Will Israel be Brought to Book?
The evidence of war crimes in Gaza is a challenge to universal justice: will western-backed perpetrators ever stand trial?
Evidence of the scale of Israel's war crimes in its January onslaught on Gaza is becoming unanswerable. Clancy Chassay's three films investigating allegations against Israeli forces in the Gaza strip, released by the Guardian today, include important new accounts of the flagrant breaches of the laws of war that marked the three-week campaign - now estimated to have left at least 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and 13 Israelis dead.
The films provide compelling testimony of Israel's use of Palestinian teenagers as human shields; the targeting of hospitals, clinics and medical workers, including with phosphorus bombs; and attacks on civilians, including women and children - sometimes waving white flags - from hunter-killer drones whose targeting systems are so powerful they can identify the colour of a person's clothes.
Naturally, the Israeli occupation forces' spokesperson insists to Chassay that they make every effort to avoid killing civilians and denies using human shields or targeting medical workers - while at the same time explaining that medics in war zones "take the risk upon themselves". By banning journalists from entering Gaza during its punitive devastation of the strip, the Israeli government avoided independent investigations of the stream of war crimes accusations while the attack was going on.
But now journalists and human rights organisations are back inside, doing the painstaking work, the question is whether Israel's government and military commanders will be held to account for what they unleashed on the Palestinians of Gaza - or whether, like their US and British sponsors in Iraq and Afghanistan, they can carry out war crimes with impunity.
It's not as if Clancy's reports are unique or uncorroborated by other evidence. Last week, the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported that a group of Israelis soldiers had admitted intentionally shooting dead an unarmed Palestinian mother and her two children, as well as an elderly Palestinian woman, in Gaza in January. As one explained: "The lives of Palestinians, let's say, is something very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers. So as far as they are concerned they can justify it that way".
They also tally with testimony of other Israeli soldiers from the Givati Shaked battalion, which operated in the Gaza city suburb of Zeitoun, that they were told to "fire on anything that moves". The result was that one family, the Samunis, reported losing 29 members after soldiers forced them into a building that subsequently came under fire - seven bleeding to death while denied medical care for nearly three days. The Helw and Abu Zohar families said they saw members shot while emerging from their homes carrying white flags. "There was definitely a message being sent", one soldier who took part in the destruction of Zeitoun told the Times.
Or take the case of Majdi Abed Rabbo - a Palestinian linked to Fatah and no friend of Hamas - who described to the Independent how he was repeatedly used as a human shield by Israeli soldiers confronting armed Hamas fighters in a burned-out building in Jabalya in the Gaza strip. The fact of Israeli forces' use of human shields is hard to gainsay, not least since there are unambiguous photographs of several cases from the West Bank in 2007, as shown in Chassay's film.
Last week Human Rights Watch wrote to European Union foreign ministers calling for an international inquiry into war crimes in Gaza. In the case of Israel, the organisation cited the siege of Gaza as a form of collective punishment; the use of artillery and white phosphorus in densely populated civilian areas, including schools; the shooting of civilians holding white flags; attacks on civilian targets; and "wanton destruction of civilian property".
Israel and others also accuse Hamas of war crimes. But while both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have echoed that charge, particularly in relation to the indiscriminate rocketing of towns such as Sderot, an exhaustive investigation by Human Rights Watch has found no evidence, for example, of Hamas using human shields in the clearly defined legal sense of coercion to protect fighters in combat. And as Richard Falk, the UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights, argued recently, any attempt to view the two sides as "equally responsible" is an absurdity: one is a lightly-armed militia, effectively operating underground in occupied territory - the other the most powerful army in the region, able to pinpoint and pulverise targets with some of the most sophisticated weaponry in the world.
There is of course no chance that the UN security council will authorise the kind of International Criminal Court war crimes indictment now faced by Sudan's leaders over Darfur. Any such move would certainly be vetoed by the US and its allies. And Israel's own courts have had no trouble in the past batting away serious legal challenges to its army's atrocities in the occupied territories. But the use of universal jurisdiction in countries such as Spain or even Britain is making Israeli commanders increasingly jumpy about travelling abroad.
With such powerful evidence of violations of the rules of war now emerging from the rubble of Gaza, the test must be this: is the developing system of international accountability for war crimes only going to apply to the west's enemies - or can the western powers and their closest allies also be brought to book?
© 2009 Guardian News and Media Limited