Sunday, April 19, 2009

Opinion: A Step Toward Ending Israel's Impunity - George Bisharat

The Baltimore Sun, April 17, 2009 - The appointment of Richard Goldstone to head a United Nations fact-finding mission to the Gaza Strip represents an important first step toward ending Israel's impunity from international law. Mr. Goldstone - a former supreme court justice in South Africa and chief prosecutor in the international tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia - and three other esteemed experts will investigate both Israel and Hamas for possible offenses before, during, and after Israel's invasion of Gaza. 

Evidence, indeed, suggests that Israel committed war crimes and crimes against humanity before, during, and after its winter assault on the Gaza Strip. Long before the attack, Israel had imposed a ruinous siege on Gaza, collectively punishing its residents for choosing Hamas in democratic elections in January 2006. During the December-January invasion, Israeli troops apparently killed civilians without justification, wantonly destroyed civilian infrastructure and private property, used weapons illegally, and abused Palestinian detainees. Since a January cease-fire, Israel has blocked relief supplies to Gaza, and it continues to attack and kill Palestinians. 

Individual misconduct does not explain Israel's offenses during the invasion; lax rules of engagement were the root problem. Israeli military lawyers classified any Palestinian who remained in an area after a warning of an impending attack as a "voluntary human shield" and therefore a combatant subject to attack. Warnings were issued via leaflets, cell phone calls, and in some cases, bombing of a building's corners (before the roof was collapsed by additional fire). Yet Gaza Palestinians were barred refuge outside of the tiny strip, and thus were denied effective flight. Israeli jurists also approved the bombing of a police cadet graduation ceremony; in total, some 250 civilian Palestinian policemen lost their lives during the invasion. Military rabbis exacerbated matters, counseling that Israeli soldiers show no mercy to Palestinians.

Such elastic definitions of "combatants" defy well-settled international law. Yet Daniel Reisner, the former head of the International Law Division of the Israeli Military Advocate General, recently claimed: "If you do something for long enough, the world will accept it. The whole of international law is now based on the notion that an act that is forbidden today becomes permissible if executed by enough countries ... International law progresses through violations."....

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