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The United Nations and Israel

Srebenica: The Dutch Sabra and Shatilla

Manfred Gerstenfeld

On July 15 1995, the Dutch battalion of the United Nations protection force fled the Bosnian Srebrenica enclave and made for Zagreb. That same day, the Serbs began massacring Moslems; soon at least 6,000 were dead. Srebrenica mayor Nesib Mandzic recently told the Dutch daily Volkskrant that Col. Thom Karremans, commander of the Dutch battalion, had totally forgotten the Moslems whom his force were supposed to protect.

Many months after the massacre, Dutch historian Henri Beunders commented in the NRC Handelsblad daily: "...while the Bosnians were standing up to their knees in blood, the Dutch soldiers in Zagreb were standing up to their ankles in beer, being applauded by Crown Prince Willem Alexander, [prime minister] Kok and [minister of defense] Voorhoeve." Among the Dutch soldiers were racist radicals who were known to make the Nazi salute.

It took five years for some 40 Dutch writers and media people to write an open letter, in which they accused: "The safe departure of the Dutch soldiers was more important than the execution of their primary task: the protection of the population and refugees." They added that many fundamental, painful questions remain unanswered: "The Dutch politicians close their eyes and windows in the hope that the storm will blow over. Are we so afraid of the truth that we dare not see it...?"

It is a good idea to keep in mind the Srebrenica tragedy and the major role that the Dutch played in it when the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs arrives in the Middle East next week. Last week, Jozias van Aartsen told parliament that he intends to tell the Israeli government how to progress towards Middle East peace, and to stress that Israel must take confidence-building measures, such as stopping expansion of settlements and transferring to the Palestinians withheld tax money.

MP Koenders, the spokesman of the Netherlands' largest party, the socialists, went even further in the parliamentary debate. He suggested that the Netherlands should use the trade association agreement between Israel and the European Union to put pressure on Israel.

The image of Prime Minister Sharon is associated worldwide with Sabra and Shatilla, an event that developed in the course of one day. One may wonder why that of the Dutch socialist Prime Minister Wim Kok is not associated at all with the much more predictable disaster of Srebrenica. In Sabra and Shatilla, Lebanese Christians murdered hundreds of Moslems; in Srebrenica, Serbian Christians killed many thousands.

Comparing these tragedies, in several aspects Kok's responsibility seems substantially greater than Sharon's. The United Nations' guilt does not detract from that of the Dutch, who were in Srebrenica for a year and were familiar with all the murderous precedents in the bloody Yugoslav war. They knew well how structurally inadequate decision-making at the United Nation's command was. Although they had had sufficient time to evaluate the risks, this was sloppily done. Inquiries in the Netherlands are still incomplete. Six years later, the public is waiting for a definitive report by NIOD, the Dutch Institute for War Documentation.

In Israel, mass protests forced a rapid, detailed inquiry after the Lebanese tragedy. It is superfluous to say that no Israeli leaders toasted the Israeli troops stationed nearby.

There are many other reasons why Dutch political advice to Israel is hypocritical. The last time the Netherlands had to defend its independence was against the Germans in 1940: it capitulated in five days. Soldiers of other countries had to risk their lives to free the country in 1945 as the Dutch were unable to do so themselves. One can only wonder how fast the Netherlands would collapse if it had to face the adversities Israel has faced in the last decades.

There is one field, however, in which Dutch advice could be valuable to Israeli leaders. Nothing sticks to the Netherlands: their colonial misbehaviour; the Dutch authorities' widespread assistance to the German occupiers in arresting and deporting over 100,000 Jews to their deaths during World War II; the government-in-exile's minimal efforts on behalf of the Jews; the intentional discrimination against the Jews in the post-war restitution process; the fallacies in last year's government report to parliament on this process. The myth of the benign Dutch is false, but their public relations are excellent. Perhaps the meetings between the ministers should focus on how they do it.

(Manfred Gerstenfeld is chairman of the steering committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.)

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