02/12/2023 23:02:21
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On the front-line at the Hague

Arnold Roth

COURT proceedings fascinate me. Nearly 40 years ago, as a teenager on holidays in a Victorian country town, I sat spellbound through the first day of a murder trial. I walked out convinced of the need to become a lawyer.

From my home in Jerusalem, I traveled to The Netherlands to take part in a hearing of a different sort. The two decades I spent practicing law left me considerably less awestruck by what I saw.

Israel is building a long and expensive security barrier. The UN General Assembly voted to ask the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague to consider the legal implications of "illegal Israeli actions".

I wondered, when I read these words in the court papers, how some of those UN delegates managed to vote without giggling.

Malki, my daughter, was murdered in a Palestinian terror attack in 2001. She was 15. Since then, my wife Frimet and I have grown more and more involved in speaking publicly.

I joined a group of Israelis who, like us, are experiencing murder by terrorism (the use of the present-continuous tense is appropriate) and went to The Hague, not to participate in the ICJ hearings, but to speak to the media scrum that had assembled there.

EVEN before our El Al flight rolls to its gate at Amsterdam's airport, the ritual pulling of Israeli mobiles from pockets is in process. Everyone on board knows within seconds of still more Egged passengers incinerated in Jerusalem while we have been crossing the Mediterranean.

Our children are safe and well, thank heavens, but eight passengers on that bus will never reach any destination again. A teenage girl who lived on our street until her family moved to one of the newer Jerusalem neighborhoods is among the injured. For Israelis, it's always close.

There is no time to unpack or wash. We go to the communications centre set up by one of the Dutch pro-Israel organizations a few minutes from the elaborate structure that will host the hearing.

A quick huddle of the 18 members of our group as we prepare to get off the bus, and I'm asked to be the spokesperson to tell the press why we're here.

We walk into the hall and encounter a showstopper. A vast montage of photographic portraits has been fixed to the wall.

The faces of 927 Israelis murdered in the 30-something months of this ghastly Arafat war are arranged in no apparent sequence, a tremendous number of them teenagers, children and infants.

Every one of us climbs onto the dais and begins searching for our child, our wife, our brother, sister, boyfriend. For some of our group, this takes a little longer since they need to locate every member of what had once been a living, loving family.

Avi finds his two little sons and their mother, killed at point-blank range by a machine-gun-toting "activist" who broke into their kibbutz home. Rachel takes longer; her husband's picture is at one end; those of her only two sons are at the other. Meir needs to find his father, his mother, his two sisters and his baby brother.

Someone adds eight fresh blank squares to the display. None of us needs to hear the explanation. A few minutes later, the Israeli ambassador, taking a call, looks shaken as he announces that his commercial attache has learned his brother-in-law was killed on that Egged bus.

If you set aside what binds us - the murder of people we loved - our group is diverse. Most are Jewish, but we include Druze and Christians. We speak French, Dutch, German, Spanish, Arabic, Italian, Russian and English. We include managers, professionals, shopkeepers, students, unemployed and a retired IDF officer (who happens to be a Druze).

I don't know about our politics because we don't discuss it. We rarely speak about the security barrier or our ideas on how peace can prevail.

We're your idiosyncratic Israeli cross-section, in The Hague to speak about terrorism and little else. We are united around the idea that no matter how you try to justify it, there's no possible argument in favor of terror - and everything is justified in stopping it.

The media is present in numbers. Most of us have multiple opportunities to stand in front of cameras and say what we came to say. The questions we're asked by the BBC, New York Times, Associated Press, Al-Jazeera and others tend to be superficial and repetitive. It's hard to keep track of how many.

I lost count after my 25th interview. All the members of our delegation give testimony to a silent, overcrowded hall - an "alternative hearing" of some three hours, the answer of Israel's friends to the proceedings across the way in the Peace Palace.

The demands of being on the front-line of the media's attention meant we didn't come to cry in public. But there were difficult private moments when the tears forced their way through. I shared breakfast with a woman whose only child, a beautiful teenager slightly older than my Malki, was blown apart in a discotheque.

Her quiet dignity and understated manner made her a more eloquent and powerful speaker, even with her non-native English, than any of the politicians who elbowed their way onto Dutch TV or into the papers.

While there's consensus among Israelis that the security barrier is, on balance, necessary, criticisms are not hard to find. The internal debate in Israel, as on most issues, is vigorous.
I found it constructive to mention to journalists that Israeli society on all levels is sensitive to the problems created by the construction. The flexibility shown by Israel's official arms, including its military and the courts, is not well known outside Israel. They gain Israel few points in the battle for public opinion. This hurts. Israelis, it seems, are again being held to a standard that's neither fair nor logical.

IN the week before the hearings, I was interviewed twice by television journalists at the security barrier. I was taken to Jerusalem's Abu Dis neighborhood, close to where a wailing Palestinian Arab woman had been widely photographed a few days before, her arms reaching skywards, despair expressed in every element of her body language.

The odd thing was that, standing there, I could see that the security barrier - a cement wall in that particular location - was unfinished. It comes to a complete stop some meters away. Far from preventing free movement, it's just a line of unaesthetic concrete that blocks out the sun for home-owners unlucky enough to have it pass close to their properties, and then it ends.

It locks no-one in; you can walk around it. Precisely where the gates and cross-overs are to be built is an open issue; the path is under constant revision. But you'd have a hard time appreciating this from the news stories and published images.

No-one pretends Israel's security barrier is a perfect bulwark against terrorism. To paraphrase Churchill's comment on democracy, the security barrier is the worst form of protection - except for those others that have already been tried. The ICJ proceedings will not produce an answer to terror, or an end to the deaths of children. No solution to the conflict will be found in The Hague. But for the first time in a long while, the voices of the Israeli victims were heard.

Source: www.ajn.com.au/pages/current-paper/feature-01.html

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