2 June 2009

By Jake Lynch

Nearly two-thirds of Israelis in favour of direct, substantive negotiations between their own government and the leadership of Hamas. Some mistake, surely? Actually no – this was the finding of an opinion survey in February 2008 by Tel Aviv University. Barely ten months later, as “Operation Cast Lead” got underway, pollsters were finding still higher majorities, up to 90% in some cases, in favour of war against the same Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip.

We can all hold different, in some cases contradictory opinions about the same thing. Which comes to the front of our minds at particular times depends on circumstances. Nowhere does this psychological syndrome transfer more readily into political reality than in Israel. Part of Israelis” inner landscape is the set of attitudes and institutional arrangements known as militarism: not merely the possession of and – for many Israelis – participation in, a powerful military machine, but the reflex recourse to military “solutions” when political ones seem too complex or fraught with risk.

Israelis have been brought up on tales of ingenuity and derring-do by their soldiers and aircrews. The Raid on Entebbe saw a team of commandos free Israeli hostages from the grip of ruthless hijackers. The rescue repeated the success of a similar operation at Tel Aviv airport when special forces posed as mechanics, led by Ehud Barak, now Israel”s Defence Minister. The “six-day war” of 1967 opened with Arab air assets being destroyed on the ground as Egyptian generals struggled to reach the office, the Israelis having taken the precaution of attacking during Cairo”s morning rush hour.

The recourse to the use of force has, therefore, assumed the status of default option in Israel”s relations with neighbouring countries and peoples, clouding and undermining calls for peace. Back then, the antagonists were Jordan, Egypt and Syria. Latterly, the Lebanese and, of course, the Palestinians have found themselves in the cross-hairs. Three principles of international law should govern Israel”s behaviour, as they are meant to restrict the responses of any state party to conflict.

The first is enshrined in Article 2, Paragraph 4 of the UN Charter, which states that: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations”. It means that aggressive war – shooting first – is effectively outlawed.

It was a key part of Israel”s narrative for the conflict to establish that “Operation Cast Lead” was an act of self-defence, having sustained a barrage of rockets from Gaza. Interviewed as the military offensive got underway, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told NBC”s widely viewed Sunday morning talk show Meet the Press (on December 28, 2008), that: “About a half a year ago, according to the Egyptian Initiative, we decided to enter a kind of a truce and not to attack the Gaza Strip… Hamas violated, on a daily basis, this truce. They targeted Israel, and we didn”t answer”.

However, a fact sheet produced by the Israeli consulate in New York City, after the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire agreed with Hamas began in June 2008, said the rate of rocket and mortar fire from Gaza dropped to almost zero, and stayed there for four straight months. As Nancy Kanwisher, Johannes Haushofer and Anat Biletzki point out in the Huffington Post, the ceasefire ended on November 4th 2008 “when Israel first killed Palestinians, and Palestinians then fired rockets into Israel”.

This was a story “missed” by most US media, according to an investigation for the Interpress service by Jim Lobe and Ali Gharib. “While the major US news wire Associated Press (AP) reported that the attack, in which six members of Hamas”s military wing were killed by Israeli ground forces, threatened the ceasefire, its report was carried by only a handful of small newspapers around the country”, they find.

“The November 4th raid – and the escalation that followed – also went unreported by the major US network and cable television new programmes, according to a search of the Nexis database for all English-language news coverage between November 4th and 7th.” Stephen Zunes of the University of San Francisco tells Lobe and Gharib: “While neither side ever completely respected the ceasefire terms, the Israeli raid was far and away the biggest violation. It was a huge, huge provocation, and it now appears to me that it was actually intended to get Hamas to break off the ceasefire”.

The second vital principle of international law, which Israel flouted in Gaza, is the protection of civilians in territories occupied during warfare, as provided for by the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949: “Persons taking no active part in the hostilities… shall in all circumstances be treated humanely”, with an absolute prohibition against “violence to life and person”. A special conference of the High Contracting Parties to the Convention, held in Geneva in 2001, affirmed that these provisions did indeed apply “in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem”.

The general obligation to avoid harming civilians applies to Hamas as well, of course, and the rockets they lob over the fence into Israel are, by definition, indiscriminate weapons. The deaths and injuries they cause are also war crimes, but, given the sheer disparity of casualty figures on the two sides, it would be grotesque if the allegations against Israel were not the main focus of any investigation, tribunal or social action. The UN criticised Israel for attacks on its own property that killed or injured its staff, and international monitoring groups raised the alarm over the hundreds of civilians killed.

The third principle involved here is the general inadmissibility of territory acquired by force. UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 call on Israel to withdraw from the territories seized in 1967, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In the latter case, of course, illegal Jewish settlements were dismantled, though, as Israel controls Gaza”s air space and seaboard, and one of its borders, it is still technically the occupying power.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion that Israel”s so-called security fence, which has grabbed, divided and reticulated yet more Palestinian territory, is illegal. The judgement spelt out seven separate obligations for other states, notably that they should recognise the illegality of the situation, and refrain from rendering aid or assistance in maintaining it.

In all these ways, Israel is a serial violator of international law. But the chance of any real redress coming through the use of existing institutional arrangements is presently remote. Governments find they have interests that make it inconvenient to press the point, chiefly their aversion to upsetting Washington, which appoints itself the chief arbiter in the conflict for reasons perhaps best appreciated in the phrase attributed to Caspar Weinberger, Defense Secretary under Ronald Reagan: “Israel is America”s unsinkable battleship in the Middle East”.

There is, then, a situation of effective legal impunity. And if no legal discipline can be exerted, to disincentivise the recourse to violence, then the rest of us are faced with the challenge and opportunity to apply social discipline instead.

This does not entail overlooking breaches of international law or abuses of human rights by other countries. It is not “applying double standards”. In the words of the writer, Naomi Klein, “Boycott is not a dogma; it is a tactic. The reason the strategy should be tried [on Israel] is practical: in a country so small and trade-dependent, it could actually work”. The general responsibility to act is particularised, in this case, by the opportunity to do so effectively. This is why international campaigns for the boycott of Israeli goods and services, and universities, are gaining ground.

Israeli academics are the source of a great deal of significant criticism of, and opposition to, Israel”s policies – including the Tel Aviv University poll – so there is no suggestion that individual contacts should now cease. Discussions about peace journalism have been considerably enhanced by the participation of wise and clever Israeli academics, and that should continue. At an institutional level, however, universities are deeply embedded in the system of occupation and militarism.

I”ve led a call for the University of Sydney to cancel institutional arrangements with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Technion University, in Haifa. Though small in scale, these contacts are symbolic of a commitment to help Israel enjoy normal relations with the outside world, despite its record. For this to cease now would be our contribution, however minor, to raising the social, economic and political cost of militarism as an alternative to dialogue and negotiation. And that would bring a long overdue boost to the cause of peace with justice.

Jake Lynch is the Associate Professor at Sydney University and Director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. The article can be found on transcend.org.

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