war crimes

Mahmoud Abbas’s use of the term “genocide” to describe Israel’s attack on Gaza made him an easy target for critics. But not only do international law experts like Richard Falk and John Dugard view Israel’s actions in genocide-like terms, notable Israeli scholars have done so too. Despite that, Israel has successfully ring-fenced itself from the critical lexicon applied to comparable situations around the globe.

A letter signed by 43 veterans of an elite Israeli military intelligence unit declaring their refusal to continue serving the occupation has sent shockwaves through Israeli society. The implication of their revelations is that the success of Israel’s near half-century of occupation depends on a vast machinery of surveillance and intimidation, while large numbers of Israelis benefit directly or indirectly from industrial-scale oppression.

Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups are agreed that the Israeli army is incapable of investigating itself fairly, and that, based on past form, it will at best convict a few individuals for relatively minor offences. They accuse Israel of “going through the motions” to fend off efforts by outside bodies, especially the International Criminal Court in the Hague, to probe events in Gaza.

It is easy to forget, with eulogies casting him as the unexpected “peace-maker”, that for most of his long military and political career Ariel Sharon was known simply as The Bulldozer. He explicitly refused to accept that the 1948 war that established Israel was over. In practice, his philosophy of creating change through bold action meant taking as much as land from the Palestinians as possible – an approach one Israeli analyst termed ‘politicide’.

For Palestinians in Gaza the anxiety-inducing soundtrack to their lives is the constant buzz of the remotely piloted aircraft – better known as “drones” – that hover in the skies above. Confined by Israel to one of the most densely populated areas in the world, Gazans are subject to near continual surveillance and intermittent death raining down from the sky. They call the drone’s noise “zenana” – an Arabic word referring to a wife’s relentless nagging that describes the drone’s oppressive noise and their feelings about it.

Six and a half years go, shortly after Hamas won the Palestinian national elections and took charge of Gaza, a senior Israeli official described Israel’s planned response: “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” Few observers treated the comment as more than hyperbole, a supposedly droll characterisation of the blockade Israel was about to impose on the tiny enclave. Last week, however, the evidence finally emerged to prove that this did indeed become Israeli policy.

Richard Goldstone, the international jurist whose now-notorious report on Gaza tarred the Israeli army with war crimes, backtracked unexpectedly and very publicly on 2 April in the pages of the Washington Post. For 18 months Goldstone had suffered a campaign of character assassination by Israel and its supporters as they sought to discredit his United Nations investigation into Israel’s attack on Gaza in winter 2008-09.

Israeli leaders have barely hidden their jubilation at an opinion article in last Friday’s Washington Post by the South African jurist Richard Goldstone reconsidering the findings of his United Nations-appointed inquiry into Israel’s attack on Gaza in winter 2008. In what appeared to be a partial retraction of some of his findings against Israel, Goldstone argued that he would have written the report differently had Israel cooperated at the time of his inquiry.

Israel has admitted that it was behind the abduction of a Gazan engineer who went missing more than a month ago while travelling on a train in the Ukraine. The whereabouts of Dirar Abu Sisi, the operations manager of Gaza’s only power plant, have been the subject of intense speculation since he disappeared on February 18 as he travelled on a train to the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

History may be written by the victors, as Winston Churchill is said to have observed, but the opening up of archives can threaten a nation every bit as much as the unearthing of mass graves. That danger explains a decision quietly taken last month by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to extend by an additional 20 years the country’s 50-year rule for the release of sensitive documents.

Israel quickly reined back expectations yesterday over its agreement to co-operate with a UN investigation into the Israeli army’s lethal raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla two months ago. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, had hailed Israel’s backing of the investigation on Monday, after weeks of intense international pressure, as an “unprecedented development”.

The technologies used by militaries to kill by remote control, which are becoming increasingly sophisticated and prevalent, are transforming warfare. A senior United Nations official recently warned of the emergence of a “PlayStation mentality to killing”, conjuring up an image of armies on the battlefield being replaced by unseen, nerdy teenagers spraying bullets and missiles with joysticks as wantonly as they already do when playing video games. Israel is one of the pioneers of these technologies.

It is called Spot and Shoot. Operators sit in front of a TV monitor from which they can control the action with a PlayStation-style joystick. The aim: to kill terrorists. Played by: young women serving in the Israeli army. Spot and Shoot, as it is called by the Israeli military, may look like a video game but the figures on the screen are real people — Palestinians in Gaza — who can be killed with the press of a button on the joystick.

As Israel this week declared the “easing” of the four-year blockade of Gaza, an official explained the new guiding principle: “Civilian goods for civilian people.” The severe and apparently arbitrary restrictions on foodstuffs entering the enclave – coriander bad, cinnamon good – will finally end, we are told. Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants will have all the coriander they want.

An Arab member of the Israeli parliament who was on board the international flotilla that was attacked on Monday as it tried to take humanitarian aid to Gaza accused Israel yesterday of intending to kill peace activists as a way to deter future convoys. Haneen Zoubi said Israeli naval vessels had surrounded the flotilla’s flagship, the Mavi Marmara, and fired on it a few minutes before commandos abseiled from a helicopter directly above them. Terrified passengers had been forced off the deck when water was sprayed at them.

An Israeli journalist who went into hiding after writing a series of reports showing lawbreaking approved by Israeli army commanders faces a lengthy jail term for espionage if caught, as Israeli security services warned at the weekend they would “remove the gloves” to track him down. The Shin Bet, Israel’s secret police, said it was treating Uri Blau, a reporter with the liberal Haaretz daily newspaper who has gone underground in London, as a “fugitive felon” and that a warrant for his arrest had been issued.

What is misleadingly being called in Israel the “Anat Kamm espionage affair” is quickly revealing the dark underbelly of a nation that has worshipped for decades at the altar of a security state. Next week 23-year-old Kamm is due to stand trial for her life — or rather the state’s demand that she serve a life sentence for passing secret documents to an Israeli reporter, Uri Blau, of the liberal Haaretz daily. She is charged with spying. Blau himself is in hiding in London, facing, if not a Mossad hit squad, at least the stringent efforts of Israel’s security services to get him back to Israel.

Seven years after Rachel Corrie, a US peace activist, was killed by an Israeli army bulldozer in Gaza, her family was to put the Israeli government in the dock today. A judge in the northern Israeli city of Haifa was due to be presented with evidence that 23-year-old Corrie was killed unlawfully as she stood in the path of the bulldozer, trying to prevent it from demolishing Palestinian homes in Rafah. Corrie’s parents, Craig and Cindy, who arrived in Israel on Saturday, said they hoped their civil action would shed new light on their daughter’s killing.

The debate reverberating in the human rights community one year after Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip is not about whether Israel committed war crimes during its attack last winter, but whether and how its political and military leaders can ever be brought to book. The problems were highlighted this month when an arrest warrant was issued in Britain for Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister during the war, after it was mistakenly believed she was visiting.

The fatal shooting by Israeli soldiers of an Israeli man earlier this week as he tried to scale a fence into the Gaza Strip was reportedly part of a drastic procedure the army was supposed to have phased out several years ago. The Israeli media reported that Yakir Ben-Melech, 34, had bled to death after he was shot under the “Hannibal procedure”, designed to prevent Israelis from being taken captive alive by enemy forces. One critic defined the procedure as meaning: “Liberate the soldier by killing him”.

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