Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

Israel and total war Felicity Arbuthnot

Al-Ahram 10-16 Aug 2006
International law is rendered irrelevant as Israel, in Lebanon now as well as Gaza, targets whole populations for slow yet purposive extermination, writes Felicity Arbuthnot*

The overwhelming consensus expressed in international law — here the 1st Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, 1977 — is explicit: “It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies such as irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying … sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or any other motive.”

Other articles of the 1st Additional Protocol forbid the destruction, closure (whether temporary or permanent) or knowing interruption of food, water, medicines or electricity to civilian hospitals and clinics, mobile or permanent. This is an absolute, only to be tempered if such facilities ” … are used to commit … acts harmful to the enemy”. Any military attack or incursion into medical facilities must only be undertaken after clear warnings and proof of “harmful acts” being undertaken from within. Is this finally explanation as to why doctors in Iraq, near weeping over their lack of ability to treat agonised, burned, bombed, shot and severed patients, are cuffed, beaten, locked in storerooms, their hospitals sealed off?

The Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols are the foundation of international humanitarian law: humanity’s attempt to define the outer limits of the acceptable infliction of human suffering. In the long journey towards enlightenment, we stand almost 30 years down the road from when the 1st Additional Protocol was signed, expressing aspirations among ordinary people as to the behaviour of the states they constitute. Though party to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the state of Israel until now refuses to sign on to the 1st Additional Protocol, with all its protections and moral norms. In essence the protocol is complementary to the 1951 Genocide Convention: it outlaws many of the insidious ways in which a whole population may be erased. How ironic that Israel remains outside, its citizens composed of Jews who faced an equal rationality of extermination within the time frame of recent memory.

But who bothers with international law anyway? US Commander-in-Chief George W Bush is famous for not reading (last known attempt: My Pet Goat, to a group of school children in Florida, the hapless president pictured holding the book upside down). Prime Minister Blair, QC, would seem to have the attention span of a gnat and seemingly has not found the time. Israel’s leaders, meanwhile, clearly don’t care. So much for upholding the smokescreen that after all it’s really a nice world. The US, whose missiles and bombs rain down on Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq, signed the protocol but after three decades hasn’t managed to ratify this basic expression of fair play. Israel, on the other hand, in simply ignoring the international consensus, gives itself “legal” license to do exactly what the Additional Protocol was formulated to prohibit. But that it can does not mean that forever it will get away with it.

The Charter of the International Tribunal at Nuremberg defined crimes against humanity (Article 6c) as: ” … other inhumane acts committed against the civilian population”. This article was expanded with the formation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to include crimes of extermination and applies not only to times of war but also in peace, or where war has not explicitly been declared. Fortunately for state leaders in the Knesset, Israel signed but did not ratify the Rome Statute of the ICC. Bush, meanwhile, withdrew from its strictures altogether. Two rogue states, as ever, above law. Crimes against humanity, however, which surely include the purposive targeting of essentials sustaining life, are subject to universal jurisdiction, thus a perpetrator can be prosecuted anywhere, irrespective of where the crime was committed. No perpetrator can claim the defence “of obedience to superior orders”. No one is immune from prosecution for such crimes, even a head of state.

Yet from Baghdad to Beirut, from Gaza with its teeming near million and a half population to the decimated refugee camp of Jenin, which so succinctly encapsulated the Geneva Conventions and the most signed up to UN convention ever, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (only two abstentions on the planet — the US and Somalia), the rules of high civilisation are abandoned, as in the Balkans and Afghanistan. First target: truth. It is a staple of the laws of war that special protection is afforded to journalists. Yet what was laid down in law at the beginning of the last century seems arcane at the beginning of our own. As with the bombings of media outlets in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, in Beirut, one of the first (and continuing) targets was TV station, Al-Manar.

Next target: movement. Beirut’s gleaming new airport — named after former Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri — lies in ruins. Bridges across the country and roads connecting Lebanon to Syria are blitzed, along with homes and lives of course. Blockaded from land, air and sea, the population is trapped like a fish in a bowl. Eyewitnesses have described “near apocalyptic scenes” of bombings. Whole families wiped out: “a 10-months-old and six family members”, in Baflay village, near the biblical city of Tyre. “A baby sliced in three, the body parts hanging from olive trees … ” from the force of the blast. A charred toddler in two pieces in a burned-out house on a charred mattress; “a convoy of those told to flee their village by Israel was bombed, in one vehicle 20 were killed. Fifteen were children, most reportedly vaporised.” Where is international humanitarian law now?

“Will the world stand by and watch them kill children without doing anything?” asked Jamil Hassan, after the remains of seven children were found in a family olive grove. Given its behaviour since the 1990 embargo on Iraq, holding one’s breath for America — light of freedom and justice — to step in is inadvisable. “I think any time people, innocent men, women and children are being killed, that is, in effect, the definition of terrorism,” said US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld in New Delhi, 12 June 2002. I agree. America: you are terrorist, and you support terrorists. Israel: you are terrorist, and you are supported by terrorists.

Gaza — where Israeli forces recently blew up a picnicking family on a beach (a war crime if ever there was one) and abducted six members of the democratically-elected cabinet along with 90 other legislators — has been effectively blockaded over the whole of the so-called “peace process”. Israel kept control of air, sea and land entry points, even bombing Gaza’s sole airport in 2001. The US-sponsored “roadmap” forbade any Palestinian military forces, thus Israel bombs and bulldozes (with the US providing the most sophisticated weaponry on earth and broadly, paying the bills) freely, facing only a popular resistance consisting of youth throwing stones and others so touched by the injustice that they take their own lives amid their enemy, immediately to be designated “terrorists”. Eighty one per cent of Gaza’s population are trapped below the poverty line. Principal importers of Palestinian produce are Egypt and Israel, but those borders are sealed. And as Israel bombs Gaza’s sole power station and the lights go out, so does all that is ” … indispensable to the survival of the civilian population”.

Barely any news coverage has been given to Israel’s purposive, unnecessary and unjustifiable destruction of Gaza’s electricity system. Without power, incubators don’t work, the newborns in them dying. Dialysis machines, cardiac monitors, the entire infrastructure of emergency medical aid: all is knocked out when the power goes out. Defibrillators, blood banks, saline banks; in a war zone life saving pharmaceuticals ruin as refrigerators shut down. Effective sterilisation of instruments becomes impossible, along with x-rays, scans, operations and even morgue storage. What do bereaved and frightened children in hospital feel, at night, or those at home, as war planes roar over and darkness envelops all? In hospitals and homes, without electricity, water cannot be purified, pumped, nor sewage disposed of. In temperatures soaring to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, contaminated water and untreated sewage can spawn cholera and typhoid with devastating effect.

Gaza, like Iraq and now Lebanon, is an extermination camp, at every level. The abduction of members of the Palestinian government is near proof of Israel’s intent of genocide. How are Palestinian civilians supposed to cope without a government? The abductions place the entire civilian population at risk. Of course, this tactic is not new. The US has done the same from Nicaragua to Panama, from Kabul to Baghdad, to deafening silence from successive, impotent, flaccid UN officials.

As though these things were not enough, numerous if unconfirmed reports flood in about unconventional weapons raining down on Gaza and Lebanon. Dr Juma Al-Saqaa, of Gaza’s Al-Shifa (the cure) Hospital, told Voice of Palestine Radio of physical wounds not seen before; describing bodies near dissolved but no shrapnel being found. Chilling echoes indeed of US assaults in Iraq, particularly Fallujah — the “city of one thousand mosques”. The Palestine Ministry of Health is pleading for an international medical delegation to view and opine on these effects.

Meanwhile, at the G8 Summit in St Petersburg, Bush and Blair blamed victims for retaliating, Lebanon for being there, Syria and Iran (long on their hit list) for the whole disaster from which they hope to wrest a “New Middle East”, and defended Israel’s crimes against humanity in the name of three captured soldiers. Oddly, according to the right wing Jerusalem Post (12 July) an entire reserve division of the Israeli army was called up weeks before the capture of the first soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, to train for an operation against Hizbullah in Lebanon. What a happy coincidence. Further, Haaretz (30 June) reported that: “The detention of Hamas parliamentarians … had been planned several weeks ago … Shin Bet Director Yuv Diskin presented Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with a list of Hamas officials slated for detention.”

Correct or not, undisputed is the unending bloodlust of leaders of the United States, United Kingdom and Israel. The fact that the Hamas’s 2005 ceasefire had held was not good enough to build on. Diplomacy was always to be ditched because in the minds of supremacists there is no wish for making the enemy a friend.

“One may well ask if there isn’t today a kind of wish to destroy Lebanon — its infrastructure, its roads, its communications, its energy, its airport. And for what?” said President Chirac in a radio interview 14 July, Bastille Day in France. The question is on my mind also.

* The writer is a free-lance journalist and peace activist.

Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

"The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All others are subsumed by it."
-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"