During Israel's latest aggression on the Gaza Strip, Palestinians widely reported the indiscriminate killing of civilians along with numerous war crimes and atrocities committed by the Israeli army. Now Israeli officers and soldiers are confirming the allegations and adding witness detail. Will the world finally listen and constitute a war crimes tribunal for Gaza and its victims?
Rotting in denial
Israel's reputation destroyed, its character exposed; but for Israel's leaders, any and all atrocities it commits are to be forgiven, reports Khaled Amayreh in occupied East Jerusalem
Click to view caption|
T-shirts worn by Israeli soldiers, describing graphically the murderous acts the soldiers committed against Palestinian civilians
Facing unprecedented outcry over its recent genocidal blitzkrieg on the Gaza Strip, Israel is once again denying the obvious and accusing its accusers and critics of having a "fixation on Israel" and of "harbouring anti- Semitism".
Israeli officials and spokespersons have become more nervous than usual as they are increasingly asked to respond to charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by Israeli forces during their recent 22-day onslaught on the Gaza Strip.
Since the end of the devastating war, local and international human rights organisations have amassed a vast body of irrefutable evidence corroborating and proving beyond doubt war crime allegations made by the victims, their relatives, visiting doctors and humanitarian relief workers.
According to the charges, which have been validated by Israeli soldiers who took part in the bloody onslaught, the Israeli army knowingly and deliberately murdered civilians, including hundreds of children, destroyed buildings right on top of refugees, and targeted mosques without justification.
The brutal ugliness of Israel's Gaza crimes has been proudly and boastfully advertised on t-shirts worn by Israeli soldiers, describing graphically the murderous acts the soldiers committed against Palestinian civilians. One such t- shirt, printed for a platoon of Israeli snipers, depicts a pregnant Palestinian woman caught in the crosshairs of a rifle, with the legend, "One Shot, Two Kills".
Another t-shirt depicts a child carrying a gun also in the crosshairs, with a caption underneath reading, "The smaller, the harder."
A third shirt showed an Israeli soldier blowing up a mosque, and beneath the graphic, the phrase "Only God forgives."
One of the most shocking designs shows a Palestinian mother weeping next to her dead baby's grave, also in the crosshairs of a rifle. The drawing suggests that it would have been better if the child had never been born. The slogan "Better use Durex" is printed beneath.
There have also been t-shirts with sexual insinuations. For example, the Lavi Battalion produced a shirt featuring a soldier next to a young woman with bruises and the slogan, "Bet you got raped."
Earlier, dozens of Israeli soldiers made hair-raising revelations about crimes they committed -- or saw colleagues commit -- in Gaza, such as killing a mother and her child for moving leftward instead of rightward. The victims apparently didn't understand Hebrew, and the Israeli sniper on the rooftop had been ordered to shoot "every moving thing" in his vicinity.
After the t-shirt story gained notoriety, the Israeli army's propaganda department ordered all the shirts confiscated. Also, soldiers were told that what they had been doing -- showing off their crimes -- was harmful to Israeli interests and provided additional "pretexts" for "hostile countries" to call for war crimes tribunals against members of the Israeli army.
Indeed, far from relating honestly to these and other revelations, Israeli officials have been repeating, ad nauseam, old lies and old mantras, namely that the Israeli army is "the most moral army in the world", and that Israeli troops didn't -- and do not -- deliberately target Palestinian civilians.
High-ranking army commanders, including Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, have led such proclamations. This week, following a hastily conducted investigation of the t-shirt story, Barak told the Israeli media that he still believes in the moral integrity of the Israeli army.
"We have one army that is the most moral in the world, from the chief of general staff until the last soldier, and I, as defence minister of the state of Israel, together with the Israeli public, stand behind the IDF, its values and norms," Barak said.
When pressed, however, to explain the horrible magnitude of the Gaza killings, Israeli officials, including Barak, adopt aggressive evasive tactics, such as claiming that every male victim above the age of 14 or 15 years must be a "terrorist".
The propaganda department within the Israeli army adopts several recognisable tactics in countering war crime charges. These include: first, claiming that the Israeli army doesn't deliberately kill civilians. This has been refuted by testimony from Israeli soldiers. If this testimony is erroneous, one must conclude that Israeli soldiers are either lousy shooters or that "committing mistakes" is the deliberate and established policy of the Israeli army.
Second, Israeli spokesmen routinely claim that Israel is a state where the authority of law is supreme. What they fail to mention is that equality before law only means something for Jews. When non-Jews, particularly Palestinians, are involved, the authority of law evaporates and Israel behaves like a gangster state.
Since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, the Israeli army and paramilitary police have murdered thousands of Palestinians, most of them innocent civilians, including hundreds of children. According to the Israeli human rights organisation, B'tselem, such crimes have led to almost no convictions.
Third, when irrefutable evidence is exposed and presented, Israeli spokespersons reflexively claim, "We are talking about isolated incidents" and that "Wrong-doers would be prosecuted and punished if found guilty." The truth, however, is that when Israeli soldiers commit a crime, and the crime is not caught on camera, the crime passes into oblivion without even rebuke. Often the army concocts a narrative -- obvious in being hashed over time and again -- claiming that the victim was violent and that the soldier shot in self-defence.
When the crime is caught on video, army spokesmen continue to make the mendacious claims about "isolate incidents". Often such circumstances, soldiers will be rebuked and reprimanded, not for killing or injuring the Palestinian victim, but rather for not making sure that no cameramen or photographers or peace activists were watching.
Apologists for the Israeli government, who tacitly and half-heartedly acknowledge that crimes have been committed against innocent civilians in Gaza, indulge in exhaustive arguments about the nature of war and that wars by definition involve crimes against civilians. However, it is obvious that such arguments are not accepted by any courts of law, or else 64 years on a general amnesty for former Nazis would have been issued whereas in reality they are still being hunted.
More to the point, international law makes abundantly clear that killing civilians for the purpose of making military and political gains is a war crime and has no statute of limitations. Moreover, when the number of innocent victims is so high, as was the case in Gaza recently, even "specific intent" becomes irrelevant. Regardless of stated orders, the fact of the killings themselves -- if unchecked -- reveals the criminality.
Some Israeli pundits make the argument that Hamas, too, committed crimes by firing crude and short-range, if mostly ineffective, rockets on Israel. Yet this argument ignores the excessive and disproportionate force Israel used against the entire Gaza Strip. Indeed, when the Israeli army kills 1,500 and maims 5,000 and reduces half of Gaza Strip to ruins, we cannot talk of Israel's "response" but only of Israel's "war".
Added to this the plethora of internationally prohibited weapons, such as white phosphorus, which Israel used against civilian homes and civilian neighbourhoods, and which was filmed, making war crime charges not only plausible but irrefutable. One Palestinian lawyer who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly recently compared the Israeli "reaction" with the massive atrocities the Nazis committed in central and eastern Europe in reaction to resistance attacks carried out in countries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland and Italy.
What is also conveniently forgotten is that Hamas announced its withdrawal from the ceasefire agreement because it had failed to lead to what it was designed to lead to: an end to Israel's draconian siege on the Gaza Strip. Aside from the internationally protected right to resist occupation by all means, including the use of arms, Gaza's estimated 1.5 million Palestinians had been pushed to the edge of starvation after a year and a half or more of near complete blockade.
Indeed, there is no doubt that the enduring siege itself is a crime against humanity, since it is designed to make innocent people starve, suffer and die, mainly in order to force the tormented population to rise up against their democratically elected government. It constitutes, as such, intended collective punishment, which is an international crime and cannot be deemed legal or supportable.
Finally, it is clear that any investigation or enquiry by the Israeli army into crimes committed by the same army is by nature absurd. It should be clear that only an independent international investigation that also has the powers to bring indictments and issue punishments and sanctions can bring anything near a measure of justice for Israel's victims.
Israel, at present, feels as always that it has carte blanche to commit any crime and be above international law as long as the United States, its guardian-ally, continues to shield it from criminal responsibility. This is the real crux of the matter. After all, the crimes Israel committed in Gaza, however grisly and hideous, were not the first crimes committed by Israel against the Palestinians and likely would not be the last.
So the world is faced with a stark choice: watch all this happen again sometime soon, or act now and push for a war crimes tribunal for Gaza that may -- perhaps -- help forestall such atrocities raining down again on the heads of the innocent.