November 2012, Week 3


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Mon, 19 Nov 2012 21:41:49 -0500
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The latest Gaza catastrophe

Many aspects of the current assault on Gaza pass under
the radar screens of world conscience.

by Richard Falk


Richard Falk is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.
University of California, Santa Barbara

Israel's claim that it is in a state of war with Hamas
has no legal basis, as it is considered an Occupying
Power [AFP]

The media double standards in the West on the new and
tragic Israeli escalation of violence directed at Gaza
were epitomised by an absurdly partisan New York Times
front page headline: "Rockets Target Jerusalem; Israel
girds for Gaza Invasion" (NYT, Nov 16, 2012). Decoded
somewhat, the message is this: Hamas is the aggressor,
and Israel when and if it launches a ground attack on
Gaza must expect itself to be further attacked by
rockets. This is a stunningly Orwellian re-phrasing of

The true situation is, of course, quite the opposite:
Namely, that the defenseless population of Gaza can be
assumed now to be acutely fearful of an all out
imminent Israeli assault, while it is also true,
without minimising the reality of a threat, that some
rockets fired from Gaza fell harmlessly (although with
admittedly menacing implications) on the outskirts of
Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. There is such a gross
disproportion in the capacity of the two sides to
inflict damage and suffering due to Israeli total
military dominance as to make perverse this reversal of
concerns to what might befall Israeli society if the
attack on Gaza further intensifies.

The reliance by Hamas and the various Gaza militias on
indiscriminate, even if wildly inaccurate and generally
harmless, rockets is a criminal violation of
international humanitarian law, but the low number of
casualties caused and the minor damage caused, needs to
be assessed in the overall context of massive violence
inflicted on the Palestinians. The widespread
non-Western perception of the new cycle of violence
involving Gaza is that it looks like a repetition of
Israeli aggression against Gaza in late 2008, early
2009, that similarly fell between the end of American
presidential elections and scheduled Israeli
parliamentary elections.

Pointing fingers 

There is the usual discussion over where to locate
responsibility for the initial act in this renewed
upsurge violence. Is it some shots fired from Gaza
across the border and aimed at an armoured Israeli jeep
or was it the targeted killing by an Israeli missile of
Ahmed Jabari, leader of the military wing of Hamas, a
few days later? Or some other act by one side or the
other? Or is it the continuous violence against the
people of Gaza arising from the blockade that has been
imposed since mid-2007?

The assassination of Jabari came a few days after an
informal truce that had been negotiated through the
good offices of Egypt, and quite ironically agreed to
by none other than Jabari acting on behalf of Hamas.
Killing him was clearly intended as a major
provocation, disrupting a carefully negotiated effort
to avoid another tit-for-tat sequence of violence of
the sort that has periodically taken place during the
last several years.

An assassination of such a high profile Palestinian
political figure as Jabari is not a spontaneous act. It
is based on elaborate surveillance over a long period,
and is obviously planned well in advance partly with
the hope of avoiding collateral damage, and thus
limiting unfavourable publicity. Such an extra-judicial
killing, although also part and parcel of the new
American ethos of drone warfare, remains an unlawful
tactic of conflict, denying adversary political leaders
separated from combat any opportunity to defend
themselves against accusations, and implies a rejection
of any disposition to seek a peaceful resolution of a
political conflict. It amounts to the imposition of
capital punishment without due process, a denial of
elementary rights to confront an accuser.

Putting aside the niceties of law, the Israeli
leadership knew exactly what it was doing when it broke
the truce and assassinated such a prominent Hamas
leader, someone generally thought to be second only to
the Gaza prime minister, Ismail Haniya. There have been
rumours, and veiled threats, for months that the
Netanyahu government plans a major assault of Gaza, and
the timing of the ongoing attacks seems to coincide
with the dynamics of Israeli internal politics,
especially the traditional Israeli practice of shoring
up the image of toughness of the existing leadership in
Tel Aviv as a way of inducing Israeli citizens to feel
fearful, yet protected, before casting their ballots.

Under siege

Beneath the horrific violence, which exposes the utter
vulnerability, of all those living as captives in Gaza,
which is one of the most crowded and impoverished
communities on the planet, is a frightful structure of
human abuse that the international community continues
to turn its back upon, while preaching elsewhere
adherence to the norm of "responsibility to protect"
whenever it suits NATO. More than half of the 1.6
million Gazans are refugees living in a total area of
just over twice the size of the city of Washington, DC.
The population has endured a punitive blockade since
mid-2007 that makes daily life intolerable, and Gaza
has been harshly occupied ever since 1967.

Israel has tried to fool the world by setting forth its
narrative of a good faith withdrawal from Gaza in 2005,
which was exploited by Palestinian militants at the
time as an opportunity to launch deadly rocket attacks.
The counter-narrative, accepted by most independent
observers, is that the Israeli removal of troops and
settlements was little more than a mere redeployment to
the borders of Gaza, with absolute control over what
goes in and what leaves, maintaining an open season of
a license to kill at will, with no accountability and
no adverse consequences, backed without question by the
US government.

From an international law point of view, Israel's
purported "disengagement" from Gaza didn't end its
responsibility as an Occupying Power under the Geneva
Conventions, and thus its master plan of subjecting the
entire population of Gaza to severe forms of collective
punishment amounts to a continuing crime against
humanity, as well as a flagrant violation of Article 33
of Geneva IV. It is not surprising that so many who
have observed the plight of Gaza at close range have
described it as "the largest open air prison in the
world". Israel pounds Gaza Strip from air and sea

The Netanyahu government pursues a policy that is best
understood from the perspective of settler colonialism.
What distinguishes settler colonialism from other forms
of colonialism is the resolve of the colonialists not
only to exploit and dominate, but to make the land
their own and superimpose their own culture on that of
indigenous population. In this respect, Israel is well
served by the Hamas/Fatah split, and seeks to induce
the oppressed Palestinian to give up their identity
along with their resistance struggle even to the extent
of asking Palestinians in Israel to take an oath of
loyalty to Israel as "a Jewish state".

Actually, unlike the West Bank and East Jerusalem,
Israel has no long-term territorial ambitions in Gaza.
Israel's short-term solution to its so-called
"demographic problem" (that is, worries about the
increase in the population of Palestinians relative to
Jews) could be greatly eased if Egypt would absorb
Gaza, or if Gaza would become a permanently separate
entity, provided it could be reliably demilitarised.
What makes Gaza presently useful to the Israelis is
their capacity to manage the level of violence, both as
a distraction from other concerns (eg backing down in
relation to Iran; accelerated expansion of the
settlements) and as a way of convincing their own
people that dangerous enemies remain and must be dealt
with by the iron fist of Israeli militarism.

No peace

In the background, but not very far removed from the
understanding of observers, are two closely related
developments. The first is the degree to which the
continuing expansion of Israeli settlements has made it
unrealistic to suppose that a viable Palestinian state
will ever emerge from direct negotiations. The second,
underscored by the recent merger of Netanyahu and
Lieberman forces, is the extent to which the Israeli
governing process has indirectly itself irreversibly
embraced the vision of Greater Israel encompassing all
of Jerusalem and most of the West Bank.

The fact that world leaders in the West keep repeating
the mantra of peace through direct negotiations is
either an expression of the grossest incompetence or
totally bad faith. At minimum, Washington and the
others calling for the resumption of direct
negotiations owe it to all of us to explain how it will
be possible to establish a Palestinian state within
1967 borders when it means the displacement of most of
the 600,000 armed settlers now defended by the Israeli
army, and spread throughout occupied Palestine. Such an
explanation would also have to show why Israel is being
allowed to quietly legalise the 100 or so "outposts",
settlements spread around the West Bank that had been
previously unlawful even under Israeli law. Such moves
toward legalisation deserve the urgent attention of all
those who continue to proclaim their faith in a
two-state solution, but instead are ignored.

This brings us back to Gaza and Hamas. The top Hamas
leaders have made it abundantly clear over and over
again that they are open to permanent peace with Israel
if there is a total withdrawal to the 1967 borders (22
percent of historic Palestine) and the arrangement is
supported by a referendum of all Palestinians living
under occupation.

Israel, with the backing of Washington, takes the
position that Hamas as "a terrorist organisation" that
must be permanently excluded from the procedures of
diplomacy, except of course when it serves Israel's
purposes to negotiate with Hamas. It did this in 2011
when it negotiated the prisoner exchange in which
several hundred Palestinians were released from Israeli
prisons in exchange for the release of the Israel
soldier captive, Gilad Shalit, or when it seems
convenient to take advantage of Egyptian mediation to
establish temporary ceasefires.

As the celebrated Israeli peace activist and former
Knesset member, Uri Avnery, reminds us a cease-fire in
Arab culture, hudna in Arabic, is considered to be
sanctified by Allah, has tended to be in use and
faithfully observed ever since the time of the
Crusades. Avnery also reports that up to the time he
was assassinated, Jabari was in contact with Gershon
Baskin of Israel, seeking to explore prospects for a
long-term ceasefire that was reported to Israeli
leaders, who unsurprisingly showed no interest.

Waiting for justice

There is a further feature of this renewal of conflict
involving attacks on Gaza. Israel sometimes insists
that since it is no longer, according to its claims, an
occupying power, it is in a state of war with a Hamas
governed Gaza. But if this were to be taken as the
proper legal description of the relationship between
the two sides, then Gaza would have the rights of a
combatant, including the option to use proportionate
force against Israeli military targets. As earlier
argued, such a legal description of the relationship
between Israel and Gaza is unacceptable. Gaza remains
occupied and essentially helpless, and Israel as
occupier has no legal or ethical right to engage in war
against the people and government of Gaza, which
incidentally was elected in internationally monitored
free elections in early 2006.

On the contrary, its overriding obligation as Occupier
is to protect the civilian population of Gaza. Even if
casualty figures in the present violence are so far low
as compared with Operation Cast Lead, the intensity of
air and sea strikes against the helpless people of Gaza
strikes terror in the hearts and minds of every person
living in the Strip, a form of indiscriminate violence
against the spirit and mental health of an entire
people that cannot be measured in blood and flesh, but
by reference to the traumatising fear that has been

We hear many claims in the West as to a supposed
decline in international warfare since the collapse of
the Soviet Union twenty years ago. Such claims are to
some extent a welcome development, but the people of
the Middle East have yet to benefit from this trend,
least of all the people of Occupied Palestine, and of
these, the people of Gaza are suffering the most
acutely. This spectacle of one-sided war in which
Israel decides how much violence to unleash, and Gaza
waits to be struck, firing off militarily meaningless
salvos of rockets as a gesture of resistance,
represents a shameful breakdown of civilisation values.
These rockets do spread fear and cause trauma among
Israeli civilians even when no targets are struck, and
represent an unacceptable tactic. Yet such
unacceptability must be weighed against the
unacceptable tactics of an Israel that holds all the
cards in the conflict.

It is truly alarming that now even the holiest of
cities, Jerusalem, is threatened with attacks, but the
continuation of oppressive conditions for the people of
Gaza, inevitably leads to increasing levels of
frustration, in effect, cries of help that world has
ignored at its peril for decades. These are survival
screams! To realise this is not to exaggerate! To gain
perspective, it is only necessary to read a recent UN
Report that concludes that the deterioration of
services and conditions will make Gaza uninhabitable by

Completely aside from the merits of the grievances on
the two sides, one side is militarily omnipotent and
the other side crouches helplessly in fear. Such a
grotesque reality passes under the radar screens of
world conscience because of the geopolitical shield
behind which Israel is given a free pass to do whatever
it wishes. Such a circumstance is morally unendurable,
and should be politically unacceptable. It needs to be
actively opposed globally by every person, government,
and institution of good will.

Richard Falk is the United Nations Special Rapporteur
on Palestinian human rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author's
own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's
editorial policy.


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