I have been reading the latest round of upsetting reports (portal here) on the horrendous effects on Gaza’s 1.45 million people of the greatly escalated collective punishment that the US-funded and US-backed Government of Israel has been inflicting on them in recent days.
The fact of this collective punishment is not new. It has been sustained in a systematic and intentional way since 2000, if not before. It saw one noticeable escalation after the Palestinians’ January 2006 parliamentary elections– in what was quite clearly a move to punish the Gaza Palestinians for the choice they made in those elections. It saw a further escalation in the past two weeks– even while President Bush was touring the region expressing promises about the imminent arrival of “independence” for the Palestinians.
Three things are going on between the well-established and well-supported State of Israel and the extremely vulnerable and effectively stateless community of Gaza Palestinians:
- 1. The State of Israel’s collective punishment against all the Gaza Palestinians: men, women, and children.
2. The State of Israel’s pursuit of continued military operations against suspected militants inside Gaza, using its army’s very considerable firepower in a way that has also– and quite predictably– killed and wounded many Palestinian noncombatants. And
3. The use by Palestinian militants from a number of organizations including, now, Hamas of military operations, generally of a very low-tech variety, and including the launching of primitive– and in practice, almost untargetable– rockets of a low degree of lethality against areas of southern Israel that include both civilian and some military targets.
Every single harm suffered by noncombatants in this asymmetrical contest is to be deeply regretted. All parties to armed conflict, whether states or non-state actors, are under an international-law obligation to do their utmost to avoid entangling noncombatants in their military contest.
The Israeli paper HaAretz recently noted that 810 Palestinians were killed by the IDF in Gaza in the two years 2006 and 2007, with some 360 of those judged by HaAretz to have been civilians. Meanwhile, in the seven years since 2001 twelve people in Israel have been killed by military actions launched from Gaza. That’s how asymmetrical the military aspect of this contest in. International actors who treat the IHL violations of the two sides as broadly commensurate fail to understand that.
And then, in addition to their very numerous casualties from that military contest, the Palestinians are also suffering the casualties from the collective punishment regime imposed on them by Israel.
So what has been the response to this situation from governments, intergovernmental bodies, and non-governmental organizations in the currently dominant “western” portion of the world?
From the US government: silence.
From the US-based “human-rights” organizations, as far as I can see: silence.
From the EU’s Commissioner for External Relations, Bentita Ferrero-Waldner today, this:
- I condemn the rocket fire into Israel and we fully understand Israel’s need to defend its citizens. I have called for an immediate ceasefire.
However, the recent decision to close all border crossings into Gaza as well as to stop the provision of fuel will exacerbate an already dire humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and risks escalating an already difficult situation on the ground…
Notice there that, regarding military actions, she doesn’t even mention Israel’s numerous and extremely damaging military operations against Gaza!
Notice, too, the unsatisfactory nature of the policy prescription she ends with:
- “Neither the blockade nor the recent military strikes are able to prevent the rocket attacks [against Israel.] Only a credible political agreement this year, as foreseen at Annapolis, can turn Palestinians away from violence. That is why we must support Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas in their current efforts.”
I agree with her first sentence there. But note that she then specifies that only the Annapolis-based peace process is capable of “turning the Palestinians away from violence.” But the Gaza Palestinians were in no way represented at Annapolis. Plus– and this an even greater error here– she is assuming that it is only the Palestinians who need to be “turned away from violence”???? That this whole pesky problem in Gaza has arisen because only the Palestinians have this primitive urge to use violence?
I wonder what she calls the things Israel has been doing to the Palestinians? Non-violence?
Here was UN Sec-Gen Ban Ki-Moon’s statement on Friday:
- The Secretary-General appeals urgently for an immediate end to the violence now engulfing Gaza and affecting communities in southern Israel. He repeats his earlier calls for an immediate cessation of Palestinian sniper and rocket attacks into Israel, and for maximum restraint on the part of the Israel Defense Forces. He reminds the parties, once again, of their obligation to comply with international humanitarian law and not to endanger civilians.
Of particular concern today, in addition to the upsurge in violence, is the decision by Israel to close the crossing points in between Gaza and Israel used for the delivery of humanitarian assistance…
The Secretary-General expresses his deep concern that the hostilities taking place on the ground will undermine the hopes for peace generated by the political process begun at Annapolis.
That statement was, I think, somewhat more balanced and politically realistic than Ms. Ferrero-Waldner’s.
Speical kudos, meanwhile, should go to Oxfam for their continued following of the (anti-)humanitarian effects of Israel’s continued tightening of the blocade on Gaza, including this statement today.
And to the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, John Dugard, for this statement from January 18, which rightly foregrounds the effects on Palestinian civilians of Israel’s military actions in Gaza and is worth quoting in its entirety:
- The killing of some forty Palestinians in Gaza in the past week, the targeting of a Government office near a wedding party venue with what must have been foreseen loss of life and injury to many civilians, and the closure of all crossings into Gaza raise very serious questions about Israel’s respect for international law and its commitment to the peace process. Recent action violates the strict prohibition on collective punishment contained in the Fourth Geneva Convention. It also violates one of the basic principles of international humanitarian law that military action must distinguish between military targets and civilian targets. Israel must have known about the wedding party in Gaza near to the interior ministry when it launched missiles at the ministry building. Those responsible for such cowardly action are guilty of serious war crimes and should be prosecuted and punished for their crimes. The United States and other states which attended the Annapolis conference are under both a legal and a moral obligation to compel Israel to cease its actions against Gaza and to restore confidence in the peace process, ensure respect for international law and protect civilian life.
Readers may ask why Dugard did not mention the casualties from the Palestinians’ rocket attacks against Israel. I imagine this is because his mandate is precisely to look at the human rights situation in the occupied territories. Evidently, though, in any broader consideration of the Gaza-Israel military conflict and its effects, the casualties among Israelis should of course be fully noted.
But it is also worth recalling just why the UN felt it needed to appoint a special rapporteur on the situation of the people of the OPTs. That was, I think, precisely because the members of the UN General Assembly recognized the particularly vulnerable situation of people who are still stateless and cannot rely on having any state intervene to protect their interests or even their lives.
Kudos, too, to B’tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories and its allies, who have been petitioning the Israeli High Court to issue an interim order requiring Israel to allow the return of the supply of fuel oil to Gaza to its usual level. This request, B’tselem says, “was filed as part of a petition against the sanctions on the Gaza Strip, from October 2007.”
And meantime, let’s not forget the many dimensions of the assault that Palestinians in the West Bank continue to suffer at the hands of the military occupation regime that has ruled over them for 40.5 years now.
AFP reported yesterday that,
- The number of Jewish settlers living in the occupied West Bank excluding annexed Arab east Jerusalem rose by 5.1 percent last year, figures released by the Israeli interior ministry on Sunday showed.
The Jewish population increased to 282,362 in January this year compared to 268,163 in January 2007 and 253,371 in the first month of 2006.
The figures exclude a further 200,000 or so settlers in east Jerusalem which Israel annexed following its capture in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
So much for Israel’s obligations under Annapolis and the “Road Map”…