Note – I wrote this two days ago. Since then, many more Palestinians have been killed and injured, including a two month-old baby who received a gunshot to the head.
Three Palestinian children aged 10, 12 and 14 were killed this evening in an Israeli air-strike in northern Gaza, bringing today’s Palestinian death toll to 12. Five members of Hamas’ Al-Qassam Brigades were killed this morning in two targeted assassinations in Gaza, while this afternoon two Palestinian farmers were killed by Israeli tank fire. In retaliation for the killing of its activists, Hamas fired at least 30 Qassam rockets into Israel, killing a student in Sderot and wounding several others. Olmert indicated that the campaign of assassinations will continue, declaring that “no one in Hamas, not the low-level officials nor the highest echelon, will be immune against this war.” To prove his sincerity, Israeli jets bombed the Hamas Interior Ministry (again), killing a six-month old baby and wounding at least 14 bystanders.
It is unclear whether the Israeli government intends to launch a full-scale invasion of Gaza, where the population has been reduced to boiling drinking water for lack of chlorine. What is certain is that such a move would do nothing to halt the Qassams, as previous experience has amply demonstrated. Hamas continues to offer Israel a ceasefire, as it has done for months now in the face of flat rejection from Israel. According to a Ha’aretz poll, 64% of Israelis support direct talks with Hamas towards a ceasefire and the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit. Sadly, public opinion has yet to translate into state policy.
In an extremely positive development, Hamas helped organise a mass non-violent protest on Monday against the Israeli siege. According to Ynet 20,000 Palestinians participated in the demonstration, forming a human-chain from Beit Hanoun in the North of the Strip to Rafah in the South. Ha’aretz reported on the IDF’s plans for dealing with the unarmed demonstrators:
‘But the IDF has also carved up the area inside the Gaza Strip, at least on the army’s maps. The army intends to prevent the marchers from advancing on the fence when they are still inside the Strip, using various means for crows [sic] dispersal according to a ring system: The closer the marchers get to the fence, the harsher the response.
The army plans to fire at open areas near the demonstrators with artillery that the Artillery Corps has been moving to the area over the past couple of days. If the marchers continue and cross into the next ring, they will face tear gas. If they persist, snipers could be ordered to aim for the marchers’ legs as they approach the fence.’
In the event, confrontation was avoided. Hopefully this latest organised, non-violent direct action is the beginning of a trend. Passive resistance carries real risks for Palestinians, but I suspect that it would ultimately prove far more successful than the current strategy of violence.
As the siege of Gaza continues (.pdf) and the violence escalates (Israeli forces killed 89 Palestinians in January alone, a 44% increase on December 2007 and the highest monthly total of Palestinian deaths since November 2006), Israel naturally justifies its actions as a necessary response to the Qassam rockets, which killed all of two Israelis last year. This claim is widely accepted in the U.S. and Britain, which is not particularly surprising given that Palestinian violence is rarely contextualised in the mainstream press.
Thankfully, then, the UN last week published the latest report of John Dugard, UN special rapporteur for human rights in the Occupied Territories. Dugard, considered the father of modern human rights law in South Africa, is a man of impeccable integrity and principle, and his report on the human rights situation in the West Bank and Gaza provides the context that would otherwise, as I say, be sorely lacking.
After demonstrating that Gaza remains occupied territory – the determining factor is not permanent physical presence but “effective control”, which Israel plainly has – Dugard reports that over 80% of the Gazan population lives below the official poverty line and is dependent on UNRWA food aid for survival. “[O]nly 41 per cent of Gaza’s food import needs are currently being met,” he notes. Gazans, who according to UN human rights chief Louise Arbour are surviving in the “most abhorrent conditions” where they are “systematically deprived of the enjoyment of almost all their human rights and basic needs”, have suffered a complete economic and social meltdown as a consequence of the Israeli siege. The private sector has totally collapsed (.pdf), hundreds of thousands of people have only limited access to drinking water and there are frequent power outages as a result of Israel’s deliberate destruction of Gaza’s power plant in 2006 and “subsequent damage to electricity transformers” (for instance when “on 14 November the IDF struck an electricity transformer in Beit Hanoun which knocked out power for 5,000 people in the area”) as well as the current sanctions regime.
Dugard also details the effects of the siege on Gaza’s healthcare services. Clinics are “in short supply of paediatric antibiotics” and “91 key drugs are no longer available.” Israeli border closures have severely restricted Palestinian access to healthcare. Palestinians requiring emergency treatment unavailable in the Strip must apply for a permit to cross the border to be treated in Israel or Egypt, but the percentage of permit applications rejected by Israel has decreased significantly since Hamas took control of Gaza. This, reports Dugard, “has resulted in a drastic increase in the number of patients who have died as a result of restrictions”. He cites an Israeli NGO estimate of 44 deaths due to Israeli restrictions, but other sources place the figure much higher.
A written statement (.doc) by al-Haq and Defence for Children International decried Israel’s policy towards Gaza as “an unmitigated violation of international humanitarian law”, breaking “prohibitions on collective punishment, coercion, unlawful reprisals and rendering useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.” John Dugard similarly concludes that “Israel’s siege of Gaza violates a whole range of obligations under both human rights law and humanitarian law”, particularly the prohibition on collective punishment:
“The indiscriminate and excessive use of force against civilians and civilian objects, the destruction of electricity and water supplies, the bombardment of public buildings, the restrictions on freedom of movement, the closure of crossings and the consequences that these actions have upon public health, food, family life and the psychological well-being of the Palestinian people constitute a gross form of collective punishment.”
He also makes the important point that “other States that are a party to the siege of Gaza are likewise in violation of international humanitarian law and obliged to cease their unlawful actions.” As citizens of Britain, the EU or the U.S., we are active participants in the conflict and as such have a responsibility to force our governments to stop colluding in the strangulation of Gaza. This doesn’t simply mean providing more aid to Palestinians – as Louise Arbour states, “[t]he denial of basic and fundamental rights can not be compensated for by permitting a trickle of charity.” It means pressuring Israel to end the siege, agree to a ceasefire and engage in sincere negotiations towards achieving a genuine two-state settlement.
Dugard writes that far from seeing a human rights improvement in as a result of U.S./Israeli engagement with the Abbas government, the quality of life in the West Bank has actually “deteriorated further” since 2006:
“Israel has not taken steps to dismantle the infrastructure of occupation. On the contrary, it has maintained and expanded the instruments that most seriously violate human rights – military incursions, settlements, the separation wall, restrictions on freedom of movement, the Judaization of Jerusalem and the demolition of houses.”
He reports that at the time of writing (January 2008), “new construction is under way in 88 settlements and the average growth rate in the settlements is 4.5 per cent compared with the average growth rate of 1.5 per cent in Israel itself”. He describes the settlements as “a form of colonialism”, which is “contrary to international law.” Along with colonialism, Dugard also repeatedly compares aspects of Israel’s occupation to apartheid, in some instances going beyond anything seen in South Africa. For an excellent discussion of the colonialist roots of both Zionism and apartheid, see here.
The construction of the wall, “clearly illegal”, continues apace. Recalling that “Israel has abandoned its claim that the wall is a security measure only and now concedes that one of the purposes of the wall is to include settlements within Israel”, Dugard describes how “hardships experienced by Palestinians” living near the wall and in the ‘closed zone’ between the wall the Green Line have already caused the “displacement of some 15,000 persons.” This is ethnic cleansing, plain and simple. When completed, the wall will trap an estimated 60,000 Palestinians on the Israeli side and annex around 10.2% of the West Bank, including “many of the West Bank’s valuable water resources and its richest agricultural lands.” About a quarter of the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem has been cut off from the city by the wall, which limits their access to “hospitals, schools, universities, work and holy sites – particularly the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.”
The other main component of Israel’s ‘matrix of control’ in the West Bank is the system of checkpoints and roadblocks, which severely restricts Palestinian freedom of movement and has effectively divided the territory into numerous, isolated cantons. Israel justifies the roadblocks, which “seriously obstruct [Palestinian] freedom of movement … with disastrous [social and economic] consequences”, as – what else? – necessary security measures. Not so, says Dugard, who suggests that a far more likely explanation for the restrictions is that they serve “to facilitate the travel of settlers through the West Bank and to impress upon the Palestinian people the power and presence of the occupier.” This conclusion is shared by the World Bank, the UN OCHA (.pdf) and B’Tselem, among others.
Noting an Israeli military survey which found that a quarter of soldiers serving at checkpoints witnessed or perpetrated abuse of Palestinians, Dugard describes how the checkpoints “humiliate Palestinians” and “create feelings of deep hostility towards Israel”, which ultimately does “more to create insecurity than to achieve security.” This was precisely the reasoning proffered by 12 retired IDF generals earlier this month, when they argued for the removal of roadblocks in the West Bank:
“The feeling of humiliation and the hate the roadblocks create increase the tendency of Palestinians to join militant groups and Hamas,” Shlomo Brom, a former chief of the army’s planning division who signed the letter, said.
“You have to understand that there is damage in having the Palestinian people with its back to the wall, not seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, unable to improve their economy, unable to move from place to place,” [Ilan Paz, former head of the army’s administration of Palestinian civilian affairs] told Israel Radio.
“This creates a reality that creates terror, and we have to remember that.”
After Hamas won elections in early 2006, Israel increased the number of roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank by 40%.
Israel destroys Palestinian homes almost as quickly as it constructs Israeli settlements. In January alone, 57 house demolitions were recorded (.pdf) in the West Bank, 25 of which were inhabited, and a further six residential structures were damaged. This resulted in the displacement of approximately 215 Palestinians. Dugard reports that the (illegal) practice of punitive house demolitions, formally disavowed, continues, as when the IDF demolished seven homes in Qalqiliya last August because they housed members of Hamas, making 48 Palestinians homeless in the process. Palestinian homes are most frequently destroyed on the grounds that they were built without an Israeli permit. Leaving aside the fact that it’s none of Israel’s goddamned business what Palestinians do on Palestinian land, the justification is a ruse because Israel grants permits in a discriminatory manner, almost always rejecting Palestinian applications.
Israel regularly conducts military operations in the West Bank, killing and “arresting” Palestinians suspected of involvement in military resistance, or else who simply happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Dugard writes that the IDF has “frequently failed to distinguish clearly between military targets and civilians” during such incursions.
Dugard concludes that in the West Bank, as in Gaza, there is a “serious humanitarian situation” that is “largely the result of Israel’s violations of international law”, and further that, as in Gaza, “Israel’s actions [in the West Bank] constitute an unlawful collective punishment of the Palestinian people.”
The “peace process”
Dugard finishes by briefly discussing recent developments in the “peace process”, in terms of their impact on Palestinian human rights. He expresses “deep concern” at the split between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank, and calls on the ‘international community’ to encourage a process of reconciliation. Warning that this “should not take the form of support – political, economic or military – for one faction at the expense of the other”, he notes “[u]nhappily” that:
“the Quartet (which embraces the United Nations) is, at the time of writing, making little attempt to promote Palestinian national unity. On the contrary, it pursues a divisive policy of preferring one faction over the other; of speaking to one faction but not the other; of dealing with one faction while isolating the other.”
Indeed, the conflict between Hamas and Fatah was driven from the start by Israel and the U.S., who sabotaged the National Unity government of February 2007 and armed anti-Hamas Fatah militants while paralysing the Hamas government with what Dugard described as “possibly the most rigorous form of international sanctions imposed in modern times.” Now, Israel and the U.S. have explicitly conditioned financial aid and diplomatic engagement with Abbas on Fatah’s refusal to negotiate with Hamas. It is recognised across the board that some minimum level of intra-Palestinian cooperation is a necessary pre-requisite for any serious attempt to reach a negotiated settlement. That Israel insists on blocking any such development belies its professed interest in ‘peace’.
Dugard also criticises the “Annapolis process” on the grounds that it is premised not on the norms of international law, as outlined by the International Court of Justice in July 2004, but rather on the outdated and frankly irrelevant 2003 “road map”. He notes that, according to art. 47 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, “persons in an occupied territory shall not be deprived of the benefits of the Convention by any agreement concluded between the authorities of the occupied territory and the occupying Power, or by the annexation by the occupying Power of part of the occupied territory.” This has serious consequences:
“[It] means that any agreement between the Palestinian authorities and the Israeli Government that recognizes settlements within the occupied Palestinian territory, or accepts the annexation by Israel of Palestinian land within the wall, will violate the Fourth Geneva Convention. This is but one example of the dangers of a peace process between unequals which has no regard to the normative framework of international law.”
It also supports Hamas’ approach of agreeing to a long-term truce on the basis of an Israeli withdrawal, after which a final settlement would be agreed.
The 40-year occupation, says Dugard, has been characterised by “[s]ettlements, checkpoints, demolition of houses, torture, closure of crossings and military incursions” – in short, by “systematic and consistent” violations of human rights over a period of several decades.
Palestinian terrorism, like all terrorism, “must be condemned and [has] been condemned.” However, it is important to recognise, as Dugard does, that Palestinian resistance, including terrorism, is an inevitable consequence of the Israeli occupation. As Dugard explains:
“Common sense … dictates that a distinction must be drawn between acts of mindless terror, such as acts committed by Al Qaeda, and acts committed in the course of a war of national liberation against colonialism, apartheid or military occupation. While such acts cannot be justified, they must be understood as being a painful but inevitable consequence of colonialism, apartheid or occupation.
“Acts of terror against military occupation must be seen in historical context. This is why every effort should be made to bring the occupation to a speedy end. Until this is done peace cannot be expected, and violence will continue. In other situations, for example Namibia, peace has been achieved by the ending of occupation, without setting the end of resistance as a precondition. Israel cannot expect perfect peace and the end of violence as a precondition for the ending of the occupation.”
Naturally, the idea that Palestinian “terrorists” are rational human beings acting on the basis of real grievances will reduce many to spluttering outrage. The desire of an oppressor, and those who identify with it, to deny the humanity of those it represses is of course very common, and perfectly understandable.
The fact nevertheless remains that while the Palestinian right to self-determination goes unfulfilled, the violence will continue. The solution is clear, if uncomfortable for some: namely, to end “the root cause of Palestinian violence – the occupation.”