Israel must be held to account over Gaza action

Tue, Jan 6, 2009, 00:00

OPINION:WHEN DOES the mandate of victimhood expire? At what point does the Nazi genocide of Europe's Jews cease to excuse the state of Israel from the demands of international law and of common humanity?

At the point, surely, when that special pleading dishonours the memory of the Holocaust itself and excusing Israel involves the hollowing out of both reason and morality. The words that emerged from Auschwitz - "Never Again" - are the most powerful protection we have from moral hypocrisy, from racism, and from the twisted language that defends the indefensible.

It is a great historic tragedy that those words must now be spoken against the Jewish state.

Nothing compares to Nazism, and the extreme caution that must always be used in drawing analogies with that murderous regime has to apply a hundredfold when Israel is discussed. Whatever the outward similarities, the Gaza Strip is not the Warsaw ghetto.

Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, however deplorable, is not remotely comparable to the systematic policy of extermination implemented by Hitler. The extreme defensiveness of Israeli attitudes is fundamentally different to the extreme aggressiveness of Nazi Germany.

There are, however, two respects in which Israel's current behaviour demonstrates attitudes that overlap with the Nazi mentality. The first of these is the notion of collective punishment. It has long been a staple principle of international law, at least since the Hague convention of 1907, that collective punishment of a population is a crime. The fourth Geneva convention of 1949, written with Nazi atrocities specifically in mind, says that "No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited." Israel has consistently flouted these laws. Since 1967, almost 18,000 houses have been demolished in the occupied Palestinian territories by the Israeli armed forces, sometimes citing "administrative" or "operational" necessities, but often quite explicitly to punish the family of someone suspected of being a terrorist. But the treatment of Gaza since Hamas won the (largely free) elections there three years ago has taken the practice of collective punishment against a whole population to a new level.

Gaza is among the most heavily built-up areas in the world. Of the population of around 1.5 million, well over half are children. Even if one were to take the extreme (and unlawful) line that the adults of Gaza deserve collective punishment because they voted for a Hamas administration in a democratic election, that leaves at least 750,000 people living in Gaza who have no responsibility whatever for Hamas's crimes.

Yet, even before the bombing, Israel has consciously and systematically punished these children for the perceived sins of their government.

Israel deliberately destroyed the business infrastructure in a territory where half the adult population was already officially unemployed. Since the beginning of November, it has tightly limited food supplies to an area in which the vast majority of children are fed by international relief agencies. It blocked the importation of medicines, parts for water and sanitation systems, fertiliser, and plastic sheeting.

It cut the supply of diesel to Gaza's only power station. None of this has any conceivable military justification. It has been, quite simply and brutally, the collective punishment of the population carried out in a way that is calculated to hurt the most vulnerable most severely.

The second aspect of Israel's policy that has overlapped with the Nazi mentality is its profound racism. In Israel's case, of course, the racism is not explicit, and it would be vehemently denied by all but the lunatic fringe of the country's political system. But it exists very clearly in the flagrant disproportion of Israel's response to Hamas's crimes.

Hamas's campaign of firing rockets indiscriminately into towns and villages in southern Israel is a terrorist crime. It is clearly wrong under international law either to target non-combatants in a conflict or to be recklessly indifferent to civilian casualties. But Israel's response to this terrorism is not merely criminal in exactly the same sense. It adds a further dimension of depravity by playing a game of revenge in which one Israeli life is worth at least 20 Palestinian lives.

Between 2002 and the start of the bombing campaign last week, 16 Israeli civilians had been killed by Hamas rockets fired from Gaza. In retaliation, Israeli bombing raids, shelling and ground operations have killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians.

In this brutal calculus, the basic assumption is the superiority of Israeli lives over the lives of the Palestinians for whom Israel, as the occupying power is legally and morally responsible.

We collude with this logic if we continue to treat Israeli violence as a special case. Israel needs to be told that it cannot use collective punishment and racist devaluing of the lives of others and still be a respected, law-bound state. The one person who can deliver that message is Barack Obama, whose government funds Israel to the tune of $3 billion a year. Whether he has the courage to speak will tell us a lot about the nature of his upcoming presidency.