after all Israel has been through.
“The entire human rights community unequivocally condemned Hamas war crimes. But two wrongs don’t make a right. Hamas war crimes don’t give a kosher certificate to violations of international law.”
“This is not about condemning strikes in Gaza,” he continued. “Israel has an obligation to defend its citizens, but it needs to follow international law. It can’t target civilians. The problem is that there is a huge cloud about whether Israel is abiding by international law.”
Shaul said that during days when “blood is boiling” in Israel “we need to make our voices heard more than ever about what is right or wrong.”
At B’Tselem, Israel’s largest human rights organisation that’s also known for its sharp criticisms, including calling Israel an apartheid regime, the position on the war would be anathema to most Israelis because it holds both sides accountable. B’Tselem says that nothing justifies the Hamas atrocities.
“We have our own standards that it is never permissible to target civilians even if there is occupation, colonialism or closure. It doesn’t justify murdering children, women, the elderly, taking hostages, mutilating bodies, no,” says Roi Yellin, director of public outreach.
But B’Tselem is also adamant about opposing Israeli acts it sees as illegal. “The same goes for evacuating one million Gazans, reducing complete neighbourhoods to rubble, [cutting off] necessary infrastructure, electricity and water and creating a humanitarian problem. That’s also not permissible.”
“It’s the role of a human rights group to insist on moral principles especially when society is going off the rails with rage.”Roi Yellin, Director of Public Outreach at B’Tselem
“For Israelis there is zero tolerance for any expressions of sympathy for human suffering on the other side,” he said. “But it’s the role of a human rights organisation to insist on moral principles, especially when society is going off the rails with rage. We’re trying to be on the side of humanity.”
Oded Revivi, mayor of the sprawling West Bank settlement of Efrat that was built in contravention of international law, believes the human rights organisations and left-wingers are in crisis. “The severity, brutality and cruelty that hit Israel has made people who were vocal supporters of the Left confused,” he said.
“There is a realisation that if this is the way people behave, it is doubtful we can go forward with them. There is disappointment that you can’t trust the other side,” he said of Palestinians.
Asked if the human rights organisations had lost credibility, Revivi questioned whether they had any to begin with. “Brutality has put people in shock,” he said.
According to Haaretz, B’Tselem and Israeli human rights activists, there has been a surge of violence by West Bank settlers and soldiers against Palestinian herding communities since the war started, forcing the displacement of hundreds of Palestinians.
The settlers and soldiers are also threatening Israeli and foreign human rights activists seeking to protect the Palestinians, according to Guy Butavia, a veteran member of the Taayush solidarity group. “It’s very dangerous. I’m not sure when I’m going if I’ll come back,” Butavia told Plus61J Media.
Human rights lawyer Eitay Mack told Plus61J Media: “I think there is not enough attention to the ethnic cleansing going on in the West Bank because everyone is focused on Gaza.” He voiced fears that vengeance-minded settlers, whose cohorts paid no price for waging pogroms earlier this year, might perpetrate a massacre. “A lot of the far right sees an opportunity in the West Bank.”
Asked about the settler violence against herding communities, Revivi said: “I don’t know of any such acts. If they do occur, the people should be tried. It doesn’t serve our purpose or goal.”
Three questions for the global far left By Yair Lapid (Times of Israel)
How many Jews have to die for you to care? Can you distinguish feelings from facts? Do you know what you really are?