If state actors and legal institutions fail to hold Israel to account for its war crimes, it will further undermine a set of laws that are increasingly viewed as applicable only to the weak, not the powerful.
As the dust kicked up by Israel’s earth-shaking bombardment of the Gaza Strip still settles upon the shattered lives of Palestinians, the absence of any live fighting from our television screens gives the false impression that the violence is over. This lack of a live stimulus prompts people to enter into a political lethargy, feeling that the job of advocating for Palestinian rights is done and the immediate crisis averted.
However, and while the direct violence involving the use of military munitions and ordnance is certainly over -- for now, the effects of that violence are still very much a live issue that continues to impact the Palestinian people upon which it was unleashed, raising harrowing concerns regarding Israel’s flagrant violations of international law and the total lack of accountability it enjoys.
If international law ought to be respected by all, then a single standard of law and accountability before that law ought to be imposed upon all. However, and from the Palestinians’ point of view peering out from beneath the rubble of their shattered homes, it seems that international law is simply a tool with which the powerful to bludgeon the powerless.
Lawfare to excuse wanton warfare
There is no doubt that Israeli civilians also suffered bombardment due to the use of rudimentary missiles fired by Hamas and other armed Palestinian factions from inside Gaza. These missiles lack guidance systems and so whenever they are fired they risk catching civilians in their line of fire.
Indeed, Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel were themselves tragically harmed by these rockets, demonstrating the armed factions whose stated aim is to liberate such people lack control over where their missiles strike.
However, and unlike Israel, the official Palestinian position that was recently and eloquently put forward by Palestinian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Husam Zomlot, is that they welcome an inquiry from the International Criminal Court (ICC) into war crimes irrespective of who the perpetrators are. The Israeli position, however, is one that does not recognise the jurisdiction of the ICC and refuses to cooperate with the Court.
As such, and with the immense disparity between the two belligerents and their destructive potential to one side, it is only fair that we examine the recalcitrant party and see exactly why it is so keen on avoiding international judicial scrutiny.
Ever the perpetual victim, Israel regularly cites Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, arguing that it has a right to self-defence against aggression.
Tel Aviv’s talking point is, deferentially, parroted by powerful nations such as the United States and the British government who talk about Israel’s right to self-defence while staying mute on Palestinians’ rights under international law to wage a campaign of armed resistance for the purpose of national liberation. This position is expressly endorsed by Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, adopted after the horrors of World War II and the creation of the State of Israel.
One would be forgiven for thinking that Israel faced a determined, powerful foe that was at its gates and ready to destroy it. The reality is that Israel has not faced an onslaught from a state’s conventional military forces since deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein fired a barrage of Scud missiles at the capital Tel Aviv and Haifa in an effort to draw Israel into the Gulf War of 1991 and elicit Arab sympathies. Needless to say, Saddam’s attempt failed, and Israel has not faced a conventional threat capable of severely harming its existence ever since.
Further, and despite its “disengagement” from Gaza in 2005, Israel still effectively occupies the territory. One of the key tests of determining whether a territory is under occupation under international law is to examine to what extent an occupier exercises “effective control”.
Israel controls Gaza’s airspace, land borders, access to the sea, and has imposed a blockade on the territory since 2007 in cooperation with Egypt as its junior partner in the oppression of the Palestinian people.
To therefore suggest that the people of Gaza are not under occupation and to mischaracterise the actions of Palestinians as an attack on Israel requiring “self-defence” is both morally and legally indefensible.
Israel’s war crimes culpability
Even in terms of the actual fighting that took place last month, it is clear that Israel perpetrated numerous war crimes.
The law of armed conflict espouses balancing four different principles, including humanity; military necessity; distinction between civilians and combatants; and proportionality. A cursory examination of the latest violence shows all these principles were violated by Israel as an aggressor and occupying power.
With the argument of Israel’s “self-defence” as an occupying power having already been rubbished, it is clear that Tel Aviv paid no heed to ensuring the conduct of military operations was undertaken with any measure of humanity. Its actions led to the unnecessary deaths of 219 Palestinian civilians, including at least 63 children. Of the ten civilians killed in Israel, two were also children.
By its own admission, however, Israel utilises precision munitions and therefore the above figure is an appalling indictment of its wanton cruelty and inhumanity.
While it is accepted that almost every military targeting situation in Gaza will expose civilians to harm due to the densely populated nature of the besieged territory, Israel still has an obligation to limit civilian casualties.
Dropping leaflets to pre-warn civilians to escape is not good enough; they have nowhere to go unlike their Israeli counterparts who enjoy the safety of bomb shelters.
Further evidence of their complete lack of humanity and lack of proportionality is in how Israel launched airstrikes against more than 20 Palestinian and international media outlets, an outrageous war crime.
This was really punctuated by the destruction of the bureaux of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera with the excuse that Hamas intelligence agents operated from there, even though AP later confirmed that they had no indication there was any truth to the story.
The sick truth is that Israel simply wanted to silence reporting of its crimes, and did not care who saw them commit the crime.
This conflict was a watershed for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The ugly reality of the occupation and Israel’s ability to act with impunity and without being censured by the international community has now been laid bare.
If state actors and legal institutions fail to apply international law and hold Israel to account again, this could only serve to further undermine a set of laws that are increasingly viewed as applicable to the weak and poor, and not the powerful and rich. Such an outcome will only lead to more conflict, more bloodshed, and more civilian suffering.
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