Global Trends by Martin Khor

Tuesday 4 March 2008

Gaza, under attack again, a stain on world’s conscience

The Israeli attacks on Gaza brings the suffering of the Palestinians to new levels, causing a new explosive situation in the region.  Meanwhile a new UN report shows how the Israeli actions are violating international law and destroying the people’s lives.


The merciless Israeli air and ground assault on Gaza over the last few days has re-focused world attention on the massive suffering of the Palestinian people, particularly in Gaza.

On Saturday alone, at least 52 Palestinians died in the Israeli helicopter and tank attacks in Northern Gaza.  An even bigger ground assault is expected this week.

The Deputy Defence Minister of Israel Matan Vilnai last Friday threatened that the Palestinians “will pay for it, I’m sorry for their population” and said the Palestinians are facing a “shoah”, the Hebrew word for a big disaster as well as for the Nazi holocaust.

The Israeli justification for this latest round of assaults is that the Hamas-led resistance in Gaza are firing rockets into Israel.  Last Wednesday one Israeli was killed, and the next day the Israeli attacks on Gaza intensified.  More than 80 Palestinians have bee killed since then.

This latest Israeli military assault on Gaza comes on top of months of intensifying economic and social strangling of the occupied Palestinian territories, especially Gaza, where electricity was switched off, and supplies of essential goods are blocked.

The breaking of many international laws by Israel and the pitiable situation of the Palestinians are highlighted in a new report by John Dugard, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian occupied territories.

The report reads like a horror story of how the Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem have been subjected to the most inhuman treatment by the Israeli occupation forces.

It says that judged by international law, Israel is in serious violation of its legal obligations. The collective punishment of Gaza by Israel is expressly prohibited by international humanitarian law and has resulted in a serious humanitarian crisis.

The report adds that the human rights situation in the West Bank has worsened. Settlements expand, the construction of the wall continues, and checkpoints increase in number.

On the issue of terrorism, the Special Rapporteur distinguishes between “mindless terror” and acts committed in the course of a war of national liberation against colonialism, apartheid or

military occupation.

History is replete with examples of military occupation that have been resisted by violence, for example the resistance in European countries to the German occupation in the Second World War, and how SWAPO resisted South Africa.

Acts of terror against military occupation must be seen in historical context. This is why every effort should be made to bring the occupation to a speedy end. Until this is done peace cannot be expected.

The report says that Israel exploits the present international fear of terrorism to the full. But this will not solve the Palestinian problem. Israel must address the occupation and the violation of human rights and international humanitarian law it engenders, and not invoke the justification of terrorism as a distraction, as a pretext for failure to confront the root cause of Palestinian violence -- the occupation.

On Gaza, the Special Rapporteur said in the past two years 668 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces in Gaza.  During the same period, 4 Israeli civilians were killed by rockets fired by Palestinians and 4 Israeli soldiers were killed by attacks from Gaza.

The report details the difficulties faced by the Palestinians living in Gaza:

  • Israel has closed most crossings from Gaza to Egypt and elsewhere. Trucks bringing goods into Gaza has dropped alarmingly - from 253 a day in April 2007 to 74 a day in November.

  • Since September, Israel reduced the supply of fuel and electricity to Gaza.

  • The only two Israeli commercial banks dealing with financial institutions in Gaza, announced that they would cut ties with Gaza.

  • Over 80% of people in Gaza are dependent on international food aid. Fruit and vegetables are no longer available to supplement the food aid.  Few can afford meat, and fish is virtually unobtainable.

  • The closure of crossings prevents Gaza from exporting its goods, while also preventing materials from entering Gaza, resulting in the end of most construction works and the closure of factories.

  • Farmers are without income and some 65,000 factory employees are unemployed. as 95 per cent of Gaza’s industrial operations have been suspended as a result of restrictions. Fishermen are likewise unemployed as a result of the Israeli ban on fishing along the Gaza coast.

  • The UN announced that it had halted all its building projects in Gaza because it had run out of building materials.  This affected 121,000 jobs.

  • Those working in the public sector remain unpaid. Municipal employees in Gaza City have not been paid since March 2007. .

  • Over 80 per cent of the population live below the official poverty line.

  • Health-care clinics are in short supply of paediatric antibiotics, and 91 key drugs are no longer available.

  • There are frequent power outages as a result of Israel’s destruction of the main Gaza power plant in 2006.  The supply of water is also affected, and 210,000 people are able to access drinking water supplies for only 1-2 hours a day.  At present there is a real danger that sewage plants could overflow.

  • Cutting off fuel and electricity will endanger the functioning of hospitals, water services and sewage, as well as depriving residents of electricity for refrigerators and household appliances. A humanitarian catastrophe is contemplated if Israel continues to reduce fuel and carries out its threat to reduce electricity supplies.

Israel has largely justified its attacks and incursions as defensive operations aimed at

preventing the launching of Qassam rockets into Israel. But serious questions arise over the proportionality of Israel’s military response and its failure to distinguish between military and civilian targets.

It is highly arguable that Israel has violated the most fundamental rules of international humanitarian law, which constitute war crimes, said the Rappporteur.

These crimes include direct attacks against civilians and civilian objects, and attacks which fail to distinguish between military targets and civilians and civilian objects, the excessive use of force arising from disproportionate attacks on civilians and civilian objects and the spreading of terror among the civilian population.

The Special Rapporteur has done a great service not only to the Palestinians but also to everyone else, for providing such graphic and up-to-date information.  In other parts of his report he also argues why it is the responsibility of the UN Secretary general as well as all states to act to end the Israelis’ violations of international law.

But the Rapporteur’s call will not lead to Security Council action, due to the power of the US.  This will again open the UN to criticism that it practices double standards, in that the countries the US dislikes are punished while its allies are protected from actions.