July 02, 2006

War Crimes in Gaza

Outrage can only go so far. These days it seems that everybody is outraged over something. The result is a kind of a moral numbness. A weariness that makes it hard to look at the dark side of humanity that seems so much in evidence today. People are especially unwilling to confront issues concerning war. Something about war arouses primitive instincts that call us to lay aside normal standards of decent and moral behavior as we rally to the defense of our group. The military harnesses these feelings to turn ordinary decent men and women into killers. That is what war is all about. The question is where to draw the line.

International law now attempts to distinguish behaviors that are acceptable and unacceptable in warfare. This is not an easy task because war in any form is opposed to peacetime morality. At best, warfare involves the deliberate murder of opposing soldiers. There is a recognition that civilians will inevitably be victims as they are caught in the crossfire, driven from their homes, witness traumatic events and be unable to live normal lives. However, we now condemn deliberate targeting of civilians. The principle is that hostilities should be confined to armies fighting each other.

In World War II the Nazis clearly overstepped these bounds in a number of ways. The genocide against Jews, Gypsies and others was the worst abuse. The death camps could only exist by denying the humanity of these people. We respond by saying “Never Again shall we allow this to happen to anybody.”

The Nazis were also condemned for their brutal occupation of the countries they conquered. They held the entire community responsible for any attack on their troops. They would respond by holding government officials and other prominent people hostage. Sometimes they would be executed in response to attacks by the resistance. In other cases, the whole community would be punished by withholding necessities of life.

After the war, the Nuremberg trials and the Geneva Conventions outlawed these practices as war crimes. They declared that deliberate targeting of civilians would not be tolerated and that reprisals should be proportionate to the “offense” and should be confined to the guilty parties and not innocent people.

Last week’s attacks in Gaza and indeed Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in general appears to violate these principles. At the same time it can be said that Palestinian terrorists violate these principles when they bomb Israeli civilians. It would be a mistake, however, to equally condemn both sides. The degree of violence and power is clearly unequal. Israel has occupied the West Bank and Gaza since 1967. The establishment of settlements there violate the principle that military occupation should be temporary and that civilians should not be displaced. It is the settlements that make a political solution impossible. In order to maintain the settlements, Palestinian territory has to be fractured into a myriad of little enclaves that have no economic or political cohesion.

In response to the kidnapping of one soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, Israel launched an attack on Gaza that clearly holds not only the Hamas led government but the entire population responsible. They bombed the power plant that provides power to most of Gaza, leaving people without electricity and water, which depends on pumps. They have also prevented food and other supplies from getting into Gaza, bombed government offices and taken much of the Palestinian Cabinet prisoner. Israel says that all this is to exert “pressure” on those holding Cpl. Shalit to release him.

It is hard to see this attack as anything other than collective punishment on the entire civilian population and the holding of government officials as hostages, which are exactly the type of war crimes that the Nuremberg Trials and the Geneva Conventions condemned when they were practiced by the Nazis. Of course, Shalit was kidnapped in response to Israeli attacks which were responses to attacks by Palestinian groups.... It seems ironic that the Israeli government seems to be more outraged by the one action that had a military, rather than a civilian target and thus did not violate the “rules of war”.

The current crisis represents an escalation in their tactics but is not essentially different than the policy they have been pursuing in the Palestinian territories in general. Free travel between different parts of the West Bank is not allowed. Periodic blockades and numerous check points give the military complete control over whether people can go to work or school. and whether food an other necessities of life are available. People’s homes are demolished if the military thinks that somebody there, or a relative of somebody there is a “terrorist”. There is no way to challenge such a decision.

The US is quick to condemn Hamas for their refusal to recognize Israel but slow to condemn Israel, who we support with $3 billion in aid a year, for their part in perpetuating the violence and preventing a solution. It will do no good for Hamas to change their stance if the reality of life for Palestinians does not improve. What does the Israeli government think is going to happen if they continue to pursue this course? Palestinians who see no prospect of a settlement they can live with turned to Hamas in the last election. Desperation leads to desperate measures. I can only see a continuation of the cycle of violence in which the unequal power will lead to unequal suffering but suffering nonetheless on both sides. It will be impossible to prevent terrorists from attacking and Israel will never be able to live in peace. Likewise anti-American feeling will continue to increase because of our support for these brutal Israeli policies, with tragic consequences.

The only solution is for Israel to adhere to the Geneva Conventions and move towards an end to the occupation. Palestinians will have no reason to seek peace unless they see a prospect for a return to normal life and self determination. Israel must commit to a policy of peace, justice and self-determination and the US must adopt a policy of “tough love” to get them on track and keep them on track.

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