With the death toll of Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip continuing to rise, President Barack Obama is voicing the United States’ unconditional support for the bombing, raising questions of legality in relation to U.S. backing of potential Israeli war crimes.
In the latest news, three Palestinians were killed in two separate strikes in Gaza on Tuesday morning. The latest deaths pushed the Palestinian death toll to 112, with the number of injuries over 920, and came after a night of relative calm – the first to see no fatalities since the Israeli air campaign began nearly a week ago.
As the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights reported yesterday,
The number of Palestinians killed by Israeli Occupation Forces in the course of the offensive on the Gaza Strip, that is ongoing for the sixth consecutive day, has increased to 87, including 58 civilians. The civilian deaths include 18 children and 12 women. Over the past 24 hours, many civilian casualties, mostly women and children, have been reported, as Israeli forces have bombarded populated houses, in the vast majority of cases without any prior warning. A number of houses have been destroyed over their residents, causing several civilian casualties. Additionally, Israeli forces have attacked civilian and governmental facilities located in densely-populated areas, and a number of civilian vehicles.
In a grave incident on Sunday afternoon, 18 November 2012, Israeli forces killed 8 members of the al-Dalu family in Gaza City. Another 2 members of the family are still missing, since Israeli warplanes bombarded the family home. 2 neighbours, including 1 elderly woman, were also killed, while 9 civilians, including 2 children and 3 women, were wounded.
As the killing intensified, President Obama weighed in to fully backed Israel’s “right to defend itself” and placed the blame for the conflict squarely at the feet of Hamas. “There is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders,” he said, referring to the homemade rockets fired by Hamas, not the high-tech weaponry used by Israel against the people of Gaza.
Despite the high civilian casualties inflicted by Israel compared to the relatively low death toll on Israel’s side (only three Israelis have been reported killed in the fighting so far) Obama reiterated the U.S.’s unwavering support for Israel. “We are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on people’s homes and workplaces and potentially killing civilians,” he said. “And we will continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself.”
While not surprising considering the fact that Israel has long been the world’s number one recipient of U.S. military aid, the president’s unequivocal backing for potential Israeli war crimes could place the United States in violation of international law, and possibly domestic law.
According to the International Law Commission (ILC), the official UN body that codifies customary international law,
A State which aids or assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act by the latter is internationally responsible for doing so if: (a) that State does so with knowledge of the circumstances of the internationally wrongful act; and (b) the act would be internationally wrongful if committed by that State” (Article 16 of the International Law Commission, “Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts,” (2001) which were commended by the General Assembly, A/RES/56/83).
Further, the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act stipulates that “no security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” and the Arms Export Control Act authorizes the supply of U.S. military equipment and training only for lawful purposes of internal security, “legitimate self-defense,” or participation in UN peacekeeping operations or other operations consistent with the UN Charter.
As the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation points out,
Because Israel misuses U.S. weapons to commit human rights abuses of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, including, but not limited to: the injuring and killing of civilians, the destruction of Palestinian civilian infrastructure, the severe restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement, and the expropriation of Palestinian land and resources for Israeli settlements, it is pertinent to investigate whether Israel is violating U.S. laws aimed at ensuring that U.S. military aid and weapons are appropriately and legally used.
Given that U.S. military aid to Israel “directly contributes to Israel’s systematic human rights violations against Palestinians,” both Congress and the President “must utilize the investigative and reporting mechanisms found in these laws and hold Israel accountable for any and all violations of these laws as required,” concludes the U.S. Campaign.
While supporters of Israel and most American media outlets claim that Israel is simply retaliating against provocations from Hamas — choosing to begin the story of the latest round of violence in Gaza on November 10 when four Israeli soldiers were wounded by Palestinian fire — in fact, just two days before this incident, a 13 year old Palestinian boy was killed in an Israeli military incursion into Gaza.
Further, as respected scholar Phillis Bennis notes, the Israeli attacks did not begin as a response to rockets fired from Gaza, but rather with Israel’s assassination of Hamas military commander Ahmed al-Jabari on November 14. “History is determined by when you start the clock,” Bennis points out.
Political dissident Noam Chomsky argues that there is no such thing as the concept of self-defense in the context of military occupation. “You can’t defend yourself when you are militarily occupying someone else’s land,” he says. “Call it what you like, it is not self-defense.”
When it comes to the legal issues of Israeli war crimes and U.S. complicity, as a backdrop to the current fighting, the 2009 UN Goldstone Report provides a stark reminder that Israel is responsible at least for “internationally wrongful acts,” if not wanton crimes against humanity.
The United Nations fact-finding mission on the 2008-2009 Gaza conflict (dubbed Operation Cast Lead by the Israeli military) found clear evidence that Israeli forces committed serious war crimes and breaches of humanitarian law, which in some cases may have amounted to crimes against humanity.
“We came to the conclusion, on the basis of the facts we found, that there was strong evidence to establish that numerous serious violations of international law, both humanitarian law and human rights law, were committed by Israel during the military operations in Gaza,” the head of the mission, Justice Richard Goldstone, said in September 2009.
Non-governmental organizations placed the overall number of persons killed by Israel between 1,387 and 1,417 during the operation.
The 575-page report found, inter alia, “that the conduct of the Israeli armed forces constitute grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention in respect of wilful killings and wilfully causing great suffering to protected persons and as such give rise to individual criminal responsibility.”
It went on to criticize the “deliberate and systematic policy on the part of the Israeli armed forces to target industrial sites and water installations,” as well as the use of white phosphorus weapons:
Based on its investigation of incidents involving the use of certain weapons such as white phosphorous and flechette missiles, the Mission, while accepting that white phosphorous is not at this stage proscribed under international law, finds that the Israeli armed forces were systematically reckless in determining its use in built-up areas. Moreover, doctors who treated patients with white phosphorous wounds spoke about the severity and sometimes untreatable nature of the burns caused by the substance. The Mission believes that serious consideration should be given to banning the use of white phosphorous in built-up areas. As to flechettes, the Mission notes that they are an area weapon incapable of discriminating between objectives after detonation. They are; therefore, particularly unsuitable for use in urban settings where there is reason to believe civilians may be present.
Under intense pressure from Israel and the Jewish Lobby in the United States, Richard Goldstone issued a partial retraction and clarification of his report’s most controversial findings in April 2011. While his public disavowal of portions of the report received much fanfare from the Israel Lobby which hailed it as a total vindication of Israel’s actions in Operation Cast Lead, in fact it was a fairly limited retraction that also reaffirmed some of the original report’s important findings.
“The allegations of intentionality by Israel were based on the deaths of and injuries to civilians in situations where our fact-finding mission had no evidence on which to draw any other reasonable conclusion,” Goldstone wrote in the Washington Post. “While the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognized in the U.N. committee’s report have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.”
Goldstone laid some of the blame for the report’s shortcomings on the fact that Israel refused to cooperate with his investigation: “Israel’s lack of cooperation with our investigation meant that we were not able to corroborate how many Gazans killed were civilians and how many were combatants.”
Nevertheless, Palestinian deaths over the past ten years are estimated in the thousands. According to the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which documents precisely which U.S.-supplied weapons are responsible for how many deaths, Israel killed at least 2,969 Palestinians from September 29, 2000 to December 31, 2009 – Palestinians who took no part in hostilities.
It is now clear that history is to some degree repeating itself in Israel’s current actions in the Gaza Strip (codenamed Operation Pillar of Defense). If anything, it could be said that the indications of intentional targeting of civilians are even stronger this time around than they were four years ago, with prominent Israeli leaders openly calling for war crimes and collective punishment to be inflicted on the people of Gaza.
Israeli Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, for example, was quoted by Haaretz as saying, “The goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages. Only then will Israel be calm for 40 years.”
Not to be outdone, Gilad Sharon, son of former Israeli leader Ariel Sharon wrote in an op-ed on Sunday that, “We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza…. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too…. This needs to end quickly – with a bang, not a whimper.”
For what it’s worth, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called today for an immediate ceasefire and said an Israeli ground operation in Gaza would be a “dangerous escalation” that must be avoided.
Unfortunately however, as we have seen in the past, the only real way to rein in Israel would be diplomatic pressure from its principle sponsor the United States – and with public pronouncements from the president granting Israel carte blanche to “defend itself,” this doesn’t look likely.
This is especially the case since Obama has steadily increased the amount of aid given to Israel during his presidency. In each of his budget requests to Congress between 2009 and 2012, Obama has asked for increases in U.S. military aid to Israel, with Congress obliging each year. President Obama’s FY2013 budget request includes a record $3.1 billion in military aid to Israel.
Nevertheless, public pressure is mounting to force the United States and Israel to de-escalate the conflict, with demonstrations taking place throughout the world against Israel’s aggression.
“All U.S. aid to Israel should be ended once and for all,” said the ANSWER Coalition in a statement.
The people of the United States stand against the government that speaks in our name and sends $3 billion of our tax dollars every year so that Israel can kill and colonize the people of Palestine. The fact that the Obama administration was briefed on Monday prior to the attack shows that these latest crimes are a joint U.S.-Israeli operation. The Pentagon immediately announced after the first wave of murderous assaults today that Israel was its ‘partner.’ Israel may be a partner of U.S. imperialism as it acts as an extension of Pentagon and CIA power in the Middle East. But it is absolutely not the partner of the people of this country who are horrified by its policy of endless war against the Palestinian people and all the peoples of the region.