Monday, August 3, 2009

Academia in Israel implicated in war crimes

A few of our recent postings have reflected the currently growing discussion of, and rising support for, employing BDS--Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions--as practical ways to undo the impunity with which Israel continuously violates international law and breaches human rights. Facing the threat of a cultural boycott that would include academic institutions and scientific institutes, many official and self-appointed representatives of the Israeli regime repeatedly invoke "academic freedom". The following two pieces (both published on the Electronic Intifada website) provide detailed, fact-based descriptions of Israeli academia's extensive involvement in the forceful military maintenance of occupation and in the many material profits afforded by occupation and deep-running militarization. They unveil the claim to "academic freedom" as a convenient ploy towards silencing dissent and a control mechanism aiding maintenance of the current balance of power.

The first piece reports on the prestigious Harvard appearance of Colonel Pnina Sharvit-Baruch, a lecturer in the Law Faculty at Tel Aviv University, to which she "graduated" immediately after serving as head of the International Law department (ILD) at the Israeli Military Advocate General's office. She is known, for instance, this article explains, for "green-lighting the bombing of a police graduation ceremony in Gaza that killed dozens of civil policemen. … According to one Israeli jurist speaking to the Israeli daily Haaretz, the ILD is considered 'more militant than any other legal agency in Israel, and willing to adopt the most flexible interpretations of the law in order to justify the [Israel army's] actions.'"

The second item reports on an extensive, detailed study of the intricate interconnections and mutual dependency between Tel Aviv University and the Israeli security sector. "Demonstrating the complicity of TAU in the commissioning and enabling of ongoing war crimes is a relatively straightforward task," the item states. "At the same time, this transparency discloses the extent to which the institution's overt roles in illegal and oppressive military programs go unchallenged, which reflects troubling patterns of acquiescence across Israeli academia and reveals the degree of mobilization obtaining in wider Israeli society."

The full (10 page) study is available online at:

Rela Mazali


Israel Lobby Watch
Israeli officer promotes war crimes at Harvard Maryam Monalisa Gharavi and Dr. Anat Matar, The Electronic Intifada, 22 July 2009 ________________________________________
On 9 July Harvard University's Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR) invited Colonel Pnina Sharvit-Baruch, former Israeli military legal adviser, to their online Humanitarian Law and Policy Forum. The stated aim was to bring "objective" discussion to the principle of distinction in international humanitarian law, or what the forum organizers called "combat in civilian population centers and the failure of fighters to distinguish themselves from the civilian population."

Although billed as a lecturer in the Law Faculty at Tel Aviv University -- and therefore as a detached humanitarian law analyst -- Colonel Sharvit-Baruch was in fact deeply involved in Israel's three-week onslaught in Gaza in December and January, that counted its 1,505th victim found under rubble earlier this month. With the devastating operation condemned and mourned worldwide, many asked why a ranking member of an occupying army that flouts its legal obligations should herself receive safe havens at two major universities.

What troubled many of the 200 or so participants who "attended" the talk via a virtual chatroom was that Sharvit-Baruch was cut off from public or legal scrutiny as she relayed her PowerPoint presentation. Questions were posed by the moderators, sanitized of any critical content. Yet the indisputable fact is that the army for which Sharvit-Baruch worked has been accused by all major human rights organizations of committing war crimes in Gaza. Some wondered why Sharvit-Baruch was being given the opportunity to offer a carefully prepared presentation unchallenged in an academic setting, rather than giving testimony to a tribunal or inquiry such as that being conducted Judge Richard Goldstone, the South African jurist heading an independent fact-finding mission into human rights violations during Israel's attack at the request of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Since the event organizers did not ask pointed questions about Colonel Sharvit-Baruch's actual role in Gaza, it is worth doing so here. As head of the International Law department (ILD) at the Israeli Military Advocate General's office, Sharvit-Baruch is known for green-lighting the bombing of a police graduation ceremony in Gaza that killed dozens of civil policemen. This was no ordinary airstrike. It was premised on a legal sleight-of-hand: that even traffic cops in Gaza could be considered "legitimate targets" under international law. In a conversation with conscripts at a military prep academy in Israel, school director Danny Zamir noted, "I was terribly surprised by the enthusiasm surrounding the killing of the Gaza traffic police on the first day of the operation. They took out 180 traffic cops. As a pilot, I would have questioned that."

Further, the Israeli army used heavy artillery and white phosphorus munitions in densely populated areas of Gaza, against the UNRWA's headquarters and a UN school in Beit Lahiya. As reported by Judge Goldstone, Gazans trying to relay their civilian status were also hit. Even though the Israeli military tried several times to deny its use, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on white phosphorous use in Gaza quotes an unnamed Israeli official: "at least one month before [white phosphorus] was used a legal team had been consulted on the implications." HRW found that "in violation of the laws of war, the [Israeli army] generally failed to take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm" and "used white phosphorus in an indiscriminate manner causing civilian death and injury."

Such reckless disregard for the lives of civilians and pathological cover-ups of military operations are recognized by many Israelis within the system itself. According to one Israeli jurist speaking to the Israeli daily Haaretz, the ILD is considered "more militant than any other legal agency in Israel, and willing to adopt the most flexible interpretations of the law in order to justify the [Israel army's] actions." Although the ILD personnel "are now very proud of their influence upon the combat" in Gaza, human rights groups have stated that "residents weren't advised then as to which places were safe, and the roads by which they fled were bombed and turned into death traps."

One of the most indelible perspectives about Israel's legal gymnastics to justify its actions comes from Colonel Sharvit-Baruch's predecessor, Daniel Reisner. "What is being done today is a revision of international law," Reisner has said, "and if you do something long enough, the world will accept it. All of international law is built on that an act which is forbidden today can become permissible, if enough states do it." In expressing how the ILD moves forward by turning back the pages of legal jurisdiction, Reisner says, "We invented the doctrine of the preemptive pinpoint strike, we had to promote it, and in the beginning there were protrusions which made it difficult to fit it easily into the mold of legality. Eight years later, it's in the middle of the realm of legitimacy."

Sharvit-Baruch herself explained her vision of international law at a presentation for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs: "International law is developed according to practices. It changes based on what is happening in the field. These laws must be based on precedents, what already exists. There is flexibility in every law." By this law of flexibility, the more aberrations of international law a state can legitimize, the more hoary actions it can continue to execute and justify.

Since the attack on Gaza, numerous testimonies of Israeli soldiers published in Israel, have corroborated the accounts of Palestinian witnesses and human rights organizations that serious war crimes were endemic.

Despite the blunt admissions of Israeli soldiers widely published in the Israeli press, it was clear from her calm presentation that Sharvit-Baruch and her cohort live in their own rhetorical universe where even language is assaulted. In the Colonel's own terminology, non-existent vocabulary in international law such as "capacity builders" and "revolving doors" is coined to pass over accepted terms such as "civilians" and "non-combatants." Like the US government's "torture memo" authors -- who in contrast to Israel's were not uniformed ranking members of the army -- the Israeli military attempted to reclassify a "civilian" in a manner making it easier to strip them of protections provided by international humanitarian law. "Architecture of words," said one participant

Despite all this, by her own standards, Sharvit-Baruch and her team could not be faulted for their efficiency: in Gaza, banning all media from entering; assaulting the population with air missiles, sniper ground troops, and white phosphorus; condemning all criticism of military actions as contrary to state security; keeping a chin above the law; attaining a teaching position at Tel Aviv University and finally a prestigious opportunity to address Harvard students and faculty.

Maryam Monalisa Gharavi is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature with a Secondary Field in Film and Visual Studies at Harvard University. Her three-part film Inessential (2008) about the siege of Gaza screened at the Townhouse Gallery of Art in Cairo, Boston Palestine Film Festival, and Providence Palestine Film Festival.

Dr. Anat Matar is a senior lecturer of philosophy at Tel Aviv University and head of the Israeli Association for the Palestinian Prisoners.

©2000-2007 electronicIntifada.


Activism News
Study: Tel Aviv University part and parcel of the Israeli occupation Report, SOAS Palestine Society, 9 July 2009 ________________________________________
As part of Tel Aviv's centenary celebration, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London hosted a Tel Aviv University Special Lecture Series from January to March 2009. Taking place in the midst of Israel's war on Gaza -- which had already mobilized SOAS students to organize a number of activities in solidarity with Gaza, including the first student occupation in the UK -- students and a number of lecturers expressed their opposition to the lecture series.

The student union overwhelmingly passed a motion criticizing the lecture series' attempt to whitewash Tel Aviv's colonial past and present and called for the end of SOAS's collaboration with Tel Aviv University (TAU) in hosting the series on the grounds of its role in giving key legal, technological and strategic support for maintaining and expanding Israel's colonial occupation. The School's Director, Professor Paul Webley, opposed the cancellation and defended the continuation of the lecture series by invoking a prerogative of freedom of speech and citing the pedagogic value of diversities of opinion. Conspicuously absent in the Director's defense was any engagement with the nature and scope of TAU's research portfolio.

In response to the director's failure to acknowledge the serious implications of collaboration with TAU that undermined the reputation, integrity and fundamental ethical principles of SOAS, the SOAS Palestine Society prepared a briefing paper for him and the Governing Body outlining TAU's intensive, purposive and open institutional contributions to the Israeli military. While the signatories of the briefing paper recognized the importance of freedom of speech, they were also keenly aware of the need to uphold the rights of the oppressed and expressed that no right reigns absolute over the fundamental right to life. It is precisely therefore that it is wholly untenable that partnerships with institutions facilitating, advocating and justifying ongoing war crimes can be legitimized with recourse to an ideal of academic freedom.

The briefing paper presented irrefutable evidence of TAU's deep investment in the facilitation and prosecution (at both the material and conceptual level) of what amount to war crimes. Along with many other examples of expansive institutional culpability, it identified the leading role played by TAU in developing an explicit military doctrine of "disproportionality" calling for the targeting of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians and civilian infrastructures. All of the data assembled and clearly sourced in the briefing paper is publicly available and widely known both at TAU and to the wider Israeli public. Indeed, TAU's valorization of its contributions to the military is an emphatic feature of its domestic public image, repeatedly underlined by university president Zvi Galil and celebrated in public relations campaigns. It is in part for this reason that demonstrating the complicity of TAU in the commissioning and enabling of ongoing war crimes is a relatively straightforward task.
At the same time, this transparency discloses the extent to which the institution's overt roles in illegal and oppressive military programs go unchallenged, which reflects troubling patterns of acquiescence across Israeli academia and reveals the degree of mobilization obtaining in wider Israeli society.

When the SOAS director and the Governing Body of the school were confronted with the evidence in the briefing paper and the repeated demand to cancel the lecture series was made once again, the school's response was that:

"[N]either SOAS as an institution nor the governors as a group have decided to take a stand on the issue of continuing to work with TAU and ... it is unlikely that they would do so. Whatever the sympathies of individual governors may be, it would be virtually impossible and inappropriate for SOAS to take a political stand of this nature with regard to an individual academic institution or group of institutions in a particular country. This would go against the basic principles of academic freedom to which SOAS is legally and constitutionally bound."

This response utterly -- and most likely willfully -- ignored the evidence implicating TAU's role in death, destruction and oppression and stands testimony to the abject failure of educational institutions such as SOAS to place even minimal pressure on TAU to dissociate itself from oppression, illegality, and war-craft. Yet even this failure of omission, casting a shadow on the ethical integrity of scores of academic institutions such as SOAS, is translated into a far more serious failure of commission when universities offer themselves (their institutional reputations along with those of their faculty and studentship) as partners in the production and projection of an occlusive image of TAU as an unproblematic center of higher learning. This failure cannot be glossed over by recourse to notions of academic freedom or assertions about the pedagogic value of diversities of opinion unless these principles are elevated to an absolute status, absolving academia itself from an entire
of ethical responsibility.

SOAS has previously lived up to such ethical responsibilities when challenged to do so. In 2005, the institution responded to revelations about its holdings in weapons industries on the part of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) by immediately divesting from these companies. In doing so, SOAS implicitly recognized the need to fully dissociate itself from institutions profiting from war and producing its technologies. TAU's overt privileging of military research and development, its institutional primacy in the authoring and propagation of illegal military doctrines and its celebratory self-definition as a "front line institution" in the production of Israel's "military and technological edge" makes its embrace at SOAS a betrayal of the ethical principles upheld in 2005.

Undoubtedly, SOAS's collaboration in the production of a celebratory public image of TAU and the oppressive and criminal activities fostered, facilitated and celebrated by that institution signals a profound disregard for the consequences of such institutional partnerships on SOAS's integrity and ethical reputation as an institution. Perhaps this should not come as a surprise given that the restructuring of universities into profit-orientated organizations in much of the western world, and in the UK in particular, means that university managements perform and conform with the interests of the powers that be more than ever before. The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement that is gaining rapid support across many campuses in the UK remains the only effective tool to confront collaborating universities and demand the boycott of Israeli academic institutions involved in the perpetration of war crimes.

©2000-2007 electronicIntifada.

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