For days the Israeli political establishment and mainstream media engaged in an unrestrained campaign of demonization of Sweden. Only after having already castigated Swedes as "antisemites" did mass circulation newspaper Yediot Aharonot take the elementary journalistic step of sending a reporter to check the facts. Ronny Shaked's Aug. 24 article revealed no organ harvesting horror - but showed quite clearly how such a story could emerge from the grim occupation reality.
It is an old story, going back seventeen years, the story of a young man named Bilal Ahmad Ghanem from the small West Bank village of Amatin. Ghanem was one of those which official Israel castigates as terrorists and their own people praise as freedom fighters. In the early 1990's he figured on the Israeli "wanted" list.
In May 1992 Israel was in the midst of a crucial elections campaign. Opposition leader Yitzchak Rabin was asking for the voters' mandate on a pledge to make peace with the Palestinians - a pledge he would eventually seriously try to implement and for which he would pay with his own life three and a half years later. All of that was part of a future, which Bilal Ahmad Ghanem would not live to see. On the night of May 13, 1992, Israeli hunters ambushed him outside his parents' home, and killed him on the spot with a bullet directly to the heart. This in itself excludes the possibility that Ghanem's organs were used for transplantation. It is an elementary medical fact that organs are taken from brain-dead patients whose heart is still beating.
There was not, and could not have been, a "harvesting of organs". But it is true that Ghanem's body was taken away, restored to the family only after a week, in which it evidently was subjected to an autopsy, to which the family did not consent nor was asked for consent. (In Israel itself, an autopsy is only performed with the consent of the family or by court order, but such rules do not apply in military-ruled territory). When at last the body was given back, the family was shocked to see a scar running from his neck down to his abdomen. They were not given much time to speculate, and nobody was there to answer questions. Soldiers on the spot urged them to get on with the funeral and disperse to their homes. A Swedish journalist made some photos of Ghanem's scarred body - arousing the ire of the soldiers, who promptly confiscated his camera. But he had managed to extract the film and throw it among the bushes. On the following day he returned, recovered the photos and recorded the angry and pained reactions of Ghanem's mother, who could not be expected to know or care about medical facts and the conditions where organ transplanting is or is not possible.
The photos and report were published in 1992 Sweden, without getting much attention. They were included as one of many items in an 2001 book on the situation in the Occupied Territories, to whose publication the Government of Sweden apparently contributed though it was unlikely to have closely and minutely supervised its contents. Again, not many people noticed or paid attention. And now it has surfaced again and became - seventeen years after the fact - the center of a raging storm.
Why resurrect this affair at exactly this time? Possibly because the mass killing of civilians in the recent Gaza war, which is an undoubted fact, has made also implausible Israeli atrocities seem plausible. But even so, a newspaper should have carefully checked its facts, and any doctor could have told them that this particular accusation could not be true. There had been a month ago an ugly case of illicit trade in organs for transplantation, in which the American citizens implicated happened to be Jewish. But linking this affair with the misconduct of the armed forces of Israel was an ugly and unacceptable analogy which the editors of "Aftonbladet" should have avoided. Still, there was no need for the Netanyahu Government to blow it up to a head-on confrontation between the two countries. Indeed, the leaders of the Jewish community in Sweden were far from pleased with the Israeli overreaction. But the Israeli government did not act out of concern for them. It had its own specific agenda for making the maximum noise.
Almost from the first day he assumed power, Netanyahu is under constant pressure from President Barack Obama to cease all settlement activity in the occupied territories. The fanatic hardliners in his cabinet call for Israel to defy all pressures, continue and extend the building of Jewish settlements and tell the Americans to go to hell. Deep in his heart Netanyahu might sympathize - but he knows well enough that such a course would be suicidal, and that it would be Israel which would get to hell in short order. Sweden is a convenient alternative target, which could be attacked with relative impunity. Moreover, Sweden - having the Presidency of European Union - has itself quite recently lodged a strong protest about the settlements and the expulsion of Palestinian families from their homes is the Sheikh Jarah Neighbourhood in East Jerusalem. It makes perfect sense for Netanyahu to try and put the Swedish government on the defensive.
The row also helps to divert the criticism on Netanyahu from inside his government coalition. Israel's historically-loaden ambivalent relation to Europe is a Pandora box easily opened.
On the one hand, Israelis like to think of themselves as belonging to Europe; on the other hand when encountering criticism, wild accusations of antisemitism immediately fly around and the history of the Second World War and the Holocaust is very selectively referenced.
Israelis are delighted that their country was admitted to the European Song Festival and that their football and basketball teams can participate in European championships. But the same people would not opt for Israel becoming subject to the authority of the European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg, and to have that court give the actions of the Israeli armed forces the kind of scrutiny it gave to the British army in North Ireland.
In today's Europe it is taken for granted that a democratic state is, by definition, "The State of All Its Citizens". The Israeli mainstream would like Israel to be accepted as a European State while rejecting any such definition and insisting that "A State of All Its Citizens" is a subversive and extremist idea where Israel is concerned.
The present confrontation with Sweden is the latest - and probably not the last - of such cases.
Written at the invitation of the Swedish weekly 'Efter Arbetet' for its Aug. 28 edition