Do Unto Others focuses on the Middle East, (nonviolent) social movements, and how I make sense of my place in the world. I'm currently based in Cairo, Egypt doing peacebuilding and community development.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Official Report ---> Denial. Official Report---> Denial. Etc, etc.

A United Nations fact-finding mission had released its report detailing war crimes committed in the Gaza offensive last winter. The 575 page report identifies instances both Israeli and Palestinian militant groups acted in ways that amount to either war crimes, or crimes against humanity.

While both Palestinian and Israeli groups were mentioned in the report, the harshest language was reserved for Israel. The NY Times provides some useful summaries and pulls some good quotes.

The report called Israel’s military assault on Gaza “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability.”

The report claims that:

the Israeli military carried out direct attacks against civilians, including some in which civilians were shot “while they were trying to leave their homes to walk to a safer place, waving white flags.”

The report cited other possible crimes by the Israelis, including “wantonly” destroying food production, water and sewerage facilities; striking areas, in an effort to kill a small number of combatants, where significant numbers of civilians were gathered; using Palestinians as human shields; and detaining men, women and children in sand pits. It also called Israel’s use of weapons like white phosphorus “systematically reckless,” and called for banning it in urban areas.

On the Palestinian side, the report said that firing rockets that either deliberately were aimed at Israeli civilians or were so inaccurate as to risk hitting civilians caused widespread trauma and constituted a war crime. It also singled out Palestinian actions within Gaza, including killings and other abuse of members of the rival Fatah political movement as a “serious violation of human rights.”

The Israeli response to the document was not welcoming, understandably.

The Israeli government said it was studying the report, but Gabriela Shalev, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, quickly rejected it, saying it failed to take into account that the operation was in “self-defense.”

In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said it had refused to co-operate with the mission, calling it biased from the start.

When the UN committee was beginning their research, they were denied entry to Israel. From the very beginning, Israel had refused to cooperate with the fact-finding mission because Israel says the UN Human Rights Council has a record of singling out Israel's human rights violations.

The report also touched on some of the most contentious points of the war and some of the most egregious events.

The panel rejected the Israeli version of events surrounding several of the most contentious episodes of the war.

Israel’s mortar shelling near a United Nations-run school in the Jabaliya refugee camp, which was sheltering some 1,300 people, killed 35 and wounded up to 40 people, the report said.

The investigation did not exclude the possibility that Israeli forces were responding to fire from an armed Palestinian group, as Israel claimed, but said that this and similar attacks “cannot meet the test of what a reasonable commander would have determined to be an acceptable loss of civilian life for the military advantage sought.”

Israel repeatedly accused Hamas of using mosques to shelter armed men or munitions, and a report by Israel said an attack against the Maqadmah mosque in Jabaliya had killed six known militants.

But the Human Rights Council report said the attack came during evening prayers, when some 300 men and women were in the mosque, and killed 15 people. There were no secondary explosions to indicate the presence of an arms cache.

If Israel wanted to destroy a mosque suspected as an arms cache, it should have done so in the middle of the night, Mr. Goldstone said.

The report also noted that some 10 Israeli shells, including white phosphorus, hit the main Gaza City compound of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency while up to 700 civilians were sheltered there. The compound contained a huge fuel depot, but the shells kept coming, it said, though United Nations officials spoke to their Israeli military liaison repeatedly.

In another episode, the report said the destruction of a house in which nearly two dozen relatives died, appeared to be “the result of deliberate demolition and not of combat.”

Asked about accusations that he was anti-Israel, Judge Goldstone acknowledged he was Jewish and said, “It is grossly wrong to label a mission or to label a report critical of Israel as being anti-Israel.”

The Israeli government and media immediately began challenging Goldstone and the committee. The Israel Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said “the sole purpose of the report was to undermine Israel's image at the beckoning of countries that are not familiar with the terms 'human rights' and 'war ethics.” He continued, “I can wholeheartedly say that the IDF is the most moral army in the world, and any person examining the facts objectively would agree.”

Ari Shavit, writing for Haaretz, continued with the line Foreign Ministry's line of thinking that the UN committee was biased against Israel.

Only in matters involving Israel, do international law and justice suddenly discover that they have teeth. Only when Israel is involved is the judgment administered out of context. Only Israel is required to uphold a moral standard no superpower or Middle Eastern state is required to uphold.

Shavit makes this point in an attempt to say that Israel is not the only country committing war crimes, just look at “the United States, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka or Turkey.” Shavit suggests that world superpowers and middle eastern countries should not be exempt from these investigations (especially not the U.S. regarding its potential crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan).

I agree with Shavit that no countries should be exempt from investigations in possible war crimes. But the fact that other countries that should be under investigation are not under investigation, does not exempt Israel from being held accountable for its own 'war crimes' or 'crimes against humanity.'

The Jerusalem Post's editorial on September 16 continues the denial of wrongdoing and Goldstone smear campaign.

The learned judge's concoction, based heavily on unverifiable claims from avowedly non-objective sources, some of them long-since discredited, is a feat of cynical superficiality, without appropriate distinction between terror and defense. The distorted picture justifies the Foreign Ministry's reaction of "nausea and fury."

Yet nobody here is surprised. The verdict was sealed before the probe had begun.

Goldstone, the South African judge who also conducted investigations in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, spoke for himself today in the NY Times. He defended the purpose of the fact-finding mission and reiterated that investigations need to continue to take place to hold the guilty accountable, both Israelis and Hamas militants.

Unfortunately, both Israel and Hamas have dismal records of investigating their own forces. I am unaware of any case where a Hamas fighter was punished for deliberately shooting a rocket into a civilian area in Israel — on the contrary, Hamas leaders repeatedly praise such acts. While Israel has begun investigations into alleged violations by its forces in the Gaza conflict, they are unlikely to be serious and objective.
Absent credible local investigations, the international community has a role to play. If justice for civilian victims cannot be obtained through local authorities, then foreign governments must act. There are various mechanisms through which to pursue international justice. The International Criminal Court and the exercise of universal jurisdiction by other countries against violators of the Geneva Conventions are among them. But they all share one overarching aim: to hold accountable those who violate the laws of war. They are built on the premise that abusive fighters and their commanders can face justice, even if their government or ruling authority is not willing to take that step.

Amira Hass, writing for Haaretz, reminds us that this isn't the first report casting this level of suspicion upon the IDF's actions in Operation Cast Lead.

B'Tselem, Breaking the Silence, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Haaretz and the international media - to Israelis, these have all fallen into the trash bin of the mendacious Palestinians. In the best case, they have become trapped in their own pure-hearted naivete, and in the worst, into collaborating with efforts to besmirch Israel and bolster prejudices against it. Like the Serbs of yore, we Israelis continue thinking it's the world that is wrong, and only we who are right.
Israel struck a civilian population that remains under its control, it didn't fulfill its obligation to distinguish between civilians and militants and used military force disproportionate with the tangible threat to its own civilians. Air Force drones and helicopters fired deadly missiles at civilians, many of them children; the Tank Corps and Navy shelled civilian neighborhoods with weapons not designed for precision strikes; soldiers received orders to fire on rescue crews; others fired on civilians carrying white flags; and others killed people in or near their homes. Troops used Gazans as human shields, soldiers detained civilians in abusive conditions, the army used white phosphorus shells in dense civilian areas and, on the eve of withdrawing, destroyed wide residential, industrial and agricultural areas.

There is only thing worse than denial - the admission that the IDF indeed acted as has been described, but that these actions are both normal and appropriate.

My own analysis: No one is above accountability. I agree with the voices calling for the United States and other nations to be investigated instead of being allowed to sit on the sidelines and point the finger. All nations whose military or armed forces take actions amounting to 'war crimes' or 'crimes against humanity' should be investigated and prosecuted. International criminal courts exist for a reason and should be used where appropriate.

Israel is not above the law. The fact that the UNHRC (United Nations Human Rights Council) has repeatedly called on Israel to amend its human rights violations is not because the UNHRC is anti-semitic (Goldstone is in fact Jewish), but rather it's because Israel consistently violated the human rights of Palestinians, whom are occupied by Israel. As Amira Hass wisely pointed out, this UN report is not the first official critique of Israel's behavior in Operation Cast Lead, and it will not be the last. The UN, B'Tselem, Breaking the Silence, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Haaretz have all released articles and reports documenting the war crimes committed by Israel in the recent offensive in Gaza.

And finally, the distinctions that Israel and the international community make between 'state defense' and 'terrorism' are absurd and need to stop. Indiscriminate violence is indiscriminate violence, whether it is used by an 'official' state army or by an 'unofficial' armed group. Palestine does not have a national army, so according to the Israeli logic of justifiable self-defense, how would Palestinians justifiably defend themselves? It seems any armed resistance of defense they take, would be chalked up to terrorism (in fact we have seen that is the case). I don't accept Shimon Peres' statement that the report fails “to distinguish between the aggressor and a state exercising its right for self-defense." It could very conceivably be argued that Hamas was exercising its right for self-defense against the aggressor, Israel. Those distinctions are meaningless.

The point is that bombing civilian populations is morally reprehensible, whether you are Hamas or the IDF, and whether you call it resistance or self-defense. The IDF should not held to a different standard than Hamas because the IDF is an 'official' army or because they are the 'most moral army in the world.' All should be held accountable to the overwhelming evidence which has again been presented.