Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 January 2009
Issue No. 929
Opinion
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The inconvenient truth about Gaza

The foot dragging of Palestinian diplomats in the face of Israel's Gaza onslaught suggests that for some ending Hamas is more important than ending the violence, writes Curtis Doebbler

When a state resorts to the use of force it enters a process wherein the truth is often blurred and intentionally distorted. Israel's use of force against the Palestinian people in Gaza is a classic example.

The Israeli government has invented terminology and ideology to claim that it is acting in the cause of self-defence. Indeed, self-defence is a justification for an otherwise illegal act under international law, but only when one state has been attacked by another state. Israel was not attacked by the Palestinian people or even by Hamas.

Instead, Israel has been for more than 60 years the illegal occupier of Palestinian land and the Palestinian people living on it or forcefully internally displaced. In maintaining this occupation, Israel has ignored dozens of UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions and has created such inhumane conditions for the Palestinian people that these conditions might reasonably be said to be intended to destroy the Palestinian people in whole or in part. Indeed, tens of thousands of Palestinians have been killed either by direct Israeli aggression or by the conditions that have been imposed upon them. Even in the last few months, the inhumane embargo that Israel has imposed on Gaza, which restricted even humanitarian necessities, has been responsible for the deaths of dozens of civilians.

For more than 60 years the Palestinians have resisted this illegal occupation as they are entitled to do under well-agreed rules of international law by all necessary means. While international law allows non-state actors fighting for their self-determination to use force, it also imposes a responsibility to use force in manner that respects the laws of war. For example, civilians cannot be targeted either intentionally or through indiscriminate means. Israel has argued that Hamas rockets are targeting civilians. Hamas has responded by confirming that its own policies of engagement with the illegal occupier prohibit targeting innocent civilians. Some international observers have claimed nevertheless that the firing of rockets with limited accuracy violates the prohibition of the use of indiscriminate weapons. Whatever the correct answer might be; no action by Hamas would justify violations of the laws of war by Israel, especially on the much grander scale that has taken place in recent days.

Even if the Israeli self-defence argument focused on its use of force being a response to Hamas rocket fire, it would clearly fail any test of international law. First of all, back in December 2008 it was Israel, not Hamas that first breached the ceasefire between these two actors. Israel did so by carrying out attacks on targets in Gaza. In fact, in aftermath, it seems plausible that Israel's attacks were intended to provoke a Hamas reaction, as they did. And it was to this reaction that Israel responded with disproportionate force.

Israel's disproportionate use of force violates the most fundamental principles of international law in numerous ways. First, it is a violation of the laws of war to use disproportionate force against an occupied people. This violation is amplified when it is done with the goal of denying the occupied people their self-determination. Therefore, second, Israel's action constitutes a violation of the right to self-determination. And, finally, Israeli's intentionally disproportionate use of force against part of the Palestinian people that has killed or wounded a significant percentage of those people is significant evidence that the crime of genocide is being committed.

But despite these clear legal truths, and despite the fact that the world is once again witnessing the horrific crime of genocide, there is no international outcry to have the International Criminal Court investigate the many Israelis involved in these actions and the many other international officials who have been complacent in allowing -- sometimes supporting -- these actions. The Security Council forced the International Criminal Court to take action against Sudan for alleged genocidal acts, even after the Council's own investigative team found no grounds for claiming genocide had taken place. Why is there no such action against Israel? Why doesn't the UN General Assembly at least form a body to investigate Israel's crimes, as it is entitled to do under Article 22 of the UN Charter?

Even the Western news media seems to ignore the truth provided by the rules of international law, often feigning ignorance of the law -- as if that is a defence for them -- or sometimes merely claiming, arrogantly, that the law is irrelevant, despite the fact that these rules have the consensual agreement of the international community and have been tried and tested over hundreds of years. CNN shows pictures of what clearly appear to be cluster bombs being used by Israel in civilian areas, but doesn't even suggest that such an action is a very serious violation of international law. When CNN was confronted with its "mistake", it merely claimed the truth of the law was irrelevant. Having been trained by two American wars with Iraq and one American war with Afghanistan, in which the majority of news reported was from under the wing of the US military, perhaps nothing better could be expected. In war, the truth often appears irrelevant.

Sometimes in war the truth is also inconvenient. This is likely why not only the Western press but even the Arab press has shied away from obvious signs indicating that Arabs and even Palestinians themselves have contributed to Israel's inhumane rampage of violence through Gaza. Few Palestinians -- or knowledgeable observers of any persuasion -- could imagine that Israel could attack Gaza in the midst of negotiations with the Palestinian government represented by Fatah without the knowledge and consent of senior Fatah officials. While Fatah's official line, right to the top where President Mahmoud Abbas sits, has been that it opposes the Israeli invasion of Gaza, it has done little to stop it. One Palestinian diplomat asked what would be done deferred the matter until after the holidays.

From the Palestinian Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva -- where the UN's main human rights bodies sit -- has come an ominous silence. The Mission did not even respond to requests for any statement they might have made in relation to the situation in Gaza, and none could be publicly found a week into the Israeli aggression. A week into the worst aggression ever carried out against the Palestinian people in such a short period of time there was no call for a special session of the Human Rights Council, no harsh condemnation of Israel's actions. The diplomats in Geneva were possibly busy enjoying the holidays. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Permanent Mission in New York has pushed for UN Security Council action, but that is all. Informed observers within the UN have wondered out loud why the Palestinians have not pushed for quick General Assembly action. Even the newest ambassadors to UN headquarters know that the US will block any action against Israel as they have done in the past in relation to Israel's use of force against US assets.

Malaysian Prime Minister Datruk Seri Abdullah Ahmed Bedawi, on the other side of the world, recognised that only the world body's most democratic body, the General Assembly, could break through the impasse caused by the US veto threat in the Security Council. He -- not the Palestinians or Arab countries -- was the first to call on the UN to urgently convene a special emergency General Assembly session. Such a session can be convened with one day's notice when either a majority nine members of the Security Council vote to convene such a session (in a vote where no veto is possible) or when 97 or more states of the UN General Assembly make such a request. His call was received cautiously by the Palestinian government and has thus stalled. President Abbas seems to be more concerned with how he might reassert Fatah authority over Gaza.

First, Abbas ironically, in the midst of the attack on Gaza, issued an invitation to Hamas to negotiate a national unity government. He did this despite still not having replied to a Hamas proposal to form a unity government delivered to him six months ago. When a politically independent Gaza City resident was told about this proposal he asked if Abbas's offer had been delivered among the propaganda leaflets that Israel is dropping from planes over besieged Gaza.

Second, although lauding himself as the elected Palestinian president, according to a Lebanese newspaper Abbas has ordered 2000 Fatah militants to the border with Gaza, apparently with Israeli and Egyptian permission, to overrun the elected government of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza. One might even speculate that Mohamed Dahlan, whose failed coup attempt against Hamas in Gaza precipitated many of the current events, might be at the head of this "fifth column".

That Western powers ignore the will of the Palestinian people as expressed through elections for which Western observers vouched is not surprising, but that Fatah will go to the length of cooperating with Israel to displace the elected Hamas officials who they have already confined to Gaza is extraordinary. Can the Fatah leadership really believe that Palestinians will want to be governed by people who support the occupier's killings of Palestinians? If this is not what Fatah is doing, it certainly looks that way to many Palestinians and informed international observers. And if we are all wrong, why doesn't Fatah do something to change -- or at least denounce -- this impression. Instead it has made meaningless statements of support for the Palestinian people while taking little action and even blocking others' actions to protect the Palestinian people.

Finally, perhaps the most troublesome "irrelevant" and "inconvenient" truth is that those defending the Palestinian people's right to self-determination from the onslaught of Israel's violence are the very people that the international community, the Israelis, the Americans, and Fatah, have been almost completely unwilling to speak with for months. Encouraged to become a political party by the same people who won't speak to it today, Hamas won a landslide victory in the last elections held in Palestine in 2006. Having won a clear and absolute majority, Hamas first mooted the possibility of a coalition government -- an olive branch rejected by an insulted Fatah leadership that believed it had a hereditary right to rule. When Hams tried to go it alone, the majority Fatah civil service refused to cooperate. When things became unmanageable Hamas again offered to form a unity or coalition government. But this was still not good enough for Fatah whose strongmen, like Dahlan, felt compelled to reverse the democratic will of the Palestinian people and try to bring Hamas down by force.

Even with the US and EU in support, they failed. Hamas retreated to it role as a resistance group entrenching itself in Gaza. Abbas was furious. Everything he did may never be known, but the fact that as Gaza burns he appears at dinners with representatives of the US, Europe and Israel, apparently nonchalant about the horrors his people are confronting, is revealing. So too is the foot dragging of the Palestinian government over which he presides in ending the ongoing genocide in Gaza. Hamas's position on the other hand, has remained consistent: it will never give up its struggle to claim the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination in the whole of Palestine. Indeed this claim confronts the Western powers that sold Palestinian land and the Palestinian people into the slavery of Israeli occupation. But it is a claim -- the right to self-determination to be exercised by all the people in the region of Palestine that includes both what is today Israel and the occupied territories -- that is a legal right that all states have agreed to in law, although these same states find it inconvenient to apply this law to Palestine.

Israel's attack on Gaza and the response of the international community and the Palestinians of both Fatah and Hamas has brought into stark contrast these inconvenient truths that will have to be faced by the international community and the Palestinian people.

The writer is an international human rights lawyer and professor of law at An-Najah National University, Nablus, Palestine

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 929 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Region | Economy | Opinion | Press review | Reader's corner | Culture | Heritage | Features | Living | Sports | Sky High | Cartoons | People | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map