We are putting the world on notice, with very heavy hearts, that we believe that something [terrible] will happen. – Ahdaf Soueif
Every time the operations are getting worse, the massacres are getting worse – I’m telling you that this massacre will happen again.– Eran Efrati
There is no reason that [we] can say we don’t know. We know. – Dr. Mads Gilbert
On September 24th, the Russell Tribunal on Palestine (RToP) held an Extraordinary Session in Brussels on Operation Protective Edge, followed by a press conference and presentation to the European Parliament on September 25th. Several members of Humanity for Palestine were there.
Founded by Bertrand Russell in 1966, the Russell Tribunal is intended to be a “Tribunal of conscience,” investigating injustices and violations of international law that the international community fails to adequately address. Since the first Tribunal on war crimes in Vietnam, headed by Jean-Paul Sartre, Tribunals have been formed to examined human rights violations in Argentina and Brazil (1973), Chile (1974-76) and Iraq (2004), and Palestine (2009-2012). Having held five sessions and delivered a Final Report, the RToP decided, during the recent Israeli attack on Gaza, to hold a supplementary session due to the gravity of the situation on the ground.
Three of the four Gazan witnesses invited by the Tribunal were prevented from leaving Gaza, due to such Kafkaesque restrictions as having to physically obtain Israeli approval for their Belgian visas in Jerusalem, while being denied access to Jerusalem (the very fact that this requirement held even though the witnesses were attempting to exit via Egypt itself belies the myth that Israel is not the Occupying Power, effectively controlling all access by land sea and air). The only one who managed to get out, Palestinian journalist Mohamed Omar, was able to do so only with his Dutch passport, after having first had his Gazan passport refused. The European Parliament Members who had attempted to enter Gaza two weeks earlier were also denied access.
The session was extraordinary in more ways than one. The intellectual caliber, humanity and commitment of the Jurors and witnesses were impressive. The testimonies were detailed, comprehensive and chilling, and the patterns that emerged from them constellated a compelling case for systematic and deliberate war crimes committed in a broader social context of racism, impunity and genocidal discourse. While the legal definition of the “G-word” sets a high bar, the Tribunal’s conclusion – and that of many present – was that we are all too close and getting inexorably closer to the mass-scale willful extermination of an entire people.
Attacks on Civilians
The deliberate targeting of civilians, prisoners and wounded, abductions, beatings, humiliation and torture, the use of children as human shields, systematic attacks on journalists and medics, massive destruction of property, homes, mosques, churches and cemeteries, farms, factories, businesses and basic infrastructure including water, food, sanitation and electricity, revenge attacks and other possible war crimes – all committed against a backdrop of rising ethno-religious supremicism, racist and genocidal speech and hate crimes – lend a new urgency to the international struggle in support of the Palestinian people.
To cite a just a few of the grim specifics, 89 families were completely liquidated – one after being ordered to stay in their home or shot, and the house bombed several hours later with them inside. Handcuffed bodies were found with bullets to the head and chest and bullet casings by the heads, in classic “shoot to kill” fashion. A video was shown of the murder of a man while searching for a family member in the rubble accompanied by international solidarity workers, including a coup de grace as he was lying wounded on the ground. There were several examples of groups being asked who spoke Hebrew and anyone who answered affirmatively being promptly shot in the chest. One man was told to step forward and hold up his lighter and, when he did so, shot. A 17-year-old boy was held by the IDF for 5 days, stripped, beaten, tortured and used as a human shield (this just one of multiple cases of children being used as human shields by the IDF during the operation). A 55 year-old Imam was ordered to strip naked in front of women and to tell people to leave their homes over the mosque’s PA. The men were then taken at gunpoint, also forced to strip and marched away, while the Imam himself was placed against a bulldozer, a bottle placed at his neck, and used for target practice. One family sheltering in their basement from an F-16 attack when IDF soldiers broke in and held them captive were refused use of the toilet and told to “do it on yourself.” A 65-year-old man was shot at close range by an IDF solider in front of his family while pleaded with the soldiers in English. His last words were: “Please don’t shoot me.”
Massive and Systematic Destruction
The totality of the evidence suggested that such examples were not isolated, but consistent with broader policies, attitudes and practices – the low level of convictions and light sentences for such crimes when investigated, being one (“systemic impunity is the status quo,” said Yvan Karakashian).
The sheer scope of the damage – including deaths of at least 1658 civilians, the wounding of 11,231, and the destruction of 18,000 housing units (or 13% of available housing in Gaza), leaving 110,000 people homeless – is itself evidence of a systematic and willful campaign against the civilian population of Gaza. The 51-day assault dropped an estimated 700 tons of explosives – 2 tons per square kilometer – equal to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. The use of such armaments as white phosphorous, depleted uranium, DIME, flechettes, fuel-air and thermobaric munitions, and cluster bombs suggested a deliberate antipersonnel strategy against a trapped civilian population in one of the most densely populated places on earth, denied of their basic right to flee a conflict zone.
The destruction of businesses, food production, and 220 factories (including a soap factory and a candy factory), 68% of the arable land, fishing equipment that had been stored for protection, and 130 cows on one farm (“none of the cows were Hamas,” said their owner, “they were secular cows”), coming as it did on the heels of an 8-year embargo and four major attacks, amounted to the effective destruction of a once healthy economy.
The destruction of 50% of the hospitals and 63% of the medical clinics; the shooting of ambulances and refusal to allow ambulances in (donkey carts were being to replace them); and the shooting of medics attempting to help people (one medic was shot in the hip and chest and bled to death and when his colleagues tried to help him, they were also shot); with a total of 144 healthcare workers, doctors, nurses, medics, firefighters killed or injured.
The destruction of basic civilian infrastructure was also massive and systematic. The bombing of water facilities for 450,000 people comes in a context of the diversion by Israel of water from Gaza to Negev leading to the drying up of three major local wadis and expected depletion of coastal aquifer by 2016 and refusal to allow the importation of the chemicals needed to purify the remaining – and heavily contaminated – Gazan water. The destruction of Gaza’s only power plant further affected water treatment, sanitation, food and the capacity of medical facilities to treat the wounded and displaced. Even UN-sponsored and controlled infrastructure was bombed, including three UNRWA schools being used as refugee shelters.
As the IDF claimed a 90% success rate for its bombing campaign, one can only conclude – along with the Tribunal – that this destruction was willful. “There was no justification at all,” said journalist Martin Lejeune of the bombing of factories: “I think it was really to harm the civilians and to harm the population of Gaza. That was the reason they committed these attacks.”
An established military protocol (“Dahiya Doctrine”) for disproportionate revenge attacks on local populations (including a policy of shooting anything that moves in pre-designated areas) was invoked in Shuja’iyya after 13 IDF soldiers were killed during the 4-day occupation by Golani Brigade on July 19th-23rd. Within 7 hours, at least 600 shells (most contained depleted uranium), and 120 1-ton bombs, were dropped in the neighborhood. The infantry entered the area on foot with orders to break windows, and destroy property and houses.
A policy was described by IDF veteran and journalist Eran Efrati of drawing a “red imaginary line,” beyond which anyone would be immediately killed, around the houses in which the IDF set up temporary field posts. He claimed that, unlike in earlier campaigns, the lines during Protective Edge were drawn as much as hundreds of meters from the posts and that neither the locations nor the presence of the lines was communicated to locals. He concluded that it was not loss of life that caused the IDF to launch the Shuja’iyya bombing so much as the humiliation of sustaining losses: “What we are doing here is trying to revenge and trying to kill people for an insult.”
An IDF protocol for killing its own soldiers in order to avoid their capture and eventual use in prisoner exchanges (the “Hannibal Directive”) was reportedly invoked when an Israeli raid on a tunnel in Rafa went awry minutes before the start of a ceasefire. The IDF immediately blamed Hamas for the soldier’s death and launched an assault on Rafa along the lines proscribed by the Dahiya Doctrine.
As horrifying as the many individual stories of violence detailed by the witnesses were to those present (complete with unmistakable elements of humiliation, torture and sadism), the most chilling testimony was arguably Israeli journalist David Sheen’s panoramic depiction of Israeli hate speech, anti-Arab racism, and incitement to genocide. Sheen’s examples were drawn from top political leaders, religious figures and other influential figures, and were so numerous that there was no time to present all his slides. The cumulative effect of his evidence was to place the violence and destruction described by other witnesses in the socio-political context of a broader nationalist project, the collapse of the Israeli political center, and the rise of Settler extremism within the IDF itself (with and messianic nationalists now comprising nearly a third of the officer corps). As the Tribunal concluded:
…the Israeli state is implementing an apartheid system based on the dominance of Israeli Jews over Palestinians. Beyond the prolonged siege and collective punishment of the Palestinians of Gaza, the ongoing settlement project in the West Bank, and the now regular massive military assaults on the civilian population of the Gaza Strip, one must add the increase in aggravated racist hate speech. … The jury has listened to alarming evidence over the course of this extraordinary session; we have a genuine fear that in an environment of impunity and an absence of sanction for serious and repeated criminality, the lessons from Rwanda and other mass atrocities may once again go unheeded (Russell Tribunal on Palestine 2014:10).
Implications for the Peace with Justice Movement
Up until now, many of us in the pro-Palestine movement have framed it as a human rights struggle, along the lines of the Civil Rights and anti-Apartheid Movements. The case presented in Brussels with such comprehensiveness and clarity, however, challenges us all to reframe our mission as nothing less than the staunching of a nascent genocide that, if left unchecked, will only express itself in ever-mounting numbers of murdered men, women and children.
One thing that distinguishes this particular crisis from other attacks on civilian populations, such as in Iraq, Syria or Congo is that here the solution is simple: boycott, sanctions and divestment (BDS), legal action against states and corporations that collude in these crimes, suspension of arms sales and financial aid, prosecutions in the International Criminal Court – in a word, putting the Israeli government on notice that it can no longer commit these crimes with impunity, but must answer for its actions. Until this is done, we are all complicit.
Dr. Peter F. Cohen is an anthropologist and Founder of Humanity for Palestine.
Watch the video recordings of the Russell Tribunal and European Parliament sessions
Photos by Lori Sloan