April 10, 2011

Context, Context, Context: Understanding the Recent Escalation of Violence in Gaza

On April 7, Hamas militants fired an anti-tank missile at a school bus near the Gaza-Israeli border, critically wounding the bus’s only passenger, a sixteen-year-old boy (CNN).  Hamas has admitted to firing the missile, although it claims that it didn’t intended to target children, pointing out “the road where the bus was travelling was often used by Israeli military vehicles” (Haaretz).

The events which followed the school bus attack were predictable:

The IDF retaliated to Thursday’s rocket fire with strikes in Gaza that day, resulting in the death of five Palestinians.

On Friday, a barrage of rockets and mortar shells was fired at Israeli towns near the Gaza Strip…Although no one was hurt, the mortars exploded near homes and chicken coops, causing damage.

On Saturday, the Israel Defense Forces spokesman's office confirmed that IAF jets attacked three top Hamas officials in the Gaza strip, as well as a smuggling tunnel and a truck carrying ammunition, after southern Israel suffered a barrage of rockets overnight.

The early morning air strike brought the two-day death toll from Israel's ongoing retaliation to 17 Gazans—10 militants, a Hamas policeman and six civilians—amounting to the bloodiest tally since Israel and Hamas wrapped up their three-week-long war more than two years ago. (Haaretz)

Ma’an News adds that the Israeli strikes have resulted in 60 injuries, 12 of them serious (Ma’an).

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Unlike Israeli officials would have us believe, history did not begin with the April 7 school bus attack. The International Crisis Group helps provide us with some context.  The Group notes that, following Operation Cast Lead, Hamas “had largely withheld fire at Israel” and had “sought, with a fair degree of success, to contain” other militant groups in Gaza (“Gaza: The Next Israeli-Palestinian War?”).  Consequently, “fewer rockets were launched from Gaza in 2010 than in any year since the first Qassam missile was fired toward Israel in February 2002” (“Radical Islam in Gaza”). 

Despite this, Israel has continued to prevent an adequate amount of humanitarian goods from entering Gaza and has continued to prevent exports from leaving Gaza (OCHA).  Moreover, Israel “increasingly has targeted Hamas for rocket attacks launched by unaffiliated groups—particularly Islamic Jihad and various Salafi-Jihadi militants” (“Gaza: The Next Israeli-Palestinian War?”). 

It needs to be noted that Hamas does not have complete control over these more radical militant groups.  A recently released WikiLeaks cable shows former Israeli Chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi admitting this to US Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand (Juan Cole).  More recently, GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Tal Russo stated, “There is anarchy in Gaza, inside Hamas and inside the other [militant] organizations. No group exerts control there” (Haaretz).

On March 16—three weeks before the school bus attack—Israel killed two Hamas militants in response to a rocket fired by non-Hamas militants.  According to the Crisis Group, this attack marked a major turning point.  “A [Hamas] movement leader argued that these actions violated what Hamas had considered reasonable rules of the game: that when Palestinian projectiles hit open space—as did the ones launched on 16 March—Israel aims at open space in response.”

It came as no surprise then when on March 19 “Hamas—for the first time in many months—fired and immediately claimed responsibility for a large-scale attack, some 33 mortars aimed at what it alleged were four Israeli military bases.”  Israel soon retaliated, and Hamas called for a ceasefire on March 21 (Ma’an). 

The following day, non-Hamas militants fired two Grad missiles and several mortar shells into Israel (Haaretz).  Israel responded by carrying out two separate attacks in Gaza, killing 8 Palestinians. Among the victims were five members of a single family, including two children, in the Gaza City neighbourhood of Shajaiyya. This brought the total for the week to ten dead (including five under the age of eighteen) in addition to 38 wounded (including fifteen under the age of eighteen).” Although Benjamin Netanyahu expressed “regret” that innocents were killed, the Crisis Group notes that “the damage was done, and Hamas immediately announced its intention to exact further retribution.”

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It should be clear then that Israel, not Hamas, has initiated this recent round of violence.  Israel’s primary reason for doing this seems clear enough; its strategy has long been to provoke Hamas into firing rockets. Once the rockets start flying, attention in the United States and Europe is no longer on the many crimes Israel is committing in both Gaza and the West Bank, but on those dastardly, violence-loving Palestinians. 
                                       
From Israel’s perspective, there are few costs to this strategy, which can best be described as perpetual war for perpetual colonization.  Yes, rockets from Gaza sometimes kill Israelis, but very rarely.  Since 2001, “just” 28 Israelis have died in rocket attacks (Wikipedia).  Certainly Israeli politicians find this regrettable, but, given that this tragedy allows them to continue their colonization of the West Bank with complete impunity, it’s obviously a price they believe is worth paying.  

* * * * * 

UPDATE: Norman Finkelstein has posted a helpful timeline of major events regarding Israel-Gaza since February 17.

UPDATE 2 (4/12): Regarding Israel’s motives here, I think it’s worth keeping in mind that, in the weeks preceding its March 16 attack, both Hamas and Fatah had been making “enhanced attempts” to be reconciled with one another (Jerusalem Post).  If Israel provoked Hamas into fighting in order to thwart reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, it wouldn’t have been the first time.  Remember back to November 4, 2008, when Israel broke its ceasefire with Hamas by entering Gaza and killing six Hamas militants who were supposedly building a tunnel into Israel.  The raid, Noam Chomsky has pointed out, “came shortly before scheduled Hamas-Fatah talks in Cairo aimed at ‘reconciling their differences and creating a single, unified government,’ British correspondent Rory McCarthy reported. That was to be the first Fatah-Hamas meeting since the June 2007 civil war that left Hamas in control of Gaza, and would have been a significant step towards advancing diplomatic efforts” (Chomsky). 

UPDATE 3 (4/13): From Human Rights Watch:

Attacks since April 7, 2011, by Hamas and Israeli forces appear to have targeted civilians or otherwise violated the laws of war...

 Hamas's armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, claimed responsibility for an attack on an Israeli school bus on April 7 that wounded two people, while various Palestinian armed groups fired mortars and rockets deliberately or indiscriminately at Israeli population centers. Israeli attacks in Gaza on April 7 and 8 apparently targeted an ambulance, killed a mother and daughter in an indiscriminate attack, and killed and wounded other civilians in Gaza without taking adequate precautions to minimize civilian harm. (HRW)

UPDATE 4 (4/13): Jonathan Cook argues that both Israel and Hamas have much to gain by this recent conflict—namely, the weakening of PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel, Cook argues, worries about the “diplomatic tsunami” that Ababs hopes to unleash by seeking UN recognition for a Palestinian state later this year.  If things are calm in Gaza, then Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself in a major bind: “either break with his Greater Israel ideology and produce a credible peace plan; or wait for Mr Abbas to make his move at the UN.”  But with Hamas and other groups firing rockets into Israel, Netanyahu can claim, as commentator Aluf Benn recently wrote in Haaretz, that “any area Israel gives up in the West Bank will become a base for the launching of missiles against Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.”

Additionally, Netanyahu realizes that Abbas’ “chances of winning much-needed European support for a declaration of statehood in September, and maybe even of staving off a US veto, depend on elections to refresh his mandate. And credible elections require Hamas’s participation.”  As long as there is war in Gaza, there will not be unity talks. 

Hamas, Cook continues, also has reason to avoid unity talks.  Hamas, he points out, “is growing stronger by the day. Mr Abbas's loss of Mr Mubarak was the Islamist group's gain. Popular sympathy in Egypt for Gaza's plight has already ensured a weakening of the siege, allowing more smuggling through tunnels under the single shared border.”

Moreover, “Hamas’ regional supporters, including Iran and Syria, are likely to exploit this change to arm Gaza’s militants in the hope of making life more difficult for Israel. That appears to explain the shipment of weapons seized by Israel on a ship in international waters last week.

“For this reason the militants in Gaza are choosing to revive the armed struggle, if only briefly, in preference to unity talks and fresh elections. Why play second fiddle to Mr Abbas when the future looks to be moving in their direction?” (Cook)

UPDATE 5 (4/13): MJ Rosenberg makes many of the same points as Cook in an op-ed for Al-Jazeera (Al-Jazeera).

April 6, 2011

The Goldstone Retraction: Additional Comments

(Updated Below)

Three items today.

(1) Yesterday Richard Goldstone told the Associated Press that he did not intend to ask the UN to rescind the Goldstone Report.  Although Goldstone continues to hold that the Report's conclusions about the January 5 shelling of Wa'el al-Samouni's house should be retracted, he does not believe that any other part of the Report should be retracted (AP).

(2) I've spent the past few days looking through the Goldstone Report.  One thing that struck me, and that I hadn't realized, is that the Reports spends just 8 paragraphs on the shelling of Wa'el al-Samouni's home.  Eight paragraphs out of a total of 1,776 paragraphs.  Recall that this shelling is the only part of the Report that Goldstone has retracted.  (As I've explained, unlike he implied in the op-ed, the Report never claimed that Israel had a policy of intentionally targeting civilians.)  So it should go without saying that even if we excised these 8 paragraphs, the Report would remain essentially unchanged.

(3) I'd like to thank Samaa Elibyari for interviewing me about the Goldstone op-ed on her radio show on CKUT-FM in Montreal.  You can listen to the show here.  My interview begins at 15:50.

* * * * *

UPDATE: I try not to be a cut-and-paste blogger, but sometimes I just can't help myself.  Here's a letter someone sent to Norman Finkelstein in response to the Goldstone op-ed:

An amazing magic trick by Israel. Now you see it…now you don’t.

Judge Goldstone wrote:

“Simply put, the laws of armed conflict apply no less to non-state actors such as Hamas than they do to national armies. Ensuring that non-state actors respect these principles, and are investigated when they fail to do so, is one of the most significant challenges facing the law of armed conflict. Only if all parties to armed conflicts are held to these standards will we be able to protect civilians who, through no choice of their own, are caught up in war.”

I wonder if Judge Goldstone would also agree that non-state actors have the right to defend their population against foreign occupation using proportional responses. If he does, I wonder as to what Judge Goldstone suggests a proportionate response from Hamas could look like? Because in my opinion offering to renew a ceasefire is quite a proportional response to caging in a civilian population under military occupation and causing the majority of children to become anemic. I wonder if he also agrees that international law protects civilians in non-state regions from foreign aggression. I’m also curious as to how Judge Goldstone’s opinion has changed on the legality of dropping white phosphorous on schools and hospital[s] or on what the military purpose of destroying chickens and flour mills is. How has Judge Goldstone’s opinion on incinerating policemen at a graduation ceremony changed. Perhaps he feels that they are legitimate targets because they are within the Hamas organization. Would he then also agree that an IDF soldier sitting in a cafe is also a legitimate military target for a suicide bombing and that any Israeli civilians killed would be tragic but not “intentionally targeted as a matter of policy” by Hamas? Hamas is no angel, they receive NO sympathy from me. But they appear to be much more efficient than Israel at not killing civilians using makeshift rockets and suicide bombings even though Israel is using state of the art U.S weaponry. Perhaps Israel should get some pointers from Hamas on how to avoid civilian deaths. And as far as I know Hamas hasn’t prevented freedom of movement or the oportunity to have a future for Israeli civilians. Funny how opinions can change. It’s like magic.

UPDATE 2 (4/7): William A. Schabas, director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights, points out what I've been emphasizing for the past several days: "I have reread the Commission’s Report in light of Judge Goldstone’s statement. I do not believe that the Commission ever alleged that there was an Israeli policy of intentionally targeting civilians. The furthest it goes, I think, is to talk of a ‘low threshold for the use of lethal fire against the civilian population’ (para. 44), which is not the same thing as intentionally targeting civilians. Judge Goldstone could not retract a conclusion that the Commission did not make" (Shabas) (h/t Mondoweiss).

April 4, 2011

Why the UN Should Not Rescind the Goldstone Report

From the Associated Press:

Israel is launching an international campaign to push the United Nations to rescind a scathing report on Israeli war conduct in Gaza two years ago, after the report's author backtracked from key allegations against the Jewish state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet he had ordered the diplomatic offensive in response to the new admissions from international jurist Richard Goldstone, who wrote in The Washington Post at the weekend that his most serious accusation against Israel—that it deliberately targeted civilians—appeared to be wrong. He said that in hindsight his report would have been very different.

Mr. Netanyahu said Mr. Goldstone’s comments vindicated Israel’s wartime conduct and that the report, which accused both Israel and Hamas militants of possibly committing war crimes, should be scrapped. (AP)

As I’ve already explained, Richard Goldstone has only retracted one of the claims of the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict.  One.  Writing in the Washington Post, he stated that he now believes Israel’s January 5 missile attack against a home containing around 100 members of the al-Samouni family “was apparently the consequence of an Israeli commander’s erroneous interpretation of a drone image” (Washington Post). 

Despite what’s being claimed, Goldstone has not retracted the Fact Finding Mission’s claim that many Israeli soldiers deliberately targeted civilians during Cast Lead.  Rather, he has simply stated that he doesn’t believe that Israel “intentionally targeted civilians as a matter of policy.”  But the Mission never claimed that Israel had a policy of intentionally targeting civilians. 

So, to repeat, Goldstone has only retracted one of the Mission’s allegations against Israel, that the above-mentioned missile strike was a deliberate attack against civilians.  The other members of the Mission—Hina Jilani, Desmond Travers, and Christine Chinkin—have not retracted any of their allegations against Israel. To the contrary, since the publication of Goldstones op-ed, both Hina Jilani and Desmond Travers have come out and reaffirmed their support for the Missions findings (Middle East Monitor, Haaretz).

Even if we excise this one allegation from the Goldstone Report, Israel still stands accused of committing numerous crimes.  Here is a list of some of the charges made by the Mission, none of which either Goldstone or the other members of the Mission have retracted:

1) On several different occasions, Israeli soldiers intentionally attacked civilians.  According to the Fourth Geneva Convention, such attacks amount to war crimes. 

2) Israel deliberately attacked Gaza’s civilian infrastructure, including factories, farms, homes, mosques, hospitals, water treatment installations, and a sewage treatment plant.  Most of these attacks had no military purpose and thus constitute war crimes. 

3) Israel tortured many Palestinian detainees, a war crime.

4) Israel’s shelling of al-Fakhura junction in Jabalya was an indiscriminate attack, a violation of international humanitarian law. 

5) Israeli political and military leaders ordered soldiers to use disproportionate force in response to rocket attacks, a violation of international law. 

6) IDF soldiers repeatedly used Palestinian civilians as human shields, a violation of international law. 

7) Israel’s attacks against the Palestinian Legislative Council and Gaza’s main prison “constituted deliberate attacks on civilian objects,” a violation of international law.

8) Israel’s December 27 killing of 199 police officers “failed to strike an acceptable balance between the direct military advantage anticipated” and “the loss of civilian life,” a violation of international law. 

9) Israel repeatedly failed to take feasible precautions to protect civilians, a violation of customary international law.

10) Israel has refused to allow a sufficient amount of humanitarian goods to enter Gaza, a violation of international law and a possible crime against humanity. 

11) Israel violently, often lethally, suppressed protests in the West Bank, a violation of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. (UN Fact Finding Report [.pdf])

Unless sufficient evidence can be produced showing why the Fact Finding Mission’s arguments for such charges are ill-founded, there’s absolutely no reason for the UN to take Benjamin Netanyahu’s advice and rescind the Mission’s Report. 

April 2, 2011

Much Ado About Nothing: Richard Goldstone's Supposed Retraction

Writing in the Washington Post, Richard Goldstone claims that, had the Goldstone Commission known in 2009 what it knows now, its report would have “probably” been different.  Specifically, he writes, the Commission most likely wouldn’t have concluded that Israel had a policy of intentionally targeting civilians (Washington Post). 

Not surprisingly, Benjamin Netanyahu has jumped all over this, claiming that this op-ed exonerates Israel of all wrongdoing in Operation Cast Lead. He added: “The fact that Goldstone changed his mind must lead to the shelving of the [Goldstone] Report once and for all” (Haaretz).

There’s just one problem with all this: the Goldstone Report never claimed that Israel had a policy of intentionally targeting civilians.  As Yaniv Reich writes, “This is a red-herring; nobody seriously believes there is a high-level policy to murder civilians.  The actual issue is that ‘these incidents indicate that the instructions given to the Israeli forces moving into Gaza provided for a low threshold for the use of lethal fire against the civilian population’ (Goldstone report, pp. 16).  This low threshold was an intentional policy, as has been confirmed by dozens of soldiers’ and officers’ statements” (Mondoweiss).

So, despite what Netanyahu has claimed, Goldstone has not actually retracted any of the allegations of war crimes made by the Goldstone Commission, officially called the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict.  It should also be pointed out that the other members of the Commission—Christine Chinkin, Hina Jilani, and Colonel Desmond Travers—continue to stand by the Report’s findings (Mondoweiss). 

All of which means that Israel still stands accused of committing several war crimes—among them, using civilians as human shields, deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure, and conducting indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks.

Goldstone proceeds to praise Israel for conducting investigations into “over 400 allegations of operational misconduct in Gaza.”  But the UN Committee of Independent Experts, which was charged with following up on the Goldstone Report, has reported that Israel has not adequately investigated many of the allegations made by the Goldstone Commission. Most significantly, “there is no indication that Israel has opened investigations into the actions of those who designed, planned, ordered and oversaw Operation Cast Lead” (Committee of Independent Experts [.pdf]).

In his op-ed, Goldstone mentions one, just one, specific allegation made by the Goldstone Commission which he believes should be retracted: “[T]he most serious attack the Goldstone Report focused on was the killing of some 29 members of the al-Samouni family in their home. The shelling of the home was apparently the consequence of an Israeli commander’s erroneous interpretation of a drone image, and an Israeli officer is under investigation for having ordered the attack.” 

As proof that the IDF didn’t target civilians in this instance, Goldstone simply states that an IDF investigation concluded that it didn’t target civilians.  Needless to say, this argument is highly flawed.  Both the Goldstone Commission and the Committee of Experts concluded that, for obvious reasons, Israel cannot be expected to conduct an unbiased investigation into its own affairs (Goldstone Report [.pdf]). 

It’s also worth mentioning that the Committee of Experts doesn’t share Goldstone’s conclusion here.  First, the Committee states that, as far as it knows, Israel has not completed its investigation of the massacre.  Second, the Committee notes that, according to an October 2010 Haaretz report, although the commander who authorized the missile attack claimed that he had not been informed that civilians were present, several air force officers had in fact warned him that “there could be civilians in the area” (Haaretz).

Richard Goldstone’s motives in writing this op-ed are completely irrelevant.  What matters is the evidence.  And the evidence—documented not just by the Goldstone Commission, but also by the Arab League [.pdf], Breaking the Silence [.pdf], Amnesty International [.pdf], and Human Rights Watch—indicates that Israel committed numerous war crimes in Operation Cast Lead.