When Israeli forces left Gaza in January, they left behind 1,400 Palestinian dead, 4,000 homes destroyed, universities and government buildings flattened, and tens of thousands homeless. The Israeli and world press documented IDF atrocities including the indiscriminate use of white phosphorus in densely populated urban areas, the assault on United Nations humanitarian facilities, the shelling of civilian homes, and the shooting in cold blood of unarmed civilians.
Israeli human rights groups have called for war crimes investigations of IDF actions. In the last few weeks, on-the-ground reports supported by eyewitness testimony have become available. They paint an even more damning picture. The attacks on UN facilities spurred the Palestinian Authority to call for a security council investigation. Officials announced they are investigating whether the international body has jurisdiction, but it seems likely that US opposition will doom such an avenue of redress.
The UN human rights council has just appointed a distinguished jurist, Richard Goldstone, to head an investigation of both IDF and Palestinian actions in Gaza. The council made a wise choice in Goldstone, who served as chief prosecutor of the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda: he has an impeccable record in his field and can be expected to issue a fair, balanced and thorough report.
Last week, Judge Balthazar Garzon announced the investigation of six Bush-era officials for devising a scheme that justified torture of terror suspects. With this development, it became clear there was a new method to hold violators accountable for their alleged crimes, and I am certain activists are already preparing dossiers for submission. Earlier this month, an international assemblage of individuals announced the formation of the Russell tribunal on Palestine. Modelled on the Russell tribunal on war crimes in Vietnam, and named after philosopher and peace campaigner Bertrand Russell, it aims to bring to bear international law as a force for adjudicating and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The tribunal will hear a legal case prepared by volunteer experts from around the world. A jury of respected individuals will hear evidence from both sides and announce its finding of guilt or innocence to the world.
There is one important consideration that should encourage Israel to participate. If it truly believes Palestinian rocket attacks constitute war crimes, then it should vigorously make this point. The tribunal has already taken pains to point out that this is a part of its mandate: “Do the means of resistance used by the Palestinians violate international law?” However, I would imagine that Israel will not participate.
While Israel’s savage assault against Hezbollah in Lebanon during the 2006 war generated an uproar, one wonders whether the massacres that occurred in Gaza crossed a moral threshhold. Can an effort to end Israeli impunity have real impact, both in terms of influencing world opinion and of impacting on Israeli behaviour? Israel has become an expert at wearing down its opponents, honing such skills during 40 years of occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The question is: what, if anything, can the peace community do differently this time?
Each time the world witnesses another humanitarian tragedy resulting from Israeli military action, the outcry is louder. For example, the UN has never before entertained the possibility of investigating Israeli war crimes. The EU has informally made known that it intends to freeze a planned upgrade in relations with Israel and cancel of visit of Israel’s prime minister as an indirect result. American universities such as Hampshire College and church denominations such as the Presbyterians contemplate ever more seriously the issue of divestment. Gaza crossed a red line. Now, new methods of protest and new means of ensuring accountability must be devised.
Horrors such as the Gaza war also breathe new life into movements like the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions initiative. Recently, Naomi Klein and Rabbi Arthur Waskow engaged in a provocative debate at In These Times about BDS. The Gaza war made Klein a believer. Recently, Rabbi Brant Rosen wrote words that many in the American Jewish community might find heretical, that BDS could be a legitimate expression “of a weaker, dispossessed, disempowered people”.
There can be no doubt that horrors such as Gaza serve as moral ice-breakers in the psyche of diaspora Jews. Ideas that hitherto might have been taboo or “anti-Israel” become suddenly legitimate. As Israel drifts farther to the right, American Jews are challenged to respond morally. In this context, the forbidden becomes acceptable. Boycotts, divestment, sactions and war crimes investigations now appear tools through which to try to draw Israel back from the brink.
No major American-Jewish peace group has called for a Gaza war crimes investigation. It is a sensitive subject among diaspora Jews. But if Israeli human rights organisations can make such a call, there is no reason why Americans should be afraid to do so. The movement for Gaza accountability needs full Jewish participation.
My motivation in writing this is not to avenge the deaths of innocent Palestinians. Nor is it for pure justice. It is rather to bring Israel back from the brink. Like one of the slogans of the Israeli military during the Gaza war – “baal habayit hishtageya” (”the boss has lost it”) – Israel’s policy has verged on madness. Nor has it achieved its objective of pacifying Gaza or toppling Hamas. And isn’t one of the definitions of madness to repeat a behaviour even after it has failed, with the conviction that it will succeed the next time? When you see a loved one or family member descending into self-destruction, you reach out and help. My goal is to turn Israel away from the path of madness.
Tags: Gaza, Israel, war crimes, civilians, Palestinians killed, rocket attacks, IDF atrocities, homes, Richard Silverstein, government builidings, Richard Goldstone, Judge Balthazar Garzon, Russell tribunal on Palestine