Israel Escalates Collective Punishment of Gazan Civilians

In reaction to exactly one rocket supposedly launched by Hamas on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rushed home from Paris to preside over a massive and violent military response. The Israeli military carried out a series of airstrikes at targets in Gaza, mobilized troops and called up reserves.

The Guardian claims that Hamas’s rocket attack on Israel was motivated by Hamas’s desire to prevail in the upcoming election on April 9 — a show of strength against Israel might divert attention from Gaza’s miserable living conditions. Netanyahu is clearly attempting to benefit from the situation himself in the upcoming elections, exploiting this opportunity in the worst way possible in hopes of solidifying support for the extreme right-wing racist position he has charted out, partnering with the Otzma Yehudi (Jewish Strength) party.

His actions are making an intolerable and inhumane situation even worse.

Many consider the exchange of rockets between Hamas and Israel to be a sign of an upcoming and bloody assault by Israel on Gaza’s captive population.

Between Israel’s illegal embargo of Gaza, its arbitrary and irregular shutdowns of water and electricity, and its destruction of Palestinian schools and hospitals, day-to-day existence is increasingly precarious in Gaza. In September 2018, the UN Conference on Trade and Development issued a statement asserting that “the productive capacity of Gaza has been eviscerated by three major military operations” as well as a devastating “air, sea and land blockade.”

International law prohibits collective punishment, yet Israel is collectively punishing Gaza. Crucially, those who bear the brunt of this violence are the youngest. Statistics gathered in 2018 found that 44.78 percent of the population in Gaza is between ages 0-14. Another 21.25 percent are between the ages of 15 and 24. These youth face serious mental health issues as a result of the violence as well as the perpetual state of siege under which they live: A study conducted by the Norwegian Refugee Council found that 68 percent of schoolchildren in areas close to the Israeli perimeter fence have clear indications of psychosocial distress.

Israel’s military actions against Gazans often do not distinguish between armed combatants and civilians. Between July 8 and August 26, 2014, 1,462 Palestinian civilians were killed, including 551 children and 299 women. “Sixty-six Israeli soldiers and five civilians, including one child, were also killed,” according to the UN Relief and Works Agency.

The fact that, each time a “conflict” erupts, many more Palestinians are killed and injured than Israelis is mostly ignored in western media. What seems more important for the media to note is that supposedly Hamas fired first. Yet to thereby excuse Israel’s behavior is to make two serious mistakes. First, this excusal erases the fact that any illegally imprisoned population, denied its human rights to dignity and even bare existence, is likely to respond to its subjugation with force. Second, and just as important, is the fact that under international law, sovereign states are responsible for the protection of all those under their authority. This is enshrined in the principle of the “Responsibility to Protect.” But Israel is doing exactly the opposite.

Well-documented evidence confirms what many witnesses had attested to — Israel engaged in serious and systematic human rights violations in Gaza during the Great March of Return protests that began a year ago on March 30. The Guardian reported:

The independent Commission of Inquiry, set up last year by the UN’s human rights council, said Israeli forces killed 189 people and shot more than 6,100 others with live ammunition near the fence that divides the two territories.

The panel said in a statement that it had found “reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli snipers shot at journalists, health workers, children and persons with disabilities, knowing they were clearly recognisable as such”.

Thirty-five of those killed were children, three were clearly identifiable paramedics and two were clearly marked journalists, the report said.

Israel dismissed the report as “hostile, mendacious and slanted”.

Palestinian human rights activist and attorney Noura Erakat notes, “the responsibility to protect is premised on the idea that sovereignty exists in duality with a responsibility to protect the state’s inhabitants.” If a state fails to protect those within its boundaries, it puts into danger its normal right as a sovereign state to govern without outside interference. Theoretically, Israel’s failure to protect Palestinians either in the Occupied Palestinian Territories or in Israel itself could result in other states intervening to take up the responsibility to protect. However, it is clear that no state is willing to do so, despite the fact that the International Red Cross has plainly stated: “As the Occupying Power in the West Bank, Israel is bound by the International Humanitarian Law. It has a duty to ensure the protection, security, and welfare of the people living under occupation and to guarantee that they can live as normal a life as possible, in accordance with their own laws, culture, and traditions.” To say that Israel has been negligent of this responsibility is beyond understatement, and to say that the international community has failed the Palestinians is equally indisputable. The lack of a forthright and unambiguous constrain on Zionist extremism, and the unlimited and vociferous support Netanyahu has received from Donald Trump, make the situation all the more perilous and volatile. By moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Trump effectively put the nail in the coffin of any notion of “two states,” and gave his seal of approval to Netanyahu’s ethno-nationalism.

Benjamin Netanyahu recently declared that Israel is “the national state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people.” One critical effect of this declaration is to set the Palestinians apart so emphatically as to negate Israel’s responsibility to protect them, and at the same time legitimate Israel’s persistent denial of human rights to the Palestinians. Israel’s actions both show the extent of its brutalization of a besieged population, and disclose as well the bankruptcy of the “Responsibility to Protect” and the weakness of international law in the face of an international lack of political will.

The weakness of international law in this situation makes the role of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement all the more crucial. BDS is an international call for solidarity that emanated from over 170 Palestinian civil organizations. Aimed toward restoring the human rights of Palestinians in exile, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and in Israel, it asks the international community to withdraw from any normal interactions with the State of Israel until it complies with human rights doctrine. It draws on the same principles as the South African anti-apartheid movement, calling on the international community to act in solidarity.

On the March 30 anniversary of the Great March of Return, it is crucial to note that the carnage enacted against men, women, and children, international journalists and medics, was called for by Israel because people threatened to breach the boundary fence. What is little reported is that the fence is an illegal barrier that separates a people from their rightful homes and violates the Right to Return, enshrined in UN Resolution 194 (1948).

Israel’s attacks on Gazans are also a form of collective punishment, which is also illegal according to the Fourth Geneva Convention.

These laws and resolutions have utterly failed to protect Palestinians or grant them rights; Israel is acting as an assailant, not a guardian. While nation-states are unable and unwilling to protect those being killed by the state responsible for their protection, the international community has the moral imperative to act.