The latest Israeli incursions into Gaza (“Operation Cast Lead”) have resulted in yet another round of bloodletting. So far, January 5, 2009, about 500 Palestinians have been killed and more than 2,500 injured, with an estimated 25 per cent of victims being civilians. (Four Israelis have lost their lives since the start of the campaign.) These figures are drawn mainly from the Gaza emergency services. They are very rough estimates given the conditions under which hospital staff are working. The absence of proper medicines - resulting largely from an Israeli blockade of Gaza - and the decayed state of the Palestinian health system means that many patients will die of their injuries.
Journalist Juliet Lapidos points out that the death toll among Palestinian civilians is difficult to determine given that the count conducted by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency - based on Gaza hospital records - has included only women and children less than 18 years of age and men not wearing police uniforms who were identified by friends and relatives as noncombatants.
Israeli warplanes continue to attack rocket launch sites, tunnels, government buildings, television stations, and other “legitimate” targets such as mosques, medical stores and refugee camps, which Israelis claim house terrorist weaponry. Ground operations are now underway in the latter stages of the campaign. The Israeli government’s ban on journalists entering the war zone means that we are unlikely to get a clear picture of what is occurring in Gaza as a result of these operations.
Australian journalist, Antony Lowenstein, states that the bombing of civilians is a war crime that stands alongside other crimes such as “the West Bank settlements, the separation wall, house demolitions and brutal collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza …” Despite calls by the UN, the Arab League and various other nations to cease the bombardment of Gaza, Israel appears determined to eradicate Hamas despite the human cost and notwithstanding provisions contained in the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention.
(It is important also to make the point that the rockets fired into Southern Israel have indeed caused the deaths of innocent people just as the bombing now of Gaza has killed numerous Palestinians with no formal links with Hamas. Both actions only deepen resentments and increase the likelihood of more violence.)
Still, this is not the first time that Israel has thumbed its nose at the international community with dozens of UN resolutions having been ignored since 1948. The disregard for international opinion and law is - like the US-led assault on Iraq in 2003 - yet another reminder of the inability of the UN to reign in powerful states.
According to Professor Mirko Bagaric of Deakin University, one of the main lessons of the latest Middle East conflict is that “international law is an illusion”. He asserts that the attempt to impose international law is “a figment of an international teenage lawyer’s yearning for certainty and order in a world where the only geopolitical game remains ‘might is right’”.
Perhaps this helps to explain why the United States - a major backer of Israel - has such an abysmal record on human rights having participated directly or otherwise, according to Tariq Ali, in the deaths of more than 70 million people since the end of World War II and why, according to author of Unpeople, Mark Curtis, Britain (also a staunch ally of Israel) has been implicated in more than 10 million deaths.
Many of these fatalities have resulted from direct military assaults as well as support for military dictatorships, “counter revolutionary” militias and death squads. In light of the prolonged failure of the UN to prevent war crimes, international law becomes not the standard by which universally agreed rules can be imposed but rather, a system of what Bagaric calls “global etiquette”.
Bagaric describes the UN Security Council as both politically and legally impotent and fatally compromised by the fact that it is governed by an unrepresentative clique (US, Russia, China, France, Britain) with extraordinary powers of veto - often exercised in favour of Israel. Equally, Bagaric might have mentioned the comprised nature of the International Criminal Court, the practical difficulties of bringing war criminals to justice, the reluctance of the US and others to ratify and support international justice mechanisms, and the failure of international institutions to prosecute the leaders of the self-styled “coalition of the willing” for what celebrated English author Harold Pinter described as an “act of banditry” against sovereign Iraq.
Even if it were possible to curtail the aggression of powerful states such as Israel, the eventual solution will not come from military engagement or terrorism but rather from an ideological place where the past is acknowledged, racism eliminated, rights recognised, laws enforced, and equitable power restored through democratic process.
The acknowledgement that the Palestinians - a disenfranchised population of a million people - became refugees as result of ethnic cleansing in 1948 should be the starting point of any meaningful peace process. Given the failure of the UN to enforce its resolutions the Palestinian people have been hung out to dry in one of the most overcrowded and impoverished places on Earth. Their plight has become the rallying point for international protest and Islamic grievance (it was, for example, one of the three reasons why al-Qaida launched its attacks on the US on September 11, 2001). The Palestinian people have had their traditional lands torn away without compensation or compassion, and they are now being invited, through stacked “negotiations”, to forfeit any future claims to these lands.