Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell on Israel’s offensive in Gaza

December 31st, 2008

Collective punishment is a war crime under section 33 of the Geneva Convention, and New Zealand is one of the 194 signatory countries to that Convention. Not that this has meant very much to us in recent weeks and months, as it applies to Israel’s actions in the Middle East. We should care. Because according to Richard Falk, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, the Israeli military offensive against Gaza does amount to ‘severe and massive violations’ of the Geneva Conventions. Falk identifies three main counts

Those violations include :

• Collective punishment: The entire 1.5 million people who live in the crowded Gaza Strip are being punished for the actions of a few militants.

• Targeting civilians: The air strikes were aimed at civilian areas in one of the most crowded stretches of land in the world, certainly the most densely populated area of the Middle East.

• Disproportionate military response: The air strikes have not only destroyed every police and security office of Gaza’s elected government, but have killed and injured hundreds of civilians; at least one strike reportedly hit groups of students attempting to find transportation home from the university.

Earlier Israeli actions, specifically the complete sealing off of entry and exit to and from the Gaza Strip, have led to severe shortages of medicine and fuel (as well as food), resulting in the inability of ambulances to respond to the injured, the inability of hospitals to adequately provide medicine or necessary equipment for the injured, and the inability of Gaza’s besieged doctors and other medical workers to sufficiently treat the victims.

Certainly the rocket attacks against civilian targets in Israel are unlawful. But that illegality does not give rise to any Israeli right, neither as the Occupying Power nor as a sovereign state, to violate international humanitarian law and commit war crimes or crimes against humanity in its response. I note that Israel’s escalating military assaults have not made Israeli civilians safer; to the contrary, the one Israeli killed today after the upsurge of Israeli violence is the first in over a year.

All the more surprising then, to find our Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully reportedly claiming that it would be ‘pointless to finger point about what is a proportionate and disproportionate response’, with regard to the Israeli offensive on Gaza. By all means, we should support the UN in brokering a ceasefire – but that doesn’t mean we need also allow Israel to trample all over the Geneva Conventions, en route to the bargaining table.

Even before the Israeli offensive began, Gaza was a socio- medical catastrophe, amid NGO reports reports that a third of the population ( or 450,000 people) had no access to clean drinking water. Subsequently, and since a disproportionate response is in itself a war crime, it is worth looking more closely at the casualty figures involved in the Gaza conflict , on both sides.

As Professor Juan Cole, a Middle East expert at the University of Michigan has pointed out, Israel blames Hamas for the so called Qassam rocket attacks ( commonly involving primitive, homemade devices) that have largely been directed at the Israeli city of Sederot. Between 2000 and 2008, those rockets killed about 15 Israelis and injured 433, and damaged property. In addition, mortar fire originating in Gaza killed eight other Israelis.

On the other side, as Cole continued in his December 28 report :

Since the Second Intifada broke out in 2000, Israelis have killed nearly 5,000 Palestinians, nearly a thousand of them minors. Since the fall of 2007, Israel has kept the 1.5 million Gazans under a blockade, interdicting food, fuel and medical supplies to one degree or another. Wreaking collective punishment on civilian populations such as hospital patients denied needed electricity, is a crime of war.

The Israelis on Saturday killed 5% of all the Palestinians they have killed since the beginning of 2001. 230 people were slaughtered in a day, over 70 of them innocent civilians. In contrast, from the ceasefire Hamas announced in June, 2008, no Israelis had been killed by Hamas. The infliction of this sort of death toll is known in the law of war as a disproportionate response, and it is a war crime.

Corroboration : The figures for the Palestinian ‘Qassam’ rocket attacks are here.

The death toll on both sides since the onset of the Second Intifada can be found here.

The support being given by the Bush White House to the Israeli offensive is predictable, though it will be Barack Obama who will have to grapple with the consequences. Nor is it surprising that the most cogent criticism and analysis of the Israeli action has been from Jewish analysts and reporters both within the mainstream Israeli press ( such as Amira Hass for instance,
here in Ha’aretz newspaper ) and outside it. Dan Levy for instance, has provided one of the best short analyses of the regional backdrop to the current offensive :

(1) Never forget the basics – the core issue is still an unresolved conflict about ending an occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state – everything has to start from here to be serious (this is true also for Hamas who continue to heavily hint that they will accept the 1967 borders

(2) The immediate backdrop begins with the Israeli disengagement from Gaza of summer 2005, ostensibly a good move, except one that left more issues open than it resolved. It was a unilateral initiative, so there was no coordinating the ‘what happens next’ with the Palestinians. Gaza was closed off to the world, the West Bank remained under occupation and what had the potential to be a constructive move towards peace became a source of new tensions – something many of us pointed out at the time (supporting withdrawal from Gaza, opposing how it was done).

(3) U.S., Israeli and international policy towards Hamas has greatly exacerbated the situation. Hamas participated in and won democratic elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council in January 2006. Rather than test the Hamas capacity to govern responsibly and nurture Hamas further into the political arena and away from armed struggle, the U.S.-led international response was to hermetically seal-off Hamas, besiege Gaza, work to undemocratically overthrow the Hamas government and thereby allow Hamas to credibly claim that a hypocritical standard was being applied to the American democracy agenda.

American, Israeli and Quartet policy towards Hamas has been a litany of largely unforced errors and missed opportunities. Hamas poses a serious policy challenge and direct early U.S. or Israeli engagement let alone financial support was certainly not the way forward, but in testing Hamas, a division of labor within the Quartet would have made sense (European and U.N. engagement, for instance, should have been encouraged, not the opposite). Every wrong turn was taken – Hamas were seen through the GWOT prism not as a liberation struggle, when the Saudi’s delivered a Palestinian National Unity Government in March 2007 the U.S. worked to unravel it, Palestinian reconciliation is still vetoed which encourages the least credible trends within Fatah, and unbelievably Egypt is given an exclusive mediation role with Hamas (Egypt naturally sees the Hamas issue first through its own domestic prism of concern at the growth of the Muslim Brothers, progress is often held hostage to ongoing Hamas-Egypt squabbles).

(4) Failure to build on the ceasefire. Israel is of course duty bound to defend and protect its citizens, so as the intensity of rocket fire in 2007-8 increased, Israel stepped up its actions against Gaza. But there was never much Israeli military or government enthusiasm for a full-scale conflict or ground invasion and eventually a practical working solution was found when both sides agreed to a six-month ceasefire on June 19th 2008. Neither side loved it. Both drew just enough benefit to keep going…..The ceasefire needed to be solidified, nurtured, taken to the next level. None of this was done – the Quartet was busy with the deeply flawed Annapolis effort.

The Israeli offensive has been driven by political expediency, as much as by the demands of national security. As Levy and others have pointed out, the air strikes ordered by acting prime minister Tzipi Livni are inseparable from her election campaign battle ( the vote is on February 10 ) against the Likud Party hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu. Yesterday, Reuters news service reported an 81 % approval rating among Israelis for the strike against Gaza, within a dispatch that Reuters headlined as “Gaza Offensive Set to Boost Israel’s Livni :

Whether Livni can defeat the right-wing leader at the polls may depend on whether Israel achieves its objective without incurring heavy Israeli civilian or military casualties, analysts said.

Both Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak are gambling with their political careers by launching this attack on Hamas, they said.

“If they hadn’t taken action, they would have been finished politically,” though the outcome is uncertain, said Shmuel Sandler of Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

He said the Christmas holiday, the global economic crisis and the presidential interregnum in the United States made for good timing for Israel to launch its offensive, after Hamas declared its 6-month-old truce with Israel dead on Dec. 19.

While McCully’s reluctance to condemn Israel for its actions is Gaza is lamentable, it is quite consistent with New Zealand’s diplomatic stance under the Clark government as well. In September 2007 for instance, New Zealand – for all its own glorious anti- nuclear credentials – chose to abstain from an International Atomic Energy Agency conference resolution that was calling for the establishment of the Middle East as a nuclear weapons free zone. This is an idea that has been promoted by Arab nations at the UN since at least 2005.

In calling for a nuclear free Middle East, as Green MP Keith Locke pointed out at the time, the IAEA resolution was implicitly criticising Israel, for its possession of nuclear weapons. We couldn’t allow that. As Locke explained :

“There were two new clauses that horrified the New Zealand and other Western-aligned governments. The first one called on ‘all States of the region….not to develop, produce, test or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons’ or to permit the stationing of such weapons or nuclear explosive devices on territories that they rule or control. The second clause asked states to ‘refrain from any action that would hinder efforts aiming at [the zone’s] establishment.’

“How hypocritical is it for New Zealand to support sanctions against Iran, a country which has yet to develop nuclear weapons – and yet refuse to support a straightforward motion which indirectly criticises the nuclear arms that Israel currently possesses, and which serve as a barrier to achieving a nuclear free Middle East.

Yet 53 other countries, including Ireland, voted for this IAEA resolution that New Zealand shrank from supporting in 2007 – and that Arab leaders even in the midst of the Gaza crisis, still found time earlier today to promote.

Talk about rampant double-standards. Under Helen Clark, New Zealand was unwilling to implicitly criticize Israel’s flouting of the international drive for nuclear non- proliferation. Under John Key, we seem just as unwilling to hold Israel to account over its violations of the Geneva Convention. Just how these supine foreign policy stances serve to promote the long term interests of global or regional security is very, very hard to see.


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    1. 22 Responses to “Gordon Campbell on Israel’s offensive in Gaza”

    2. By Keith Cook on Jan 1, 2009 | Reply

      The whole issue of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a brick wall with a huge vacuum in between.
      With very good reason, no trust exists.
      No amount of signed documents mean anything to either party unless of coarse, it gains an advantage, albeit a useless one and for about.. 5 minutes would do it.
      The whole region is a blood soaked stain on the reasoning of mankind (along with others) and as I have often heard, extinction of both antagonist seems the road to peace for the rest of us. There are parties who don’t want it to end, those making a profit for one or it suits their ideologies, possibly Iran for the other. It will take a fundamental shift in these peoples thinking to end this conflict and there is fat chance of that for now.. someone has an election to win and revenge is certainly on the cards.

    3. By Foster Campbell on Jan 2, 2009 | Reply

      anti-semitism by any other name still stinks as bad…

    4. By Keith Cook on Jan 2, 2009 | Reply

      The whole issue of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a brick wall with a huge vacuum in between.
      With very good reason, no trust exists.
      No amount of signed documents mean anything to either party unless of course, it gains an advantage, albeit a useless one and for about.. 5 minutes would do it.
      The whole region is a blood soaked stain on the reasoning of mankind (along with others). There are parties who don’t want it to end, those making a profit for one or it suits their ideologies. It will take a fundamental shift in these peoples thinking to end this conflict and there is fat chance of that for now… someone has an election to win and revenge is certainly on the cards. The brick wall gets thicker.

    5. By Matthew Bartlett on Jan 2, 2009 | Reply

      Thanks GC, that’s some helpful context.

    6. By john on Jan 2, 2009 | Reply

      What a bizarre article – surely the easiest way to stop this current flare up is for the terrorists to cease using Gaza as a launching base for the attacks on Israel. Until they do Israel will continue to respond to attacks on their territory. I think Obama summed it up very nicely when he said………’If someone was sending rockets on my house where my daughters were sleeping at night, I would do everything to stop it, and I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.’

      You attempt to portray Hamas as moderates who have been somehow wronged is bordering on the absurd.

    7. By dave westcot on Jan 2, 2009 | Reply

      Right on ;a succint & telling indightment of NZ`s lame{US-lapdog style} foreign policy.

    8. By Rob on Jan 3, 2009 | Reply

      Gordon sorry dont agreee with how biased you are. If you sit and fire rockets at your neighbouring country for long enough sooner or later you will cop it.Hammas want this tide of public opinion against Israel Hammas has no interest in peace they want the destruction of Israel they have said it on countless occasions. The way to stop the war at the moment agree to stop firing rockets at Israel they wont do it wonder why. Because they dont really care about humanitarian vales they have a different values set from most of us and that is very dangerous. Hammas is a plague in the Middle East and need to be taken out.

    9. By Scott Ewing on Jan 3, 2009 | Reply

      Gaza Protest New Zealand

      Hi there,

      Please post or forward, if you feel it relevant



    10. By A.S. Danzeisen on Jan 4, 2009 | Reply

      Thank you for your commentary. It is objective and helpful to those who read it with an open mind. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not start in the last few years and there is much history to understand.

      Just because the problem is difficult and whether there is only one bully or two, should New Zealanders just sit on the sidelines and watch from afar in our cushy homes or should our government actually take affirmative action by stepping in and trying to resolve the issue in a peaceful manner. If nothing comes of it, we can at least say we tried….but if we do nothing, we are all complicit to the crimes committed whether by one side or both.

      It is time the New Zealand Government stand up and speak out!

    11. By John on Jan 4, 2009 | Reply

      While I agree with thrust of what your saying – that Israel’s response is disproportionate and has a terrible human cost, you are (deliberately?)not giving the background that explains why israel acts as it does. It is surrounded by an Arab world which denies its right to exist and members of which wish to ‘wipe it off the map’ as well as being constantly harrassed by a militant islamic organisation that wishes to not only wipe it out but establish an Islamic state – with all the great things they involve. Hamas DELIBERATELY base themselves amongst the residential population and in effect hide behind women and children – whose death turns the propaganda war in their favor. Israel should have more sense than to go for this bait.

    12. By John on Jan 4, 2009 | Reply

      As to the nuclear issue. Israelie possession of american supplied nuclear warheads is the one thing that keeps the israelie/arab conflict from becoming a full scale war.If you cant see the difference between Israel having them (democratic,motivated by self defence) and iran having them (theocratic, belligerent) then you are too far left (anti-american) to have a sensible opinion on the matter.

    13. By ricky boyd on Jan 4, 2009 | Reply

      rob your comments sound pretty angry.,”they need to be taken out”, and Hammas who are elected “are a plague”? dude, surely your heavily biased and therefore a hypocrite.

    14. By dj on Jan 4, 2009 | Reply

      Wow, only two posts before some muppet brings in the “criticizing Israel=antisemitism” meme.
      A point: I think you would be surprised how many kiwis are unaware that Israel possesses nukes. It’s just not really discussed in any mainstream media forum, or if it is, I have never come across it.

    15. By gareth on Jan 4, 2009 | Reply

      Surely the easiest way to stop this current flare up is for the terrorists to cease using Israel as a launching base for the attacks on Gaza. Until they do Gaza will continue to respond to attacks on their territory. I think Obama summed it up very nicely when he said………’If someone was dropping Bombs on my house where my daughters were sleeping at night, I would do everything to stop it, and I would expect the Palestinians to do the same thing.’ (ok he didn’t really say that)

      John your attempt to portray the Israels as moderates who have been somehow wronged is bordering on the absurd.

    16. By Jane on Jan 5, 2009 | Reply

      Gaza is a ghetto, something the Israelis know about.
      Foster Campbell, to call disagreement with Israel’s actions ant-semitism is a stale distraction from the truth. Israel can no longer hide its racist policies.
      The USA and Israel pretend to encourage democracy in the region,and yet when Palestinians elected a Hamas government they denounced them. Hypocrisy as usual.

    17. By stuart munro on Jan 6, 2009 | Reply

      I liked your article Gordon, but I don’t think most of the comments are going anywhere – much like Murray McCully’s comments – a call for a ceasefire really isn’t enough.
      But then he’s a New Zealand MP, establishing new world benchmarks in underacheivement.

    18. By Jane on Jan 6, 2009 | Reply

      John, how you can call Iran belligerent is beyond me. Israel and the USA are the most belligerent countries in recent history and both ignore the UN the Geneva Convention. Do you not recall Iraq’s imaginary “weapons of mass destruction”? Iran’s alleged nukes come from the same source: propaganda. By the way, Hitler’s Germany was a democracy. Your assertion that those who criticize Israel/USA’s foreign policy are anti-American is laughable.
      You need to take your head out of the the USA/AIPAC-controlled media.

    19. By John on Jan 7, 2009 | Reply

      Yeah the U.S.A controls the media, the C.I.A plant micro chips in your head etc etc. Jane, I dont just watch FOX news. Iran is belligerent because it aids terrorists in Iraq as well as having missles with ‘death to Israel’ painted on the side, and Mr ‘Im-in-a-dinnerjacket’ stating Israel should be ‘wiped off the map. Iraq’s W.M.Ds were not imaginary (he gassed the kurds!)just got rid of before the americans turned up (would they have been if they didn’t?).Hitler’s Germany was NOT a democracy – the Nazis were elected but quickly turned the country into a one party dictatorship, certainly by WW2. You need to put your head IN some history books…

    20. By Paxman on Jan 9, 2009 | Reply

      John .. the falsified farrago that you have presented above gives the game away you fool.

      You will be severely thrashed on the buttocks with a wilted carrot when you return to the Kibbutz.

    21. By Peter on Jan 17, 2009 | Reply

      Not much more we have to say:

    22. By John on Jan 18, 2009 | Reply

      The Hamas Charter, which may be read here:
      contains ideals such as:
      “The Islamic Resistance Movement is one of the links in the chain of the struggle against the Zionist invaders. It goes back to 1939, to the emergence of the martyr Izz al-Din al Kissam and his brethren the fighters, members of Moslem Brotherhood. It goes on to reach out and become one with another chain that includes the struggle of the Palestinians and Moslem Brotherhood in the 1948 war and the Jihad operations of the Moslem Brotherhood in 1968 and after.

      Moreover, if the links have been distant from each other and if obstacles, placed by those who are the lackeys of Zionism in the way of the fighters obstructed the continuation of the struggle, the Islamic Resistance Movement aspires to the realisation of Allah’s promise, no matter how long that should take. The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said:

      “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him. Only the Gharkad tree, (evidently a certain kind of tree) would not do that because it is one of the trees of the Jews.” (related by al-Bukhari and Moslem).”

      “The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgement Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered: it, or any part of it, should not be given up. Neither a single Arab country nor all Arab countries, neither any king or president, nor all the kings and presidents, neither any organization nor all of them, be they Palestinian or Arab, possess the right to do that. Palestine is an Islamic Waqf land consecrated for Moslem generations until Judgement Day. This being so, who could claim to have the right to represent Moslem generations till Judgement Day?

      This is the law governing the land of Palestine in the Islamic Sharia (law) and the same goes for any land the Moslems have conquered by force, because during the times of (Islamic) conquests, the Moslems consecrated these lands to Moslem generations till the Day of Judgement.”

      There will be no giving up on the part of Hamas (and the Moslem Brotherhood to which they are related) so I suggest that Israel has no choice strategically.

      Hamas are a nihilistic movement bound by their religion.

    23. By Edinburgh Lass on Jan 29, 2009 | Reply

      John…you left out the bit about how Israel supported HAMAS as a counter-measure against Arafats PLO (back in the day).

      Kinda reminds me of CIA trained operative called Osama Bin Laden.

      I always wonder how we can know for sure these people are not still Mossad or CIA operatives. I mean, everything they do is still beneficial to the big boss i.e. Hamas ‘activities’ continues to provide justification for Israeli aims and actions. Simialrly, Bin Laden has been the no1 excuse for U.S. action and world policies. Without these convenient ‘excuses’, how would Israel and US be able to pursue their agendas?

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