August 29, 2006
Palestine is suffering a manmade disaster stemming from a sequence of US backed Israeli actions: military occupation, the wall, the embargo, and now the military invasion. Israel's pretext for these actions has been suicide bombers, captured Israeli soldiers, and rockets fired at Israeli towns. The real purpose appears to be weaken, humiliate, and force out the civilian population so Israel can take over the rest of their land.
Back in 2003 a UN report stated that "a humanitarian catastrophe" was already building in the occupied Palestinian territories "as a result of extremely harsh military measures that the occupying Israeli military forces have imposed in response to the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000." The report concluded, "the current humanitarian crisis is a manmade crisis. It is absurd that in what can be a comparatively wealthy economy given its fertile lands, Palestinian men, women, and children should be going hungry." The report notes that "the Government of Israel has an obligation under international law to ensure the basic food and water needs of the occupied population and to provide assistance when necessary." (UN Commission on Human Rights, The Right to Food: Report by the Special Rapporteur, Jean Ziegler, Addendum, Mission to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, 17 (UN Doc. E/CN.4/2004/10/Add.2 Oct. 31, 2003) Israeli action directly opposes that obligation.
Among many other protections of civilians living under military occupation, article 55 of the fourth Geneva Convention provides, "To the fullest extent of the means available to it the Occupying Power has the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population; it should, in particular, bring in the necessary foodstuffs, medical stores and other articles if the resources of the occupied territory are inadequate." In addition, article 33 provides that "collective penalties" and "all measures of intimidation or of terrorism" directed by the occupying power at the civilian population and "reprisals against civilians or their property" are specifically prohibited.
According to the UN report, "over 22 per cent of children under 5 were suffering from malnutrition" in 2002. The report further notes that food supply is so low and nutrition is so poor that many of these malnourished children "will have permanent negative effects on their physical and mental development."
The UN report notes that "the formerly vibrant economy has almost collapsed and the numbers of the extreme poor have tripled since September 2000. Around 60 per cent of Palestinians are now living in acute poverty (75 per cent in Gaza and 50 percent in the West Bank)." It states that "more than 50% of Palestinians are now completely dependent on food aid, yet humanitarian access remains problematic."
The UN report blames Israeli "curfews, road closures, permit systems and security checkpoints" and "the continued confiscation and destruction of Palestinian land and water resources" by Israel as "reducing the capacity of the Palestinians to be able to feed themselves and amounts to the gradual dispossession of the Palestinian people."
That was in 2003, when construction of the wall was just beginning and only a fraction of the land it now occupies had been expropriated from Palestinians. The UN report noted that the 2,875 acres of Palestinian land by then expropriated for the footprint of the wall "is some of the most fertile land in the occupied Palestinian territories" and the path of the wall "will also effectively annex most of the western aquifer system (which provides 51 per cent of the West Bank's water resources)" to Israel. The UN report notes that "with the fence/wall cutting communities off from their land and water without other means of subsistence, many of the Palestinians living in these areas will be forced to leave. It is estimated that 6000 to 8000 people have already left the area of Qualquilya."
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) declared in its July 9, 2004 decision that the wall, crossing land seized in 1967 by Israel, was illegal and stated that Israel is under an obligation to dismantle the wall. The court obligated all countries, including the US, to avoid supporting its construction and to ensure compliance with international humanitarian law. (see here and here). The ICJ decision also declared that "the United Nations, and especially the General Assembly and the Security Council, should consider what further action is required to bring to an end the illegal situation resulting from the construction of the wall." The ICJ decision also declared that "Israel is under an obligation to make reparation for all damage caused by the construction of the wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including in and around East Jerusalem."
The ICJ emphasized that "both Israel and Palestine are under an obligation scrupulously to observe the rules of international humanitarian law, one of the paramount purposes of which is to protect civilian life." The court noted "serious repercussions for agricultural production" from construction of the wall, including the confiscation of "100,000 dunums [approximately 25,000 acres] of the West Bankĺs most fertile agricultural land. . . upon which tens of thousands of Palestinians rely for their survival."
As if this was not enough, the humanitarian catastrophe from the military occupation and from the wall was then made vastly more intense by Israel's embargo on international aid and Israel's refusal to transfer Palestinian tax revenue starting in January, 2006 when the new Hamas led government was elected. The US appears to have given a green light to the Israeli embargo against the civilian population while adding its own restrictions on aid to Palestinian civilians. The rest of the international community appears to have gone along following the US lead, and parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention failed to convene and take action to protect millions of Palestinian civilians living under occupation.
In view of international humanitarian aid being the sole remaining lifeline for the Palestinian population, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbied hard for the US Congress to impose strict conditions on aid to Palestinians in a bill entitled the "Palestinian Anti-terrorism Act" that was passed by the House on May 23, 2006.
In 2005 US aid to Palestinians amounted to $400 million while the EU provided aid of $600 million. According to the World Bank this and other foreign aid amounted to about half of Palestine's per capita GDP of $934. Since the election of the Hamas leaders, the US took responsibility for organizing the embargo, cutting off its own aid to Palestinian civilians and openly pressuring European governments to embargo their aid as well to deepen impoverishment.
Not satisfied with the level of suffering it was inflicting, Israel found pretext to further ratchet up the humanitarian catastrophe when an Israeli soldier was captured by Palestinian guerrilla fighters on June 27, 2006. Israel dropped bombs, fired missiles, and shelled populated areas, killing 162 people in July and destroyed vital civilian infrastructure. Israeli forces also blocked transport of food, water, and medical supplies in Gaza and assassinated or imprisoned Palestinian leaders. As the Washington Post reported on its front page on August 28, 2006 "More than 200 Palestinians, at least 44 of them children, have been killed in the past 8 1/2 weeks. Three Israeli soldiers have been killed. Huge Israeli bulldozers and 'pinpoint' missiles have razed at least 40 houses and dozens of other buildings, according to the army, leaving many families homeless. Daily skirmishes regularly result in new casualties. The Israelis attack with tanks, F-16 jets and artillery."
On August 18, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert announced suspension of his Kadima Party's sole election promise, a unilateral withdrawal from portions of the West Bank and dismantling of certain ethnically pure Jewish settlements there. While Israel had made significant gains in public opinion from its highly publicized August, 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, the heightened criticism of Israel over the war in Lebanon persuaded Israeli officials that they would not be able to convince international public opinion that the withdrawal from portions of the West Bank was anything other than a bid to consolidate Israeli control over the other portions.
Like the 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon, the withdrawal from Gaza was merely a temporary measure to facilitate a later military attack. Recognizing that a military occupation of territory with a civilian population incurred responsibilities for those civilians under international law and because of resistance to the occupation organized by Hezbollah, Israel withdrew its ground forces from Lebanon in 2000 after an 18 year occupation. Then when a proper pretext was presented on July 12, 2006, Israel used intense bombing to drive out almost the entire civilian population south of the Litani River. Its ground troops would then be able to return unhindered by the presence of civilians to clean out surviving guerrilla fighters. However, this long planned strategy failed because of the ability of the Hezbollah fighters to survive the bombing and inflict heavy casualties on invading Israeli soldiers.
In Gaza Israel is using a variant of this strategy. Using such security pretexts as the capture of Israeli soldiers and the firing of amateur rockets, Israel has avoided intense international criticism for its military action and for creating the humanitarian disaster for the civilian population. These policies have nothing to do with protecting the security of Israelis and everything to do with Israel's goal of intensifying misery to drive out the civilian population so Israeli settlers can then move back and take over their land.
The defeat of Israel's strategy to clean out the population and acquire land and water in southern Lebanon opened the possibility of criticism of all aspects of Israeli policy and society. A new generation of returning Israeli soldiers are currently protesting, camped out in the Rose Garden opposite the prime ministers office. Though limiting their criticism to tactical issues, as noted in an article by Gideon Levy in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on August 29, the possibility exists for deepening the questioning to the suffering inflicted on Lebanese and Palestinian civilians. Why is Israel putting acquiring land of its neighbors ahead of life itself? Now that the limits of military power have become evident, all Israel's policies, including economic strangulation, massive bombing, troop incursions, imprisonment, targeted assassination, torture of prisoners, seizure of fertile agricultural land, ethnically pure Jewish settlements, and destruction of power plants, bridges, and apartment buildings, could come under questioning as offensive to Jewish values and human values. Israel's political strategy of using pretexts and provoking pretexts to continually advance its policy of ethnic cleansing could also come under intense scrutiny.
Palestinian civilians have been courageously steadfast in the face of Israel's brutal military and economic program. But that is not sufficient. A massive worldwide campaign is urgently needed now. This campaign must protest escalating Israeli reprisals against civilians and Israel's many other violations of international law. It must call for the immediate withdrawal of all Israeli soldiers and settlers from Palestine. It must call for an end to US government and corporate support for Israeli aggression. It must call for a truly democratic Israeli government where all ten million people living under its rule have equal rights and where discrimination based on religious identity is abolished. It must politically challenge every aspect of Israeli policy. As with the South Africa campaign of the 1980s and 1990s, teach-ins, rallies, and demonstrations as well as sanctions, boycotts, and divestment are needed now to prevent Israel's intentional humanitarian disaster from proceeding and to demand a fundamental change in the Israeli government.
James Marc Leas is a member of the National Lawyers Guild and is a board member of the Refuser Solidarity Network. He has long been active with Jewish peace groups opposing the Israeli invasions of Lebanon and occupation of Palestine. He practices patent law in South Burlington, Vermont and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org