In an effort to contain growing outrage over Israel’s overt disregard of international law and human rights, the Israeli military has launched a PR campaign that sends its former soldiers to the U.S. to speak about their personal experiences. Last Wednesday, Ann Arbor bore the dubious honor of providing the platform for a military with a history of war crimes to rationalize its actions.

At 4 p.m., students, faculty and community members seated themselves in the room of the Michigan Union in which the two Israeli soldiers would speak. At 4:05, when the first soldier began his narrative, the room was full to capacity. As the first soldier, Omer, started speaking, nearly all of the event’s attendees stood up, taped their mouths shut and revealed red shirts bearing the names and ages of children killed during the Gaza invasion. Omer continued giving his presentation to a sea of red-garbed, silent protestors and went on to claim that Israel goes out of its way to avoid targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure when engaging in counter-terrorism. He spoke of how proud he was to have served in an army with a moral code that preserves human life. About 15 minutes into Omer’s speech, the protestors stood up in unison and filed out in silence. As they walked out, two students held up signs that read: “We stand today for those who have been silenced” and “Stand with us against injustice and walk out on oppression.” Several of the remaining attendees also rose and left. By 4:20 the room was nearly empty, with only about eight people still seated.

The events’ attendees were protesting the presence of representatives from Israel’s military, called the Israel Defense Forces, who are accused of war crimes by the United Nations and condemned by major human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Israel’s own B’Tselem. Last year, Israel caused outrage with its aerial bombardment and armed invasion of the impoverished Gaza Strip in 22 days during December 2008 and January 2009, killing over 1,000 civilians including more than 300 children. In the three-week war, Israel destroyed nearly the entire civilian infrastructure in Gaza — even attacking hospitals and ambulances — despite the fact that medical vehicles, personnel and buildings are protected under international law. In addition, Israel’s military shelled the U.N. Relief Agency’s compound in Gaza City, which stored and distributed aid and medicine.

According to a U.N. fact-finding inquiry, the Gaza campaign intended to destroy the civilian economic output of the Strip and exacerbate the suffering of a populace that has already endured by Israel. This siege continues to block basic supplies from entering Gaza, and has brought the local economy to a near standstill. The siege is condemned by both the U.N. and leading international human rights organizations as illegal because it engages in collective punishment and uses starvation of civilians as a method of warfare.

In May 2010, Israeli Special Forces stormed a humanitarian flotilla heading for Gaza while it was still in international waters. The flotilla was carrying aid including medical and school supplies, aiming to break the siege of Gaza and to bring the world’s attention to the disproportionate suffering of Palestinian civilians. The flotilla was crewed by over 600 activists from 37 nations, including a Nobel Laureate and a Holocaust survivor. The Israeli military went on to kill nine activists aboard the flotilla and injure dozens more.

In an effort to contain the international fallout from Israel’s actions, the Israeli government has launched what is essentially an international propaganda campaign. This campaign attempts to shift attention away from recent events by focusing on Israel’s technological and biomedical achievements, its humanitarian aid to other countries and a framing of the attack on the flotilla and Gaza invasion in terms of ‘self-defense.’

Ann Arbor was the latest stop in this rebranding campaign. Moreover, the soldiers present on Wednesday weren’t merely representatives of a military that has committed war crimes, they themselves could be traced back to the violence. The organizing group StandWithUs described the second soldier present on Wednesday, Shai, as a member of the “elite Givati infantry brigade.” This brigade was investigated by the Israeli Military Police for an airstrike during the Gaza invasion that targeted a civilian home, killing 21 civilians — including some women and children — and wounding 19 more.

On Wednesday, the silence spoke clearly: the justification of atrocities will not be welcomed at Michigan. Similarly, the international community’s continued outrage with Israel’s government signifies the approach of a day when the audience willing to listen to its self-exonerations will also disappear.

This viewpoint was written by Waleed Farwana and Mike Sayre on behalf of the Students Allied for Freedom and Equality.

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