Israel, supported by the USA and Europe, has hollowed out international law to the point that even genocide is now considered acceptable.
Alberto Bradanini is a former Italian diplomat. Among many positions, he was Ambassador of Italy to Tehran (2008-2012) and to Beijing (2013-2015). He is currently President of the Research Center on Contemporary China
In the face of the tragedies taking place in the Middle East, peoples should impose on their governments respect for the philosophical, even before the political, criterion of dialectical logic: criticism – as Mao Zedong also affirmed – must be made before, and not, conveniently, after events have taken place.
In a succinct reflection, Jonathan Cook, a leading British analyst of Palestine, a land where he spent twenty years, casts a discordant eye on what is happening. It should first be noted, however, that the West’s unyielding support for Israel’s policy, and for the destruction of Gaza and its inhabitants, is the downfall of structural factors that deserve preliminary attention.
Let it be clear that religion has no place in the following analysis. The tragedy suffered by the Jewish people in the last century at the hands of the German Nazis (and other and other European peoples) will remain forever engraved in our memory and in our hearts. Neither does the notion of Jewish ethnicity, also a vile manipulation by the troublemakers of a racism hopefully consigned forever to the dustbin of history, have any place. Israelis and Israel stand for citizens and the state they inhabit, which pursues political ends that are sometimes agreeable, sometimes not. The above is banal, as well as obvious, but one never knows. There are many episodes of people being accused of anti-Semitism (which should be anti-Judaism, if anything), for expressing political criticism of the state of Israel.
Now, it is a cumbersome evidence in its centrality that Israel can do whatever it wants, without being bothered by the so-called international community because at its side are lined up, always and under all circumstances, the United States, whose imperial interests in the Middle East political development are parallel with those of Israel, or rather because as such they are inculcated in the American establishment by the powerful Israeli lobby, with Aipac in the front row (see The Israeli Lobby and American Foreign Policy J. Mearsheimer and S. Walt). No candidate for the Senate, Congress or the White House can hope to be elected if he or she is up against the Israeli lobby, which control a significant slice of public discourse in the United States.
In terms of political psychology, the freedom of action allowed to Israel, even against international law and morality, is the child of the ontology of the guilt complex for the suffering inflicted on the Jewish people in the last century by the Nazi-Germans, but also by collaborators in other European nations.
Moreover, an occult affinity unites the self-perceived genesis of these two nations, both imbued with the belief that they enjoy a superior status, chosen by their respective deities, the former (the world’s only indispensable nation, B. Clinton, 1999) to rule a troubled world, the latter (the chosen people, the best available on the face of the earth) for some mysterious assignment, while all other nations, also supposedly created by the same god, would not deserve the same consideration.
In his reflection, Cook argues that the aim of the reactive aggression against women, old people, and children in Gaza (this reasoning does not apply to those who believe that the Palestinians in the Strip are all terrorists) is to drive them out and steal more land from them. In his book ‘Disappearing Palestine’, he traces the traits that led to the colonisation of the territory, the techniques of dispersal, imprisonment and systematic impoverishment, as instruments of the gradual and systematic demolition of the Palestinian nation. The West Bank and Gaza are turned into laboratories to test the infrastructure of confinement, creating a lucrative ‘defence’ industry through pioneering technologies of crowd control, surveillance, collective punishment and urban warfare, sophisticated curfews, checkpoints, walls, permits and land grabbing, all with the same end in mind, the obliteration of Palestine.
This policy accelerated in 2007, when following the Hamas victory the 2.3 million inhabitants of Gaza were surrounded by barbed wire into an impregnable prison, a land subjugated to innovative experiments, physical containment, restrictions, recruitment of informants, bombings, use of interceptor rockets, electronic sensors, surveillance systems, drones, facial recognition, automated guns, etc.
Today, Israel is paying the price for a short-sighted power policy, because the prisoners had not resigned themselves,’ Cook continues, ‘by putting at stake the only thing left to them, their lives, and they become terrorists. This is how, at least for a few days, the Palestinians manage to bypass the impassable confinement infrastructure, using a rusty bulldozer and some hang gliders, accompanied by a strong and predictable (re)feeling of ‘we have nothing to lose’. To become the power it once was, Israel now needs to enter Gaza and destroy what it finds.
J. Cook’s second point of reflection concerns international law, or rather what little of it had managed to be built up in the aftermath of the Second World War, to prevent the repetition of Nazi (-Japanese) and Western atrocities, the latter often concealed, civilian bombings (just to name a few, Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo…) and of course the atomic bombs on Japan.
One of the cornerstones of the Geneva Conventions – which deal with the victims of war and the humanitarian aspects of conflicts – is the prohibition of collective punishment, and thus reprisals against the civilian population, which is not responsible for the crimes of governments, armies or terrorists.
Mysteriously in terms of ethics, but most decipherably in terms of power relations, the European nations, not to mention that embarrassing institution that goes by the name of the European Union, draw a despicable and pitiful veil over all this, even though Gaza today represents the most flagrant violation of international law on the entire planet earth.
Even in normal times, Cook recalls, the inhabitants of Gaza (one million of them children) were denied the most basic freedoms, the right to enter and leave the Strip, health care, medicine and medical equipment, drinking water and electricity, for much of the day. Now then, with the Israeli army at the gates, the cramped conditions and fear of death make the suffering of these people unimaginable.
Hamas has committed acts of terrorism against citizens of Israel, guilty of dispossessing Palestinians of their homeland and imprisoning them in an overcrowded ghetto. Israel now punishes the people of Gaza, instead of the terrorists. This conduct, whose name is revenge, is devoid of moral logic and illegitimate under international law. For Israel, however, like its inveterate protector Uncle Sam, respect for law is not an obligation, but only a choice, sometimes convenient, sometimes, for the past 16 years, not.
The Israeli military is instructed not to distinguish between enemy militants and the civilian population. The Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu, ordered the population of Gaza to leave, but failed to say where those pitiful human lives could find protection from the bombs.
Cook recalls that back in 2009 (at the time of another Gaza-Israel war) Orna Ben-Naftali, at that time the Israeli dean of the Tel Aviv Law School, had declared to the newspaper Haaretz: ‘by overturning the law, civilian buildings and adult men are considered legitimate targets in Gaza’. Also then, David Reisner, his predecessor, had explained the Israeli strategy to Haaretz in these words: ‘we are witnessing a hypocritical process of revision of international law. If an illegitimate action is repeated for a sufficiently long time and tolerated by a number of countries, the world ends up accepting it and it becomes permissible, even if illegitimate under international law’.
A practice that had begun even earlier. Referring to the 1981 Israeli attack that destroyed the alleged Iraqi nuclear reactor in Osiraq, an act of war condemned by the UN Security Council, Reisner says: ‘Israel had committed a crime. Today, however, everyone claims that it was pre-emptive self-defence, as if international law progressed not through a precise agreement between nations, but as a result of its constant violation’. He adds that Israel had persuaded the US government to accept an elastic application of Israel’s international legal obligations towards the Palestinians, which would also prove valuable for the US to justify its invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Again in Cook’s reasoning, Israel is said to have worked on the evolution of international law in other respects as well, introducing the concept of advance notice: with a forewarning of a few minutes, moreover in the most diverse ways, the destruction of a building or a neighbourhood becomes legally feasible, and civilians, elderly, women and children, including the disabled, are turned into legitimate targets, guilty of not having left the place to be destroyed in time. A practice, Cook concludes on this aspect, that sooner or later the international community ends up digesting.
The above-mentioned Haaretz article from 2009 (the one with the interview with Orna Ben-Naftali) called Yoav Gallant, the military commander in charge of Gaza at the time, a cowboy who had no time for legal niceties. Gallant is now Minister of Defence, in charge of implementing the complete siege of Gaza, i.e., no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel, everything closed’. He denies any differentiation between Hamas and the Palestinian population, which he calls human animals. This is the same language used by the Nazis in the Second World War towards the Russians (called untermenschen/sub-humans). The regression of Western legal civilisation is there for all to see.
Not only that, since at the tipping point of international law, the criterion of collective punishment implemented in Gaza verges on the legal enclosure of genocide, both in form and substance. Even the legal criterion of restraint and proportionality has been erased by Western governments that uphold ‘Israel’s right to defend itself’ (which no one questions), without any restrictions.
In the UK, for example, leaving aside the government from which nothing good can come, even the Labour leader and likely next Prime Minister, Keir Starmer, has argued that the siege of Gaza (a crime against humanity!) must be understood as ‘Israel’s right to defend itself’. Starmer, known as a defender of human rights – seizing on the political implications for his career and recalling the fate of his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, who was accused of anti-Semitism by the pro-Israeli lobby and lost the general election – set aside ethics and truth and blamed Hamas for thus sabotaging the ‘peace process’, which even anyone with the minimum knowledge of geopolitics know was buried by Israel many years ago. Politically powerful men can declare anything, without being accountable to anyone.
The Israeli Air Force has already dropped (as of 16 October 2023) 6,000 bombs on Gaza. Some human rights groups accuse Israel of using white phosphorus weapons, a specific war crime when used in urban areas. UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell on her visit to Gaza in 14 November said “In Gaza, more than 4,600 children have reportedly been killed, with nearly 9,000 reportedly injured.” Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Territories, has boldly stated that Von Der Leyen applies the principles of international law like a seesaw, especially bearing in mind, we add, her ambition to take over from the current NATO Secretary General, J. Stoltenberg.
Twelve months ago, this very president of the EU Commission had qualified the Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine as war crimes: preventing men, women and children from having water, electricity and heating constitutes an act of terror. Where has coherence ever ended up, if now – notes Albanese – the same Von der Leyen passes over the Israeli bombings in Gaza that produce the same result?
In the meantime, France banned demonstrations against the bombing in Gaza, because – in the words of the French Minister of Justice, Éric Dupond-Moretti – the expression of solidarity with the Palestinians could offend the Jewish communities and must therefore be considered incitement to hatred.
President Joe Biden resolved to send arms and funding, sending the aircraft carrier Eisenhower to the Mediterranean, a warning to Israel’s neighbours not to meddle, on the eve of the invasion of Gaza. In turn, UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres merely issued a timid vague warning about the need for Israel to also respect international law.
The unreserved support for Israel by Western governments is, as one can imagine, the price they are forced to pay to survive, because the imperial ally does not forget the name of those who disobey. As for Italy, relegated to a humiliating status of vassalage, better to keep silent. In the norm, then.
For Israel, however, the game, it is certain, does not end here. After coming to terms with the present, in a tragic or even more tragic way, it will have to go back to looking over its shoulder, in an endless spiral of actions and reactions. What will be left of Hamas at the end of this battle, its children, its emulators or its epigones will resume the struggle, ready to immolate themselves to give Palestine back the hope of a homeland. If there is no peace for Palestine, there will be none for Israel either.