There was a time, not so long ago in fact, when opposing armies would line up across from each other with nothing but green fields between them and take turns exchanging fire. While these tactics were very efficient at killing soldiers on both sides, civilians were rarely ever hurt.
Somewhere along the line this all changed. Whether it was because of industrialization, urbanization or adaptations in military strategy, one stark and indisputable fact remains: at the beginning of the twentieth century the ratio of civilian to military deaths in wars was one to eight and by the end of it inverted to eight to one.
Certainly, there were turning points that made us cringe at the destructive power of humanity. Dresden, Nagasaki, Auschwitz and others led us to the conclusion that in today’s wars civilians needed more protection from the world’s most destructive powers-states. The laws of war, specifically those designed to protect civilians, were codified as urban settings increasingly became the locales of industrialized destruction.
There is perhaps no theater of war in a more urban setting than the Gaza Strip. As one of the most densely populated spots on the planet, Gaza is precisely the type of place laws of war were meant to protect civilians. It becomes comical then to even consider the notion put forward by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu recently. He boldly claimed that the laws of war should be amended so that operations like the one Israel carried out in Gaza this past winter that left over 1,400 dead, mostly civilians, could be legal.
In a war that could have been entirely avoided, Israel chose not only to attack but also to do so in a cowardly way that guaranteed tremendous civilian deaths and destruction to civilian infrastructure. The Israeli leadership, likely wary of upcoming elections and the Israeli electorates intolerance for casualties, decided to strike Gaza from a distance using disproportionate force and illegal weapons to keep their casualty rate down. On their way out of the Strip, the Israeli forces destroyed civilian factories and fields with the clear intention of levying collective punitive damages on the people of Gaza. It is precisely because political leaders in Israel consciously made this decision that they committed war crimes in the Gaza Strip.
The report conducted by Justice Richard Goldstone and his team documents, in gruesome detail, the results of Israel’s cost/benefit analysis. Because of this documentation, some have begun to demand that Israel conduct an independent internal investigation into the allegation levied by the esteemed jurist. But this will not be sufficient. Israel has proven it cannot be trusted to produce justice through its internal investigations.
When thousands of Palestinian refugees were massacred in the Sabra and Shatila camps, for example, an independent Israeli commission was formed to investigate. To their credit, they held their defense minister responsible and recommended that he never be permitted to hold a ministerial position again.
Being banned from the cabinet for playing a role in the murder of 3,000 civilians may seem like a slap on the wrist. Yet, what is even worse, is that the man responsible not only came back onto the political scene, but was elected prime minister! Consequently, Ariel Sharon went on to pursue the largest expansion of Israeli settlements in 20 years. When it comes to war crimes and crimes against humanity, Israel is simply not capable of introspection.
In 1961, an esteemed Jewish writer who had escaped Nazi Germany became embroiled in controversy for criticizing Israel’s decision to try the Nazi Adolph Eichmann. Hannah Arendt’s argument was not that Eichmann deserved mercy but rather his crimes were against humanity, offending all, and that he should be tried before an international tribunal. Disregarding this, the state of Israel tried and executed Adolph Eichmann. That same disregard for international justice exists to this day in the state of Israel. There is an air of arrogance and a determination among the leaders to never let others judge their actions, even other Jews like Richard Goldstone or Hannah Arendt.
The United States has also proven incapable of holding Israel accountable for international law. Instead of upholding the Goldstone report’s recommendations the White House has criticized it. The Congress has begun to tow the usual Likud line by considering a resolution (H. Res 867) slamming the Goldstone report as anti-Israel.
There must come a point when Israel realizes the immorality of its actions in Gaza. But we cannot sit around waiting for that to happen. It was humanity that was targeted in Gaza and it is humanity (all of us regardless to race, nation or creed) that must demand justice.