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4 February 2010

Israel should face international justice

By: George S. Hishmeh
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Much as the world has responded generously to assist Haitians after their devastating earthquake last month, the opposite has been true about the impoverished Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, who have been under an increasingly debilitating siege since the Israeli blitz a little over a year ago.

The Obama administration has committed $300 million (Dh1.1 billion) to help rebuild Gaza, now home to more than 1.5 million Palestinians, many of them refugees from nearby towns in what is now Israel. The United Nations has also raised $4.5 billion (Dh16.5 billion) for this cause but, to date, neither the American nor the UN funds have been put to use because of the tight Israeli blockade, which is also enforced by the Egyptians on their border with the once Israeli-occupied Strip.

The international silence and inaction and the "unabated suffering of the Gaza civilians" has unexpectedly prompted 54 US Congressmen, led by Representative Keith Ellison, the first American Muslim to win election to the House of Representatives, and Representative Jim McDermott to write to US President Barack Obama urging him to lift the blockade. Their recent appeal has been supported by various groups, including the American Task Force on Palestine, J Street and Americans for Peace Now, both liberal Jewish organisations, the American Near East Refugee Association, the Methodist Church and the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation.

After noting that "the current [Israeli] blockade has severely impeded the ability of aid agencies to do their work to relieve suffering" Palestinians, the Congressmen urged Obama "to press for [their] immediate relief ... as an urgent component of your broader Middle East peace efforts." Although they voiced support for Israel's "legitimate and keenly felt fear of continued terrorist action," the Congressmen stressed that "this concern must be addressed without resulting in the de facto collective punishment of the Palestinian[s]."

More to the point, the Congressmen underlined that this situation "highlights the urgency of reaching a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." They stressed: "This [Gaza] crisis has devastated livelihoods, entrenched a poverty rate of over 70 per cent, increased dependence on erratic international aid, allowed the deterioration of public infrastructure, and led to the marked decline of the accessibility of essential services."

The Congressmen's damaging indictment of Israeli actions hardly received any attention in the US media, which is par for the course. Nevertheless, Andrew Phillips, a member of the British House of Lords, observed after a recent visit to Gaza as part of a pan-European parliamentary delegation that "Israel, effectively unhindered by the US or ourselves, is deluded by the ‘triumph' of its Machiavellian diplomacy into believing that the tactics of divide and rule, obfuscation and procrastination, will forever enable it to frustrate justice for the Palestinians." In an article in London's The Independent, he said: "Yet for Israel to defy the UN steadily undermines its own legitimacy, given the UN was its only begetter and may yet be needed as its main guarantor."

This point was clearly illustrated by another Israeli attempt to whitewash the truth and undermine the incriminating findings of a UN report by Justice Richard Goldstone, a South African Jew, on the war crimes committed during its invasion of Gaza last year. Rather than comply with the UN report, which called on Israel and Hamas to establish independent commissions of inquiry to examine their actions, Israel reported last week that it had reprimanded two high-ranking army officers for authorising an artillery attack against a UN compound in Gaza, where about 800 Palestinians took refuge.

The two officers, a brigadier general who was a commander of the Gaza division, and a colonel who led the Givati brigade, were charged with "exceeding their authority" when "several artillery shells were fired in violation of the rules of engagement prohibiting use of such artillery near populated areas," setting them ablaze because of the use of prohibited white phosphorous munitions. Astonishingly, the two officers will not face any criminal charges and they will retain their ranks.

For the record, 1,400 Palestinians, including more than 900 civilians, were killed during the 23-day conflict. Thanks to the media, the world witnessed incendiary shells raining down on the UN compound. Israel lost 13 soldiers and only recently paid the UN $10.5 million (Dh38.6 million) in compensation for the damages inflicted on its compound.

Believe it or not, only one Israeli soldier who took part in the Gaza operation is facing criminal charges for allegedly stealing a credit card from a Palestinian family. He reportedly stole hundreds of dollars.

Let's hope that Israel, often described as a democracy and a "strategic ally" by Obama, will now face the International Criminal Court in The Hague for a more definitive ruling in compliance with the findings of the UN probe.

* An Arab American columnist based in Washington. - Hishmehg@aol.com

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