Israel’s massive and cruel January 10 attack on an impoverished civilian population of Palestinian refugees — 58 or more homes systematically demolished (some while their inhabitants were still sleeping inside, according to Friday’s Ha’aretz newspaper), at least 520 people made homeless in the dead of winter (300 of them children) — is chilling in its conception no less than in its human cost.
While presented as “retaliation” for a Hamas attack on an Israeli military outpost the day before, the Israeli Army spokesman admitted that there was no connection between the attack and the demolitions. In fact, plans for massive demolitions — described by the IDF spokesman as “a number of structures demolished out of tactical considerations” — had been drawn up weeks before, and were only awaiting an “opportune” moment. General Yom-Tov Samia, former Commander of the IDF’s Southern Command, said in a radio interview back in September that “The IDF must raze all the houses [in the Rafah refugee camp abutting the Egyptian border] within a strip of 300-400 meters in width….Arafat must be punished, and after each incident another 2-3 rows of houses must be razed….We must employ this very extreme instrument; it is workable…and I am happy it is being used. Sadly, in steps which are too small. It must be done in one big operation.”
The razing of the houses in Rafah, while unusual in its scale, is part of a long-term policy, a kind of low-intensity warfare, that often escapes public attention. Since the start of the second Intifada, 80 Palestinian civilians have been killed in the Rafah refugee camp, among them 22 children. 1125 people have been wounded, 108 are seriously handicapped. Some 200 homes have been demolished, another 200 seriously damaged, 1400 homeless — until the latest attack. 69 shops have been destroyed, 1600 people have lost work, 520 acres of agricultural land have been “cleared,” and water sources systematically destroyed. Even the IDF characterizes Rafah as a “wasteland.”
Israel’s razing of houses in Rafah is clearly a war crime and constitutes a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which protects civilians under occupation (and which Israel has signed and ratified). Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that: “No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited. Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited.” Article 53 forbids “Any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons” — another clear reference to house demolitions.
The mass demolitions were a particularly dramatic and visible violation of international law, but hardly the only one. Because the Geneva Convention defines “occupation” as a temporary condition and therefore prohibits occupying powers from making their presence permanent, virtually every element of Israel’s 35 year occupation is illegal. Occupying powers are forbidden to brutalize the civilian population (Article 32, which includes assassinations). They are prohibited from pillage (Article 33 which applies to Israel’s extensive use of West Bank and Gazan water resources, especially as they are denied the local Palestinian population). They are prohibited from using collective punishment (also Article 33, which includes the imposition of prolonged closures and curfews, as well as demolitions). Occupying powers are forbidden to impoverish the local population or prevent its finding gainful employment, such as Israel’s 10 year “closure” of the Occupied Territories has done (Article 39). Article 49 forbids deportations and any “forcible transfers,” which would include such common practices as revoking the Jerusalem IDs of Palestinian residents or banning Palestinians from returning from work, study or travel abroad.
The Fourth Geneva Convention also outlaws settlement” “The Occupying Power shall not.transfer parts of its own civilian population into territories it occupies” (Article 49). Article 64 forbids changes in the local legal system that, among other things, alienate the local population from its land and property, as Israel has done through massive expropriations.
Like other human rights covenants, the Fourth Geneva Convention holds accountable individuals who have committed “grave breaches” of the Convention (Article 146), including according to Article 147, many acts routinely practiced under the Occupation and highlighted so tragically in Rafah: willful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, willfully causing great suffering or serious injury, unlawful deportation and the extensive destruction and appropriation of property. And here’s the rub: with the help of its own lawyers and the international community, Israel has acted with absolute impunity vis-a-vis international law, and has escaped accountability.
It has done so in a number of ways. First, it cynically presents itself to the world as a “victim.” Begin was the first to make the Holocaust into a political tool giving moral authority to his policies of aggressive settlement and the invasion of Lebanon, while effectively using Western/Christian guilt to deflect criticism of his policies. Germany, for example, plays a key role in shaping Europe’s foreign policy, but its “Special Relationship” with Israel prevents it from holding Israel accountable, and European attempts to constrain Israel are often vetoed by German (with the active assistance of Holland and Britain, and recently the right-wing government of Italy and Spain). And this is precisely the point: being a “victim” is very self-servicing. Victims carry no responsibility, and cannot be held accountable, since they are…victims. Thus Israel possesses one of the most sophisticated armed forced in the world (it has recently signed contracts worth billions to train and equip both the Chinese and Indian armies), possesses between 200-300 nuclear warheads (making it the world’s fifth nuclear power) and controls the lives of three million Palestinians under a belligerent occupation, but passes itself as a “victim” of terrorism, demolishing the houses of 500 refugees in “self-defense.” Not being able to persuade the world to hold Israel accountable for its actions, the Palestinians, in the words of Edward Said, have become the “victims of the victims,” isolated, powerless, with nowhere to go.
Second, Israel makes the Alice-in-Wonderland claim that there is no occupation at all, that it is simply “administering” the West Bank and Gaza (having formally annexed “East Jerusalem”) until their final status is negotiated. Israel claims that “occupation” refers only to the conquest of territory belonging to another sovereign state, and since no state held sovereignty over the Territories before 1967, there is no legal occupation. (Given this view, with whom will the Territories be negotiated? If the Palestinians have no legal claim to the Occupied Territories, why is Israel negotiating with them? And if they do, there must be an occupation.)
No country in the world supports the Israeli position. Even the United States, between 1967-1993, regarded the Occupation as illegal and upheld the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Unfortunately (but not surprisingly), the US shifted it position at the start of the Oslo “peace process.” It accepted Israel’s complaint that if international law formed the basis of negotiations, Israel would lose the Occupied Territories, since its claim was so obviously groundless. Thus the US reclassified the Occupied Territories as “disputed territories.” (Indeed, the Americans describe their negotiating position in Oslo as one of “constructive ambiguity.”) That pulled the rug out from under the Palestinians, forcing them to negotiate every settlement, every road, every inch of land from an extremely weak negotiating position. It also allowed Israel to continue evading the provisions of the Geneva Convention and other instruments of international law.
And here we come to the main reason why Israel is able to maintain its Occupation for more than a generation despite its manifest illegality and despite efforts to call Israel to account: American administrations and, ultimately, the American Congress. The effectiveness of AIPAC (the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, Israel’s lobby in Congress), the uncritical and even dishonorable role played by organized American Jewry who think that support for extreme right-wing Israeli positions constitutes “support for Israel,” together with the influence of the Christian Right — and certainly the anti-Arabism of post-September 11 — have all created in Washington an impenetrable umbrella of support that leaves Israel and its occupation untouchable. That is all Israel needs to thumb its nose at the rest of the world. Europe has no independent foreign policy (despite being a much larger trading partner with Israel than the US), the UN and its human rights agencies have been neutralized, and the Arab world toes the line. The Palestinian people remain absolutely isolated, except for small numbers of international and even smaller numbers of Israeli supporters.
House demolitions represents one of the cruelest expressions of the Israeli policy of repression. It may be likened to rape, where the very essence of people’s humanity is violated as the contents of their houses — furniture, documents, children’s toys, clothes, all of a family’s most intimate possessions — is thrown out (in the case of Rafah, in the mud of winter) and the house demolished before the terrifying eyes of the children. More than 7000 houses have been demolished by Israel since 1967, leaving tens of thousands of Palestinians traumatized and homeless.
It is impossible for ICAHD members to visit the site in solidarity with the families, or to engage in rebuilding, such as we do in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. We will organize protest activities, of course, and try to rally international public opinion. But in addition, we have vowed to bring the perpetrators, from the highest levels of government (Sharon and Ben-Eliezer) through the ranks (Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, Commander of the Southern Command Doron Almog, Commander in the Gaza Strip Gen. Yisrael Ziv) to the common soldiers who drove the bulldozers), to trial for war crimes. Israel must be held accountable for its actions, and the international community (including the United States) must accept responsibility for ending this illegal, cruel and gratuitous occupation.
Jeff Halper (53) is the Coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and a Professor of Anthropology at Ben Gurion University. He has lived in Israel since 1973.