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A Tale of Justice

In a display of wry humor that may or may not have been intentional, the British government went to court last week to argue that human rights violations by its occupation forces in Iraq are not subject to international human rights law.

The reason, Her Majesty’s lawyers told the high court in London, presumably with a straight face, is that Britain’s troops in Iraq face a violent insurgency, and can’t be expected to abide by the rules that apply on Sunday mornings in Covent Garden.

This is the same British government, alert readers will recall, that voted just days earlier in the United Nations General Assembly to uphold a ruling against Israel by the International Court of Justice, where the terms were astoundingly similar. Like Britain, Israel was accused of violating an international human rights convention in the course of maintaining a hostile occupation. Like Britain, Israel argued that the convention was not meant to apply in an insurgency of the sort it faces.

Yet Britain believes its actions are beyond censure, while Israel’s are worthy of the highest international censure. The next step after the General Assembly is the Security Council, where sanctions loom. Perhaps Britain is secretly planning to use its veto in the Security Council. Perhaps this was all a Monty Python-style spoof. Or perhaps Britain simply believes its case is somehow different from Israel’s.

To be sure, there are differences. Israel was accused of building a fence on its neighbors’ land. Britain is accused of shooting and bludgeoning civilians to death.

The British arguments came in reply to a lawsuit filed in London by the families of Iraqi civilians allegedly killed by British soldiers in the months after major combat was declared ended in May 2003. The victims’ lawyers say their deaths require a special inquiry under the rules of the European Convention on Human Rights. The government replied that the convention “was never intended to be applied” in circumstances of the sort its soldiers face on patrol in Iraq.

After all, they were supposed to be policing a population that was going to welcome them as liberators. Instead, the blighters keep shooting at them. Imagine that.

Israel has faced international hypocrisy in the past, if seldom so direct and naked. The unfairness always rankles. Still, most of these incidents do no real damage. The late David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, was surely on to something when he said that what matters is “not what the gentiles say, but what the Jews do.”

There are times, however, when these things do matter. This is one of those times. Israel has embarked on a process of disengagement that is likely to become the most wrenching episode in its history. After 37 years of violent deadlock in the West Bank and Gaza, the Jewish state is finally taking the step that its neighbors and the world community have demanded of it, pulling out its troops and settlers and letting the Palestinians run their own lives. Instead of praise and thanks, however, it faces mounting hostility and — for the first time — a real prospect of South Africa-style sanctions.

True, few believe Ariel Sharon is planning a compromise that Palestinians would recognize as fair. Skeptics on the Israeli left and in the international community suspect the Israeli leader wants to leave Gaza in order to strengthen his hand in the West Bank, where he hopes to keep up to 40% in Israeli hands. On the other hand, his opponents on the right are convinced he’s planning a far more sweeping withdrawal. More important, the aides who are mapping out his plan — especially his deputy premier, Ehud Olmert, and his national security adviser, Giora Eiland — openly declare the disengagement to be the first step toward a comprehensive, Camp David-style settlement. They may know something that others don’t.

What they know is this: Sharon has come to understand, as he did not before, that separating Israelis and Palestinians is an urgent necessity — diplomatically, militarily, demographically and morally — if Israel is to survive. He may not be prepared, given his history and makeup, to take the final steps needed. But he is taking the first step. The first compensation checks to Gaza settlers leaving voluntarily are due to go out next month. Egyptian security teams were in Israel this week preparing to take up their role as advisers and overseers of the post-withdrawal Palestinian security system. Actual dismantling of settlements is scheduled to commence in September 2005. The train is leaving the station. Sharon is, as his friends and enemies agree, a determined man.

But it is not entirely up to him. His historic move has left him politically isolated and vulnerable. The right, including nearly half his own party, openly opposes him. The left is suspicious. And the international community, which should be popping the champagne, hypocritically gives him the back of its hand.

This is the time for Western leaders to stand behind Sharon, reward him when he does right and show Israeli voters that the risks they are being asked to take will bring real rewards. Britain, if it takes its own words seriously, could lead the way. What’s needed is courage — and consistency.

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