In my view, what made the Gaza attacks launched on 27 December different from the main wars fought by Israel over the years was that the weapons and tactics used devastated an essentially defenceless civilian population. The one-sidedness of the encounter was so stark, as signalled by the relative casualties on both sides (more than 100 to 1; 1300-plus Palestinians killed compared with 13 Israelis, and several of these by friendly fire), that most commentators refrained from attaching the label “war”.He presents and dismisses the various possible recourse to international law.
The Gaza operation brought these concerns to the fore as it dramatised this shift away from fighting states to struggles against armed resistance movements, and with a related shift from the language of “war” to “criminality”. In one important respect, Israel managed to skew perceptions and discourse by getting the media and diplomats to focus the basic international criminal law question on whether or not Israeli use of force was “disproportionate”.
This way of describing Israeli recourse to force ignores the foundational issue: were the attacks in any legal sense “defensive” in character in the first place? An inquiry into the surrounding circumstances shows an absence of any kind of defensive necessity: a temporary ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that had been in effect since 19 July 2008 had succeeded in reducing cross-border violence virtually to zero; Hamas consistently offered to extend the ceasefire, even to a longer period of ten years; the breakdown of the ceasefire is not primarily the result of Hamas rocket fire, but came about mainly as a result of an Israeli air attack on 4 November that killed six Hamas fighters in Gaza....
The Gaza form of encounter almost by necessity blurs the line between war and crime, and when it occurs in a confined, densely populated area such as Gaza, necessarily intermingles the resistance fighters with the civilian population. It also induces the resistance effort to rely on criminal targeting of civilians as it has no military capacity directly to oppose state violence. In this respect, the Israeli attacks on Gaza and the Hamas resistance crossed the line between lawful combat and war crimes.
These two sides should not be viewed as equally responsible for the recent events. Israel initiated the Gaza campaign without adequate legal foundation or just cause, and was responsible for causing the overwhelming proportion of devastation and the entirety of civilian suffering. Israeli reliance on a military approach to defeat or punish Gaza was intrinsically “criminal”, and as such demonstrative of both violations of the law of war and the commission of crimes against humanity.
There is another element that strengthens the allegation of aggression. The population of Gaza had been subjected to a punitive blockade for 18 months when Israel launched its attacks. This blockade was widely, and correctly, viewed as collective punishment in a form that violated Articles 33 and 55 of the Fourth Geneva Convention governing the conduct of an occupying power in relation to the civilian population living under occupation. This policy was itself condemned as a crime against humanity, as well as a grave breach of international humanitarian law.
It also had resulted in serious nutritional deficiencies and widespread mental disorders on the part of the entire Gaza population, leaving it particularly vulnerable to the sort of “shock and awe” attack mounted by Israel from land, air and sea. This vulnerability was reinforced by Israel’s unwillingness to allow Gaza civilians to seek safety while the tiny Strip was under such intense combat pressure. Two hundred non-Palestinian wives were allowed to leave, which underscored the criminality of locking children, women, the sick, elderly and disabled into the war zone, and showed its ethnically discriminatory character. This appears to be the first time in wartime conditions that a civilian population was denied the possibility of becoming refugees.
What seems reasonably clear is that despite the clamour for war crimes investigations and accountability, the political will is lacking to proceed against Israel at the inter-governmental level, whether within the UN or outside. The realities of geopolitics are built around double standards when it comes to war crimes. It is one thing to proceed against Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic, but quite another to go against George W Bush or Ehud Olmert. Ever since the Nuremberg trials after the second world war, there exists impunity for those who act on behalf of powerful, undefeated states and nothing is likely to challenge this fact of international life in the near future, thus tarnishing the status of international law as a vehicle for global justice that is consistent in its enforcement efforts. When it comes to international criminal law, there continues to exist impunity for the strong and victorious, and potential accountability for the weak or defeated.In the end he lays his hopes on international legitimacy
In the end, the haunting question is whether the war crimes concerns raised by Israel’s behaviour in Gaza matters, and if so, how. I believe it matters greatly in what might be called “the second war” – the legitimacy war that often ends up shaping the political outcome more than battlefield results. The US won every battle in the Vietnam war and lost the war; the same with France in Indochina and Algeria, and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The Shah of Iran collapsed, as did the apartheid regime in South Africa, because of defeats in the legitimacy war.
It is my view that this surfacing of criminal charges against Israel during and after its attacks on Gaza resulted in major gains on the legitimacy front for the Palestinians. The widespread popular perceptions of Israeli criminality, especially the sense of waging war against a defenceless population with modern weaponry, has prompted people around the world to propose boycotts, divestments and sanctions. This mobilisation exerts pressure on governments and corporations to desist from relations with Israel, and is reminiscent of the worldwide anti-apartheid campaign that did so much to alter the political landscape in South Africa. Winning the legitimacy war is no guarantee that Palestinian self-determination will be achieved in the coming years. But it does change the political equation in ways that are not fully discernable at this time.
The global setup provides a legal framework capable of imposing international criminal law, but it will not be implemented unless the political will is present. Israel is likely to be insulated from formal judicial initiatives addressing war crimes charges, but will face the fallout arising from the credibility that these charges possess for world public opinion. This fallout is reshaping the underlying Israel/Palestine struggle, and giving far greater salience to the legitimacy war (fought on a global political battlefield) than was previously the case.