On the day after the Hamas attacks, the Jewish newspaper Haaretz concluded that only a few options were available to Israel’s leaders and all of them were bad:
1. Urgent negotiations on a prisoner exchange agreement, in which Hamas will demand an astronomical price in the form of the release from Israeli prisons of Palestinians convicted of murdering Israelis, thereby scoring another tremendous morale boost;
2. A crushing aerial campaign against Hamas targets in the Strip, in which thousands of Palestinian civilians will also be killed or injured;
3. A tightening of the blockade on the Strip and damaging of its infrastructure that could cause a humanitarian disaster and an international debacle;
4. An extensive ground operation that will result in multiple losses on both sides and may eventually even fail.
Three days later, the 150 Israeli hostages seem to have been left to the mercy of their captors, and to the random luck of survival amid the relentless Israeli air strikes being carried out on Gaza’s centres of population. If this is a war – and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has said that it is – neither side has obeyed the international rules of war set out in the Geneva Convention of 1949, and the Rome Statute.
Among other things, those rules forbid the deliberate targeting of civilians carried out by Hamas, and also the reckless bombing and shelling of civilians being carried out by the Israelis. Both of these immoral and illegal forms of action are meant to terrorise the wider civilian population.
In addition, the 2.3 million inhabitants of Gaza – the world’s largest open air prison – have had their access to food, water, fuel and electricity cut off by the Israelis, which amounts to another form of collective punishment forbidden under international law. A right to self defence does not excuse any and all forms of retaliation.
Outrage, though, has been on rather selective display this week. Even before the Hamas attack, only 4% of Gaza’s water supply was reportedly drinkable, and the population has been dependent on imported bottled water. Gazans have now been warned to leave the enclave by the same Israeli military that has shut off all the exit points from the territory. Before the Hamas attacks, Gazan families had been dependent on humanitarian food aid largely funded by Qatar, but there is now no means of entry/delivery of these essential foodstuffs.
Even worse seems bound to come in the days and weeks ahead. given that Israel is giving every sign of being about to launch a ground offensive in Gaza.
From the sidelines
One can understand Israel’s outrage. The reports of the carnage at the music festival, and in the towns and kibbutzim adjacent to Gaza have been as horrific as any of the atrocities committed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Even so, is the rest of the world willing to sit by and tolerate the prospect of 2.3 million people being systematically bombed and/or starved to death? Yesterday, Al Jazeera reported the apparent targeting of eight Palestinian ambulances taking the injured and dying to Gaza’s rudimentary hospitals.
In the past, the outside world has shown it has quite a high tolerance for Palestinian suffering. Figures compiled by Al Jazeera show that between 2007 and early 2023, Palestinian casualties amounted to 6,407 dead and 152,560 injured, as compared to an Israeli toll over the same period of 308 dead and 6,307 injured. For 16 years, Gaza has been subjected to a blockade that almost all observers regard as being illegal under international law:
“Collective punishment has been clearly forbidden under international humanitarian law through Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. No exceptions are permitted,” Michael Lynk, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, stated in his 2020 report. The report further said: “Israel’s collective punishment policy” of Gaza has created a “completely collapsed economy, devastated infrastructure and a barely functioning social service system”.
“While Israel’s justification for imposing the closure on Gaza was to contain Hamas and ensure Israel’s security, the actual impact of the closure has been the destruction of Gaza’s economy, causing immeasurable suffering to its two million inhabitants.”
New Zealand, along with other Western countries, have been all but silent on such matters. Hundreds of violent settler outrages this year on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem have resulted in Palestinians being killed in their homes or driven from them by settlers acting – apparently – with official collusion. These actions have occurred while the outside world has either looked the other way, or urged the Palestinians to show restraint.
By and large, showing restraint seems to be an imperative for only one side of this conflict, while outrage and extensive media exposure is almost entirely reserved for the occasions when Israeli lives and wellbeing have come under attack.
Laws, largely ignored
As mentioned, international law is very clear that war must be conducted in ways that do not deliberately or recklessly harm civilian populations. The same laws also stress the obligations that an occupying power has with respect to the civilians under its control. In outlawing the “crime of apartheid” for instance, section 7h of the Rome Statute condemns:
(h) ” inhumane acts….committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.
Yet increasingly, Israel has been accused – e.g. by Amnesty International, by former US President Jimmy Carter, by former Israeli PM Ehud Barak, and by former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo – of imposing a neo-apartheid regime on the Palestinians living on the West Bank and in Gaza.
In that respect, the Hamas attacks did not come out of nowhere… In particular they appear to have been timed to torpedo the imminent normalisation of relations between Israel on one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States on the other, a development that was being shepherded into place by the Biden administration. Reportedly, the Saudis were holding out – without much success – for some concessions by Israel to the Palestinians. The Hamas attacks and the devastating Israeli response have taken that tacit Arab acceptance of the subjugation of the Palestinians off the table, for the foreseeable.
In the wake of the Hamas attacks, the global response has divided into two tribal camps. For very understandable reasons, there has been an outpouring of sympathy and support for Israel. On the other side of the tribal divide, as the US Middle East expert Juan Cole says, Hamas may have few partisan defenders, but the Palestinian cause has many, many supporters.
So what about New Zealand’s response? Repeatedly, New Zealand talks up the need to support the norms of international law. Supposedly, small countries like ours depend on the maintenance of a rules-based international system. Yet only last November New Zealand chose to abstain from a UN resolution that – among other things – condemned Israel’s seizure in 1967 (and illegal occupation ever since) of the West Bank and Gaza, while also denouncing Israel’s related failure to abide by the international laws incumbent on it as the occupying power.
New Zealand’s explanation for sitting on the fence was that (a) it hadn’t had time to consider the resolution properly(!) and (b) it had misgivings about the definition of “annexation” used in the UN resolution. Really? Given that Israel has been the occupying power on the West Bank for the past 56 years, and given its long track record of expanding its settlements on Palestinian land (those settlements have been the main obstacle to peace since 1988 at least) the sight of New Zealand taking fright about the threshold definition of “annexation” was shameful to behold.
This week, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta has been criticised for what National Party leader Christopher Luxon has called a “soft” response to the Hamas attacks. In reality, Mahuta’s initial response was almost identical to that of her Australian counterpart Penny Wong, who was also pilloried for calling on both sides to show” restraint.” As mentioned, “restraint” is an imperative to be urged only upon Palestinians, when they are attacked.
Luxon also cited National’s support for the “two state solution” to the conflict. Spare me. These days, the two state solution is a dogeared diplomatic excuse for inaction that was rendered invalid long ago by the relentless expansion of Israeli settlements. Once again, Luxon has never met a platitude he hasn’t liked, and adopted.
Regardless, restraint is in short supply right now. By some estimates, Gaza is the third most densely populated place on earth. Air strikes on its population centres cannot help but (a) kill and injure large numbers of civilians, and (b) collectively punish civilians by destroying their homes, schools, hospitals, mosques, roads and capacity to generate electricity.
If we feel stirred to denounce such actions when Russia does them in Ukraine, why are our politicians – and the media – so reluctant to do likewise when Israel happens to be the perpetrator?
Footnote One: The ability of Hamas to carry out its attacks against a country that has (a) one of the world’s most advanced intelligence services, and is protected by world-leading surveillance systems and related technology… Well, it almost defies belief. Israelis would also be alarmed by Hamas’ ability to sustain its attacks for hours while the Israel Defence Force was otherwise occupied with defending its unhinged settler pals on the West Bank
Footnote Two: Beyond the direct human toll, the Hamas attacks will inflict considerable damage on an Israeli economy that’s already enduring a familiar mix of reduced consumer spending and rising interest rates that are having – in Israel and New Zealand alike – a negative impact on the housing industry. As Haaretz reported earlier this week:
Alone, war with Gaza will inflict the usual grab-bag of economic damage – tourism will dry up, economic activity in the south will be paralyzed, defence spending will rise, workers will be absent from their jobs for reserve duty and events, ranging from Bruno Mars concerts to family weddings, will be cancelled or postponed. Then, everything is supposed to go back to normal.
The cupboard is already bare, Haartez also noted, for funding the inevitable increase in Israeli defence spending. This will have to be paid for by extra borrowing, in a global climate of rising interest rates. The Americans will probably come to Israel’s aid, once again.
Footnote Three: As for military strategy… The Hamas attacks were a classic warning against becoming overly reliant for security purposes on sophisticated, automated technology. It seems that early on, Hamas used very cheap drones to knock out Israel’s border surveillance posts. There’s a lesson here for us. We appear to be about to spend billions on frigates stacked with sophisticated anti-submarine surveillance gear.
If any genuine conflict occurred, chances are those vessels could be taken out in a twinkling by a few kamikaze drones, or by a missile launched from the back of a Toyota Hilux. On parts of the modern battlefield, asymmetric low-tech weapons appear to have gained an edge on ultra-complex and highly expensive technology that, no doubt, pumps up the value of the contracts won by the corporates supplying the gear in question. It is not as if our own military are unaware of how cheap drones (ones that a child can fly) are transforming the battlefield.
Basically it seems we are still hellbent on allocating billions to Defence not to defend the homeland, which is not at risk in any rational scenario. The spending is much more about ensuring big returns for military contractors, while enabling our military to keep up with their geo-political strutting in the Asia-Pacific region. It is a pantomime – boo hiss, China – and it really is a staggering waste of money.
Other worlds, other conflicts
In a very different arena of conflict… Gender fluidity (and the levels of tolerance and acceptance of it) remains a divisive issue, with the ACT Party waging war on unisex bathrooms. Nearly a hundred years ago, here’s how popular culture was dealing with gender identity back in 1926: