By Jennifer Loewenstein – Madison, WI
At the Nuremburg Tribunal in 1945 ‘Aggression’ was defined as ‘the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.’ Chief Counsel for the United States at Nuremburg, Justice Robert Jackson, defined the aggressor as the state that is the first to commit such actions as ‘invasion of its armed forces, with or without a declaration of war, of the territory of another state.’ Jackson also called attention to the principle of universality, or the simple but too often overlooked fact that what applies to our enemies must apply equally to ourselves. For one state or court of justice to apply international law according to the perceived national security interests of the few, or a one-sided interpretation of ‘evil,’ poisons both the letter and the spirit of the law. Some 65 years after the end of the Nuremburg Tribunal, the definitions and caveats of global justice remain the same; but they are no more universally applied today than they are remembered or summoned to spare various regions of the world the devastation and suffering they are now experiencing. Indeed, at times such as during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead exactly one year ago, one could argue that they were consciously suppressed.
Operation Cast Lead, code name for the US-backed Israeli military offensive against the people of Gaza from December 27th, 2008 to January 18th, 2009, killed over 1,400 people, 85% of them civilians and nearly 400 of them children; it wounded over 5300 people; it devastated the agricultural, industrial and environmental infrastructures of the Gaza Strip, and further gutted the Gazan social and political foundations of what should have been by now one area of a vibrant and viable modern Palestinian state. Instead Gaza, like the other sections of this hacked up land, lies drained of its lifeblood like a severed limb. Its past recalls shockingly brutal years of occupation, torture, degradation and mutilation by an aggressor granted immunity from the principles of world order. But Israel’s exemption from the primary tenets of international law flows straight out of the self-exemption from those same laws that its imperial overlord, the United States, has insisted upon for itself in global affairs. Only when we have mobilized individual and collective courage to challenge the United States’ unpardonable hubris and flagrant disregard for legality and morality, will its clients’ liberty to mimic these same behaviors with impunity fade away.
The Goldstone Report, powerful in its condemnation of the conduct of the Israeli military’s behavior during Operation Cast Lead (OCL), never goes on to say how this operation could have been justified; or to explain how Israel was allowed to get away with such savagery in the first place. Indeed, Justice Richard Goldstone initially refused to take on the investigation into the winter assault at all. He agreed to do so only after the chairperson of the United Nations Committee that had originally sought his assistance agreed to let him write the mandate for the mission in his own words. Goldstone’s personally written mandate insisted that both Israel’s and Hamas’ actions would have to be investigated in order for the report to be fair –a prerequisite that could have been legitimate had it simultaneously emphasized the military and political disparities between Israel and Hamas. In the end, however, Goldstone’s report does the opposite: it equates Israel’s and Hamas’ actions; or those of the occupied with those of the occupier, and then goes on to blame Hamas for the outbreak of hostilities it by firing rockets over the Gaza border into Israel.
Operation Cast Lead has so far never been publicly condemned by a recognized legal authority as an act of illegal and unjustifiable aggression. In fact, ultimately Goldstone’s depiction of Israel’s assault on Gaza as the legitimate exercising of its alleged ‘right to self-defense’ is entirely consistent with what both US and Israeli governmental and media spokespeople claimed from the beginning. Unsurprisingly, US pro-Israel lobby groups and public relations organizations continually repeat the lie in print and over the airwaves that last year’s three-week-long assault on Gaza by US-backed Israeli forces was both logical and forgivable under the circumstances –even if some of the actions that occurred during the operation were ‘excessive’ or ‘disproportionate,’ as if such actions can now be forgiven, forgotten, chalked up to ‘isolated incidents,’ or the ‘natural’ anger and vengeance that comes out in human behavior in times of conflict or war. The 36 war crimes selected for careful review by the Goldstone Commission were but a sampling of literally thousands of illegal and unspeakable acts of savagery committed against the civilian population of Gaza; indeed they defined the operation by being the rule rather than the exception. The entire operation was one monstrous war crime but this plain fact eludes Justice Goldstone just as it is overlooked today in our memorials and analyses of what happened to an imprisoned and defenseless population, 56% of whom are legally considered children. The ‘defensive’ nature of Israel’s military operation is rarely questioned or even noticed, and because Justice Richard Goldstone himself never undertook to question whether or not OCL had any legitimate basis from the start, the overall legal value of the Goldstone Report is seriously flawed.
Under international law acts of aggression are illegal; in addition, no nation has the right to defend itself using force. Articles 2 and 51 of the United Nations Charter prohibit military action even in cases of self-defense until all peaceful means of resolving a conflict have been exhausted. Even then the intervention of the United Nations must precede any move towards a resolution of the conflict by force. Rather than solve the problem of Hamas rocket fire peacefully, Israel responded using violence. More to the point, Hamas had offered to reinstate the cease-fire, even to go back to the agreements of 2005, before Hamas had won the PLC elections. Israel never seriously considered these peaceful options rejecting them out of hand almost immediately although, based on Hamas’ record, it had every reason to believe they would work. After all, Hamas had abided by the ceasefire faithfully from its inception. It was Israel, with a bright green light from the United States, that violated it repeatedly, day after day after day, throughout the six month period in which it took effect.
Just as it routinely violates international law and the agreements it signs with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, Israel’s record of adherence to international standards of law and morality in the Gaza Strip, which it is slowly and deliberately smothering to death, is worse than abysmal. In the overall historical context of the occupation and dispossession of the Palestinians, we must therefore view Hamas’ rocket fire in the context of resistance despite the fact that this particular act of retaliation is illegal: the rockets are too primitive to distinguish between civilian and military targets and the soldiers who fire them are aware of this fact. Although non-violent resistance has been by far the dominant method of resistance by the Palestinian people for decades, despite pervasive propaganda to the contrary, there are still many people, including Palestinians, who believe that the US and Israel are only able to comprehend the language of force.
Israel’s claim that Operation Cast Lead was the legitimate expression of its right to self-defense was disingenuous for other reasons. Israeli military officials had drawn up the blueprints for it prior to the beginning of the six-month-long ceasefire that Hamas had been faithfully observing. Only after Israel’s most egregious breach of the ceasefire on November 4, 2008 involving an incursion into middle Gaza in which IDF militants killed 6 Palestinians did Hamas begin firing rockets. Otherwise Israel officially recognized that Hamas had fired no rockets during the ceasefire up until then despite the continuation of its deadly siege against the 1.5 million people of Gaza. Israel pursued no non-violent means to stop the rocket fire prior to its aerial blitz on Gaza City on December 27th, 2008, in which more than 300 people died in a matter of minutes—238 of them young civil police cadets unconnected with the Hamas security apparatus at their graduation ceremony, other than phony ceasefire re-negotiation efforts its top military brass pretended to conduct in order to catch the population of Gaza off guard.
By relaxing its border control areas immediately prior to the beginning of OCL allowing in greater quantities of humanitarian aid despite the illegal siege, Israel deceived the public in Gaza into believing that the situation was beginning to calm down. This helped the Israeli military achieve one of its primary war aims, namely to exact the ‘highest number of enemy casualties possible’ once the operation had begun, according to Yoav Gallant, IDF Chief of the Southern Command (Haaretz, Dec. 27th 2008). It is reasonable to assume that by the word “enemy” Gallant and his colleagues meant “Palestinians” and not simply “militants” since more than three quarters of the dead were Palestinian civilians.
Operation Cast Lead was consequently an act of sheer aggression against the people and territory of the Gaza Strip for which there were no justifications. All of the horrors that occurred during this event could have been prevented if the single terrible lie that it was a legitimate act of self-defense had been exposed and challenged from the start.
If the informed public in our own country were not so deeply indoctrinated with the United States’ imperial ideology that what we and our allies do is just and good and what our ‘enemies’ and their supporters do is terrorist and bad, it might then more easily grasp the simple truth that all acts of aggression are illegal and are the source for the collective set of horrors that follow in their wake. Denouncing aggression as such before it begins could help prevent the suffering and violence that await far too many of us in the near future. We have to do more than identify and condemn individual war crimes after they are committed. We must stop the servants and the machinery of war before they embark on their destructive paths. Overcoming the entrenched propaganda is difficult but not impossible, especially when families, students, educators, workers, activists and other concerned citizens work together to awaken, organize and mobilize public opinion in the United States and across the world.
– Jennifer Loewenstein is a faculty associate in Middle East Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a freelance journalist and a long-time human rights activist. She has lived and worked in Beirut, Gaza, & Jerusalem and has traveled extensively throughout the region. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.