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Gaza One Year After. The World Has Changed.
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01/02/2010 04:13 PM
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In this holiday season, we celebrate the birth of Christ, and the message of brotherly love, compassion, and forgiveness. This year we also commemorate the first anniversary of Israeli’s punitive aggression against the civilian population of Gaza, a conflict that left 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead, and thousands wounded. The toll taken in economic, social, and psychological terms on the victim population has yet to be adequately tallied. (1) But the political impact has been unambiguous: far from consolidating the image of an all-powerful Israeli Defense Force whose brutal force can force subject peoples under occupation to shrink in fear, and can intimidate the international community into mute astonishment, the three-week spree of mad-dog violence against a helpless adversary sparked unprecedented outrage worldwide, and triggered a critical shift in attitudes toward Israel. This shift is not only moral and individual, it is political and institutional; for the first time in decades, official bodies of the United Nations are taking issue with the excesses of Zionism and calling its militant protagonists to account under international law.
Gaza was a watershed. Those 1,400 Palestinians did not die in vain. Their martyrdom has transformed political reality, and the world is not the same as it was before the onslaught. The hope is that justice will be done, those responsible for the massacre will be punished, and the basis will be laid for overcoming the adversary relationship once and for all.
The Goldstone Reflex
The IDF, acting like “mad dogs,” as Israeli military historian Martin van Crefeld would put it (2), not only ravaged the infrastructural basis of the Palestinian economy and society, but also deliberately targeted premises of the United Nations itself. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, visiting the remains of the bombed out UN headquarters, said he was “just appalled. Everyone is smelling this bombing still. It is still burning. It is an outrageous and totally unacceptable attack against the United Nations.”
Why the IDF should dare attack clearly designated U.N. facilities remains an enigma. Even the most Rambo-minded Israelis could not possibly have imagined they would come out scot free. Perhaps the reasons are to be found on a deeper psychological level: perhaps it is the case that the Israeli establishment, in its continuing hysteria to deny the historical fact of the 1947-1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine (the Nakba), sought to eliminate facilities of the UNRWA, because UNRWA was the entity established to care for the Palestinian refugees who had been created by the Nakba. Whatever the underlying psychological motivations (and here clinical psychiatrists should be consulted), the fact is, the IDF did target those institutions, all of which were most conspicuously marked for identification.
And, as any rational person could have predicted, the response of the UN was to challenge the legality of the IDF’s actions, even in war. Ban Ki-Moon went ahead in June to instruct the UN Legal Counsel to prepare and formulate claims for compensation for these losses; a committee investigating the damage estimated it at $11 million, which the UN would demand Israel pay.
More important than material claims was the political decision to proceed against the perpetrators, through the instrument of a special UN commission. Established on April 3, 2009 by the president of the Human Rights Council, this Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict had the mandate “to investigate all violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law that might have been committed at any time in the context of the military operations that were conducted in Gaza during the period from 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009, whether before, during or after.” The Mission, led by South African Justice Richard Goldstone, met several times in Geneva in May, July, and August, and conducted three field visits, to Gaza and Amman. They spoke with Gaza authorities and those of the Palestinian Authority, but received no cooperation from the Israelis. They submitted lists of questions to all three sides, but received answers only from Gaza and the PA. They conducted 188 individual interviews and reviewed over 300 reports related to the war.
Their report, issued on September 15, 2009, was surprisingly courageous. Entitled, “Human Rights in Palestine and Other Occupied Territories: Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict” ( [link to www2.ohchr.org] it charged that Israel had deliberately targeted and killed Palestinian police, attacked the UNRWA field office, which at the time housed 600-700 civilians, with “high explosive and white phosphorous munitions” (p. 14), “directly and intentionally attacked the Al Qods Hospital in Gaza City and the adjacent ambulance depot with white phosphorous shells,” and attacked the UNRWA school in Jabalya which housed 1,300 people with mortar shells – an attack it deemed “in violation of international law” (p. 15). The Mission further documented that Israelis fired on civilians fleeing their homes with white flags, and targeted a mosque with a missile during evening prayers. It found that in these cases, “the conduct of the Israeli armed forces constitute grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention in respect of willful killings and willfully causing great suffering to protected persons and as such give rise to individual criminal responsibility. It also finds that the direct targeting and arbitrary killing of Palestinian civilians is a violation of the right to life” (p. 16). Furthermore, the UN investigating team studied incidents of destruction of infrastructure and concluded that “Unlawful and wanton destruction which is not justified by military necessity amounts to a war crime” (p. 17). Such infrastructure included industrial plants, food production, water installations, sewage treatment plans, housing, etc. In addition, Israeli forces used Palestinians as human shields, which “also is a war crime” (p. 19), and detained civilians, including women and children, in degrading conditions, inflicting on them “a collective penalty,” again in violation of Geneva and qualifying as a war crime (p. 20).
The Mission furthermore explored the effects of the 18-month blockade on Gaza in terms of destruction of economic infrastructure, health facilities, and educational institutions. It “considered whether the series of acts that deprive Palestinians in the Gaza Strip of their means of sustenance, employment, housing and water, that deny their freedom of movement and their right to leave and enter their own country, that limit their access [to] a court of law and an effective remedy, could amount to persecution, a crime against humanity” (p. 24).
The Mission attempted to delve into Israeli use of force against Palestinians on the West Bank, but was denied all access. It did, however, verify the treatment of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, including 65 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council arrested in 2005, and deemed such practices in “violation of international human rights and humanitarian law” (p. 28).
At the same time, the Mission looked into allegations of violence and targeting of Hamas supporters by the Palestinian Authority, and found them inconsistent with the PA’s obligations under law. After examining the physical and psychological impact of Hamas-fired rockets into civilian areas in Israel, it stated such acts “would constitute war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity%9
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