Palestine: Why Israel commits war crimes

By Kim Bullimore

On January 23, just days after the Israeli military finished its 22-day war against the 1.5 million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, Israel’s military censor banned both the Israeli and international media from publishing the names of, or information about, Israeli military officers who participated in the war. The ban came a result of growing calls for the Israeli government and military to be charged with war crimes.

According to the January 23 Tel Aviv Haaretz daily, the Israeli government is fearful that the publication of names, as well as interviews given by Israeli military officers describing the destruction of Palestinian homes or harm inflicted on Palestinian civilians, would be used to prosecute them and the troops under their command.

Israel’s assault on Gaza, which began on December 27, resulted in the deaths of more than 1400 Palestinians. According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, 90% of those killed were civilians, with at least 400 children. In addition, more than 5300 Palestinians were wounded, many critically.

The initial attack by Israeli warplanes took place at 11am Gaza time on December 27, just as Palestinian children were breaking from school. The planes hit more than 40 target areas, killing more than 200 people in 15 minutes. Initial reports in the Israeli and international corporate media carried the Israeli government line that its military had targeted Hamas security compounds and sought to blame Hamas for the civilian deaths, saying that Hamas was using the civilian population as human shields by locating security compounds in civilian areas. The reality, however, is that many of the targets were Palestinian police stations and police training compounds, which like practically all police stations around the world, are located in civilian areas. Dozens of Palestinian police graduates were killed when their graduation ceremony was bombed by Israeli warplanes.

Over the next three weeks, Israeli war planes continued to bomb Gaza’s civilian population, targeting homes, hospitals, ambulances, mosques, government buildings, UN humanitarian facilities, shelters, schools and higher education institutions. At the beginning of third week of its war, Israel launched its ground offensive, sending in hundreds of tanks and thousands of troops.

International human rights observers on the scene reported that there was “no safe space in Gaza”. According to Caoimhe Butterly, a human rights observer with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), Israel deliberately targeted a UN Relief and Workers Agency school in Beit Lahiya, killing young children. Ewa Jasiewicz, another human rights activist with the ISM, described the attack as a war crime, reporting that despite there being no Palestinian resistance in the area, the UN school was repeatedly hit with white phosphorous.

Under the Geneva Convention on Conventional Weapons, both the targeting of civilian infrastructure, such as schools, and the use of incendiary weapons such as white phosphorous against humans is illegal. White phosphorus causes severe burns and death, because it is easily absorbed into the skin and burns through soft tissue (to the bone) and body organs such as the liver, kidney and heart, resulting in multiple organ failure.

This is not the first time Israel has used white phosphorous in war. On October 22, 2006, the Associated Press quoted Israeli cabinet minister, Jacob Edery, speaking on behalf of then Israeli defence minister Amir Peretz, as saying that during Israel’s 2006 war against Lebanon, which killed at least 1000 civilians, “the Israeli army made use of phosphorous shells during the war against Hezbollah in attacks against military targets in open ground”.

Amnesty International report

On January 19, one day after the conclusion of Israel’s war on Gaza, Amnesty International issued a report stating that its fact-finding team, which included weapons experts, had found lumps of still smouldering white phosphorous in Gaza City. According to the report, the Israeli military had used the incendiary weapon “in densely populated civilian residential areas”, and “streets and alleyways [were] littered with evidence of the use of white phosphorous including still burning wedges and the remnants of the shells and canisters fired by the Israeli army”. The places worst affected by the use of the illegal weapon were the UN compound and the al Quds hospital in Gaza City. Donatella Rovera, a member of the four-person Amnesty team in Gaza, noted that the extensive use of white phosphorous by Israel was indiscriminate.

Throughout the three-week war UN officials, along with human rights agencies, repeatedly called for investigations into whether Israel was committing war crimes. On January 9, after Israel shelled a UN school, killing 40 children sheltering there, Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said that “incidents such as this must be investigated because they display elements of what could constitute war crimes”. In an interview with Reuters news agency, Pillay, a former International Criminal Court judge from South Africa, noted there was an international obligation on the part of soldiers “to protect civilians, not to kill civilians indiscriminately” and to “make sure that they help the wounded”.

According to Antony Dworkin, the executive director of the Crimes of War Project for the European Council on Foreign Relations, although Israel is not a member of the International Criminal Court, it is still possible for Israeli officers, troops and officials to face charges of war crimes.

Genocide

Dr Fouad Riad, former judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for War Crimes (ICTWC) and a professor of international law at Cairo University, in an interview on January 22 with the Egyptian weekly Al Ahram, noted that Israel can be held accountable for its actions in Gaza via the laws of “universal jurisdiction” relating to genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Riad noted that such laws allow a state to try crimes committed outside its borders, regardless of the nationality or country of residence of the alleged criminal.

Riad, who ruled, along with other ICTWC judges, that the 1995 Srebrenica massacre was an act of genocide, noted that genocide is the “crime of crimes”. According to the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, genocide is any of a number of acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. This can include killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Riad stated that in his opinion Israel had “deliberately killed Palestinian children” and that this had been with the aim of exterminating Palestinians. Riad, however, noted that the acts of genocide and war crimes committed by Israel in Gaza were not something new and that Israel’s atrocities in Gaza should be viewed within the historical context of both Zionist ideology and the Zionist occupation of Palestine since 1948.

Ethnic cleansing

Zionism arose in reaction to the waves of anti-Jewish pogroms and anti-Semitism that spread through central Europe in the late 19th century. At the time, a small section of the European Jewish middle class began to subscribe to the idea that anti-Semitism was not a result of historical developments within capitalism but an inevitable occurrence as long as Jews lived among non-Jews, and that it was therefore necessary to establish an independent state for Jews.

However, in order to establish a Jewish state, it was necessary for the Zionists to ethnically cleanse the inhabitants of any land they wished to colonise, something that was noted by the founding father of Israel, Theodor Herzl, and other leaders of the Zionist movement. While the early Zionist movement attempted to buy up Palestinian land in the first part of the 20th century, it soon became clear that very few Palestinians were keen to sell their homeland. As a result, the Zionists began to plan the expulsion of the Palestinian population.

According to Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, prior to the establishment of the Zionist State of Israel in 1948, a series of plans had been developed by the Zionist leadership in preparation for a military offensive against the Palestinian civilian population. Pappe noted in his 2007 book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine that one of the plans, known as Plan C, was to kill the Palestinian political leadership as well as Palestinian officials, to kill Palestinian “inciters” and their financial supporters, to damage Palestinian infrastructure including transportation, water wells, mills, meeting places and clubs, and to destroy Palestinian livelihoods. However, within a few months the Zionist leadership developed a new plan known as Plan D or Plan Dalet, which not only incorporated the aims of Plan C but also called for the “systematic and total expulsion [of Palestinians] from their homeland”.

In 1947, just months before the official partition of Palestine between a Jewish state and a Palestinian state by the UN General Assembly, the Zionist leaders began preparations to put Plan Dalet into practice and to go to war to “cleanse” Palestine of Palestinians. Under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion, who was to become the first prime minister of Israel, Jewish paramilitary forces and militias, such as the Hagana, Irgun and Stern Gang, began systematic attacks on Palestinian villages and cities, terrorising and massacring hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Palestinian civilians between December 1947 and April 1948. In the wake of these terror attacks, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes, never to be allowed to return.

In an article published on January 2 on the Electronic Intifada website about Israel’s war on Gaza, Pappe drew the link between Zionist ideology, the massacres that took place in 1947-48, Israel’s wars of aggression against both Palestinians and other Arab nations over the last 60 years and the current massacres in Gaza. He wrote: “Zionism is an ideology that endorses ethnic cleansing, occupation and now massive massacres.”

Pappe went on to note that Zionism is similar to the “apartheid ideology” of South Africa and has allowed “all Israeli governments in the past and the present to dehumanise the Palestinians wherever they are and strive to destroy them”. Pappe noted “this may have altered from period to period and location to location”, but Zionism is responsible for “the ethnic cleansing of 1948, the oppression of the Palestinians in Israel during the days of the military rule, the brutal occupation of the West Bank and now the massacre of Gaza”.

US backing

The Zionist regime’s ethnic cleansing, wars of aggression and the current massacre in Gaza have had the consistent backing of successive US administrations. Since World War II, the US imperialist rulers have sought to control the vast energy reserves (oil and natural gas) that exist in the Middle East. Israel has become US imperialism’s chief ally in the region, the US-Israel alliance being based on shared political interests — opposition to any form of Arab radicalism that would threaten imperialist economic domination of the region.

With the inauguration of Barak Obama as US president, many journalists, commentators and ordinary people have expressed hope Washington’s policy in relation to Israel and Palestine will be reassessed. However, statements by Obama during his election campaign and his initial actions as president reveal that he has no intention of changing US policy.

Obama not only supported the undermining of the Palestinian democratic elections (supporting the Bush administration’s refusal to accept Hamas’ victory in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections), but also supported Israel’s war in Lebanon in 2006, as well as Israel’s 18-month siege of Gaza. Obama has announced that Washington will continue to protect Israel’s “right” to carry out military aggression in the name of “security”.

The Obama administration will also continue to aid Israel’s war efforts to the tune of US$33 billion over the next 10 years. As Ali Abunimah, the co-founder of the Electronic Intifada website, noted on November 18: “Obama has expressed no support for Palestinian ‘rights’ and has never publicly used the type of effusive emotional language identifying with Palestinian aspirations as he does regarding the Israelis. While repeatedly castigating Palestinians, he has been uncritical of Israel.” Abunimah went on to note that “Obama’s positions are remarkable only for their conformity with long-standing US policies”.

In order not to pressure or embarrass the new US president, Israel ceased its all-out offensive against Gaza two days before Obama was sworn in on January 20. Since taking office, Obama has appointed a former senator, George Mitchell, as the US “peace” envoy to the Middle East. However, US State Department officials have made it clear that Washington has no intention of holding Israel accountable for its war crimes in Gaza, which included not only mass murder but also the complete devastation of the region’s civilian infrastructure.

According to UN humanitarian workers, more than 100,000 Gaza residents have been displaced from their homes, Israeli bombing has destroyed more than 5000 buildings and partially destroyed 20,000. Hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency aid will be needed just to help the people of Gaza in the first stages of rebuilding.

In remarks made to State Department officials on January 22, Obama said: “I was deeply concerned by the loss of Palestinian and Israeli life in recent days and by the substantial suffering and humanitarian needs in Gaza. Our hearts go out to Palestinian civilians who are in need of immediate food, clean water, and basic medical care, and who’ve faced suffocating poverty for far too long.”

However, the primary concern of the Obama administration is not to aid the occupied Palestinian people. It is to bolster Israel and, as Obama told State Department officials, to establish a “credible anti-smuggling and interdiction regime” along the Egypt-Gaza border to prevent the re-arming of Hamas and other Palestinian resistance fighters. While Obama and Mitchell have announced that they will seek to have Gaza’s borders reopened, this will be contingent on installation of the US-backed Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority as Israel’s proxy in the Gaza. In his January 22 remarks, Obama said: “Gaza’s border crossings should be open to allow the flow of aid and commerce, with an appropriate monitoring regime, with the international and Palestinian Authority participating. Relief efforts must be able to reach innocent Palestinians who depend on them. The United States will fully support an international donor’s conference to seek short-term humanitarian assistance and long-term reconstruction for the Palestinian economy. This assistance will be provided to and guided by the Palestinian Authority.”

Despite the devastation caused by Israel’s war, its objectives were not achieved. In launching its war of aggression, Israeli leaders had stated that their primary aim was to crush Hamas, to stop Palestinian rocket fire into Israel and to revive Israel’s power of military deterrence. However, throughout the war and in response to Israel’s repeated violation of its unilaterally declared ceasefire, Palestinians have continued to wage armed resistance against the Zionist forces occupying their national homeland.