Monday, January 12, 2009


You may think my posts on Gaza have been somewhat biased. I think you're probably right, so here, to provide some actual balance, is the "STATEMENT OF SPECIAL RAPORTEUR FOR THE PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES" published by the UNHCR this weekend. Now, I hope we can agree that while various media outlets might have their own axes to grind (in whatever direction), the UNHCR is pretty much as neutral as it gets (Though I'm under no illusions that there won't be lots of the extremist wing of the pro-occupation faction who will say that obviously everything the UN is involved with is biased).

Anyway, the full text is here, but here are some excerpts for you if you don't have the time to read the whole.
This concern about exclusion has been compounded during the period preceding the Israeli attack upon Gaza, as well during the military operations, by denying access to foreign journalists, a policy that has been successfully challenged in Israeli courts, but as yet with no tangible results. As noted in the New York Times, Israel denies media representatives access to the humanitarian impacts of its military operations in Gaza while encouraging journalists to view any harmful effects of the rocket attacks on civilians in Israel. Even requests by the International Committee of the Red Cross to investigate scenes of supposed humanitarian abuse have so far been refused, e.g. to visit the site of military action in the Gazan town of Zeitan that reportedly killed by deliberate action 60 members of the Samouni family, including several children. This issue of access is crucial for the work of Special Rapporteurs and deserves the attention of the HRC, and of the United Nations generally.

The rationale for this Special Session is the existence of a humanitarian emergency in Gaza, a set of conditions that has been questioned in many public settings by the Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni. Ms. Livni contends there is no need for a 'humanitarian truce' because there is no humanitarian crisis. She asserts that Israel has allowed shipments of food and medicine to cross the border, but as UNRWA and other UN officials have observed, these shipments will not alleviate hunger and nutritional difficulties unless distribution becomes possible, which is not the case given the war conditions prevailing in most of the Gaza Strip. To what slight extent this dire circumstance can be addressed by the three hour pause in combat operations announced by Israel on 7 January remains to be seen. Beyond the immediate crisis some underlying features should be noted: about 75% of the population lacks access to sanitary water and has no electric power. Such conditions are superimposed on the circumstances of Gazans resulting from the prolonged blockade that had deteriorated the physical and mental health, and the nutritional status, of the population of Gaza as a whole, leaving some 45% of children suffering from acute anemia. Interference in the supply of medicines and health equipment, and border closures, had made it impossible for many Gazans to receive or continue treatment for life-threatening conditions. It was also reliably concluded that up to 80% of Gaza was living under the poverty line, that unemployment totals approached 75%, and that the health system was near collapse from the effects of the blockade. This set of conditions certainly led impartial international observers and civil servants to an uncontested conclusion that the population of Gaza was already experiencing a humanitarian crisis of grave magnitude prior to 27 December.

It should be pointed out unambiguously that there is no legal (or moral) justification for firing rockets at civilian targets, and that such behavior is a violation of IHR, associated with the right to life, as well as constitutes a war crime. At the same time, the nature of the offense must be evaluated with the context of its occurrence, including the relevance of the temporary ceasefire that had held since June 2008 until seriously disrupted by a lethal Israeli attack on Palestinian militants in Gaza on 4 November 2008. For the year prior to 27 December, not a single Israeli death resulted from rockets fired from Gaza. Further, since June of 2008 a ceasefire had been observed by both sides, with some infractions taking place, but without altering the willingness of both sides to uphold the ceasefire. During this period Israel had been expected to lift, or at least ease the blockade that had imposed severe hardships on the entire population of Gaza, especially through restraints on the supply of food, medicine and medical equipment, and fuel, but failed to do so. The acute harm done to civilian Gaza has been repeatedly pointed out by leading UN officials on the ground, including the commissioner-general of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that is most directly engaged with the daunting task of meeting the humanitarian needs of Gazans.

This blockade in effect for a period of 18 months was unlawful, a massive form of collective punishment, and as such in violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and also a violation of Article 55, which requires that the occupying power ensure that the civilian population has sufficient food and that its health needs are addressed.

The Israeli military campaign was also justified by Israeli leaders as an 'inevitable' and 'unavoidable' response to the persistence of the rocket attacks. Here again it is important to examine the factual setting of Israel's justifications, which go to the reasonableness of such action and its defensive character. Most accounts of the temporary ceasefire indicate that it was a major Israeli use of lethal force on November 4, 2008 that brought the ceasefire to a de facto end, leading directly to increased frequency of rocket fire from Gaza. It is also relevant that Hamas repeatedly offered to extend the ceasefire, even up to ten years, provided that Israel would lift the blockade. These diplomatic possibilities were, as far as can be assessed, not explored by Israel, although admittedly complicated by the contested legal status of Hamas as the de facto representative of the Gazan population.

To mount a major military campaign against an essentially defenseless society already gravely weakened by the blockade accentuates the disproportion of reliance on modern weaponry in combat situations where military dominance was largely uncontested.
It seems significant that Palestinian casualty totals at this time are estimated to be 640 killed, some 2800 wounded, included many critically, with civilian victims set at about 25% by qualified observers. In contrast, according to the latest reports, four Israeli soldiers have died, apparently all as a result of 'friendly fire,' that is by Israeli firepower wrongly directed. The one-sidedness of casualty figures is one measure of disproportion. Another is the scale of devastation and the magnitude of the attacks. It is obvious that the destruction of police facilities, as well as many public buildings, in crowded urban settings represents an excessive use of force even if Israeli allegations are accepted at face value

There have also been a variety of allegations made by qualified observers of Israeli reliance on legally unacceptable targets and on legally dubious weaponry that violate the customary international law prohibition on weapons and tactics that are 'cruel' or cause 'unnecessary suffering.'

That was more excerpting than I was actually planning to do, but it was all so damning that I couldn't reasonably snip it. And remember this is a neutral source.


Sato said...

The UN in Gaza may not be biased, but I guess you'll agree that any bureaucracy has a vested interest in its own survival, so is sometimes prone to exaggeration. We should also steer clear of unconfirmed reports in general -- remember when the Securitate "killed 40,000 people" in Timisoara in Dec. 1989, splitting open the bellies of pregnant mothers, etc?

Re: the "already dire" economic situation in Gaza, etc. How does the UN explain that the infant mortality rate in Gaza is a whole third less than that of relatively prosperous Turkey (less than half the world average, in fact), while average life expectancy is 72 years, on a par with EU members Romania and Bulgaria?

I guess the UN also won't comment on the pictures of booby-trapped Gazan schools shown on Israeli TV, nor on reports of Hamas stocking arms under a hospital in Gaza that was refurbished and expanded at great expense by Israel during the occupation. (Which occupation, by the way, no longer exists: Israel has evacuated Gaza. Yes, it controls its airspace and customs, but so does France for Monaco, Italy for the Vatican or San Marino, etc -- this does not equal occupation. And these places aren't ruled by fanatics bent on destroying the larger entity.)

Re: the (fairly selective) Israeli blockade, perhaps Egypt should be asked why it keeps its own border with Gaza shut. Or perhaps the question should be raised of why Hamas's tunnels are not used for civilian supplies, instead of Iranian arms (as well all sorts of high-value contraband, such as cigarettes, etc).

In terms of access to electricity, perhaps it should be pointed out that much of the world, including some of Africa's emerging economies such as Uganda, live with less electricity than that. In fact, even in the Balkans, Albania often only gets a few hours a day, despite being at peace. Gaza is in the developing world, not in Scandinavia. The fact that Hamas rockets Ashkelon, the city which supplies electricity to Gaza, only adds piquancy to the story.

I'm also fascinated by the notion that Israel's riposte should be proportional. Should it refuse to use its military advantage when it's attacked? Should it reply in kind, by chucking rockets across the border indiscriminately, day in, day out for years? Put its 6-year-olds in military fatigues and teach them to hate? Train teenagers to blow themselves up in Gaza, for there is no greater glory than to die while taking out as many Arabs as possible? Should it execute one Palestinian for every Israeli that gets killed by a Hamas rocket? Certainly, that would cause far fewer deaths on the Palestinian side -- but would that be more acceptable? I think not.

I'm neither Jewish, not Israeli, nor Muslim, nor Arab, but I'm genuinely curious: what does proportionality mean, in this context? How exactly could Israel act "proportionately?" Salaam.

Andy H said...

Hi Sato.

I am pretty sure that the UN report does indeed steer clear of unconfirmed reports - it doesn't talk about casualty figures etc.

Do you have up to date stats on infant mortality and life expectancy in Gaza. I've found a large number of conflicting ones - the CIA factbook backs you up, but all its figures are "est", while the World Bank suggests that the CIA are some way off. Also, most figures are based on the decline in infant mortality up to the Hamas takeover and subsequent siege. (Maternal mortality was, by the way, at the same time going up year on year)

To start with you ask that we steer clear of unconfirmed reports and then go on to treat as gospel the stories of the booby-trapped schools and weapons in the hospital. You can't have it both ways. I have every confidence that if these reports prove to be true that they will be reported by the UN and others.

Gaza is still occupied, whether or not the troops were actually stationed in it - come on! If a hostile entity is controlling all access to and from your territory you are occupied (as the UN report makes clear). Italy is not hostile to the Vatican or San Marino.

I'd like to know why Egpyt keeps that border closed too - my guess is that it is closed at the "request" of the US and Israel 9and after israel Egypt is the secind largest recipient of US aid, so they have a lot of say in government policy. But, that is just speculation I certainly don't think the Egyptian government is some kind of beacon of light! We can ask questions of Hamas all day. Nowehere have I (or the UN for that matter) condoned any of the actions of Hamas. They're quite obviously a murderous bunch of bastards who have no interest in peace. But then I feel that way about the Israeli govt too They have never shown any serious interest in making peace with the Palestinians (ie by ending the occupation)

As for proportionality, well I haven't (I don't think) mentioned it. But when it comes down to it, firing homemade rockets at towns 40kms away is largely a symbolic gesture designed to make people's lives miserable (and with no concern for any potential loss of life at the end). Laying siege to the most crowded place on the planet and subsequently bombing and invading it is guaranteed to cause many many many civilian deaths. Neither act is morally defensible, and I have never tried to do so. But I think we do, in general make a distinction between degrees of killing. All murder is wrong, mass murder is somehow more wrong. I think that's an interesting moral conundrum. is the killing of one innocent person (im)morally equivalent to the killing of 10 or 100? I don't have an answer.

I think all of this has to be out in the context of the occupation. As Amos Oz said (I'm paraphrsing because I can't remember the exact quote) "The first and worst crime is the occupation". Everything else stems from that. I would like to see Israelis and Palestinians both be able to have normal lives unafraid of bombs (either dropped or strapped to someone). The only way that this is going to happen is to end the occupation. I do genuinely see my position as pro-Israeli as much as pro-Palestinian because I see it as pro-human. But Israel is the only side that can act to end this (and I don't just mean the current massacre, I mean the 40+ years of constant suffering.)

Those who supprt the occupation will call this naive. But it's the only solution. I don't think it would end every attack at a stroke (that would be naive), but it would be the first and biggest and unavoidable step.

Anonymous said...

It is tragic what is happening now in Gaza.
In CNN, euronews, etc. you see only images from Israel, how could we make un "unbiased opinion"? Seeing just one side of a story is utterly unfair.
Too many dead people, children...are they Hamas terrorists too? Should the entire nation pay the price? Should they be all punished?
There are people who, from the comfort of their homes, pretend to be entitled in judging if others should be granted the right to live...they make me vomit! What if it was them, or their families in this situation, isn't God great we are not Palestinians these day?
Just a human being, a rare specimen today

Sato said...

Hi Andy.

The reason why I described the stories about hospital arms stocks and suchlike as "reports" is precisely because they're unconfirmed. But they should get at least as much of an airing in the West as the stories coming out of the Gazan end -- not least, because the Israeli media landscape in which they originate is a lively and pluralistic one.

I admit my question of why Egypt keeps the Gaza border sealed was slightly rhetorical. It is because it hates Hamas even more than Israel does. Opening the border would legitimise control of Gaza by Hamas, which is originally an offshoot of Egypt's own banned Muslim Brotherhood. (This is precisely why Hamas is so keen on open borders.) Egypt also fears that Israel will ultimately dump Gaza in its lap -- and if you think about it, there is no reason why Gaza should be Israel's business anymore than Egypt's.

On a wider point, facts, explanations, and justifications can fly back and forth on the Israel-Palestine question ad vitam aeternam without common ground ever being reached: it is ultimately a matter of emotional identification. I appreciate your general humanism, which I broadly share.

However, I think that drawing any sort of moral equivalency between Israel and Hamas is not a luxury I can afford. In Israel, as a liberal atheist homosexual, I could live with my partner, adopt his child, receive an army pension if he died, and generally have a stake and a voice in society. In Gaza, I would be blindfolded, paraded through the streets, and machine-gunned or strung from a lamp post.

So for all its flaws (and they are numerous), Israel is ME, while Hamas and the Caliphatic Islamists ranged behind it are out to destroy me and everything I represent. And when they're done with me and the likes of me, they'll move on to the rest of civilised humanity. So if I'm entirely honest, I have to say I want to see Hamas crushed by any means, because -- extrapolating somewhat -- there is no way Hamas and I can co-exist on this planet. Not long-term, in any case.


Andy H said...

Broadly I agree (on your last paragraph) though I strongly fear that this current war, far from crushing Hamas and those who support it will do nothing of the sort and only serve to strengthen them.