Israel should not be accused of war crimes in the Gaza Strip during the recent war. In contrast, Hamas can indeed be accused of crimes–terrorist crimes, if not war crimes, since it is not a sovereign state–not only during the war but before it and since it ended. But this too must be stated: it’s time that Israel and virtually the entire international community be held to account for the humanitarian ramifications of the past 20 months’ economic warfare against the population of Gaza.
Israel should not be accused of war crimes because it took more than reasonable precautions to prevent them, while fighting in a war zone characterized by guerilla and terrorist exploitation of Gazan civilians and their dwellings and institutions as tools of war. Yes, there were excesses on the part of the IDF, but they were proportional and they constituted the exception. Israel also took unusually thorough measures during the war to alleviate humanitarian suffering on the part of the Palestinian population, although as always there were inevitable lacunae here, too.
In view of recent international experience with urban warfare against terrorist enemies, the war crimes accusations against Israel can only be seen as a kind of selective witch hunt waged by religious and ideological extremists, political opportunists and Israel-bashers in certain Middle East countries and among western Islamist and leftist circles. Israel is Jewish, small and diplomatically isolated, hence vulnerable. Attacks on its human rights record sell well in the Muslim world and among anti-Semites.
Compare Israel in Gaza to NATO in Afghanistan and the United States in Iraq. Civilian deaths in Afghanistan rose 40 percent in 2008; many of these casualties were inflicted in the process of attacks against the Taliban by the US and other NATO forces. When was NATO dragged before the court of world opinion and accused of war crimes?
Similarly, when US armed forces conquered Fallujah in Iraq for the third and last time, in a battle waged between Nov. 7 and Dec. 24, 2004, a force about the size of the Israeli force that invaded Gaza faced an estimated 3,000 Islamists (Israel confronted around 20,000 in Gaza). Six thousand civilians were killed and most of the city’s dwellings were either destroyed or damaged, along with 65 mosques and 60 schools that were used to hide weapons. Nearly 80 US soldiers were killed.
All this happened 7,000 miles away from the US. Needless to say, no rockets were fired from Fallujah at American civilians for the previous eight years and no one in Fallujah disputes America’s right to exist. Fallujah was quickly rebuilt and became a model for successful counter-terrorism operations in Iraq. You don’t have to support the US occupation of Iraq to appreciate the challenges involved in Gaza and the relatively successful way the IDF dealt with them there.
Then there is the total disregard for international legal norms displayed by Hamas itself. It deliberately attacks Israeli civilians as a matter of policy. It holds an Israeli prisoner who is denied the most minimal Red Cross demands regarding access and communication with his family. It calls for a neighboring country, Israel, to disappear. It makes common cause with other sponsors of terrorism in Iran and Hizballah.
Accordingly, if the International Criminal Court in The Hague should decide, against virtually all expectations and by bending its own procedures, to hear Palestinian accusations about Israeli war crimes, Israel’s army lawyers should show up at the court not only to disprove the accusations but to turn the tables and submit accusations against Hamas and the government it has formed in Gaza.
Yet there is one aspect of the conflict with Hamas where not only Israel but virtually the entire relevant international community, including the Quartet (US, UN, EU and Russia), Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, share blame for an apparent gross violation of international law: the economic blockade of the Gaza Strip since the Hamas takeover of June 2007. This appears to be a clear case of collective punishment of 1.5 million Gazans for the undoubted sins of Hamas.
Moreover, it never worked. Restricting supplies allowed into Gaza to a bare minimum of food and medicines was supposed to provoke the Gazan population into dumping Hamas, or at least prevailing upon it to behave responsibly. Instead, it has pushed Gazans into ever greater support for Hamas, while impoverishing the moderate traditional middle class that used to engage in trade with and via Israel and enriching Hamas-linked tunnel diggers. So not only is this a violation of international law–it has proven counterproductive. Had Israel and its international and regional supporters recognized this fact and opened the crossings months ago, the recent war might have been avoided.
Looking for something particularly ludicrous? The same Palestinian Authority that, through its minister of justice, wants to prosecute Israel at the International Court of Justice, has also connived in the Gaza economic blockade.
Making war on urban terrorists is not criminal, but it is clearly an ugly business. Certainly, we should explore the alternatives and abandon failed and painful non-combat strategies before invoking military warfare. In the case of Gaza, we did not do this. We are still not doing this.