Israel supporters frown at senator\'s call to investigate abuses
Washington - A prominent US senator and nine Democratic members of the US House of Representatives have written asking the US State Department to investigate alleged “gross violations of human rights” by the Israeli and Egyptian security forces.
While Egypt often has been the subject of criticism on the issue, publicly attacking Israel’s human rights behaviour is virtually unheard of in the US Congress.
The letter, written by US Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., could have implications for the tense Israeli- American relationship and could affect military aid to Egypt and Israel. If the allegations that the letter outlined are found true, it could trigger the so-called Leahy Law, which prohibits US military assistance to countries whose militaries systematically abuse human rights.
The letter requests that the State Department provide Congress with information regarding the application of the Leahy Law, including “specific allegations of gross violations of human rights by the security services of both countries”, and asks for monitoring how US military assistance is used.
The letter also asked for a determination whether the “disturbing report of possible gross violations of human rights” by both countries was “credible” and to inform Congress of the findings.
The letter cites reports by Amnesty International and other human rights organisations about “what may be extrajudicial killings by the Israeli military” as well as reports of torture. Concerning Egypt, the letter cites Human Rights Watch, which described the August 2013 massacre in Rab’aa Square as “the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history” and reports of extrajudicial killings and forced disappearance by Egyptian security forces.
The letter requested that the State Department “act promptly” to determine whether the reports trigger the Leahy Law, in which case the department “should take appropriate action called for under the law”.
Israel and its US friends were infuriated that the letter lumped Israel and Egypt together; for Israel’s US supporters, Israel is the Middle East’s only democracy while Egypt is a notorious human rights abuser.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issued an angry statement denying that the Israeli Army and police “engage in executions”. He said: “Israel’s soldiers and police officers defend themselves and innocent civilians with the highest moral standards against bloodthirsty terrorists who come to murder them.”
State Department spokesman John Kirby told Washington’s Free Beacon that the United States “has applied and continues to apply the Leahy Law in Egypt and Israel in the same way we do globally”.
He added: “We do not provide assistance to any security force unit in Egypt or Israel when we have credible information that they committed a gross violation of human rights.”
Several former officials played down the importance of the letter, saying it does not reflect the widespread opinion in Congress regarding the Israeli-American relationship.
What made the letter more significant is that it was published just days after the videotaped killing of a wounded Palestinian by an Israeli soldier who shot him in the head while he was on the ground. While the letter was sent prior to the incident, its release during the international outcry and the public debate in Israel over it made it potentially more significant.
Former Israeli ambassador to Washington Itamar Rabinovich, who happened to be in Washington for a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said: “Leahy was always, I remember, pleasant but critical.” He said Israel responds to all the issues that are raised by the United States.
Frontpage Mag, a right-wing pro- Israel publication, wrote under the title Pat Leahy’s Israel obsession that the senator is known as a critic of Israel. The magazine said Leahy represents the “left flank of the Democratic party” and “serves as a continuous reminder that there are those in the West who function as nothing more than useful idiots for Palestinian terrorism”.
Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official who worked on the peace process with the Israelis and the Palestinians for years, said: “The central challenge to US policy in the Middle East is trying to reconcile our values, interests and policies. We never have and likely never will.”
He said the Leahy letter would not have an effect on the relationship between Congress and Israel or on military assistance.
Shibley Telhami, professor at the University of Maryland and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution disagreed: “This is important. Any time you have a senator not only issue a statement but request a probe and ask that the law is applied it is important. It is critical that it is a law in his name that was passed by Congress.”
Telhami said the timing is important because it coincided with the release of the video of the Israeli soldier shooting a wounded Palestinian. He said even if it did not have immediate implications it would generate a conversation rarely heard in American discourse. “It is turning it into mainstream,” Telhami said. “The public wants more even-handedness on the Palestinian issue and there is a gap between Democrats in Congress and their constituents on this issue. This is what Bernie Sanders is tapping into it.”
A Palestinian who has been involved in the Palestinian-American relationship for more than 25 years said he did not see the letter a serious threat to Israel, adding: “It is a bigger threat to Egypt.”
He said he doubted that the letter reflects a shift in Congress’s near-total support for Israel. “That is too far in the wishful thinking department,” he said.