Human rights start from human beings

The issue of civil human rights in Israel, as in other democratic countries, is obviously also a political one, yet affected by the public’s attitudes.

Writer Akiva Eldar

It is therefore important to understand the attitude of Israelis to violations of human rights and the government’s reaction to events.

A leading American pollster, Mark Melman, had recently conducted a comprehensive survey on the Israeli approach to human and civil rights, and found an interesting similarity between the attitudes of Israeli Jews and those of the American people.

According to Melman, in both countries, the fanatic suicide bombers are winning the battle against Western democratic values. It appears that both the al-Aqsa Intifada and the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington have changed the delicate balance in public opinion in the two countries between security for the majority and civil rights of some minorities.

Revealing poll

The poll, which was conducted in August 2003, included 756 Israeli (Jewish) adults, all living within the Green Line.

It shows that the checkpoints, the wall and the curfews are acceptable to most Israelis. Most (58%) think that the Israeli army is doing everything it can to protect Palestinian rights. Only 36% think that Israel should be doing more to ensure Palestinian rights.

A majority of younger Israelis believe that the government is not using enough force, a feeling shared by almost three-quarters of religious Israelis. Even among Labor voters, only a bare majority thinks that Israel should be doing more for Palestinian rights.

The most eminent finding of the survey is reflected in the following paradox: 44% of Israelis believes the harsh measures against the Palestinian population make them safer.

Only 20% believe that those harsh measures make them less safe, while 25% said that the harsh measures have no effect.

Even among the left-wingers, only a minority (38%) thinks these actions make Israelis less safe. However, 44% said “yes”, when answering the question: “Do you believe the harsh measures encourage terrorism”, while only 23% said that “it discourages terrorism”.

A paradox

An Israeli child lights a candle at the site of the bomb blast in Haifa
An Israeli child lights a candle at the site of the bomb blast in Haifa

An Israeli child lights a candle at
the site of the bomb blast in Haifa

This paradox is a clear indication that photos of parents burying their children cause confusion in the minds of the Israelis.

The blood of innocent civilians is hindering the ability of many Israelis to see the agony across the street. Most Israelis, including those who never visit a Jewish settlement in the occupied territories and are even willing to yield al-Haram al-Sharif to the Muslims, refuse to acknowledge the connection between the suicide bombers and the occupation and violation of human rights.

Those who don’t blame Hamas or Yasir Arafat, blame the Labor party, which signed the Oslo Agreement, for the lack of personal security. Labor is accused of “giving the Palestinians rifles”.

This explains the support that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is receiving from people who lost their jobs and from families who dropped below the poverty line as a result of his government’s policy.

Physical security

The poll indicates that security and strength are more important than human rights. It is also very clear that, for a narrow majority of Israelis, physical security is more important than a commitment to democratic values.

The good news that emerges from the poll is that, if the existential threat disappears, there are good chances that the sensitivity to human rights will reappear.

Sixty-nine per cent (even 57% of those on the right-wing) of the Israelis feel it is important for peace negotiations to address human rights violations. A majority (54%) is willing to blame the settlers for contributing to human rights violations.

“I have a lot more important things to worry about than violation of Palestinian human rights”

Poll question

A narrow majority (51%) blames it on the government’s settlements policy. Only 34% selected the option that states that: “I have a lot more important things to worry about than violation of Palestinian human rights”, while the largest group (37% of the Israelis) selected the option: “I would be a lot more concerned about it if the terror stopped.” Ten per cent said that they are already “very concerned about it”.

These findings are compatible with a recent poll that shows that 39% of the Israelis support the Geneva Document – a peace plan that was signed by prominent (and pragmatic) political leaders from both the Israeli and Palestinian side.

Right to peace

The poll was conducted before the group started its campaign and while the PM and his colleagues accused the Israeli participants of treason. It is clear to me that the main reason for this support is people’s concern regarding their right to live in peace and prosperity.

The concern regarding violation of Palestinian human rights comes next. Naturally, the majority of the Palestinians who support a ceasefire are primarily concerned with their own security and well-being. Any Israeli interest comes next.

Wrong or right, September 11 and the war in Iraq have changed the rules in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. In seems that a relatively small radical group of people who declared war against Israel, as well as against the US, is succeeding in burying the fundamental values of those societies deeper under security measures that violate the minority’s rights.


Those fanatics, who are ready to kill innocent children and women, are getting closer to their political, religious or anarchist objectives. Yet they have to understand that the people of Israel have no intention of going anywhere.

They will not run away because of the suicide bombers. Instead, they will stick with a government that does not believe that peace requires the establishment of a Palestinian state on almost all of the West Bank and Gaza.

Coffins of the Almog family, killed in the 2003 Haifa bombing
Coffins of the Almog family, killed in the 2003 Haifa bombing

Coffins of the Almog family, 
killed in the 2003 Haifa bombing

They will refuse to comprehend the link between the wrongdoings of their occupation inside the territories to the wrongdoings of the occupied inside Israel.

The roadmap was meant to overcome the deadlock by calling for a simultaneous freezing of illegal Palestinian and Israeli activities. But the suicide bombers have imposed a modification of the equation.

It is very clear that as long as buses and restaurants are being blown up in Tel Aviv and Haifa, neither Washington, nor Paris, London or Moscow have any intention of putting any pressure on Sharon to stop expanding settlements or freezing the erection of the security wall.

Moral issue

Human and civil rights are a moral, but also a political, issue. In a democracy, a government can afford to violate people’s rights only if it knows that it has major public support.

In the case of our democracy, this support will exist as long as the suicide bombers exist. People, who are afraid to send their children to the nearby shopping mall have no sympathy for other people’s rights.

They have little motivation to replace leaders who know how to exploit their anxieties and rage, with leaders who address their logical thinking and moral fibre.

The writer is a senior columnist and editorial writer for the Israel Daily Haaretz.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Source: Al Jazeera