The re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu marks a significant point in Israel’s history. Previously, accusations of war crimes could be easily dismissed by Israel, amid the inordinate amount of legal and diplomatic hurdles the Palestinians would have to surmount, together with the evidential burden the ICC would need to dislodge to bring a claim. Now, with potentially four more years of hawkish policy, unapologetic aggression and world condemnation, the prospect of Israel becoming entangled in proceedings in The Hague is far more realistic. Israel needs to change, and fast.
Were Israel formally accused of the most serious of crimes, with its sordid affairs ventilated for all to witness, it would be a catastrophic blow that the country might never recover from – guilty or not – and one can just imagine the scenes.
In the dock, Israel, a small but imposing presence, represented by a fist-shaking Netanyahu and team of high powered lawyers. For the ICC, a scratch of the head and puzzled look, before flipping its ‘War Crimes by Hamas’ A4 sheet over to reveal its ‘War Crimes by Israel’ annotations. And the tribunal, furrowing their brows at the noise of Hamas, sharpening their sticks and stones at the back of the Court.
As the prosecution rises to begin its case, a panicked Netanyahu nods hurriedly at Israel, as if to say ‘now!’ and a Pavlovian Israel leaps to its feet to take pre-emptive action. Straight off the bat, Israel announces that Hamas is just another deplorable Islamic extremist group and should be treated as such. It is a violent, anti-Semitic, terrorist organisation that exists for the sole purpose of destroying Israel and murdering Jews – Zionists or not. Just one glance of its official charter and briefest understanding of its history is enough to make any sound-minded individual fearful of these violent Jihadists. Israel recites, “There is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by Jihad. The initiatives, proposals and International Conferences are but a waste of time, an exercise in futility….. The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him!”
This is the opposition, says Israel, an inherently immoral force that pursues its goals with suicide bombings and indiscriminate rocket fire. Israel asks the tribunal how to even begin negotiations with a group that has no interest in peace and is umbilically tied to murder.
Israel delves further into the depths of Hamas, explaining it is an organisation epitomised by two things – firstly, encouraging civilians – often women and children – to step directly into the line of fire and act as ‘human shields’. Secondly, how it launches attacks from densely populated and vulnerable targets, such as schools, hospital and mosques. Israel repeats that this is the opposition it faces – one that uses cowardly, callous and transparent tactics to deter military response and garner public support; one that has no regard for human life; and one that responds to every Israeli death – soldier or not – with jubilant celebration and gunfire.
After a calculated pause, Israel unravels two large maps. The first shows Israel’s proximity to Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, as Israel reminds the Court of just how small a country it is and its ominous position, nestled amid violent Jihadists. The second more complex map, shows Hamas’s internal and cross-border tunnelling system, which it uses to store weapons, hide militants and frighteningly, tunnel directly into innocent people’s homes to massacre entire families. Israel explains that is patently obvious that every country needs security measures commensurate to the threat it faces – and Israel faces extreme hatred, internally and externally.
Now agitated, Israel asserts that it has a right and a need to defend its citizens from the attacks of this internationally recognised terrorist group – particularly one that has continued to reject or disrupt ceasefires. Not only is it reacting like any country under siege would, but the manner in which it does is unprecedented in war. Israel reminds the Court that prior to military response, it makes every reasonably practicable effort to minimize casualties – it air-drops leaflets, makes personalsied phone calls and sends direct text messages, in Arabic, to those at risk. Quoting the former commander of all British forces in Afghanistan explains, Israel explains that “No other army in the world has ever done more than Israel is doing now to save the lives of innocent civilians in a combat zone”.
With an emotional finale, Israel explains how it acts in a manner befitting its status as a progressive and developed nation, the only democracy in the Middle East, and a country saddened by every civilian death. Contrast this with Hamas, an atavistic organisation that glorifies violent death. Israel pleads with the tribunal to understand that it is a country perpetually under siege – a country hated, irrationally, from the very outset.
Despite these issues, Israel has still managed to cultivate a progressive mentality in which religious freedom is practised, and women’s and gay rights championed – the antithesis of many of its oppressive Islamic neighbours. Palestinians are immersed in the culture and enjoying its benefits; Arabic is ubiquitous; citizenship is offered to Palestinians within the country’s original boundaries; Palestinians readily use ‘Israeli’ schools and hospitals; and Palestinians are present in the Knesset and on the Supreme Court. These are not the actions of a country engaging in war crimes, apartheid or ethnic cleaning – and to suggest so is an insult to those persecuted in such ways. The Court simply must dismiss these fanciful allegations.
The prosecution, magician’s cape and all, rises to its feet and confidently reads extracts from an Amnesty International report, as if a fait accompli. In 2008-2009, during Operation ‘Cast Lead’, “Some 1,400 Palestinians had been killed, including some 300 children” in the midst of “indiscriminate attacks that failed to distinguish between legitimate military targets and civilian objects”, including the use of flechettes, which “violated the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks”. In 2012, during Operation ‘Pillar of Defence’, over 160 Palestinians died, including over 70 civilians, with the Israeli Navy using “indiscriminate attacks”. In Operation ‘Protective Edge’, over 2,000 Palestinians died, and the so-called Israeli warnings “did not constitute an ‘effective warning’ under international humanitarian law”. The prosecution nonchalantly raises an eyebrow to the tribunal – point proven.
For its next trick, the prosecution calls its key witness, Gaza. The doors of the Court creek open, and a dishevelled figure is booted viciously towards the stand by Hamas, whilst sarcastically waving an ID card at the nearby Israelis. In a slow, defeatist manner, Gaza explains despite Israel ostensibly granting the area to its people in 2005, it has been anything but – Israel controls the airspace, the coastline and the movement of people. Israel patrols the skies daily, creating an air of mistrust; Israel has imposed onerous limitations on fisherman, stifling trade and development; and Israel has, most significantly, imposed draconian blockades, not only drastically limiting people’s freedom of movement, but the influx of medical and building supplies into the territory. The prosecution supports each allegation with its expert witness report, before concluding that Gaza, by definition, must be occupied, and Israel must be undertaking a campaign of “collective punishment”, violating the Geneva Conventions.
Gaza, now animated, argues that the territory has become a segregated and oppressed area in a critical condition, unable to sustain itself independently, due to the actions of Israel – all sanctioned under the guise of security. Poverty is rife, water and food limited, and the economy kept alive through external funding and its illegal tunnel network. This, Gaza explains, is an affront to all Palestinians – and a concentrated version of the West Bank, with its checkpoints, incessant questioning, unlawful arrests, concrete partitions and general misery. Israel has created a culture of fear amongst Palestinians, stifling Palestinian unity and limiting its influence in the country, giving the impression that Palestinians are little but an irritant.
Finishing with a flourish, Gaza asks the Court is it any wonder a desperate people, with no obvious future, have elected in Hamas – an organisation so entrenched in their beliefs they are willing to die?
Israel, on its feet, responds with its own questions. Firstly, Israel asks what Gaza would be like if the elected, militant Hamas showed the same dedication to improving Gazan life as they do to ending Israeli life – and answers with the affirmative – they too could be thriving. Israel explains that Hamas not only fails to use its billions of funding to build hospitals, schools and infrastructure, it deliberately uses the current infrastructure as its points of attack, necessitating military response on that very infrastructure, worsening the conditions of the people Hamas purports, and spectacularly fails, to represent. Israel concludes that Hamas, not Israel, is the enemy of the Palestinians.
For its second question, Israel asks why advocates of Palestinian rights are so disproportionately concerned with Israel, when there are thousands of Iraqis brutally terrorised by Islamic State militants, deplorable chemical attacks on the people of Syria, and Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab committing atrocities across central Africa. Israel contends that in the wake of millennia anti-Semitism, and the quite obvious disparity in the public’s treatment of these issues, this is a question of material relevance, and the answer blindingly obvious – sheer anti-Semitism.
Finally, Israel turns to its representatives for guidance on its actions in the West Bank, to receive a shrug of the shoulders from Netanyahu and an unconvincingly whispered, “safety?” Israel shuffles out of the witness stand, as the drained, husk-like tribunal look forlornly at each other. This is a tough one.
Caricatures aside, any such trial would be compelling viewing, particularly given there is a real case to argue. This is not some baseless allegation with no prospect of success.
Israel is rightly insistent that the county is a product of anti-Semitism, has been forced to fight many wars, and is situated in a precarious position, in close proximity to large elements of violent, increasingly powerful anti-Semitic militia. It is also entrenched in battle with Hamas, a terrorist group which shows little to suggest it wants peace, and continues to represent Gazans entirely inadequately. These factors have necessitated a strong army, stringent security throughout the country, and forceful military action to fight terrorism.
Israel must, however, change its approach. As it stands, the actions in Gaza have gone beyond Israel failing to justify its actions, to the actions being unjustified, particularly given that Israel’s continued insistence that its army is morally superior appears highly exaggerated, in terms of both warnings civilians of attacks and the precision of such attacks. The Amnesty International reports are unambiguous on these points – and as much as Israel wants to cry bias, anti-Semitism, or misunderstanding from Amnesty, or any other organisation, it will only fall on deaf ears, with the death toll in the thousands and the destruction undeniable. Israel has to, at the very least, offer an explanation commensurate to the devastation – and the bar has been set very high and then obliterated.
Where the West Bank is concerned, Israel also wholly fails to justify the conditions it imposes, with the check-points, wire-fences and concrete walls. Just so little information is disseminated and feeble excuses offered. If daily suicide attempts and attacks are being thwarted by the security measures – which is entirely believable – this needs to be made obvious and Israel will quickly gain support. Israel is a sophisticated and powerful nation with the wherewithal to put their case forward convincingly and to circumvent any media bias or barriers it faces, but so little has been forthcoming. Similarly, and significantly, Israel has seized large swathes of Palestinian land, through liberal interpretations of the law and sheer strong-arming. Despite world condemnation and alleged breaches of international humanitarian law, Israel offers no explanation, but a mere shrug of the shoulders and a mumbling of “for security”.
All these conditions are having a hugely detrimental effect on everyday Palestinian life, raising tensions exponentially and materially reducing the prospect of reconciliation. Israel cannot expect peace negotiations to go successfully if the Palestinians feel they are a nuisance underclass.
Israel also fails in its treatment of the world’s interest in its affairs. Firstly, Israeli supporters laud the country’s impressive development, nous and standing – yet curiously ignore its prominent position in the media. Israel, like any political force, is going to have its dealings scrutinised. Secondly, it is natural for people to cling onto the Israel-Palestine narrative. The conflict is portrayed as a democratic country’s advanced military bombing an impoverished section of society, which is far easier to absorb than, say, civil war in an African country that few in the UK have any links to, let alone heard of. Thirdly, it is simply implausible for people to support every cause they deem appropriate, and there are genuine reasons to be concerned with Israel’s actions. Whilst the conflict undoubtedly provides a convenient platform for anti-Semitism to masquerade as anti-Zionism, it is unacceptable to dismiss the world’s interest in Palestinian suffering as mere anti-Semitism.
With Israel decrying Hamas’s use of Palestinians as ‘human shields’, it should be equally sure to not use Jews as its shield.
Israel is on the precipice of world condemnation, and it is entirely inadequate to rely on the brutality of Hamas, sidestep the issues in the West Bank and throw the blanket of anti-Semitism over the allegations. The Hamas-centric approach comes across as an attempt to misrepresent the the conflict as one lasting 27, rather than 47 years – and the accusations of aggression, segregation and subjugation are long-standing and visible daily in the West Bank. The reasoning behind drastic security measures must be particularized fully and the accusation of ‘anti-Semitism’ used precisely. Israel’s policy of pointing its finger but concealing its hand can only be interpreted as a deliberate attempt to obfuscate the issues.
Whilst Israel must change, it would be remiss to not mention that perceptions of the conflict and the Palestinians must change as well. Hamas is patently a terrorist organisation, and until this is accepted, Israeli actions cannot possibly be understood. The fact that the country is under siege from violent, unrelenting militia cannot be emphasised enough. If Israel is held accountable by the actions of its democratically elected representative and asked to change, Gazans and Palestinian supporters must equally be held accountable by the actions of the democratically elected Hamas. The failure of Palestinians and critics of Israel to recognise and condemn the brutality of Hamas and actively seek change is extremely damning.
Clearly, Israel cannot risk waiting for perceptions to change. This is the time for pre-emptive self-defence – a notion entirely familiar to Benjamin Netanyahu. However, now, this means taking a conciliatory approach, re-programming the country’s disastrously malfunctioning ‘hasbara’ machine and actually engaging the issues. Without doing so, those court room shenanigans might not be so amusing, and the consequences catastrophic for the future of Israel.