The Gaza Crisis

At this writing, the death toll in Gaza continues to rise. The carnage is everywhere—city streets, a mosque, hospitals, police stations, a jail, a university bus stop, a plastics factory, a television station. It seems impossible, unacceptable, to step back to analyze the situation while bodies remain buried under the rubble, while parents continue to search for their missing children, while doctors continue to labor to stitch burned and broken bodies back together without sufficient medicine or equipment. The hospitals are running short of electricity as the Israeli blockade has denied them fuel to run the generators.

But if we are serious about ending this carnage, this time, we have no choice but to try to analyze, try to figure out what caused this most recent massacre, how to stop it, and then how to continue our work to end the occupation, end Israel’s apartheid policies, and change U.S. policy to one of justice and equality for all. What we know is:

  • The Israeli attacks represent serious violations of international law—including the Geneva Conventions and a range of international humanitarian law
  • The U.S. is complicit in the Israeli violations—directly and indirectly
  • The timing of the attacks has far more to do with U.S. and Israeli politics than with protecting Israeli civilians
  • This escalation will push back any chance of serious negotiations between the parties that might have been part of the Obama administration’s plans
  • There is much work to be done

Violations of International Law

The Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip violate important tenants of international humanitarian law, including violations of the Geneva Conventions. The violations include both obligations of an occupying power to protect an occupied population and the broader requirements of the laws of war that prohibit specific acts. The violations start with collective punishment—the entire one and a half million people who live in the Gaza Strip are being punished for the actions of a few militants.

Israel’s claim that it is "responding to" or "retaliating for" Palestinian rocket attacks is spurious. The rocket fire as currently used is indeed illegal. Palestinians, like any people living under a hostile military occupation, have the right to resist, including the use of military force against the occupation. But that right does not include targeting civilians. The rockets used so far are unable to be aimed with any specificity, so they are in fact aimed at the civilians who live in Israeli cities and towns. The rocket fire against civilians should be ended—as many Palestinians believe—because it does not help end the occupation, but also because it is illegal under international law. However, that rocket fire, illegal or not, does not give Israel the right to punish the entire population for those actions.

Another Israeli violation involves targeting civilians. This violation involves three aspects. First, Israel claims its attacks were targeted directly at "Hamas-controlled" security-related institutions. Since the majority Hamas party controls the government in Gaza, virtually all the police departments and other security-related sites were hit. Those police and security agencies are civilian targets—not military. They are run by the Hamas-led government in Gaza, an institution completely separate from Gaza’s military wing that has carried out some (though by no means the majority) of the rocket attacks. Second, some of the Israeli attacks struck incontestably civilian targets, such as a plastics factory and a local television broadcasting center. Third, the incredibly crowded conditions in Gaza, one of the most densely populated sites in the world, mean that civilian casualties on a huge scale were an inevitable and predictable result. Such targeting of civilian areas is illegal.

Still another violation involves the disproportionate nature of the military attack. Within the first week the airstrikes (which began December 27) killed at least 270 people and injured more than 1,000. Many remain buried under the rubble so the death toll will likely rise. This catastrophic impact was known and inevitable and far outweighs any claim of self-defense or protection of Israeli civilians. (It should be noted that this escalation has not made Israelis safer; to the contrary, the one Israeli killed by a Palestinian rocket attack on the Saturday after the Israeli assault began was the first such casualty in more than a year.)

Key human rights officials, in particular the UN’s Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, Richard Falk, as well as Father Miguel d’Escoto, president of the General Assembly, have issued powerful statements identifying Israeli violations of international law as well as the UN’s obligations to protect the Palestinian population. But so far there has been no operative response from the UN Security Council. The Council statement issued December 28 was insufficient, essentially equating the culpability of the occupying power and of the occupied population for the violence that has so devastated Gaza. The statement makes no reference to violations of international law inherent in the Israeli assaults or in the previous siege of Gaza that has so drastically punished the entire population. There is a clear need for the General Assembly to reclaim the UN’s role of protecting the world’s people, which certainly includes the Palestinians, and not just responding to the demands of the world’s powerful.

U.S. Complicity

The United States remains directly complicit in Israeli violations of both U.S. domestic and international law through its continual provision of military aid. The current round of airstrikes have been carried out largely with F-16 bombers and Apache attack helicopters, both provided to Israel through U.S. military aid grants of about $3 billion in taxpayer money sent every year. Between 2001 and 2006, Washington transferred to Israel more than $200 million worth of spare parts for its fleet of F-16s. Just last year, the U.S. signed a $1.3 billion contract with Raytheon to provide Israel with thousands of TOW, Hellfire, and "bunker buster" missiles.

Israel’s attack violated U.S. law—specifically the Arms Export Control Act, which prohibits U.S. arms from being used for any purpose beyond a very narrowly-defined set of circumstances, such as inside a country’s borders for self-defense purposes. The Gaza assault did not meet those criteria. Certainly targeting police stations (even Israel did not claim Gazan police forces were responsible for the rockets) and television broadcast centers do not qualify as self-defense. Because the U.S. government has confirmed it was fully aware of Israeli plans for the attack, the U.S. remains complicit in the violations. Further, the well-known history of Israeli violations of international law means U.S. government officials were aware of those violations but provided the arms to Israel anyway.

The U.S. is also indirectly complicit through its protection of Israel in the United Nations. Its actions, including the use and threat of use of the U.S. veto in the Security Council and a reliance on raw power to pressure diplomats and governments to soften their criticism of Israel, all serve to protect Israel and keep it from being held accountable by the international community.

Timing of Israel’s Attack

The Israeli decision to launch the attacks on Gaza was a political, not security, decision. Just a day or two before the airstrikes, it was Israel that rejected Hamas’s diplomatic initiative aimed at extending the six-month-long ceasefire that had frayed but largely stayed together since June and that expired December 26. Hamas officials, working through Egyptian mediators, had urged Israel to lift the siege of Gaza as the basis for continuing an extended ceasefire. Israel, including Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni of the "centrist" (in the Israeli context) Kadima Party, rejected the proposal. Livni, who went to Egypt but refused to seriously consider the Hamas offer, is running in a tight race for prime minister. Her top opponent is the further-right Benyamin Netanyahu of the officially hawkish Likud party, who has campaigned against Livni and the Kadima government for their alleged "soft" approach to the Palestinians. With elections looming in February, no candidate can afford to appear anything but super-militaristic.

Further, it is certain that the Israeli government was eager to move militarily while Bush was still in office. The Washington Post quoted a Bush administration official saying that Israel struck in Gaza "because they want it to be over before the next administration comes in. They can’t predict how the next administration will handle it. And this is not the way they want to start with the new administration." The Israeli officials may or may not be right about President Obama’s likelihood of responding differently than Bush on this issue—but it does point to a clear obligation to do all that’s necessary to press him to make good on the "change" he promised.

Obama and Future Options

The escalation in Gaza will make it virtually impossible for any serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiations aimed at ending the occupation. It remains uncertain whether sponsorship of an immediate new round of bilateral negotiations was on Barack Obama’s initial post-inauguration agenda anyway. But the current crisis means that any negotiations, whether ostensibly Israeli-Palestinian alone or officially involving the U.S.-controlled so-called "Quartet," will need to go beyond a return to the pre-airstrike crisis period. That earlier political crisis, still far from solved, was characterized by expanding settlements, the apartheid wall, crippling checkpoints restricting movement, commerce, and ordinary life across the West Bank, and a virtually impenetrable siege of Gaza that even before the current military assault had created a humanitarian catastrophe.

The immediate answer to what should we do is everything: write letters to Congressmembers and the State Department, demonstrate at the White House and the Israeli Embassy, write letters to the editor and op-eds for every news outlet we can find, call radio talk shows, and protest the U.S. representatives at the UN. We need to engage with the Obama transition process and plan for how we will keep the pressure on to really change U.S. policy in the Middle East. We should all join the global movement of solidarity with Gaza. There are a host of online petitions—we should sign them all.

But we can’t stop with emergency mobilizations. We still have to build a movement for boycotts, divestments, sanctions, and a global campaign of non-violent economic pressure to force Israel to comply with international law. We have to challenge both the U.S. military aid that scaffolds Israel’s military aggression and the U.S. political and diplomatic support that prevents the UN and the international community from holding Israel accountable for its violations. We have to do serious education and advocacy work, learning from other movements that have come before about being brave enough to call something what it is: Israeli policies are apartheid policies and must be challenged on that basis.


Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer (www. Thanks to Josh Ruebner of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation for some of the background on U.S. military aid.