Bulgaria attack underscores the absurdity of Israel’s exclusion from new Counterterrorism Forum

Bulgaria attack underscores the absurdity of Israel's exclusion from new Counterterrorism Forum
Victims' caskets at Ben Gurion Airport

Kochava and Yitzhak Shriki were supposed to be celebrating right now. They recently found out that after years of fertility treatments their greatest wish was being granted – 44-year-old Kochava was finally pregnant with their first child. They were at the airport on their way to a short summer vacation in Burgas, Bulgaria when Kochava called her sister Yael Morad to tell her the exciting news:

“Kochava told me she was pregnant and that they were very happy… A short while later we heard of the terror attack. We thought she was alive until we were informed she was on the missing persons list.”

A few hours after Kochava’s call, the Shriki’s dream has turned into a horrible nightmare when a suicide bomber exploded near a Bulgarian airport, right next to tourist buses packed with Israelis on their way from the airport to their hotels. Seven people were killed, five of them Israeli. One of them was Kochava.
Her husband recounts the dreadful attack:

“We boarded the bus and sat in the fourth row. I suddenly felt a strong blast from the left. I fell to the floor and was in a haze for about 20 seconds, until I was finally able to get up – but I was still dizzy. I walked toward the exit and yelled to my wife ‘walk towards the door.’ But after a few seconds I noticed she was not by my side. The smoke was very thick – like sand. I wanted to go back and look for her but the passage was blocked. I waited at the terminal and requested to be evacuated to the hospital – hoping I would find her there. When I saw that she wasn’t there, I asked the ambassador and Magen David Adom [Israels’ equivalent of the Red Cross] representatives to help me locate her, I gave them photos of her, but to no avail. When I returned to Israel I understood she was killed. They told me the Prime Minister wants to console me – that’s when I knew she didn’t survive. She was in the first stages of her pregnancy. I wanted her to rest and gather strength – and it ended in disaster.”

And so the list of Israeli terror victims grows longer. More then 30 people were injured during the attack, three in a critical condition are still fighting for their lives in hospital. Dozens more will carry the emotional scars. But in the eyes of the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) these victims apparently don’t count. They are ignored as the newly-established forum persistently and deliberately excludes Israeli representation from its events.

The US-sponsored Global Counterterrorism Forum held its first formal meeting last June in Istanbul. Israel was suspiciously excluded. Israel’s extensive experience in combating terrorism should surely have qualified it to attend the international forum. This exclusion is even more peculiar when the organisers’ stated intentions are taken into account: the GCTF includes its founder, the US and its chosen co-Chair Turkey, the European Union and the rest of the “Western European and Others” (WEOG) regional group of the United Nations [which includes Israel] and a number of additional Muslim-majority nations: Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It also includes China, Russia and India.

According to Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, the State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, the “key” Muslim states were included because they “are on the front lines in the struggle against terrorism.” This is despite the fact that many of them refuse to recognise terror acts against Israeli civilians as terrorism since they view such acts “armed struggle against foreign occupation, aggression, colonialism, and hegemony, aimed at liberation and self-determination,” according to the Convention of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference on Combating International Terrorism, an international treaty to which all the Muslim members of GCTF are party.Yet the GCTF aims to serve at the forefront of counterterrorism policymaking. These aspirations only make Israel’s exclusion all the more jarring.

The reason is, of course, political: Turkey, as Co-Chair, simply objected to Israeli participation in the forum. It seems that some of the forum members seem to think that if terrorism against Israeli civilians is not discussed in the forum, it does not exist. Sadly, the attack is Bulgaria against Israeli tourist is a sharp reminder that it is still a reality.

Yet the second event held by the forum in Madrid on July 9 only took the absurdity of such a forum without Israel to a new level. The event in Madrid focused on terror victims and again, Israeli representatives were not invited. As if that wasn’t bad enough, US Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero failed to even mention Israel as one of the states that suffers from terrorism in her speech there. And it is hardly the first incidence in which such an omission has been made by an American official. Otero’s speech, titled “Victims of Terrorism”, also highlighted a film made by yet another body which discriminates against Israeli victims, saying:

“Last September at the official launch of the Global Counterterrorism Forum, I had the privilege to introduce the premier of a film ‘Hear their Voices,’ which tells the stories of eleven survivors of terrorist attacks from Pakistan, Jordan, Northern Ireland, Uganda, Turkey, Indonesia, India, Spain, Columbia [sic] and the United States… The film, which was produced by the Global Survivors Network, is a powerful plea for audiences around the world, especially those sympathetic to the grievances expressed by extremists, to recognise the human cost of terrorism.”

Sherri and Seth Mandell, Americans whose son Koby was stoned to death by Palestinian terrorists in 2001 when he was 13-years-old, were outraged and hurt by Ms. Otero’s speech:

“Ms. Otero praised the UN-sponsored organization called the Global Survivors Network and mentioned a film it had produced that included the stories of victims of terror from 11 countries. Guess what country is not included in the organization? Guess what country is not included in the film? Israel. Guess whose victims’ rights aren’t being addressed? Israelis.’ And who else’s? Americans murdered by terrorists in Israel… The State Department’s decision to exclude Israel from the forum reinforces the movement to delegitimize Israel, as well as the suffering of Israelis and Americans, Jews and non-Jews, who have had their lives destroyed by terrorists in Israel.

“Since last February, the Global Terrorism Forum has included international terror victims in their preparations. As Otero told them in her speech: “Over the next several days, we will deliberate how states can increase their support of victims of terrorism, and how we can better integrate victims into the global effort to counter extremist narratives.” We have a suggestion that might help meet Otero’s goal: start by inviting Israeli victims to the table. Our experience and expertise can add immeasurably to the discussion. If the Global Survivors Network won’t invite Israelis, the US State Department has an alternative – as the major sponsor, it can pull the plug.”

They were not the only ones who were appalled. Founder and Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Marvin Hier, sent a letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in which he accused the Forum of deliberately excluding Israel from a second meeting of the group:

“when there was criticism following your announcement of the creation of the Global Counterterrorism Forum, which excluded Israel, I accepted the administration’s assurances that a way would be found to involve Israel. But after reading the Victims of Terrorism comments from the undersecretary of civilian security democracy and human rights, I’m prepared to believe that Israel is being left out intentionally…There is no one with more experience at combatting terrorism or educating civilians about it than the State of Israel. I think the time has come for the United States to make it very clear why Israel continues to be excluded.”

Excluding Israel from the counterterrorism forum means, obviously, that the forum will not benefit from Israel’s vast experience in the field, unfortunately acquired during its decades-long battle against terrorism, which has made it a leading expert in counterterrorism, emergency response and rehabilitation of surviving victims. It also harms the global effort to reduce the risk of terrorism, since terrorism is a global threat and therefore requires a global solution and international cooperation. As last week’s tragedy teaches us, this need for better international cooperation is exemplified in the case of the ongoing efforts to target Israelis abroad, where they are more vulnerable, given than most destinations lack Israel’s security capabilities. It is hard to imagine any serious international counterterrorism forum leading in counterterrorism policymaking without taking into account Israel’s experience and expertise. But beyond the practical argument, it is heartbreaking to see such forum dismiss and exclude the trauma and tragedy of Israeli terror victims – first targeted by terrorists simply for being Israeli, and now, due to narrow political interests, ignored as terrorism victims, their suffering dismissed, again simply for being Israeli.

Or Avi-Guy