Unlike most Palestinians, I don’t believe that Israel attempts to kill a maximum number of Palestinian civilians, especially children. At the same time, I don’t accept the Israeli claims that Hamas militants use Palestinian civilians as human shields. Yet the statistics are undeniable. More than 1,300 Palestinian civilians have killed, and among them hundreds of children. What gives?
To decipher this apparent contradiction one needs to understand two things: the asymmetric nature of the conflict, and the failure to strictly apply international humanitarian law as the instrument to check military’s overreach.
In relation to Palestinians under their occupation, Israel is extremely powerful militarily, financially and politically. Israel controls all the significant factors in the conflict, which has led to an exaggerated approach to protecting its interests, and to maintain its positions at practically no costs to itself. The average income of an Israeli in 2012 stood at around $32,000 annually, while a Palestinian’s yearly income doesn’t pass $2,900. Its preponderant advantage in all aspects of the military power is phenomenal. It controls the battlefield, the airspace, and all entry and exit borders. Because of this imbalance Israelis exaggerate in defense of their people while being generally insensitive to the suffering of the other side.
The result is an extremely low tolerance of anything that scratches the normal life of Israelis while paying little attention to the effect their actions have on Palestinians. Amnesty International specified this carelessness towards Palestinians recently by rapping Israel for its action against Palestinians, even if such actions are preceded by a warning.
“Issuing a warning does not absolve an attacking force of its obligations to spare civilians, including by taking all other necessary precautions to minimize civilian casualties and damage to civilian structures,” Amnesty said in a statement.
This one-sided approach is not limited to the Israeli army. But that is where international law steps in, to regulate both the initiation of hostilities, the behavior of an occupier towards occupied populations (who are entitled, incidentally to resist it) as well as the conduct of the hostilities themselves.
The Fourth Geneva Convention regarding the treatment of civilians under military occupation prohibits collective punishment, wanton destruction of property, and imposes obligations regarding the needs of the population, including water, electricity, food and medical supplies. Israel claims that since it withdrew its settlers and army from the Gaza Strip, this turns Gaza into an independent neighboring sovereign country, from whose borders, rockets are fired which should be silenced.
But even if the war is viewed as an international conflagration, there are clear requirements of warfare, including proportionality, prohibition on targeting civilian structures, and collective punishments, as well as sieges.
In recent years, Israel has routinely violated with impunity international law, not only by erecting illegal settlements but also by placing a seven-year land and water siege on the 1.8 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. Such a blockade is automatically considered an act of war under humanitarian law.
In referring to the Gaza blockade, 22 International organizations called it “cruel and illegal.” With the violence erupting Amnesty noted accurately that the blockade restricted civilians’ abilities to escape the violence. Ironically it took a U.S. comedian, Josh Stewart to bring home the absurdity of the Israeli military action while not allowing Palestinians living in the tiny Gaza Strip any chance to flee the violence. If you disregard international law, you will necessarily have high civilian casualties, even if that is not your intention.
Perhaps the most significant reason for the high casualty rate among Palestinian civilians is the fact that Israel feels no fear of being held accountable for its actions and lack of restraint when it comes to the consequences of its military acts towards the civilian population. Attempts in the past to hold Israel accountable have either faced a U.S. veto in the Security Council or extreme peer pressure, as was heaped on South African Judge Richard Goldstein, who headed a U.N. human rights delegation that found that Israel had committed war crimes in its war on Gaza in 2009.
To remedy this imbalance, a way must be found to give international law teeth. One idea that is being seriously discussed by Palestinian leaders is joining the Rome statutes, which would allow the newly recognized non-member state of Palestine to pursue Israeli war criminals. Such provisions that exist in the international jurisprudence could go a long way in checking the bloodlust of Israel politicians and the military who act with impunity when it comes to the Palestinian civilian population.
The Israeli military might not intend to increase civilian Palestinian casualties, but they show little effort to curtail the craving of politicians and generals to solve political problems simply by massively shelling, and bombing a trapped civilian population. Only dealing with the underlying causes of the decades-old conflict by ending the occupation, its settlements and the similarly illegal blockade will lead to the peace that both Israelis and Palestinians desire.
Jonathan Kuttab is an international lawyer who is a member of the New York, Israel and Palestinian bar associations. He is co-founder of the Al Haq human rights organization.
©2014 Jonathan Kuttab
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