Collective punishment is a war crime under section 33 of the Geneva Convention, and New Zealand is one of the 194 signatory countries to that Convention. Not that this has meant very much to us in recent weeks and months, as it applies to Israel’s actions in the Middle East. We should care. Because according to Richard Falk, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, the Israeli military offensive against Gaza does amount to ‘severe and massive violations’ of the Geneva Conventions. Falk identifies three main counts
Those violations include :
• Collective punishment: The entire 1.5 million people who live in the crowded Gaza Strip are being punished for the actions of a few militants.
• Targeting civilians: The air strikes were aimed at civilian areas in one of the most crowded stretches of land in the world, certainly the most densely populated area of the Middle East.
• Disproportionate military response: The air strikes have not only destroyed every police and security office of Gaza’s elected government, but have killed and injured hundreds of civilians; at least one strike reportedly hit groups of students attempting to find transportation home from the university.
Earlier Israeli actions, specifically the complete sealing off of entry and exit to and from the Gaza Strip, have led to severe shortages of medicine and fuel (as well as food), resulting in the inability of ambulances to respond to the injured, the inability of hospitals to adequately provide medicine or necessary equipment for the injured, and the inability of Gaza’s besieged doctors and other medical workers to sufficiently treat the victims.
Certainly the rocket attacks against civilian targets in Israel are unlawful. But that illegality does not give rise to any Israeli right, neither as the Occupying Power nor as a sovereign state, to violate international humanitarian law and commit war crimes or crimes against humanity in its response. I note that Israel’s escalating military assaults have not made Israeli civilians safer; to the contrary, the one Israeli killed today after the upsurge of Israeli violence is the first in over a year.
All the more surprising then, to find our Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully reportedly claiming that it would be ‘pointless to finger point about what is a proportionate and disproportionate response’, with regard to the Israeli offensive on Gaza. By all means, we should support the UN in brokering a ceasefire – but that doesn’t mean we need also allow Israel to trample all over the Geneva Conventions, en route to the bargaining table.
Even before the Israeli offensive began, Gaza was a socio- medical catastrophe, amid NGO reports reports that a third of the population ( or 450,000 people) had no access to clean drinking water. Subsequently, and since a disproportionate response is in itself a war crime, it is worth looking more closely at the casualty figures involved in the Gaza conflict , on both sides.
As Professor Juan Cole, a Middle East expert at the University of Michigan has pointed out, Israel blames Hamas for the so called Qassam rocket attacks ( commonly involving primitive, homemade devices) that have largely been directed at the Israeli city of Sederot. Between 2000 and 2008, those rockets killed about 15 Israelis and injured 433, and damaged property. In addition, mortar fire originating in Gaza killed eight other Israelis.
On the other side, as Cole continued in his December 28 report :
Since the Second Intifada broke out in 2000, Israelis have killed nearly 5,000 Palestinians, nearly a thousand of them minors. Since the fall of 2007, Israel has kept the 1.5 million Gazans under a blockade, interdicting food, fuel and medical supplies to one degree or another. Wreaking collective punishment on civilian populations such as hospital patients denied needed electricity, is a crime of war.
The Israelis on Saturday killed 5% of all the Palestinians they have killed since the beginning of 2001. 230 people were slaughtered in a day, over 70 of them innocent civilians. In contrast, from the ceasefire Hamas announced in June, 2008, no Israelis had been killed by Hamas. The infliction of this sort of death toll is known in the law of war as a disproportionate response, and it is a war crime.
Corroboration : The figures for the Palestinian ‘Qassam’ rocket attacks are here.
The death toll on both sides since the onset of the Second Intifada can be found here.
The support being given by the Bush White House to the Israeli offensive is predictable, though it will be Barack Obama who will have to grapple with the consequences. Nor is it surprising that the most cogent criticism and analysis of the Israeli action has been from Jewish analysts and reporters both within the mainstream Israeli press ( such as Amira Hass for instance,
here in Ha’aretz newspaper ) and outside it. Dan Levy for instance, has provided one of the best short analyses of the regional backdrop to the current offensive :
(1) Never forget the basics – the core issue is still an unresolved conflict about ending an occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state – everything has to start from here to be serious (this is true also for Hamas who continue to heavily hint that they will accept the 1967 borders
(2) The immediate backdrop begins with the Israeli disengagement from Gaza of summer 2005, ostensibly a good move, except one that left more issues open than it resolved. It was a unilateral initiative, so there was no coordinating the ‘what happens next’ with the Palestinians. Gaza was closed off to the world, the West Bank remained under occupation and what had the potential to be a constructive move towards peace became a source of new tensions – something many of us pointed out at the time (supporting withdrawal from Gaza, opposing how it was done).
(3) U.S., Israeli and international policy towards Hamas has greatly exacerbated the situation. Hamas participated in and won democratic elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council in January 2006. Rather than test the Hamas capacity to govern responsibly and nurture Hamas further into the political arena and away from armed struggle, the U.S.-led international response was to hermetically seal-off Hamas, besiege Gaza, work to undemocratically overthrow the Hamas government and thereby allow Hamas to credibly claim that a hypocritical standard was being applied to the American democracy agenda.
American, Israeli and Quartet policy towards Hamas has been a litany of largely unforced errors and missed opportunities. Hamas poses a serious policy challenge and direct early U.S. or Israeli engagement let alone financial support was certainly not the way forward, but in testing Hamas, a division of labor within the Quartet would have made sense (European and U.N. engagement, for instance, should have been encouraged, not the opposite). Every wrong turn was taken – Hamas were seen through the GWOT prism not as a liberation struggle, when the Saudi’s delivered a Palestinian National Unity Government in March 2007 the U.S. worked to unravel it, Palestinian reconciliation is still vetoed which encourages the least credible trends within Fatah, and unbelievably Egypt is given an exclusive mediation role with Hamas (Egypt naturally sees the Hamas issue first through its own domestic prism of concern at the growth of the Muslim Brothers, progress is often held hostage to ongoing Hamas-Egypt squabbles).
(4) Failure to build on the ceasefire. Israel is of course duty bound to defend and protect its citizens, so as the intensity of rocket fire in 2007-8 increased, Israel stepped up its actions against Gaza. But there was never much Israeli military or government enthusiasm for a full-scale conflict or ground invasion and eventually a practical working solution was found when both sides agreed to a six-month ceasefire on June 19th 2008. Neither side loved it. Both drew just enough benefit to keep going…..The ceasefire needed to be solidified, nurtured, taken to the next level. None of this was done – the Quartet was busy with the deeply flawed Annapolis effort.
The Israeli offensive has been driven by political expediency, as much as by the demands of national security. As Levy and others have pointed out, the air strikes ordered by acting prime minister Tzipi Livni are inseparable from her election campaign battle ( the vote is on February 10 ) against the Likud Party hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu. Yesterday, Reuters news service reported an 81 % approval rating among Israelis for the strike against Gaza, within a dispatch that Reuters headlined as “Gaza Offensive Set to Boost Israel’s Livni :
Whether Livni can defeat the right-wing leader at the polls may depend on whether Israel achieves its objective without incurring heavy Israeli civilian or military casualties, analysts said.
Both Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak are gambling with their political careers by launching this attack on Hamas, they said.
“If they hadn’t taken action, they would have been finished politically,” though the outcome is uncertain, said Shmuel Sandler of Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
He said the Christmas holiday, the global economic crisis and the presidential interregnum in the United States made for good timing for Israel to launch its offensive, after Hamas declared its 6-month-old truce with Israel dead on Dec. 19.
While McCully’s reluctance to condemn Israel for its actions is Gaza is lamentable, it is quite consistent with New Zealand’s diplomatic stance under the Clark government as well. In September 2007 for instance, New Zealand – for all its own glorious anti- nuclear credentials – chose to abstain from an International Atomic Energy Agency conference resolution that was calling for the establishment of the Middle East as a nuclear weapons free zone. This is an idea that has been promoted by Arab nations at the UN since at least 2005.
In calling for a nuclear free Middle East, as Green MP Keith Locke pointed out at the time, the IAEA resolution was implicitly criticising Israel, for its possession of nuclear weapons. We couldn’t allow that. As Locke explained :
“There were two new clauses that horrified the New Zealand and other Western-aligned governments. The first one called on ‘all States of the region….not to develop, produce, test or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons’ or to permit the stationing of such weapons or nuclear explosive devices on territories that they rule or control. The second clause asked states to ‘refrain from any action that would hinder efforts aiming at [the zone’s] establishment.’
“How hypocritical is it for New Zealand to support sanctions against Iran, a country which has yet to develop nuclear weapons – and yet refuse to support a straightforward motion which indirectly criticises the nuclear arms that Israel currently possesses, and which serve as a barrier to achieving a nuclear free Middle East.
Yet 53 other countries, including Ireland, voted for this IAEA resolution that New Zealand shrank from supporting in 2007 – and that Arab leaders even in the midst of the Gaza crisis, still found time earlier today to promote.
Talk about rampant double-standards. Under Helen Clark, New Zealand was unwilling to implicitly criticize Israel’s flouting of the international drive for nuclear non- proliferation. Under John Key, we seem just as unwilling to hold Israel to account over its violations of the Geneva Convention. Just how these supine foreign policy stances serve to promote the long term interests of global or regional security is very, very hard to see.