Striking with Impunity

As part of its ongoing brutal military occupation and collective punishment of the Palestinian people, Israel invaded the refugee camp al-Bureij, in the Gaza Strip, in the early morning hours of Friday, December 6. The avowed goal of the invasion, dubbed “Real Games,” was to arrest or kill Aiman Shasniyeh and destroy his family’s house–a brazen violation of international law and a callous act of inhumanity. Shasniyeh is accused by Israel of daring to fight for the right of his people to live in freedom. In March, he allegedly took part in an attack on an Israeli tank in which three soldiers were killed. However, even if Shasniyeh is responsible for this act, it in no way justifies Israel’s disproportionate and indiscriminate response.

According to eyewitnesses, between 40-50 Israeli tanks, with aerial support from U.S.-provided AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships, entered the hapless refugee camp and surrounded the Shasniyeh home. There, an unexpectedly pitched battle ensued with local Hamas members who were armed with rifles, grenades, and anti-tank shells. Israeli tanks and helicopters shelled and fired missiles on a densely populated area of the refugee camp, destroying the Shasniyeh home and others along with it. Hassan Safi, who witnessed the attack, told Yediot Aharonot, an Israeli newspaper: “I ran, together with my son, to the destroyed house and extricated two people. The helicopters fired on us and it was almost impossible to evacuate the injured.”

Although many of the details of this lopsided battle remain murky, some facts are clear. When an army fires tank shells and missiles into an over-crowded refugee camp, it is likely to inflict a heavy toll on the people who reside there. Ten Palestinians died in this invasion, six of whom were apparently Hamas fighters, and four of whom were apparently civilians, including two employees of the UN. Twenty Palestinians were injured as well, including five from the Mansour family whose home was struck directly by a tank shell.

What is also clear is that Israel again used U.S. weapons to injure and kill Palestinian civilians and destroy their homes. Unfortunately, many Americans are completely unaware that their tax dollars are being spent to fund these brutalities. If they were aware, then maybe Israel would not have the leeway it needs to commit these war crimes.

Many Americans also are unaware that the use of U.S. weapons in this manner violates a morally compelling law called the U.S. Arms Export Control Act. According to this act, countries can use U.S. weapons for the very limited purposes of “legitimate self-defense” or “internal security” and certainly can never employ them against civilian populations. Only a sophist could argue that an offensive Israeli attack on Palestinian civilians in a refugee camp could constitute self-defense or fall under the rubric of internal security.

No country is entitled to a carte blanche to violate the law, whether it is domestic or international. If Israel’s use of U.S. weapons violates our laws, then it would logically follow that the United States should enforce the Arms Export Control Act and refuse to provide Israel with more weapons until it stops using them to attack civilians and thereby implicate the United States in the commission of war crimes. Yet, instead of stanching the flow of death machines to the Israeli military, the Bush Administration is reportedly considering favorably an Israeli request to provide it with an additional $4 billion of military assistance!

This ludicrous and tragic U.S. policy was highlighted by the State Department just hours after Israel’s murderous attack on al-Bureij. In his daily press briefing, a reporter asked spokesperson Richard Boucher if Israel would suffer any consequences for using U.S. weapons in this manner. Here is Boucher’s escape artist response to which Harry Houdini would have shown great reverence: “We have made our policy quite clear. We have made quite clear the violence has to stop. There’s no way to get to peace, there’s no way to get a Palestinian state, if the violence and terrorism continue. And we’ve repeatedly called on the Palestinians to do everything they can to stop the violence, and yet, despite this, we’ve seen bombings and terrorism continue.”

When the State Department has the audacity to blame the victim and calls on Palestinians to halt Israel’s violence, this is a sure-fire sign of a morally bankrupt policy. But just because the State Department cannot conceive of any consequences of Israel’s use of U.S. weapons against Palestinian refugees, this does not mean that they do not exist. How many more Twin Towers need to fall before we realize that there are indeed consequences of the action (or inaction) that our democratically elected government takes in our name?

Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” How much longer will it take for Americans of good conscience to hold our elected representatives accountable to our laws and ensure that Israel doesn’t kill anymore Palestinians in our name?

JOSH RUEBNER is co-founder of Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel (JPPI) and a former Analyst in Middle East Affairs at Congressional Research Service (CRS). He can be reached: