For the first time since the establishment of Israel in 1948 the government is facing serious allegations of war crimes from respected public figures throughout the world. Even the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, normally so cautious about offending sovereign states – especially those aligned with its most influential member, the United States – has joined the call for an investigation and potential accountability. To grasp the significance of these developments it is necessary to explain what made the 22 days of attacks in Gaza stand shockingly apart from the many prior recourses to force by Israel to uphold its security and strategic interests.
In my view, what made the Gaza attacks launched on 27 December different from the main wars fought by Israel over the years was that the weapons and tactics used devastated an essentially defenceless civilian population. The one-sidedness of the encounter was so stark, as signalled by the relative casualties on both sides (more than 100 to 1; 1300-plus Palestinians killed compared with 13 Israelis, and several of these by friendly fire), that most commentators refrained from attaching the label “war”.
The Israelis and their friends talk of “retaliation” and “the right of Israel to defend itself”. Critics described the attacks as a “massacre” or relied on the language of war crimes and crimes against humanity. In the past Israeli uses of force were often widely condemned, especially by Arab governments, including charges that the UN Charter was being violated, but there was an implicit acknowledgement that Israel was using force in a war mode. War crimes charges (to the extent they were made) came only from radical governments and the extreme left.
The early Israeli wars were fought against Arab neighbours which were quite literally challenging Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign state. The outbreaks of force were of an inter-governmental nature; and even when Israel exhibited its military superiority in the June 1967 six day war, it was treated within the framework of normal world politics, and though it may have been unlawful, it was not criminal.
But from the 1982 Lebanon war this started to change. The main target then was the presence of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in southern Lebanon. But the war is now mainly remembered for its ending, with the slaughter of hundreds of unarmed Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Although this atrocity was the work of a Lebanese Christian militia, Israeli acquiescence, control and complicity were clearly part of the picture. Still, this was an incident which, though alarming, was not the whole of the military operation, which Israel justified as necessary due to the Lebanese government’s inability to prevent its territory from being used to threaten Israeli security.
The legacy of the 1982 war was Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon and the formation of Hizbullah in reaction, mounting an armed resistance that finally led to a shamefaced Israeli withdrawal in 1998. This set the stage for the 2006 Lebanon war in which the announced adversary was Hizbullah, and the combat zone inevitably merged portions of the Lebanese civilian population with the military campaign undertaken to destroy Hizbullah. Such a use of hi-tech Israeli force against Hizbullah raised the issue of fighting against a hostile society with no equivalent means of defending itself rather than against an enemy state. It also raised questions about whether reliance on a military option was even relevant to Israel’s political goals, as Hizbullah emerged from the war stronger, and the only real result was to damage the reputation of the IDF as a fighting force and to leave southern Lebanon devastated.
The Gaza operation brought these concerns to the fore as it dramatised this shift away from fighting states to struggles against armed resistance movements, and with a related shift from the language of “war” to “criminality”. In one important respect, Israel managed to skew perceptions and discourse by getting the media and diplomats to focus the basic international criminal law question on whether or not Israeli use of force was “disproportionate”.
This way of describing Israeli recourse to force ignores the foundational issue: were the attacks in any legal sense “defensive” in character in the first place? An inquiry into the surrounding circumstances shows an absence of any kind of defensive necessity: a temporary ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that had been in effect since 19 July 2008 had succeeded in reducing cross-border violence virtually to zero; Hamas consistently offered to extend the ceasefire, even to a longer period of ten years; the breakdown of the ceasefire is not primarily the result of Hamas rocket fire, but came about mainly as a result of an Israeli air attack on 4 November that killed six Hamas fighters in Gaza.