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Gaza: Responsibility to protect

By       Message Bahija Réghaï     Permalink
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In the last 3 weeks, Israel has shelled UN schools, UN Headquarters and warehouse, buildings housing media outlets, ambulances, hospitals and mobile clinics, mosques and churches, and civilian infrastructure. In the process over 1 100 Palestinians were killed, many of them children and women, and tens of thousands more were maimed. According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, four Israeli civilians have been killed and 285 wounded by rocket fire since the offensive began.

The hemmed in Gazans, most of them made twice refugees in 1948 at the creation of the state of Israel, and/or in 1967, are captive and unprotected. The Gaza Strip is 12 km at its widest and 41 km long.  There is nowhere to flee from Israel’s bombing, not even the sea.

Since the start of the Israeli attack on Gaza on 27 December, numerous aid and humanitarian groups have issued urgent appeals for medical support for Gazans, including UNRWA, Physicians for Human Rights, Christian Aid, Save the Children, Medical Aid for Palestine, Middle East Children’s Alliance, and others. State s however remained largely silent until the Palestinian death toll began to belie the operation as “defensive.”

Recently, the UNHRC decided to send a fact finding mission, a decision adopted with only one dissenting voice, Canada’s. Seven Israeli organizations stood up together today to condemn the “massive harm to civilians, the extensive damage to infrastructure and supply networks, and the resultant humanitarian crisis.. [and] .. call[ed] on Israel to respect its obligations under international humanitarian law.”

But, like Burma ’s military government in the wake of that country’s cyclone in May 2008, Israel and Egypt refuse to open their borders to allow Gazans to freely obtain or receive assistance and supplies.  In May 2008, France mulled the possibility of invoking the UN’s “responsibility to protect” clause, which would involve international military intervention to supply aid to the Burmese, and the US and UK both considered delivering aid against the Burmese government’s strictures.

International donors refused to aid the Burmese government because of its violations against international law and its own citizens, although aid monies are still granted to NGOs who reach the Burmese people directly. But the principle of isolating the culpable government is lost when it comes to the Palestinians.  Donors’ humanitarian aid to Gazans is blocked by Israel at its borders without any international outcry.  And when it comes to Israel, no outrage seems large enough to provoke our leaders’ censure.

Responsibility to protect is as relevant for Palestinians as it is for the Burmese.

According to UN Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes, Israel’s controlled flow of relief supplies into Gaza on Monday is insufficient to meet even the regular conditions of poverty in Gaza, largely created by Israel's blockade since 2006 and overall conditions of occupation since 1967.  The current emergency conditions require much more, but Israel has restricted entry of goods due to “security” concerns.
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Without industrial, cooking and heating fuel, their hospital and municipal generators cannot operate, and without electricity, pump stations cannot work, and unless they “start pumping again soon sewers will continue to rise … [and areas] risk just to be flooded by sewage," said Javier Cordoba, Water and Sanitation Coordinator for the International Red Cross Committee (ICRC).

Despite denials, Israel has remained in full occupation of the Gaza Strip since its redeployment in 2005.  This is the view of international legal experts such as Human Rights Watch and the current and former UN Special Rapporteur on Palestine, American-Jewish human rights lawyer Richard Falk and South African human rights lawyer John Dugard, respectively.  Indeed, no government or international expert body has declared an end to the Israeli occupation of Gaza, largely because Israel insists on retaining full control of Gazan air and seaspace, and actively monitors European border monitors manning the Gazan customs points with Egypt .

Accordingly, as an occupying power, Israel is under particular obligation to protect civilians, and it is currently in violation of international law on at least three counts, including: targeting civilians through bombardment of civil institutions such as mosques, universities, police stations, schools, and a UN compound, and in directing missiles into population-dense areas; disproportionate force—from the end of the ceasefire, for every Israeli killed by Palestinian rockets, the Israelis have killed over 100 Palestinians; and collective punishment where all Gazans are subjected to bombardment, malnutrition, power and water cuts. With the ground operation now underway, civilian casualties will only mount further and hardships multiply.

But the Israeli public relations machinery—along with its international allies—is rewriting history and casting the blame of the current disaster on Hamas, claiming that it broke the ceasefire by firing rockets into Israel. What Israel doesn’t make public is that it broke the ceasefire on November 4 by killing 6 Palestinians and demolishing a house during a
military raid inside Gaza.  Up until then, Israeli security and intelligence personnel had been informing their allies that Hamas was performing well in maintaining the ceasefire.

The response to the Israeli breach were new rockets from Gaza, and Hamas refused to agree to a renewal of a ceasefire that didn’t include cessation of Israel’s blockade.  Indiscriminate rocket fire is also a breach of international law, but this does not then grant Israel the right to commit further breaches in response.  Moreover, the shameless claim by Israeli officials that there is no humanitarian emergency in Gaza is starkly contradicted in less self-interested reports by international aid agencies in Gaza and the UN.
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Peace talks may be ongoing, but peace is nowhere to be seen. The reasonable outcome to the current tragedy must surely be the realization that current approaches to addressing—rather than resolving—the conflict aren’t working.  Protest voices inside Israel, occupied Palestine, and around the world are calling for observation of international law when it comes to this conflict.  This approach has been neglected by the protagonists to the conflict and the guarantors of their peace negotiations— Israel, the PLO and the US.

International law provides the only neutral and objective standard by which to broker a durable agreement, and its prescriptions are well-known when it comes to this conflict: a two-state solution according to the 1967 Green Line, including Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem, removal of all settlements, and recognizing Palestinian refugee rights to return to their homes.

The responsible immediate action to undertake is to demand—not ask—for a ceasefire, full and unfettered opening up of Gazan borders to flow of goods and people, and meaningful peace negotiations with all significant parties to the conflict, including Hamas.

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Bahija Reghai is a Canadian Human Rights activist and a former president of the National COuncil on Canada-Arab Relations (NCCAR).

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