Monday, February 2, 2009

Q & A: Israel May Escape War Crimes Charges - Phyllis Bennis

Inter Press Service (reporting from the United Nations), February 2, 2009 - Despite widespread accusations of war crimes by Israel, there is growing scepticism of any Israeli leader being brought before an international tribunal for the killings of civilians and the targeting of schools and medical facilities during the 22-day conflict in Gaza last month.

"The number and scope of individuals and agencies calling for independent, international investigations of war crimes is unprecedented," says Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.

In an interview with U.N. Bureau Chief Thalif Deen, she pointed out that calls for such an investigation have come not only from high-ranking U.N. officials and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) but also from virtually every international human rights organisation operating in the area.

"Individual accountability for war crimes or crimes against humanity is always difficult, and for officials (civilian or military) of a government with such close ties to and such a strong history of impunity guarantees from the most powerful country in the world, it is even more difficult," said Bennis, author of several publications both on the Middle East and the United Nations, including 'Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the U.N. Defy the U.S.'.

That said, the extreme lawlessness of Israel's attack on Gaza, the shocking human devastation that it caused for Gaza's 1.5 million civilians, the direct attacks on U.N. facilities and personnel, and the wide range of prima facie Israeli violations of international law all elevate the possibility of real accountability, she added.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: What are the specific war crimes Israel is accused of committing?

PB: The Geneva Convention's prohibitions against collective punishment, targeting civilians, and disproportionate military force were all violated, as was Geneva's requirement that Israel provide medical care for the wounded. The use of sometimes-legal white phosphorous and DIME weapons was made illegal under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons by Israel's decision to use them in densely-populated civilian neighbourhoods. Israel's (and Egypt's) denial of the Palestinian civilians' right to flee to find refuge over Gaza's borders may represent a newly-defined war crime....

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