By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“Israel is no longer able to think about a solution to a political conflict except in terms of physical might; no wonder it is prone to never ending cycles of mortal violence. And when the cannons fire no criticism may be heard.” – Petition by 50 Israeli army reservists on refusing to join the Gaza offensive[i]
Israel calls it the Operation Protective Edge.
How many Palestinians must die for Israel to feel protected?
In the latest horror from Gaza, an Israeli attack on a UN school killed at least 19 Palestinians and injured about 90. According to Pierre Krahenbuhl, Commissioner General of UNRWA (the UN agency for Palestinian refugees), “….children were killed as they slept next to their parents on the floor of a classroom in a UN-designated shelter in Gaza. Children killed in their sleep; this is an affront to all of us, a source of universal shame. Today the world stands disgraced.”[ii]
The UNRWA boss reminded uncaring Tel Aviv and the indifferent world that victimised Palestinians were in the UN school because it was a designated safe place, because the Israeli Army told them to leave their homes and seek shelter in such safe places. In other words, the UN school was a ‘No-Fire Zone’ which became a death trap for the civilians seeking its protection. The UN is emphatic that there was no Hamas activity in the area. Tel Aviv will probably claim, again, that the UN is in cahoots with terrorists.
It is a depressingly familiar tale from innumerable war-zones, including in Sri Lanka. The Rajapaksas are not only building an Israeli-type peace in the North/East; they also waged an Israeli-type war there. The main difference is that before launching their murderous final offensive, the Rajapaksas ordered all UN agencies, INGOs, and media to leave the war-zone, so that there would be no outside witnesses to the impending horror, no blow by blow media accounts and no way for victims to be seen and to be heard.
The Israeli government does not have to bother with such precautionary measures, because it enjoys near-unconditional support from Western powers. Quite apart from all the current political, economic and electoral calculations, these Western nations have a blood-guilt to atone. They did precious little to save millions of Jews during the Holocaust. The Palestinians are being made to pay the price for that Western crime.
The UN has condemned the latest Israeli attack as a violation of international law. Before the world accepted the notion of Jus in Bello (just conduct of war), the notion of war crimes did not exist. There was only Just and Unjust Wars; the theory, crafted by Augustine of Hippo[iii], stated that a just cause would suffice to make a just war. If the cause was just, the means did not really matter.
The concept that wars, to be just, must not only stem from just causes but also employ just methods began to gain ground only in the last few centuries. The resultant theory of Jus in Bellow led to the enshrinement of principles such as non-combatant immunity, proportionality and the rights of prisoners of war in international law.
During his 2010 Speech to the UN General Assembly, President Mahinda Rajapaksa argued these international humanitarian laws should be changed to give states a carte blanche to combat terrorism[iv]. He argued that humanitarian laws should apply only to legitimate states and not to terrorist organisations. He wanted sovereign states to be given unimpeded legal rights to do whatever they deemed necessary to combat entities labelled ‘terrorist’ (by them of course).
If that proposal was accepted, the crimes Israel is committing (and will continue to commit) in Gaza would have become non-crimes, legally, just as what the Rajapaksas did during the Fourth Eelam War would have become perfectly legal.
The best way to escape war crime charges is to abolish the category altogether.
Israel lawyer Dov Weissglass commenting on the 2004 freezing of the Israel-Palestinian peace process said, “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger”[v].
The current offensive too seems to be aimed at debilitating the Palestinians in every possible way. The deliberate targeting of basic infrastructure is aimed at reducing Gaza to a stage of savage-want and keeping most of its people completely preoccupied with concerns of sheer everyday survival. Another aim would be to destroy any possibility of Palestinian unity. The unity government which came into being in early June is already dead. Once this offensive is over, the antithetical conditions prevailing in the relatively normal West Bank and the totally devastated Gaza may create an insuperable politico-psychological barrier to Palestinian unity and solidarity.
But Hamas will remain, because fanatical entities like Hamas thrive in conditions of violent misery. Plus Israel wants to debilitate and not destroy Hamas. Without Hamas, Israel will find it harder to impede peace. In the 1960s and 1970s Israel encouraged the growth of extreme Islam as a counter to the secular PLO and to fragment Palestinian resistance along religious lines. When in 1978 Sheik Ahmed Yassin applied for a license for his humanitarian organisation, Islamic Association, the government of Menacham Begin responded positively. He was permitted to publish a newspaper and raise funds. The Hamas was born from this Israeli assisted Islamic Association.[vi]
Despite its very real contradictions with and enmity towards Hamas, Israeli-right would not want Hamas to be replaced in Gaza by a militantly moderate and secular leadership. This concern might explain, at least in part, the timing of this latest offensive. According to a May 2014 opinion poll (by the Palestinian Centre for Public Opinion), Hamas’ support base has eroded and it can be defeated even by the much-reviled Mahmoud Abbas. And neither of the top Hamas leaders, Gaza Premier Ismael Haniyeh or Hamas Chairman Khaled Meshal, can challenge the PLO’s Marwan Barghouti, the charismatic leader of the Second Intifada currently serving five life-terms in an Israeli jail. “Barghouti will defeat Ismael Haniyeh…..hands down, 49.7%. to 16%. He would also crush Khaled Meshal….51.0% to 16.2%….”[vii]
Mr. Barghouti is a radical moderate with whom a reasonable Israel can talk peace, successfully. Israeli establishment is loath to release him. Hamas has been equally unwilling to include him in the prisoner exchange programmes. Keeping Mr. Barghoutti captive, like freezing the peace process, serves the purposes of extremists on both sides of the divide, who prefer conflict to peace.
It was the secular militancy of the PLO which united the scattered and demoralised Palestinians, won them international sympathy and acceptance and brought them to the threshold of statehood. The religious-politics of Hamas has not made any gains for the Palestinian cause.
In his poem ‘The Martyr’, Abd al-Raheem Mahmoud advocates
“Either a life to gladden the hearts of friends,
Or a death to torture the hearts of foes!”
Israel wants Gazans to continue to be caught between a life which saddens friends and a death which gladdens foes. Will the latest horror make West Bank too become another Gaza, thereby gladdening the Zionist-foe? Or will Gaza discard religious extremism and embrace radical-moderation and secular-nationalism, depriving Zionism of its indispensable, life-giving enemy?
[iii] In Contra Faustus Manichaeum, his polemical text against the Manichean Bishop, Faustus.