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The self-defence defence

Rachel Shabi

Jan 23, 2009

Accusations of war crimes by foreign critics simply bounce off Israel's bullet-proof sense of moral imperative in its military action

Wartime in Israel is effectively a totalitarian blackout: objectors are denounced as traitors and suppressed or sidelined, while the media almost entirely ignores the consequences of Israeli military actions. This is partly down to self-censorship and partly down to the codes of a military censor.

But now that Israelis can ask themselves all those difficult questions that were zealously avoided during the past three weeks, will they?

From the initial reactions this week, it doesn't look like it. In the past few days, radio commentators have been debating the wisdom of a military ban on soldiers discussing battleground details. Their concern is: if soldiers don't speak up about the Hamas horrors they faced in Gaza, how will the world remain convinced that the Israeli assault was necessary?

This has been a central theme of the war in Gaza: not that hundreds of innocent people were killed, not that over 5,000 were horribly injured and not the sky-high human and monetary cost of wrecking homes or razing infrastructure. Even as Palestinian bodies are still being pulled out from the rubble in Gaza, one prominent facet of Israel's internal discussion is how to keep the Western world resolute in the belief that it was all justified ľ and just.

Two factors have heated up the debate this week: one is that foreign journalists have finally been let into Gaza and are documenting the full scale of devastation there. The second is that Israel is now facing accusations of war crimes. Human rights and aid groups point to myriad possible cases: the illegal use of white phosphorus, with horrific consequences; the killing of civilians who were ordered into a building and then bombed; the attacks on UN buildings and indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas.

Human rights organisations within Israel are urging their attorney general to set up an independent investigation. And at the same time, human rights lawyers outside Israel are working to compile cases that could be judged in European courts.

Israel anticipated this. Just as spin doctors worked on key media messages months ago, so the army trained field soldiers to gather evidence that could be used as defence in lawsuits filed against it. Military-legal teams considered what acts might be permissible: by the Israeli army's own admission, the operational premise was not so much "What's morally right?" but more "What can we legally get away with?" Now, the IDF has decided not to reveal the names or identities of commanders that took part in the Gaza assault, to scramble efforts to prosecute them.

Ask Israelis about war crimes and the common reaction is that all accusers hate Israel, don't get Israel's security needs, underplay "Islam" (yes, the actual and entire religion), which threatens the whole world, and, in any case, are antisemitic. One veteran Israeli journalist, a self-defined "liberal", told me that if Israel's actions in Gaza are legally problematic, then "we have to change the international laws." Moreover, Israelis have absolute trust in the integrity of their army, so when military spokespeople say: "We don't commit war crimes," it is accepted without question.

Likewise, mention the civilian casualties in Gaza and the stock response is to blame Hamas, cast as a bloodthirsty, death-worshipping cult, a terror group that by definition forces Israeli soldiers to kill Palestinian children. One email that did the rounds during the assault was a cartoon depicting two fighters, facing each other. The Israeli fighter aimed his gun with a baby in a pram behind him, shielded; the Palestinian fighter had the baby in front of him, as a shield. What's astounding is not how often this circular jammed email boxes, but how often Israelis repeat the cartoon set-up as though it were fact, or as though it thereby legitimises the bombing of civilians.

Most Israelis, in other words, seem to have convinced themselves that their own moral superiority somehow sanctions and justifies their own acts of moral repugnance. As a line of defence, it's hard to see how this will stand up in court.


:: Article nr. 51163 sent on 24-jan-2008 15:22 ECT

www.uruknet.info?p=51163

Link: www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jan/23/israelandthepalestinians-gaza



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