The daily horrors emerging from Iraq have caused a majority of people in the United States to oppose Bush’s war there. Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis Israel has created in the occupied territories hovers below the radar for most Americans.
Israel has used the killing of two Israeli soldiers and the capture of a third by Palestinians as an excuse to invade Gaza with overwhelming military force and demolish its infrastructure. What Israel and its benefactor–the United States–really want is to destroy the democratically-elected Hamas government.
During the preceding weeks, Israel instigated events that resulted in the capture of the Israeli soldier. The Israeli military had killed more than 30 civilians, including three children and a pregnant woman.
In the week since the Israeli soldier was captured, Israel’s US-supplied artillery has pounded the northern Gaza Strip. Its aircraft struck bridges on the main roads. And its helicopters knocked out Gaza’s main power plant, leaving half of Gaza’s 1.5 million people and its two main hospitals without electricity and running water. The United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross have warned of a humanitarian crisis.
Israeli troops and tanks rolled into the southern Gaza Strip, in the biggest raid since Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005. Israel has kidnapped 64 Palestinian governmental ministers and politicians. It bombed the home of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made the astounding statement, "I am deeply sorry for the residents of Gaza, but the lives, security and well-being of the residents of [Jewish] Sderot is even more important to me." The Associated Press quoted Olmert as saying, "I want no one to sleep at night in Gaza. I want them to know what it feels like."
The crisis caused by the Israeli government has upset many Israeli citizens.
Hundreds of Israelis protested outside Olmert’s home, denouncing the government as war criminals and demanding an end to the Gaza invasion. "We call for our government to stop targeting Palestinian civilians–the targeting of civilians is a war crime–and start negotiating with the elected Palestinian leaders, not to arrest them," said Yishai Menuhin, a spokesman for the peace group Yesh Gvul.
Israeli newspaper Haaretz commentator Gideon Levy also criticized the Israeli actions. He wrote, "A state that takes such steps is no longer distinguishable from a terror organization."
Israel’s brutal retaliation against Palestinian civilians constitutes collective punishment. Attacks on a civilian population as a form of collective punishment violate article 50 of the Hague Regulations, which provides: "No general penalty, pecuniary or otherwise, shall be inflicted upon the population on account of the acts of individuals for which they cannot be regarded as jointly and severally responsible."
The Fourth Geneva Convention also prohibits collective punishment. Article 33 says: "No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed." The Convention requires all states party to it to search for and ensure the prosecution of perpetrators of the war crime of "causing extensive destruction … not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly." Amnesty International called the deliberate attacks by Israeli forces against civilian property and infrastructure war crimes.
Collective punishment is likewise forbidden by Article 75 of Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions. As four US Supreme Court justices agreed in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld last week, Article 75 is "indisputably part of the customary international law."
Before Israel’s invasion of Gaza last week, Hamas was beginning to retreat from its position that Israel has no right to exist. But Financial Times quoted Efraim Halevy, Israel’s most widely respected security expert, as saying, "Why should Israel care whether Hamas grants it the right to exist. Israel exists and Hamas’s recognition or non-recognition neither adds to nor detracts from that irrefutable fact."
The state of Israel is in no danger of perishing. Israel is the fourth largest military power in the world. Its "enemy" the Palestinian people have no tanks, no airplanes, no heavy artillery.
The United States’ loyal and consistent support for Israel’s policies–to the tune of more than $3 billion in aid per year–has enabled the Israeli government to conduct a war of terror against the Palestinians. Yasser Arafat once told an American journalist, "I’ll tell you what this war taught us. It taught us that the real enemy is the United States. It is against you that we must fight. Not because your bombs killed our people but because you have closed your eyes to what is moral and just."
If the US really wished to act on its human rights rhetoric, it should apply political and economic pressure that Israel could not resist. Under the Arms Export Control Act of 1976, military hardware sold by the United States can only be used for defensive purposes or to maintain internal security. Israel has used F-16 fighter jets, Apache and Cobra attack helicopters, 15mm howitzers, M-16 automatic rifles, M50 machine guns and many other weapons and ammunition supplied by the United States. Retired US Army General James J. David, in a letter to Colin Powell in January, 2002, wrote: "If you’re going to deny the Palestinians weapons to defend themselves, then you must stop all military and economic aid to Israel."
The Foreign Assistance Act prohibits the United States from rendering assistance to the government of any country " which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights."
The United States should halt Israel’s aggression against the Palestinians by suspending all economic and military aid to Israel until Israel’s military forces have been withdrawn from the occupied Palestinian territories.
But Israel is the US client-state in the Middle East and Bush is just the latest US president to continue that symbiotic relationship.
Hamas has responded to the recent Israeli aggression with threats of retaliation. This probably means the resumption of the suicide bombings which Hamas halted more than a year ago. A statement signed by Hamas spokesman Abu Obeidi said, "We reiterate that the continued aggression and terrorist acts of the tyrannical occupation against the Palestinian people, amid the silence of the international community, will plunge the region in a sea of blood."
A 2002 New York Times editorial said, "The growing harshness of Israeli military practices in the West Bank and Gaza is creating thousands of potential suicide bombers and Israel haters as well as coarsening a generation of young Israeli soldiers."
United for Peace and Justice has called for an immediate end to the assault on Gaza by the Israeli military forces; the cutting off of US financial and military aid to Israel as well as US support for the Israel occupation of the Palestinian territories; and immediate shipments by the US government of humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza.
It is time for the American people to demand that the US government stop its support for Israel’s aggression against the Palestinian people.
MARJORIE COHN is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, president-elect of the National Lawyers Guild, and the US representative to the American Association of Jurists.