When unknown elements in Israel leaked the name, rank, identification number and other information about two hundred Israeli military personnel who reportedly participated in the 2008-2009 invasion of Gaza, the effect was sudden and profound, according to sources in Israel.
Although the first site on which it appeared was taken down by the host, it has continued to circulate via email, and has appeared on at least one other site. The Israeli military and other Israeli agencies are reportedly doing all they can to shut down every site on which it appears, and to prevent it from “going viral.” At least one popular blog that links to the site has received a record number of death threats.
What is so special about the list? As several critics have pointed out, it doesn’t even state the crimes that the listed individuals are alleged to have committed.
The root of the problem, according to the sources in Israel, is a poorly kept secret – namely, that it is hard to serve in the Israeli military without committing war crimes, because such crimes are a matter of policy. What Israeli soldier has not ordered a Palestinian civilian to open the door to a building that might house armed militants or be booby-trapped? Who has not denied access to ambulances or otherwise prevented a Palestinian from getting to medical care, education, or employment?
Some, of course, have gone much farther, and deliberately targeted unarmed civilians (as in the “buffer zones” along the border of the Gaza Strip), tortured detainees, and have either ordered or participated in massive death, injury and destruction at one time or another. These acts have all been heavily documented by numerous credible agencies, such as the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, Amnesty International, the Goldstone Commission, Human Rights Watch, and B’tselem.
What has been missing in large measure is accountability. To be sure, isolated victories have been won, usually with great effort. Within Israel, token trials and punishment, such as the conviction of the shooter of British human rights volunteer Tom Hurndall, continue to provide a thin cloak of respectability to the Israeli justice system. Beyond Israel’s control, however, senior Israeli officials have been forced to avoid travel to an increasing number of countries for fear of law enforcement action. Nevertheless, ordinary Israelis had not yet been made to feel directly subject to such pressures.
The publication of the list of two hundred changes everything. The list contains the names of a few high-ranking officers, but many of those named are in the lower ranks, all the way down to sergeant. The effect is to make ordinary Israelis concerned that they, too, may be subject to arrest abroad, and without the protection that well-connected higher officials might enjoy. They know what they have done, or been ordered to do, or have ordered others to do, and they suspect that they may be held accountable by foreign laws, over which their government has little control.
Many Israelis already fear that an anti-Semitic world is looking for an excuse to shut down the Zionist experiment. It is therefore not a great leap to believe that they could become pawns – or scapegoats – in the rising chorus of voices speaking out for Palestinian rights and against Israeli abuses.
Coupled with this is the Israeli addiction to vacationing abroad, which is a national obsession and almost a right, in the mind of many. The result is that suddenly, with the release of the list of 200, the prospect of being held accountable outside Israel is no longer an abstraction, to be dealt with at the level of diplomats, government policy and the news stories. It hits home.
This has serious consequences for Israeli society. It potentially increases the number of youth who will try to avoid the military, the rates of emigration and immigration, and other patterns of commitment to Israel and its military. Most of all, according to the sources, it may cause soldiers to begin to question policy and orders far more than in the past, because of the way it may affect them personally. The debate is already taking place around the question, “Can I be held responsible?”
The answer to that question could potentially determine whether it will be possible to mount a massive offensive against a population that has no effective military forces, as in Gaza, or where saturation bombing, cluster munitions and depleted uranium might be used, as in Lebanon. This is potentially a daunting prospect for Israeli military commanders, and some sources in Israel believe that the publication of the 200 has already had that effect.
More likely, however, it is premature to make such a call. It seems unlikely that Israel will succeed in putting the genie back in the bottle with regard to the list of 200. It is already leaping from one place to another in cyberspace, via website and email (although Israel seems to have been temporarily successful in banning it from Facebook). However, will it generate further research and release of information on the potential offenses committed by the named individuals, and will it lead to further publication of such lists?
According to the sources in Israel, the military and perhaps other agencies have gone into high gear to track down the source of the leaks. This is a typical Israeli response to the problem. Instead of asking why some groups or individuals in Israeli society are willing to take great risks to hold that society accountable for its actions, Israel prefers to blame the problem on treacherous, self-hating, anti-Semitic Jews, and to instill fear and hatred as the means for preventing Israelis from examining their consciences.