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A pause in genocide

Print edition : Feb 13, 2009 T+T-
A Red Crescent employee at al-Quds hospital, destroyed by Israeli fire, in southern Gaza on January 21.-MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

A Red Crescent employee at al-Quds hospital, destroyed by Israeli fire, in southern Gaza on January 21.-MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

AFTER subjecting the one and a half million residents of Gaza Strip to relentless attacks from the air, sea and the ground, Israel, on January 17, announced a unilateral ceasefire. The move was as usual a calculated one and its timing was dictated by the change of guard in Washington.

The Israeli establishment wanted Barack Obama to settle in his office as the new President of the Untied States before embarking on new military adventures in the region. The massacre of innocents in Gaza would have diverted media attention from the dazzling presidential inauguration ceremonies in Washington. Obama had pledged that his administration will make a renewed effort to reach out to the Muslim world.

An earlier attempt by the United Nations Security Council to force Israel to cease fire was thwarted by President George W. Bush. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert boasted in the second week of January that he had made the American President halt a speech midway to take his phone call. According to Olmert, he convinced Bush to order his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice not to go with the rest of the Security Council in supporting a ceasefire resolution. Condoleezza Rice, herself, was involved in the drafting of that resolution.

Had that resolution been approved, the lives of hundreds of Palestinian civilians could have been saved. As it is, it was the American-supplied F-16 fighter jets, helicopter gunships, missiles and bombs that Israel was using to destroy the civilian infrastructure of Gaza and kill and maim innocents. During the eight years of the Bush administration, Israel received $21 billion in security assistance from the U.S., including $19 billion in direct military aid.

While finally announcing the ceasefire, the Israel government grandiosely claimed that it had achieved all its military and political goals. One of the goals it definitely achieved was to reduce much of Gaza into rubble. Decades of occupation and sanctions had anyway made day-to-day life precarious for the Gazans. Now, the Israeli army has destroyed even the basic infrastructure in Gaza.

The U.N. has estimated that billions of dollars will be needed for reconstruction. The London Times reported that when the assault on the hapless citizens of Gaza was going on, Israelis used to gather on a hilltop overlooking the Strip to view the slaughter. For many Israelis it was the ultimate spectator sport.

Since the assault began, most of the people of Gaza have had to live without electricity in bitter cold. As many as 22,000 buildings were either completely destroyed or damaged during the onslaught that lasted three weeks. Officials of the World Health Organisation have warned Gazans that there is a serious threat of an epidemic breaking out because of the raw sewage flowing in the streets and bodies lying under the rubble.

One of the few stated goals of the assault on Gaza was the removal of Hamas from power and the crushing of the resistance. Israel seems to have failed miserably on both counts. The resistance ensured that the invasion of Gaza was not a cakewalk for the Israeli army. They kept on firing Qassam rockets. The Israeli ground forces avoided a frontal clash with Palestinian militants and instead dropped half-tonne bombs on civilian areas. Hours before Hamas agreed to a temporary truce on January 18, around 20 rockets were fired into Israel.

Despite the overwhelming use of force by the Israeli army, forces resisting the occupation could retain their fighting capacity. Uri Avnery, former Israeli Cabinet Minister and now one of the leading peace activists, observed that according to classic military definition, the winner in a battle is the army that remains on the battlefield when it is over. Hamas remains. The Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip still stands, in spite of all the efforts to eliminate it. That is a significant achievement, wrote Avnery.

The leadership and command structures of Hamas, from all available indications, remain intact. This in itself has been construed as a victory by Palestinians and Arabs. Abu Obeida, a top military leader of Hamas, told the media that only 48 fighters from his group had died in the fighting. Among those killed were Interior Minister Saeed Siyaan and senior leaders Nabil Amrin and Nizzar Rayyan. The others were civilians.

Obeida also claimed that two Israeli soldiers had been captured by the Hamas fighters. The Israelis say that they have weakened Hamas. We assure you that what we have lost in this war is nothing compared to what we [still] have, said Obeida.

The Hamas leadership, while agreeing to a temporary ceasefire, has indicated that it will extend the truce only if Israel withdraws its army from the Strip and lifts the economic blockade so that humanitarian help and essential supplies can reach the people after 22 days of unparalleled suffering. Mushir al-Masri, a senior Hamas spokesperson, said that Israel had not been able to achieve even one of its goals. The age of quick decisive wars, which Israel likes, are over, he said. Meanwhile, the calls for Israel to face a war crimes investigation are getting louder by the day. The death toll in Gaza is rising as more and more bodies are being pulled out of the rubble. The toll in the third week of January was put at over 1,300. Over 400 children and 100 women have died in indiscriminate bombing and artillery attacks.

Among the 5,500 Palestinians injured, the overwhelming majority comprise children and women. Journalists, who were finally let into Gaza by Israel after the ceasefire, reported that the destruction in Gaza was almost total and resembled Stalingrad after the Nazi siege.

The U.N. warehouses, storing food and other essential supplies, and schools, where Palestinians had taken refuge, were among the sites systematically targeted. Israeli shells hit the U.N. headquarters in Gaza when U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was in Israel to broker a ceasefire. Ban Ki-moon was quick to convey his strong protest and outrage to the Israel government.

Referring to the attack on the U.N. when the Secretary-General was in Israel, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said it was an open challenge to the world. Turkey, otherwise a close strategic ally of Israel, demanded that Israel be suspended from the U.N. for repeatedly ignoring the Security Council and disregarding its resolutions. No such strong statements condemning Israel came from India, another close ally of the Jewish state. Instead, the focus in Delhi was on signing new arms deals with Tel Aviv. The U.N. has also demanded an investigation into the Israeli attack on a U.N.-run school in Beit Lahiya in the third week of January that killed two schoolchildren and injured many more. Chris Gunnes, a U.N. spokesperson, said that an investigation should be held to determine whether a war crime has been committed. In the second week of January, the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) voted 33-1 to condemn Israel for gravely violating the human rights of Palestinians.

Human rights groups have accused Israel of targeting civilians, using banned weapons, holding Palestinian families at home to use them as human shields, and attacking medical facilities. The International Committee of the Red Cross criticised Israel for preventing medical personnel from reaching wounded civilians, some of whom remained trapped for days, dying of wounds and starvation. Entire families were killed in these actions. Israeli soldiers told the local media that they were told to shoot first, rather than ask questions.

It has been a standard practice for Israeli soldiers to go into a house, lock up the family in a room and use the house for military purposes. Amnesty International has said that the targeting of civilian areas by itself was prima facie evidence of war crimes.

The UNHRC has the right to order an investigation and set up a war crimes tribunal. Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, told a special session of the UNHRC in Geneva that accountability must be ensured for violations of human rights.

At the special session, the UNHRC adopted a resolution calling for an urgent independent international fact-finding mission to investigate all violations by Israel of international human rights and humanitarian law. Such a move will, of course, never fructify as long as the U.S. and the United Kingdom, Israels strongest supporters, continue to hold veto powers in the Security Council.

Richard Falk, professor of international law and a human rights expert of international repute, said that the U.S., the worlds most powerful state, and its closest ally Israel have had geopolitical impunity from war crimes for a long time.

Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch, told a French news channel that he had witnessed Israeli troops firing white phosphorus shells from their side of the border into Palestinian refugee camps. American troops had used similar tactics in their assault on the Iraqi town of Fallujah.

Israel was also accused of using phosphorus in civilian areas during the Lebanon war in 2006. It was forced to admit to this crime after overwhelming evidence was produced to back up the charge. The Geneva Treaty of 1980 stipulates that white phosphorus should not be used as a weapon of war in civilian areas.

Miguel dEscoto, President of the United Nations General Assembly, described Israels offensive as a war against a helpless, defenceless and imprisoned people. He pointed out that the violations of international law inherent in the Gaza attack were well documented. These included collective punishment, disproportionate military force and attacks on civilian targets, including homes, mosques, universities, schools. DEscoto told the media in New York that the killing of Palestinians in Gaza by the Israeli forces amounted to genocide.

Gideon Levy, the noted Israeli commentator, observed in the Haaretz that once the international community comes to realise the full scope of the killing and destruction in Gaza, the worlds exaggerated willingness to forgive Israel is liable to crack this time. Many Israelis themselves are saying that what happened in Gaza was a crime worse than that of the massacre in Sabra and Shatila during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Hundreds of Palestinians living in the two refugee camps were murdered in cold blood under orders from the Israeli occupation forces.

The demand for Israel to be hauled to the International Criminal Court (ICC) is coming from all over the world. Israel has not ratified the statute of the ICC, and the U.S. will anyway not allow the U.N. Security Council to refer the Gaza massacre to the ICC. But many experts argue that this should not be an impediment to the creation of a special criminal tribunal to try Israel. After all, they point out, special courts and special war crimes tribunals have been created for probing war crimes and crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Lebanon, Cambodia and East Timor.

Creation of a war crimes tribunal is all the more urgent in Gaza, as it is legally a non-self governing territory. Israel, as the occupying power, has international obligations to ensure the dignity and well being of the citizens of Gaza.

In the third week of January, Bolivia broke off diplomatic links with Israel. Venezuela had expelled the Israeli Ambassador from its capital in the first week of January. Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia, said that he would seek to get top Israeli officials, including the Prime Minister, charged with genocide in the ICC. The Arab countries, on the other hand, are yet to put up a united front in their response to the horrific events in Gaza. Qatar and Mauritania have suspended economic and political ties with Israel. The only two Arab countries that continue to have diplomatic ties with Israel are Egypt and Jordan.

The move by Qatar and Mauritania came after the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, and the Hamas leader in exile, Khaled Meshaal, called all Arab nations to cut ties with Israel. Assad, while addressing an emergency meeting in Doha just prior to the Gaza truce announcement, said that the Arab peace initiative with Israel was now dead and that Arab countries should cut all direct and indirect ties with Israel in protest against its offensive on Gaza.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia are among the states that want to prop up the Mahmoud Abbas-led Palestinian Authority at the expense of Hamas. There are reports that Egypt may agree to the U.S.-Israeli demand that European Union peacekeepers be deployed to police the Gaza-Egypt border in order to prevent the smuggling of essential supplies to the Palestinian people. A memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed between the U.S. Secretary of State and the Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, before Israel declared its unilateral ceasefire promises deployment of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation troops to help prevent arms smuggling into Gaza.

Under the MoU, U.S. and Israeli forces can seize ships and planes from third countries on the mere suspicion that they are carrying arms to Gaza. This is an ominous development in itself.