Seeking a law of war

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Is there a law for war? Asking this question was how I interrupted the various comments that friends of mine made this week.

It started around noon on Monday. The auditors who had been working at our office got a call from their office saying that all the Ramallah staff had been told to go home. Some of our own staff got calls from friends with similar instructions.

The rumor was that the Israelis were planning to shell Ramallah indiscriminately. Two Israeli soldiers were killed near Betunia and one colleague rushed in, saying that the Israelis were about to reoccupy Ramallah.

The rumors turned out to be just that – rumors. No Israeli soldiers were killed, but all day the city was up in arms. Haron, one of the best people at our television station, wanted to know if there was a way that we could have put an end to the rumor. Couldn’t we have asked some official to state for the record whether shelling was imminent or not, he asked.

“How could anyone make such a statement for sure?” I asked in reply.

“Don’t the Israelis inform them before shelling a particular location?” Haron retorted in a matter of fact way.

Monday’s chaos is not new. It has happened before and will most likely happen again. Palestinians are confused and are looking for answers with few willing or able to respond.

Dina, another colleague, confessed her fear to me. “Where is it going, Daoud?” she asked. “We had everything planned. My career is going well. I was going to get my MA, we were going to have another child – and now this. If this is going to go on for a long time, I will not allow my daughter to live through this terror.”

Dina refuses to accept statements such as, “This is our fate.” “It is not my fate, if I have opportunities to leave and live in a stable situation, why should I stay here?”

Dina is very angry at the Israelis for the way they have terrorized the Palestinian population. “I sit at home watching TV, but I am worried that a bullet will penetrate into the back of my neck. I go to work and I am similarly worried about myself, but I am petrified about my daughter and husband. I keep calling to make sure they are OK.”

Although blaming the Israelis for their violence, Dina wasn’t kind to the Palestinian leadership who she said must weigh the situation and prepare the public before deciding to get the population into a gamble like the one we are in. Although Dina would love to go and work in one of the Arab satellite television stations, her husband is adamant about staying in Palestine and riding out the situation.

While Haron and Dina would like to see a political and security solution to the conflict, what they are hoping for at the present is some form of predictability in the situation.

Which brings us back to the question of this piece. Is there a way to make a military confrontation livable? A law of war seems like a contradiction in terms, but it is impossible to believe that all the goodwill that has existed for years can’t find a way to directly or indirectly allow Palestinians and Israelis to agree on some basics.

The Geneva Convention was agreed upon specifically for situations in which civilians are caught in the middle of a war. If the present cycle of violence continues any longer, some uniform, internationally accepted agreement should be reached. Commitment to such agreement will need to be adhered to, and violators would need to be condemned by the international community.

Palestinians and Israelis, for example, can agree to keep roads open to allow health and medical supplies flowing. Electricity and energy needs ought to be protected. Both sides can agree to spare civilians from attack and from collective punishment through siege and travel restrictions.

War is not a predictable situation. Until peace (whether hot or cold) arrives, the lives of three million Palestinians and many Israelis can’t be left up to extremists and military officials. The situation requires people of goodwill to get involved in order to guarantee the victimized people some basic rights that can provide them with physical and psychological security.

Daoud Kuttab is a journalist who covered both intifadas and Director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Jerusalem.

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