• The Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip constitute collective punishment of the entire Gazan population, and have created a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions in Gaza.
  • All these attacks violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, which sets out the obligations of occupying powers and specifically prohibits collective punishments, “targeted” assassinations, and destruction of the infrastructure of an occupied territory.
  • Israel’s assault on Gaza does not constitute a re-occupation, because Israel’s occupation of Gaza never ended
  • The expansion of the military escalation to Lebanon represents a serious threat of escalation, especially if there is involvement from Syria, as well as threatening to divert international attention from the continuing crisis in Gaza..
  • The ongoing Gaza crisis is political, not just humanitarian. It reflects the failure of Israeli unilateralism, the failure of the “Roadmap,” the failure of the U.S.-orchestrated exclusion of the UN, and failure of the international community and the UN to intervene.
  • The Gaza escalation demonstrates once again the need for an entirely new, international (not U.S.-sponsored) diplomatic process based on international law and human rights, aimed at ending the occupation and establishing equal rights for all, the only basis for a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the region.

(NOTE: This set of talking points includes quotations from a rather lengthy list of UN humanitarian agencies working on the ground in Gaza; their full reports include much more detail, and I urge people to take a look at them.)

The current crisis in Gaza is not a crisis of “re-occupation.” The Israeli occupation of Gaza never ended, despite the hype of last year’s “disengagement.” The New York Times quoted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert saying that Israel will continue to act militarily in Gaza as it sees fit. “We will operate, enter and pull out as needed,” he said. The withdrawal of soldiers and settlers from within the territory of the Gaza Strip represented a change in the form of occupation, not an end to occupation. After the “pull-out” Gaza remained besieged and surrounded, and Israel has remained in complete control of all aspects of Gazan life. Israel has continued to control the Gaza economy, withholding $50 million or so Palestinian monthly tax revenues, prohibiting Palestinian workers from entering Israel, and controlling the Israeli and Egyptian border crossings into and out of Gaza for all goods and people. Israel continues to forcibly limit the range of Gaza’s fleet of fishermen. It still controls Gaza’s airspace and coastal waters, and continues to prohibit construction of a seaport or rebuilding the airport. And Israel continues its air strikes and ground attacks on people and infrastructure throughout Gaza, and continues its nightly barrage of sonic sound-bombs across Gaza’s population centers.

As Gideon Levy wrote in the Israeli paper Ha’aretz, “the Palestinians started it” remains the assumption for Israelis, and for most Americans. “‘They started’ will be the routine response to anyone who tries to argue, for example, that a few hours before the first Qassam fell on the school in Ashkelon, causing no damage, Israel sowed destruction at the Islamic University in Gaza. Israel is causing electricity blackouts, laying sieges, bombing and shelling, assassinating and imprisoning, killing and wounding civilians, including children and babies, in horrifying numbers, but ‘they started’.”

The new escalation in south Lebanon followed clashes at the Israel-Lebanon border that led to the capture of two Israeli soldiers inside Israeli territory. In crossing Israel’s border, Hezbollah was in violation of international law. But border clashes occur around the world on a daily basis, and capturing two soldiers is not a declaration of war. As French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy described it, Hezbollah’s seizure of the soldiers and firing rockets into northern Israel were “irresponsible acts;” Israel’s bombing of the Beirut international airport was “a disproportionate act of war.”

Hezbollah claims their attack was designed to help the Palestinians negotiate a prisoner release. But the consequences are already extraordinarily dangerous, for Lebanese civilians as well as for Palestinians, and potentially for the region as a whole. In response to the capture of the soldiers, Israel again showed its willingness to target civilians and destroy civilian infrastructure. Israeli warplanes attacked two bridges over the Litani River deep in southern Lebanon, and bombed the airport out of commission. That was followed by Israel’s land and sea incursion with tanks, gunboats and planes across the Lebanese border. Israel destroyed the home of Hezbollah leader Ibrahim Nasrullah, who answered with a call for “open warfare.” By July 14, 66 Lebanese civilians had been killed, and more than 200 injured; four Israelis had been killed.

As the fighting continues, it raises the even more dangerous possibility that Syria could get involved either on the ground in Lebanon or if Israel attacks Syria directly. Such moves could threaten a significant broadening of a potential new war. At the moment the consequences of the Lebanon attacks remain uncertain. But it is in Gaza that the humanitarian emergency is skyrocketing – and there is serious danger that escalation on the Israeli-Lebanese border will divert the world’s attention from that crisis. As was evident in sanctions-devastated Iraq in 2003, a new war in the area does not improve the lives of those already suffering extreme humanitarian disaster, but rather exacerbates those problems.

The crisis is building on the existing humanitarian crisis already underway in Gaza caused by U.S. and Israeli-orchestrated international sanctions against the Palestinians since the January election of a Hamas-led parliament. The goal of undermining the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority’s was implemented by punishing the entire Palestinian population, in the misguided hope that economic sanctions would lead to public anger at Hamas, rather than at the occupying powers.

Israel’s attacks represent a massive collective punishment against the 1.3 million people of Gaza, and thus under international law constitute a war crime, violating Israel’s obligations as Occupying Power under the Geneva Conventions. The 12 July air assault on a Gaza house, ostensibly a “targeted assassination” of a Hamas leader, did not kill the official target but did kill two other adults and seven children. The deliberate targeting and destruction of the main electrical generating plant, especially at the height of summer and at a moment in which the absolute siege of Gaza means there are virtually no fuel stocks available for local generators, guarantees humanitarian disaster. The deliberate destruction of the already-eroded water system means that already borderline-saline water is scarcer than ever. Tens of thousands of Gaza City residents live in high-rise apartments of ten floors or higher; without electricity, not only the elevators but even water pumps cannot function. The humanitarian situation is catastrophic.

The UN’s humanitarian organizations working on the ground in Gaza have issued statements expressing deep alarm. The agencies “are alarmed by developments on the ground, which have seen innocent civilians, including children, killed, brought increased misery to hundreds of thousands of people, and which will wreak far-reaching harm on Palestinian society. An already alarming situation in Gaza, with poverty rates at nearly eighty per cent and unemployment at nearly forty per cent, is likely to deteriorate rapidly, unless immediate and urgent action is taken.”

According to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “the use of force by Israel during its military operations into the Gaza Strip has resulted in an increasing number of deaths and other casualties amongst the Palestinian civilian population, and significant damage to civilian property and infrastructure.” UNRWA, which cares for 980,000 Palestinian refugees, “believes that Gaza is on the brink of a public health disaster.” The World Health Organization (WHO) states that “the public health system is facing an unprecedented crisis. WHO estimates that though hospitals and 50 per cent of Primary Health Care Centers have generators, the current stock of fuel will last for a maximum of two weeks. …According to WHO in the last week, there has been a 160 per cent increase in cases of diarrhea compared with the same period last year. Compounding these problems, WHO estimates that 23 per cent of the essential drug list will be out of stock within one month.” The World Food Program (WFP) estimates that “in June 70 % of the Gaza population were already unable to cover their daily food needs without assistance. The escalation of hostilities has made food an increasingly critical issue. Wheat flour mills, food factories and bakeries, reliant on electricity, are being forced to reduce their production due to power shortages; furthermore the loss of capacity to preserve perishable food in the Gaza heat is resulting in high food losses in the home.” And UNICEF states “children in Gaza are living in an environment of extraordinary violence, insecurity and fear. … The ongoing fighting is hurting children psychologically. Caregivers say children are showing signs of distress and exhaustion, including a 15%-20% increase in bedwetting, due to shelling and sonic booms. … UNICEF stressed that children are always most vulnerable to outbreaks of communicable disease brought on by lack of water and sanitation.”

OCHA, the overall humanitarian coordinating agency, calls on Israel to allow UN deliveries of emergency supplies, but recognized that “humanitarian assistance is not enough to prevent suffering. With the bombing of the electric plant, the lives of 1.4 million people, almost half of them children, worsened overnight. The Government of Israel should repair the damage done to the power station. Obligations under international humanitarian law, applying to both parties, include preventing harm to civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure and also refraining from collective measures, intimidation and reprisals. Civilians are disproportionately paying the price of this conflict.”

OCHA’s mention of international humanitarian law refers to the Fourth Geneva Convention. Article 3 (1) (a) prohibits “violence to life and person” and “murder of all kinds.” Calling murder “targeted assassination does not make it legal. Article 33 states that “No protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.” In Article 36 the “taking of hostages is prohibited.” That would include the Israeli arrests of about one-third of the elected Palestinian Legislative Assembly and about one-half of the Palestinian Authority’s cabinet ministers, who are being held at least partly to serve as bargaining chips.

But as devastating as the humanitarian crisis is, the even greater catastrophe is political. The assault on Gaza threatens to end any possibility of new Israeli-Palestinian negotiations based on the recent Palestinian unity moves. In fact the drama of the latest Israeli assault largely blocked out most international attention to the very important Hamas-Fatah agreement on the so-called “prisoners’ statement.” That document provides a strategic approach – now agreed to by virtually all of the Palestinian political class – to the struggle for Palestinian national rights including among other things, a recognition that armed resistance to the Israeli occupation is legitimate but should be limited to the territories occupied in 1967, not inside Israel.

Agreement over the prisoners’ statement is particularly significant in relation to the 11 July Washington Post article by Palestinian Prime Minister and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. He wrote that the Gaza crisis is part of a “wider national conflict that can be resolved only by addressing the full dimensions of Palestinian national rights in an integrated manner. This means statehood for the West Bank and Gaza, a capital in Arab East Jerusalem, and resolving the 1948 Palestinian refugee issue fairly, on the basis of international legitimacy and established law. Meaningful negotiations with a non-expansionist, law-abiding Israel can proceed only after this tremendous labor has begun.”
That carefully articulated set of Palestinian goals – clearly “moderate” even by U.S. standards – matches closely what Haniyeh describes as Palestinian “priorities.” Those include “recognition of the core dispute over the land of historical Palestine and the rights of all its people; resolution of the refugee issue from 1948; reclaiming all lands occupied in 1967; and stopping Israeli attacks, assassinations and military expansion.” It is significant that the Hamas leader distinguishes between the need to “recognize” the lost lands and rights of pre-1948 historical Palestine, and the need to “reclaim” those lands occupied in 1967. Recognition of the losses of the Palestinian al-Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, including the loss of 78% of Palestinian land, the loss of rights in what would become Israel, and the creation of 750,000 refugees still denied their right to return, remains a central Palestinian demand. Many Palestinians have long distinguished between on the one hand their unconditional demand for Israeli recognition of those injustices and its own culpability, and the absolute character of those long-denied rights, and on the other hand the negotiable nature of the reparations to follow. It is especially significant that Hamas’ most visible leader has now subscribed to that set of principles.

But despite that very reasonable position, it is clear that Israel intends to impose a unilateral settlement, based on unilaterally determined borders, based on their clear military and strategic power, rather than moving towards negotiations. The political crisis engendered by the Israeli assaults reflects the failure of all existing diplomatic initiatives. Israel’s planned unilateral “convergence” plan, of which the so-called “disengagement” from Gaza was the first step, now appears off the agenda. This plan, which Olmert inherited from his predecessor and mentor General Ariel Sharon, called for using the Apartheid Wall as the basis for a unilateral new “border” for Israel, annexing some 20% or so of the West Bank’s best land and water resources including three major settlement blocs populated by 80% of Israel’s West Bank settlers. At the same time Israel would close the small settlements east of the new borders and remove the 20% of the settlers living there. At least some soldiers would remain in and many more would surround the West Bank, the Jordan Valley would be annexed to Israel, and like post-“disengagement” Gaza, Israel would remain in complete control of the divided, walled-off and truncated Bantustans that would be left of the West Bank.

Olmert faces particular challenges in responding to this crisis because he lacks the military/security credentials of Sharon, and thus must appear militarily aggressive and politically hardline. That appears to be the reason for his publicly claimed refusal to negotiate a prisoner exchange, in which the Palestinians would release the captured Israeli soldier in return for release of some of the 9,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails (particularly the 200+ women and the almost 100 children). Israel has historically negotiated such releases in Lebanon and with the Palestinians, so the sudden “we won’t negotiate” posturing is a new development (although Olmert is still using weasel words – it is likely negotiations are indeed underway). The Israeli military command appears somewhat ambivalent about the strategy – among other things they appear to recognize that the intensive air and ground assaults are unlikely to lead to the release of the soldier, and likely to consolidate greater support for Hamas. The soldier’s father has also called for negotiations. The humanitarian disaster is now top of the global agenda; while Europe rejected the UN Human Rights Council resolution criticizing the Israeli actions, it issued its own strong criticism the following day. The humanitarian crisis is staggering for Palestinian civilians. But as a result, the longer the crisis plays out, the fewer political OR military options Israel has.

The Bush administration, consumed with global crises in and with Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Somalia as well as rising condemnation for its own crimes in Guantanamo, Iraq and elsewhere, has remained largely silent on the Gaza crisis. The silence has been key; a July 12 Israeli government communiqué said that the “low-key” international response is “allowing Israel military freedom of action and maintaining its ability to receive international backing.” But U.S. silence does not indicate lack of involvement. U.S. uncritical support – military, diplomatic, political – for the Israeli occupation remains largely unchallenged, even as more U.S. voices begin to raise at least tentative questions about the brutality of the Israeli assault. Indeed Gaza today is at the center of a horrifying policy cycle of stupidity and violence with the U.S. at its core. The Gaza electrical generating plant destroyed by Israel was originally built by Enron, and later bought out by Morganti, a Connecticut company. Morganti insured the plant for $48 million through the U.S. taxpayer-funded Overseas Private Insurance Corporation, the U.S. government-sponsored “insurance agency of last resort.” After Israel used its U.S. taxpayer-funded and U.S.-armed military (F-16 bombers, Apache helicopters, hellfire missiles, etc.) to destroy the U.S.-built plant, Morganti notified the U.S. government that it wants $48 in insurance money. (Some in congress are likely to call for at least taking $48 million out of the annual $3 billion aid to Israel and shifting it to OPIC…)

The overall causes of the Gaza crisis are political; it is not simply the result of the captured soldier. Similarly, the impact is not just humanitarian, as terrible as humanitarian conditions are. The escalation in Gaza reflects the failure of Israeli unilateralism, the failure of the Quartet-backed “Roadmap,” the failure of the U.S.-orchestrated exclusion of the UN, and failure of the international community to end the occupation, and the failure of the UN to intervene and provide international protection in the meantime. While it is clear that Israeli practices, including settlement expansion and especially the Apartheid Wall built across stolen West Bank land, are on the verge of making a two-state solution impossible, it is equally clear that neither Fatah nor Hamas has officially abandoned that as a political goal. But along with Israeli unilateralism, the internationally-supported versions of the “peace process” ostensibly at work have all failed – the U.S.-backed “Roadmap,” the diplomatic fiction known as the “Quartet,” the exclusion of the United Nations.

In a recent report, the UN’s Special Rapporteur for Human Rights John Dugard accepted the argument that “Israel is in violation of major Security Council and General Assembly resolutions dealing with unlawful territorial change and the violation of human rights, has failed to implement the 2004 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice and should accordingly be subjected to international sanctions. Instead the Palestinian people have been subjected to possibly the most rigorous form of international sanctions imposed in modern times.”

He recognized the failure of the Roadmap, calling for “creative diplomacy…that will enable Israel and the Palestinian Authority to resume negotiations for a peaceful settlement and respect for human rights. …Unfortunately the United States is unprepared to play the role of peace facilitator. This leaves the EU and the UN as the obvious honest brokers between Israelis and Palestinians. Whether either of these bodies can play this role while remaining part of the Quartet is questionable. The image of both the EU and the UN has suffered substantially among Palestinians as a result of the Quartet’s apparent support for economic isolation, under the direction of the United States. …However, they remain the bodies most likely to achieve peace and promote human rights in the region. In these circumstances both bodies should seriously consider whether it is in the best interests of peace and human rights in the region for them to seek to find a peaceful solution through the medium of the Quartet.”

Similarly, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan raised the possibility of a new diplomatic campaign outside the failed Quartet, saying “the UN and the other members of the international community are, for the moment, working through the Quartet, but it is not excluded that, down the line, maybe other broader initiatives may be necessary.” Such a new initiative might take the form of a new UN-sponsored international peace conference, based on the political call of the 2002 Beirut Arab Summit Declaration, only at a global level instead of regional. Unlike the limited mandate of the so-called “roadmap” (which did not stop Israeli’s continued construction of the land-grabbing Apartheid Wall and which Israel has not implemented anyway) such a conference should be based on an unequivocal end to Israeli occupation, a just solution for Palestinian refugees based on the international law-based right of return and UN resolution 194, and equal rights for all. Such a result would be the only basis for a just and lasting peace throughout the region.

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies where she directs the New Internationalism project. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and more recently Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.

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