A Conspiracy of Silence

Khadr Shkirat, LAW

A Conspiracy of Silence

From Khadr Shkirat, director of LAW Society

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are currently experiencing a huge military offensive by Israel. We are a largely unarmed and defenceless civilian population facing the force of a major military power. The human rights abuses committed by Israel in the towns, villages and refugee camps of the occupied Palestinian territories are breathtaking both in their scale and brutality, yet the states which call themselves the international community are leaving us to the mercy of the Israeli army.

The Israeli attack on the Balata refugee camp in Nablus, which began on February 28, marked a clear turning point. The subsequent military escalation has now spread to civilian areas throughout the occupied territories, including Tulkarm, Nablus, Jenin, Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Ramallah, Qalqilya, Hebron and the Gaza Strip. This is taking place during a period of heightened rhetoric from the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who declared last week: “The Palestinians must be hit and it must be very painful: we must cause them losses, victims, so that they feel the heavy price.”

Israel justifies these attacks on civilian areas as necessary to root out “terrorists” and destroy “terrorist bases”. But their actions go far beyond any possible claims of self-defence. Rather, Israeli actions appear designed to punish the entire Palestinian civilian population, in violation of human rights and humanitarian law. These include the use of heavy weaponry in intensive strikes on densely populated civilian areas, utterly disproportionate to any perceived or real threats. The failure of the Israeli forces to distinguish between civilian and military targets has resulted in high numbers of civilian deaths and injuries: from February 28 to March 10 alone, more than 113 Palestinians were killed and 368 injured.

The vast majority were civilians who do not serve in the Palestinian Authority police or security forces. Children, women and refugees have been indiscriminately attacked, in contravention of international law which provides them with special protection. Particularly striking for human rights observers have been the mass roundups of Palestinian males between the ages of 14 to 50 in the past week. Since February 28, about 2,200 people – including children – have been arbitrarily arrested and detained in camps outside their own areas. Inhuman and degrading methods routinely used during these arrests and detentions include blindfolding, strip-searching, and writing numbers on detainees’ arms.

On a scale only seen recently in the Balkans, we have suffered extensive destruction of civilian property, including houses, workplaces, hospitals, clinics, ambulances, schools and universities, churches and mosques – as well as water and electricity supply lines. Despite the glare of publicity, Israel even feels free to attack humanitarian agencies, and deny civilian access to medical supplies and treatment. Since last Friday, there has been an effective ban on any movement of Palestinian vehicles in the West Bank, including ambulances, unless they have express permission. Otherwise, they are shot at on sight. This tightens still further restrictions in force since September 2000 – including hundreds of checkpoints, unmanned dirt-blockades and trenches – making access to work, education, food, water and health services extremely difficult, if not impossible. Since February 28 there has also been an alarming increase in the number of attacks on medical staff, ambulances and hospitals and field clinics, with at least six medical staff killed, 12 injured and five ambulances destroyed.

These acts are in direct violation of the fourth Geneva Convention 1949, which is legally binding on Israel. Several are classed as “grave breaches” – in other words, war crimes – including documented cases of murder and manslaughter, instances of intentionally causing “great suffering or serious injury to body or health” and “extensive destruction of property not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly”.

Suicide bombings inside Israel which target innocent civilians are outrages. However, these acts cannot be used as justification for the collective punishment of the entire civilian population of the occupied territories, nor can they excuse or justify Israeli breaches of international law, including its continued illegal occupation of the territories.

We now face the real threat of what is euphemistically called “transfer” – in other words, the forcible expulsion of the Palestinian population – something that is openly discussed in Israeli military and political circles. The current escalation of the conflict seems designed to provide the pretext for mass transfers of civilians. Israel’s acts of ethnic cleansing in the past are well-documented. In 1948, more than 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled or fled from massacres. During and immediately after the Six Day war of June 1967, 388,000 were expelled.

There can be no doubt that the world is fully aware of Israel’s war crimes, that Israeli war criminals are acting with impunity and that we face a real risk of mass transfer. A quarter of those killed by Israel during the intifada have been under 18. Why is no effective action being taken to protect Palestinian civilians? All states have an express legal obligation to ensure Israel’s respect for the fourth Geneva Convention. Crucially, all states are specifically obliged to search for, investigate and bring perpetrators of war crimes to justice.

In theory, Britain’s self-proclaimed ethical foreign policy should make it a straightforward matter to comply fully with these legal obligations. Instead, the UK government supports the export of British-made arms and components to Israel, including those used to perpetrate war crimes against Palestinian civilians. In fact, Britain and its EU partners provide funds and maintain crucial trade agreements that bolster the Israeli military regime. Palestinians are angered by the apparent naivete, or dishonesty, of European governments which use the non-existent “peace process” as an excuse to refuse to act against Israel. This is what we hear when Britain blocks EU efforts to take stronger action, including attempts to impose sanctions (by, for example, suspending the EU-Israel Association Agreement).

We watch in amazement while Britain coordinates sanctions against Zimbabwe at the same time as blocking action against Israel. What we are witnessing is a conspiracy of silence. As well as violating legal obligations to civilians under occupation, this refusal to take effective action against Israel ignores the boost to peace that would come from a halt to Israeli human rights violations. The first urgent step is the immediate deployment of an independent, international presence to protect Palestinians and stop the war crimes.

Sanctions must be imposed on Israel to force it to accept this presence and engage in peace negotiations leading to a complete withdrawal from the territories. Part of an overall settlement must now also include an end to impunity: that requires the prosecution of war criminals.

Khader Shkirat is director of LAW, he Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment and a visiting law fellow at Harvard.

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