Here’s the sound of MFAT blowing its own trumpet as it celebrated the 25th anniversary of our genuinely heroic role in alerting the international community to the Rwanda genocide:
Calling for the Council to recognise that genocide was being perpetrated against the Tutsi population, and urging the UN to strengthen its peacekeeping measures at a time when others looked to disengage from Africa, New Zealand used its presidency to call for action.
Too bad we have not done anything remotely similar with respect to the genocidal situation unfolding in Gaza. On Gaza, New Zealand’s diplomacy has been so quiet as to be almost inaudible. By an accident of timing, one of the bloodiest conflicts and worst humanitarian crises in the Middle East in decades has broken out while we were holding an election, and while the new government is still weeks away from being formed. By convention, the caretaker government is not supposed to take any significant new positions on foreign policy, or anything else.
Even so, that shouldn’t keep us silent. After all, New Zealand has long had a bi-partisan commitment to uphold international law, including the rules of war set out in the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute. The targeting of civilians (by Hamas) and the bombing and shelling of densely populated civilian areas (by Israel) both count as war crimes under international law.
In addition, the collective punishment being meted out to the citizens of Gaza by Israel is also forbidden under international law. For the best part of a fortnight, Israel has denied Gazans access to food, water, electricity, fuel and medical supplies. (Even before the Hamas attacks, precious little of the water in Gaza was drinkable, the main aquifers are polluted and as UNRWA says here,
“Three water de-salination plants, previously producing 21 million litres of drinking water per day, have halted operations. Drinking water supply from Israel was cut on 9 October, causing a severe shortage of drinking water for over 650,000 people.”)
The niceties of diplomacy aside, we should not be directing our expressions of outrage at only one side of the Gazan conflict.
Regularly, New Zealand congratulates itself on its foreign policy independence. Unlike Australia, a National government did not send Kiwi conscripts into battle in Vietnam. To the annoyance of our allies, we walked out on ANZUS after choosing to pursue a strong anti-nuclear stance in the 1980s, and we also declined to join the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
On Gaza though, our Foreign Minister has condemned only Hamas by name, and subsequently issued only generalities about the need to stop the violence and respect civilian life. Instead, the opposite has been occurring on a daily basis.
In his brief visit to Israel, US President Joe Biden promised to boost Israel’s armoury with a fresh influx of weapons and ammunition. In return, Israel has allowed token gestures to be made to address humanitarian needs e.g. a 20 truck convoy will reportedly enter Gaza shortly to meet the needs of the 2.2 million people trapped inside the territory. The WHO has described this gesture as “a drop in the ocean of need.” The US has also pressured Egypt into briefly opening the Rafah crossing in the south, mainly to allow foreign nationals to leave.
In a significant exercise in double standards, the US has vetoed a UN resolution drafted by Brazil, and that had sought to create humanitarian aid corridors, alongside a suspension of the military order for all Palestinians to leave northern Gaza – an order likened by some observers to an exercise in ethnic cleansing. Such forced population transfers are also a crime under international law. Here’s what happened at the UN:
The US has used its veto at the UN security council to block a resolution calling for Israel to allow humanitarian corridors into the Gaza Strip, a pause in the fighting and the lifting of an order for civilians to leave the north of the besieged territory.
The text – supported by 12 of the 15 members of the security council on Wednesday – contained criticism of “heinous terrorist crimes by Hamas” and made no direct reference of Israel. In an attempt to win US support, the draft resolution did not explicitly call for a ceasefire, instead referencing a “humanitarian pause”.
Reportedly, the US vetoed the resolution because it did not include reference to Israel’s right to “self-defence” – a clause aimed at serving to exonerate Israel for all of its actions in Gaza. Britain’s reason for abstaining was because the resolution did not denounce Hamas for – according to the British – allegedly using Palestinians as human shields.
For their part, the UN and the World Health Organisation are obviously in no mood to whitewash the acts of collective punishment being carried out in Gaza. In a statement, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres denounced the strike on the Al Ahli Anglican Episcopal Hospital in Gaza, and also an attack the same day on an UNRWA school in Al-Maghazi refugee camp that killed at least six people.
The Secretary-General emphasizes that hospitals, clinics, medical personnel, and UN premises are explicitly protected under international law.
The WHO made the same points. The Al Ahli hospital was one of 20 healthcare facilities/hospitals located in the north end of Gaza whose one million inhabitants have been issued with evacuation orders by the Israeli military. This order could not be obeyed, given that the roads are already choked with hundreds of thousands of the northern Gazans fleeing from the ground offensive. Besides, hospitals also contain babies in incubators, patients needing daily dialysis treatment, and hundreds of men, women and children severely injured by the air strikes. As the World Health Organisation has said:
Forcing more than 2000 patients to relocate to southern Gaza, where health facilities are already running at maximum capacity and unable to absorb a dramatic rise in the number of patients, could be tantamount to a death sentence.
There have been over 115 attacks on healthcare facilities across the Occupied Palestinian Territory since the start of the conflict on 7 October, sparked by Hamas’s bloody incursion into southern Israel. Of this number, 51 occurred in the Gaza Strip, with 15 healthcare workers killed and 27 injured, said Hyo-Jeong Kim, Lead of WHO’s Attacks on Health Care Initiative.
Also, there’s this:
A senior health official in Gaza told Al Jazeera that Israel had fired two artillery shells as a “warning” at al-Ahli Arab Hospital days before the explosion.
All hospitals and health care facilities in Gaza are reportedly running out of essential drugs, bandages and blood bank supplies – as well as having dwindling supplies of the cleaning materials necessary to stop the spread of infections. Some alerts about this calamity have trickled into our media via Medecin Sans Frontieres but none of it has spurred critical comment from our government.
The hospital attack
Given the extent of the rolling air strikes and the shelling of schools, mosques and hospitals, the Israeli denials of responsibility for the Ah Ahli Baptist hospital attack was met with widespread scepticism in those parts of the world not dependent on US and UK network news coverage. In past history, Israel’s atrocity denials tend to follow a pattern. Last year for example, the targeted killing of the leading Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was initially attributed by Israel to reckless fire from Palestinian militants.
Immediately after the May 2022 murder, then-Israeli Prime Minister Neftali Bennett blamed Palestinians for “throwing blame at Israel without basis.” At the time, Bennett said, “according to the information we have gathered, it appears likely that armed Palestinians – who were firing indiscriminately at the time – were responsible for the unfortunate death of the journalist.” Then-Defence Minister Benny Gantz stated confidently that “no [Israeli] gunfire was directed at the journalist,” and that the Israeli army had “seen footage of indiscriminate shooting by Palestinian terrorists”. Later in 2022, though, and following multiple independent investigations proving without a shadow of doubt that Abu Akleh had been killed by Israeli fire.
Similarly, the bulldozer murder of the American student protester Rachel Corrie was initially downplayed by Israel as an “accident”. Likewise, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu denounced video evidence of the fatal IDF shooting of 12 year old Mohammed Al Durrah (as he cowered behind a concrete wall beside his father) as a “fabrication” staged by Israel’s enemies. The French photo-journalist who filmed the death of Mohammed Al Durrah later won a libel case against a right wing commentator in France who had repeated Netanyahu’s slur.
In the case of the hospital attack, the counter argument – set out in this Guardian report – is that an Islamic Jihad rocket aimed at Israel went astray. Evidence for that view includes the relatively small size of the crater at the impact point in the hospital parking lot, the relative lack of damage to adjacent buildings, and the extent of burn damage, suggestive of unspent rocket fuel. This argument will continue to rage.
Conversely, for that account to be credible, such a rocket would have had to be considerably larger than normal. The Israeli version of events was not helped by the initial publication of video footage purporting to show the rocket, but this had to be quickly deleted after a New York Times reporter noticed that the video time stamp was more than half an hour after the time that the attack occurred.
This particular attack may never be definitively sheeted home to either side of the conflict. Yet the same Guardian report leaves no doubt about the intensity of the Israeli bombing campaign that has been carried out in a territory estimated to be the third most densely populated place on earth:
Israel has said it used 6,000 bombs in the first six days of the conflict, more than the US used in a year during its operations in Afghanistan and double what the US-led coalition used against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in a month.
Footnote One: Gaza’s 2.2 million inhabitants are penned into an area of only 365 square kilometres. For comparison, the urban area of Christchurch measures 295 square kilometres. An estimated 1400 Israelis (mostly civilians) were killed by Hamas in the attacks that began on October 7, and by UN estimates as at October 17, 3478 Palestinans have died under Israeli air strikes, including 853 children.
Footnote Two: Wars of retribution waged by colonising powers routinely impose far higher casualties on the subject population – to satisfy the desire for revenge, and also to drive home the futility of resistance. US Middle East expert Juan Cole has given the example of the British crushing of the 1950s Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya. The Mau Mau forces killed some 800 British settlers, and British forces killed an estimated 25,000 members of the Kikuyu tribe held to be largely responsible.
Footnote Three: In passing, the Gaza conflict has also exposed a slippery double standard in our support for international law. In Ukraine, this country had no trouble with denouncing the war of aggression being waged by the ethno-nationalists in the Kremlin, who are backed by religious fundamentalists, and who use self defence as their rationale for the bombing and shelling of civilian populations. None of that has cut much ice with New Zealand.
However, where Israel is involved, the response has been different. In Gaza, acts of aggression are being carried out by an ethno-nationalist government in Tel Aviv backed by religious fundamentalists, and who also use self defence as their excuse for the bombing and shelling of civilian centres. With Ukraine we expressed outrage, and sent large amounts of humanitarian aid and military assistance. With Gaza, our humanitarian assistance has been notably more modest. Similar actions, different reactions.
When our closest allies are practising selective morality it can be difficult to be consistent. Yet if we want to be credible when, say, we denounce China’s violations of maritime law in the South China Sea, we need to insist that international law applies to everyone, even our friends.