Patterns in the Rubble

According to Razing Rafah: Mass Home Demolitions in the Gaza Strip (October, 2004), a new Human Rights Watch report, the Israeli military demolished the single greatest number of Palestinian houses in the Rafah region in the southern Gaza Strip, just inside the border with Egypt, in May of this year—298 houses, in fact, a "level of destruction unprecedented in the current uprising." A graph appearing in the same report ("House Demolitions in Rafah by Month, October 2000-June 2004," p. 58) depicts a steady climb upwards in the number of houses rendered uninhabitable through Israeli military actions—the instrument of choice being the American-made Caterpillar D9 bulldozer, with demolitions over the last two years (Oct. 2002 to the present) greatly outnumbering the first two years (Oct., 2000-Sept., 2002). Of course, the dramatic spike upwards that occurred in May followed the Sharon-Bush (or is it the Bush-Weisglass-Sharon-Bush?) "Disengagement Plan" for the Gaza Strip that was announced in April, before the Israeli military assault was unleashed one month later. Overall, the Israeli military has rendered uninhabitable more than 2,500 Palestinian houses throughout the entire Gaza during the Second Intifada (late September, 2000, through the present). The logic behind Operation Days of Penitence, the latest Israeli military "incursion" into the northern Gaza, launched in late September and finally called off over the past weekend, belongs to the same overall logic that is behind the "Disengagement Plan," the same intensified destruction of the material and spiritual means of Palestinian survival in the occupied Gaza and West Bank (though note well the Israeli military’s focus at this time is on the northern and southern edges of the Gaza), the same "freezing" of the terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an international concern. The same logic of escalation, to be precise. Whichever mask it wears.

(For the record. According to Associated Press, the Israeli soldier killed in an ambush near the decimated Palestinian city of Jenin in the West Bank on Tuesday, October 19, was the 1,000th Israeli citizen to die during the Second Intifada, the Palestinians having suffered 3,265 deaths during the same period. ("Israeli Army Chief Condemns Declaration," Oct. 20—though I should add that conflicting reports as to both the Israeli and the Palestinian totals are in circulation.) Also, an assessment of the achievements of Operation Days of Penitence by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) reported that as of the Israeli military withdrawal from the Gaza over the weekend, 129 more Palestinians had been killed, 90 more houses demolished, and another 600 to 700 Palestinians rendered homeless—on top of the 20,000 Palestinians already homeless in the Gaza. ("Rights Group, UN Denounce Gaza Crimes," Arab News, Oct. 19.) For its part, the human rights organization B’Tselem reports that all 16 or 17 days of Operation Days of Penitence—or Days of Repentance—take your pick—claimed the lives of 133 Palestinians in all, of which 26 were children, and demolished or severely damaged a total of 236 houses in the northern Gaza—and one Israeli soldier. ("Disproportionate Force Suspected in Northern Gaza Strip," Oct. 18.))

"The pattern of destruction strongly suggests that Israeli forces demolished homes wholesale, regardless of whether they posed a specific threat, in violation of international law," HRW concludes with respect to the Israeli military’s tactics at the southern end of the Gaza. "In most of the cases Human Rights Watch found the destruction was carried out in the absence of military necessity"—an odd, grotesquely legalistic, and misleading concept to begin with, since the "necessity" in this case would have to be judged by a criminal occupying power that has no legal right to occupy the Palestinian territories in the first place. Much less to expropriate them. And to defend its position inside them as if it had the right to be there. In the final analysis, the "manner and pattern of destruction appears to be consistent with the plan to clear Palestinians from the border area, irrespective of specific threats," HRW adds. Acknowledging that Palestinians "have nowhere to turn in Israel for legal protection against unlawful demolitions and forced evictions," HRW recommends that the "international community press Israel to either pay reparations to victims or to compensate donors directly for any funds spent on repairing unlawful destruction." But not the simplest solution of them all: To withdraw. Never to withdraw. Only to cease the practice of using lethal force "indiscriminately" and "disproportionately" and in a manner not justified by "military necessity." But never to call the whole occupation off. Razing Rafah is not without its merits, it is true. The report’s strength lies in documenting with painstaking care the extensive nature of the Israeli state policy of housing demolitions in and around the Rafah border-region with Egypt. (See esp. Ch. VI, "A Violent Season: Destruction in Rafah, May 2004.") But this report also has its weaknesses—and it’s important not to miss them, as they happen to be of a kind that is shared by all of Human Rights Watch’s work, when it pertains to the conduct of the U.S. and Israeli governments, and the enormous overlap that exists among them. Not the least of which is this report’s intended audience: Players within the "international community" for whom it is possible to abstract single aspects of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories—such as house demolitions at the southern end of the Gaza—from the larger, more fundamental nature of the occupation itself—say, the roughly 37 years of forcible seizure and expropriation of land that was excluded from the postwar creation of Israel, or the 57-plus years of the same practices, going back as far as living memories reach. Human Rights Watch’s Razing Rafah deals with this fundamental or overarching framework of the conflict only in the abstract terms of the Israeli Government’s legal responsibilities as a military occupier under international humanitarian law. In other words: Blah. Blah. Blah. What little press coverage the October 18 release of Razing Rafah has received bears this objection out. Consider the following mainstream media reports:

* "Israel faces twin allegations of breaching international law in Gaza," Agence France Presse, October 18, 2004 * "Israeli Security Thrust Flouts Human Rights—Group," Reuters, October 18, 2004 * "Israel’s Gaza demolition ‘defies law’," Sharmila Devi, Financial Times, October 18, 2004 * "Group: Israel violating international law," Associated Press, October 19, 2004 * "Israeli Destruction of Palestinian Homes ‘Violates International Law’," Donald MacIntyre, The Independent, October 19, 2004 * "Israel razed thousands of homes, report says," Sharmila Devi, Irish Times, October 19, 2004 * "Israeli Demolitions Deemed Excessive; Gaza Tactic Violated Law, Report Asserts," Molly Moore, Washington Post, October 19, 2004

(Quick aside. Devi’s report for the Irish Times is a next-day reprint of the report that appeared in the Financial Times. So I will stick with the Financial Times‘s version.)

Not a single one of these reports departs from the framework of analysis to which Human Rights Watch itself adheres in its report: Namely, Israeli violations of international humanitarian law in its management of the occupied Palestinian territories. More specifically, house demolitions and the resort to military force of a "disproportionate" scale, not justified by "military necessity." But nothing about the fact of Israel being an occupying power, indeed, a militarily very aggressive and expansive occupying power, as the root of the whole conflict, including everything detailed in the HRW report. At one point, Reuters quotes HRW honcho Kenneth Roth, who warned at a press conference in Jerusalem that "Israel risks jeopardising international support when it uses its legitimate security needs as a pretext to engage in gratuitous destruction," adding that, "With this report we hope both to stop such practices or encourage international steps to stop them"—milquetoast comments in the extreme, given not only the factual basis behind the Razing Rafah report, but also the conduct of the Israeli Government for decades. Perhaps the strongest assertion made by the report itself is the statement early on that "The pattern of destruction strongly suggests that Israeli forces demolished homes wholesale, regardless of whether they posed a significant threat, in violation of international law" (p. 2). Either in whole or part, this quote was cited by AFP, AP, Reuters, and the Washington Post, but neither the Financial Times nor The Independent. But this is as strong as Human Rights Watch itself gets—the assertion that Israeli forces have demolished Palestinian homes wholesale. Still. It breaks absolutely no new ground. Nor, in stating it, has Human Rights Watch placed itself out on a limb, along with calls for the Israeli political leadership to be dragged before the International Criminal Court or some form of multilateral "intervention" organized to prevent the Israeli military from ever doing the same thing again.

(Another quick aside. Not that I’m getting my hopes up about hauling the Israeli political leadership before the ICC. To quote an official communication addressed to the UN Secretary-General by the Israeli Government, dated August 28, 2002: "[I]n connection with the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court adopted on 17 July 1998,…Israel does not intend to become a party to the treaty. Accordingly, Israel has no legal obligations arising from its signature on 31 December 2000. Israel requests that its intention not to become a party, as expressed in this letter, be reflected in the depositary’s status lists relating to this treaty."—Lovely. Isn’t it? As with the Americans—see the U.S. Government Letter dated May 6, 2002—so with the Israelis. Neither power recognizes the rule of law in international affairs. In fact, both powers reject it. Flat out.)

In other words, all that Human Rights Watch has really accomplished in its report is to reiterate the obvious, and to place its celebrated name and bona fides as a major nongovernmental player within the "international community" behind this rather unimpressive gesture. Likewise with the few mainstream media reports to have covered the release of Razing Rafah: They’ve used Human Rights Watch’s gesture toward the "international community" to further reiterate the obvious. Indeed. In some ways, they’ve even used the HRW gesture to reiterate something far more insidious: That the problem in the occupied Palestinian territories is not the fact of the Israeli occupation, but how the Israeli military has conducted the occupation. It just needs to do a better job. Oh, yes. And the existence of the Palestinian "militants," who just won’t stop digging tunnels and firing at Israelis from civilian refugee camps and UN-operated schools, undermining the security of the occupiers. Postscript. There are, in all, four versions of the Human Rights Watch report, Razing Rafah: Mass Home Demolitions in the Gaza Strip. Throughout, I’ve used the second-longest version (i.e., PDF file with text and photographs). But if you’d like to see them all, you can find them at Razing Rafah: Mass Home Demolitions in the Gaza Strip.

Razing Rafah: Mass Home Demolitions in the Gaza Strip, Fred Abrahams et al., Human Rights Watch, October, 2004 (and the accompanying Press Release). "The Big Freeze" (an interview with Sharon adviser Dov Weisglass), Ari Shavit, Haaretz, October 8, 2004 Principals of World Order I, ZNet Blogs, September 25, 2004 Principals of World Order II, ZNet Blogs, October 6, 2004

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