A Farewell to a Purity of Arms

By Richard Lightbown

In response to the recent Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip Hillary Clinton repeated the political mantra “Israel has the right to self-defence”. The statement is absolutely true of course, but that right does not allow Israel to commit offensive strikes on its neighbours or to get its retaliation in first. Nor does it permit attacks on civilian areas, and under no circumstances does it legitimize the use of experimental weapons in civilian areas (to which I shall return later).

It is routinely said that by firing rockets from the Gaza Strip, terrorists who indiscriminately attack southern Israel are using the civilian population of Gaza as a human shield against retaliatory attacks by Israeli forces. This does not absolve those forces from recklessly attacking civilian areas. As the International Committee for the Red Cross explains “Parties to a conflict are prohibited to target civilians and required to take all feasible precautions to avoid attacks that result in civilian casualties.”

The forces of Bassad al-Assad who have been firing into civilian areas in Homs have rightly been heavily criticized for ignoring this convention, despite the fact that they have been seeking to destroy armed insurgents operating from within the civilian population. Yet significantly the term ‘human shield’ has not been used in this context. Nobody has suggested that civilian casualties in Homs and elsewhere are unfortunate collateral damage, or that the Syrian army’s primary responsibility is to ensure that it minimizes its own casualties. Yet no worldwide opprobrium is applied to such defenders of Israel as Prof Asa Kasher who has openly declared that military objectives and protecting soldier’s lives in Gaza must take priority over the avoidance of injury to “enemy civilians”.

According to Prof Kasher “There is no army in the world that will endanger its soldiers in order to avoid hitting the neighbours of an enemy or terrorist. […]The decisive question is how enlightened countries conduct themselves.” After claiming that his concepts “contain strong ethical elements” he unambiguously declared “From the standpoint of the state of Israel, the neighbour is much less important. I owe the soldier more”. (The professor did not say how much he owes a soldier who is in no danger whatsoever when killing civilians in a drone attack.)

This Machiavellian logic may accurately reflect 21st century military thinking, but there is nothing ethical in flouting international humanitarian and criminal law. Neither is there anything enlightened about military forces treating civilians as disposable assets or irrelevant trivia. Quite the reverse, Prof Kasher’s doctrine advocates barbarism, and he might care to consider that a suicide bomber’s objectives only differ from his own in that they do not put the life of the combatant above that of the civilians they kill or injure. Like him they consider that the military objective has priority over humanitarian considerations. One might also argue that they show more courage than the soldier whose second priority is to save his own neck at any price.

This is not academic whinging. At the time of writing PCHR reports that 23 residents of the Gaza Strip have been killed and 73 wounded in four days of attacks by the regional superpower of the Near East. The Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) reports that in the same period five people were injured in southern Israel by Palestinian rockets; one of the casualties was seriously hurt. The cross border fighting began when two members of the Popular Resistance Committee in Gaza were killed in a targeted operation by the Israeli Air Force (IAF). Israeli sources alleged that the victims were planning a terror attack from Egyptian territory, but no proof was given for the claims.

On 18 August 2011 a series of attacks in southern Israel killed eight people and wounded 31 others. Defence Minister Ehud Barak quickly blamed the same Popular Resistance Committee in Gaza whose leadership was swiftly killed in aerial attacks by the IAF. A cross-border tit-for-tat ensued and a major military assault was considered. Thirty-four days later Yossi Gurvitz noted that Israel’s most popular newspaper reported on page 13 that an IDF investigation had concluded all of the attackers were Egyptians or residents of the Sinai. The MFA has offered no explanation or apology for a libellous report blaming residents of the Gaza Strip, which still appears on its website.

Whether or not the targets in this latest assassination were legitimate or not, some of the weapons used during both IAF campaigns were certainly not legal.

Medical personnel in Gaza probably have a wider experience of weapons injuries than anyone else in the world. Many new types of weapon are given early field trials in Gaza, and presumably reports are relayed to the manufacturers. In 2001 a new nerve gas was used in Khan Younis and Gharbi refugee camps. During Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9 D.I.M.E. bombs and flechettes were fired at civilian areas. Following Israeli attacks in August 2011 staff at Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City reported new injuries from unknown weapons. Dr Ayman Al-Sahbani, the Director of the Emergency Department, described casualties, including women and children, with widespread metallic shrapnel injuries accompanied by serious burns and amputations, particularly to the lower body. The staff had no idea of the prognosis that might develop. (It has been speculated that the weapon is a development of D.I.M.E. technology that may have been supplemented with another agent such as white phosphorus.)

On 11 March Dr Ayman was again interviewed by Julie Webb-Pullman during which he described a further development in which about twelve victims had been admitted with their skin blackened from severe burns. Several of the bodies had been decapitated indicating a different explosive pattern. The context to these horrific injuries is that because of the current fuel crisis in Gaza many hospital services are on the verge of collapse, while stocks of many essential drugs are at zero.

 Nobody should pretend that this suffering is necessary for the defence of Israel.

– Richard Lightbown contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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